The Secret to Turning Around an Underperforming Plant

The Secret to Turning Around an Underperforming Plant

In this podcast, host Mick Holly interviews Bruce Moorehouse, a professional engagement expert, about his successful strategies for turning around underperforming organizations. Bruce shares his insights on the importance of building relationships and trust with employees, even in larger facilities, and the power of storytelling to overcome past inertia. Don’t miss out on learning from Bruce’s experience in leadership roles.

Mick: Welcome to Change and Sustain, where we discuss driving sustainable change in your organization through enabling people, process, systems and technology. Today we’re going to focus on people. This is Mick Holley. I’m very excited to introduce you to our guest today, Bruce Morehouse, and I can honestly say I have never seen anybody do what Bruce does in terms of engaging an organization and getting them to turn their performance around. We’ve got him on the podcast. Welcome, Bruce Morehouse. Hey, Bruce.

Bruce: How you doing, Mick?

Mick: First of all, Bruce, a lot of our audience may have operations that are perhaps underperforming or like you. They inherited some operations that were really not at their best and needed to be turned around and that was one of your forte.So for those people who have that kind of environment, what are some of the things that you’ve seen to be successful in turning those around and getting the best out of those people and operations?

Bruce: Well, it’s probably helpful to talk a little bit about the background that got me to the approach that I’ve been using or really ended up iterating through the last part of my career. I had engineering experience first and my engineering bias when I went into the first plant management responsibility gave me the mindset that this would be a great business if I could just get all these people out of the way. Problems, the problems I was interested around the machines and the people were probably messing up the machines with my view. So I didn’t really go into this with a people focus. I mean, I do have to admit that from an upbringing standpoint and my father, for example, very different background as an artist. Recently I went to my father and mother’s house just before she sold it and cut a beam out of the basement and painted on that beam are the words nothing is worth the wear of winning but the laughter and the love of friends. So I think that kind of upbringing and that bias definitely made me more of a people person than the engineering field might typically create.But I’d have to say it was pretty deeply buried because I wasn’t thinking in those terms when I was at work when I was operating professional. But my early experiences first plant was a very small one. That was great. I think what you want to do if you get the opportunity is learn at a tiny facility in a large company. You have the structure, you have the systems, you have the support, but you have a small operation where it’s personal enough that you should get to know everybody in the business. And that was kind of the start of it. I have to also say the lesson was augmented by the fact that within a few months of getting there that there was a union drive campaign and that required that I really get out and get to know all the people and find out what were their thoughts. And I wanted to maintain a union free environment. It made a very personal working approach necessary, which turned out to be kind of the crux of what I’ve been doing ever since.

Mick: Interesting. So building relationships, building trust so that the people in the organization felt that they had a voice because I mean the union is just somebody else articulating your voice on mass. And if they have a relationship with you as the leader, as the plant manager, then that requirement goes away. And if they trust you and you work together, you can have a harmonious operation. That was your experience, was it?

Bruce: Right. My opinion on the union is that they come in when management doesn’t really do what it should be doing. The idea that they can sell the employees that they need an independent third party in order to be able to work with somebody is really an indictment, I think, of the management approach over the years.

Mick: That was your small plant learnings. Where did you go from there?

Bruce: Typically, you know, what happens is you get a bigger facility and then you get a bigger facility and then you get a bigger facility. And as they get big, you get into the problem with the fact that you can’t really know everybody anymore. And what really becomes relevant is the power of story, the fact that you are the person that the employees are describing you as in their eyes, right? Those stories for all practical purposes are real. And you don’t get to characterize yourself anymore once that happens. It gets kind of locked in and it’s very difficult to change those impressions.

Mick: You talk about the power of story and what people say about you and you have a very short window to be able to convince people who you are. A lot of people see new people and go, yeah, I’ve seen this story before. I’ve seen this happen. This person is going to come in, you know, say a lot of things and nothing really is going to change and they sort of dig in. So how do you overcome that past inertia as it were?

Bruce: That’s one of the most interesting and fun things, I think. And as we said, by definition, this is a leadership challenge, not a management challenge. And that’s really where people, I think, start to head off of the wrong direction if they don’t get that in their heads correctly in the first place. You know, the stages set out there already in the business, you know, you’re walking into a pre-existing entity of some kind and typically there’s an awful lot of things that have gone on. These people that have been ignored and the business struggling, that along with their kind of normal cynicism creates the environment that you’re walking into. To a lot of people, they have to think, wow, could this get any worse? I disagree. I think that is a fantastic, fantastic stage setting for revolutionary change. It’s great that you have people that are unhappy because you’ve got almost nowhere you can go but up. You are not that person. If you have any natural inclination to be intrigued by people, you know, once you know somebody’s story, it’s just really hard to dislike them. I mean, you see the, you know, as they describe it, the tapestry of their life that they’ve worked so hard to weave together and start to understand how they get to have the opinions they have and it’s not so easy to build walls anymore. So if you have any bias for the enjoyment of people, then I think you’re a natural for this kind of thing. Now, not everybody does, but this, like a lot of things, you know, it’s, you know, Vince Lombardi, you know, leadership is learned. It’s not born. Whereas you’re not that person, all you need to do is show them who you really are and not with words. You don’t make a bunch of speeches, which is the tendency when somebody comes in new to an organization. They pull all the employees together and they make a speech. Okay, you can do that to introduce yourself, you know, I’m Bruce Moorehouse. I’m here because I’m interested in and helping, you know, and here are the things that I believe. You can share that. But other than that, stop with the words. Don’t make a bunch of speeches, don’t make promises. Get out into the business. Get out on the floor.

Mick: You know, a lot of executives are frightened about going out on their own. You know, they’ll say, oh, I’ve been, I’ve been in the plan. I’ve done the tour. They wander around with the phalanx of managers who usher them from, you know, one improvement board to one office to one presentation. And they say, you know, that they’ve done it. But that’s not what you do. You’re actually on the floor on your own for days at a time. I was amazed to see you get on the line and actually stand next to the operators and do their jobs. And at that time, you were asking them their story, their challenges, their problems. So I just wanted to delineate when you say go out and floor alone. A lot of people will be very scared to do that. How can you help people have the confidence to know that that’s going to be an enriching and empowering and a criticalleadership moment?

Bruce: Yeah, it’s actually itself fulfilling. Let me go back a little bit just in terms of background. When I had moved into the larger facilities, this wasn’t even my plant. It was another board-warner plant in Muncie, Indiana, very intimidating work environment. Strong union. They’d recently had some a strike where, you know, there was a lot of bad behavior. And I was relatively young and I had responsibilities that took me out in the plant floor and I have to admit that I was extremely intimidated by the hourly employees. And that intimidation, I mean, if I think about it, you know, one of my fundamental beliefs these days is your expectations lead your reality. So this is a really perfect example of that. I went out on the plant floor expecting that these people hate me. I’m that guy I was just describing. I’m the young college punk that’s out here that, you know, why is he there? I’ve been running this machine for 40 years and I know what I’m doing and why am I listening to this idiot. That’s what was in my hands.

Mick: It’s true. That kind of conviction from the operators when they see people coming in, right? They’ve seen it before. You bet.

Bruce: You bet. So this is the classic situation where there’s more than a grain of truth, right? And you’re smart enough to see it, but you’re letting it bias, you’re your expectation. So I went out on the floor and I didn’t, I wasn’t me, you know, I behaved like I didn’t expect them to like me. And as a consequence, they didn’t like me. But it was my behavior that was starting that whole cascade of behaviors. And I can’t tell you the pivotal moment or, you know, what it was that changed this experience. But as I started to force myself to do what I felt I needed to do in spite of the fact that I was intimidated, I kept getting a better response. Back from them that I anticipated. I started a program one time to have every salary employee work two days of a year in the plant. So they would be assigned. I let the hourly workers decide where each person was going to be assigned, which they loved. They just ate that up and you know stuck you on the machine and they’d show you how to run the machine and then they’d sort of sit back and giggle. Well, you struggled to stay alive, you know, but the amazing thing was in the end, they were so generous with their assessment. They would describe, you know, you’re Bruce was out here and then he was amazing at running this. It’s like it was total crap. I was not amazing. You can use that not only to actually be that and improve their lives, but to succeed for the company as well. And so you need to go out there and you need to go out there alone. And maybe it does take courage, maybe you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to do it, but you need to introduce yourself to each person individually, one at a time. It’s not a tell them who you are to meeting situation. You shake hands, smile, be relaxed, be genuine, ask them how they’re doing personally. Listen and remember, don’t write anything down when you’re working with these people. If you have to write anything down, stick an index card in your pocket and in between people that you go up to, you can put a couple of, you know, Dave and something, just a couple of keywords that’ll remind you.

Mick: So Bruce, that’s a nice little nugget there. What’s behind that? Not writing it down.

Bruce: Suspicion on their part. I mean, you know, it makes hourly people very nervous to have a manager come out, especially the top guy. He’s telling you, he’s starting to open up, right? You start out by, you know, how are you? You know, while I’m a little tired, last night was my daughter’s recital, dance recital, and you know, we were up late and whatever. And he’s really letting you inside. And suddenly you’re writing something. He can’t see. He has no idea, you know, what you’re writing. You could be writing, you know, the idiot on machine seven is worried about his daughter’s recital instead of the quality of the product coming off of the machine, right? He doesn’t know. This is one example of a lot of little things that can sabotage genuine human to human interaction. I don’t write anything. If I were to writeanything, I’d show it to him. I’d put the piece of paper down on the board and I’d make sure that he saw me writing the key things that I was writing or something like that. And maybe even ask him, is this inaccurate description of what you just told me? If he took the opportunity, for example, to tell you that, you know, this same switch is broken 47 times in the last month, right? You know, and you say, what is that switch? You could maybe do it that way. But the point is this initial introduction, especially, is just to be a way for them to see you as a human being and for you to see them, to really see them. Now what do you do with that information? If you take the things that you learn when you’re out in the plant floor, the problems and the issues and things that you observe on your own in addition to what you’re told, go back to the office and call your staff together and have a discussion with them about those things. You will come off to your new staff as very committed for being right out on the floor, knowledgeable already. He’s already got the facts. I’d have a chat about, hey, I see these things. Let them, let your direct reports tell you their perspective on it too. You know, you’ve got to take the same approach with them and respect their knowledge. And that validates you as a leader as well, right? And then ask each of them individually to pick up certain of those problems that you deemed low-hanging fruit and get them fixed within 24 to 48 hours, right? And if something that they told you about got fixed, you don’t need to point out to them how it got fixed. They already see it as you. But if it does come up and they say, hey, thanks for getting that taken care of for me, you have the opportunity to say, nope, that was Mary. I asked Mary if she’d look into that. And I’m glad here she took care of it for you. So now you’re crediting the people that work for you. I mean, you can see how this is a snowball.Nobody’s going to question, you know, your abilities at all. And they’re going to see a level of dedication that they haven’t seen in anybody else.

Mick: Those people who’ve been operating those facilities for 5, 10, 15, 20, even 40 years know what the challenges are, have seen the problems, are looking for a leader, and you’ve created a mechanism to build trust, triage the right kind of challenges, and create alignment from the bottom to the top, rather than from the top to the bottom. That’s just a beautiful method. And I’ve seen you do it. Every time you, when you would walk on the floor, everybody’s faces would light up and they wave at you and come on over. I said, well, this is the CEO. It’s like you’re their brother.

Bruce: Well, I’m no better than their brother, and that’s a key behind the whole thing, right? I mean, the fact that I’ve been successful and, you know, that that has given me responsibility or a position, you know, the way our society looks at the hierarchy of position, we sometimes act like people in a higher position are more important. They were no different than the woman running that machine over there. There’s an equality about all this. It’s a whole bunch of humans trying to figure out how to get some things done. But if you picture all the ideas and things that are going to come out of these discussions, especially after you’ve modeled this behavior and then you get your direct reports doing it and then you get their direct reports doing it, the continuous improvement system is going to evolve all on its own. You don’t have to create it. You’re just putting all of these things together in a list and then you’ve got to have some people sorting through them to try and figure out how can we run fast enough to improve things that are being identified here, right? You end up chasing as hard as you can, which creates a phenomenal improvement, energy and, you know, acceleration, right? And you know, most of this happens best when you kind of relax into it. And when you aren’t trying to be the perfect CEO or president or plant manager or whatever, you’re just being, you know, may or stand or whatever and you’ve got skills or you wouldn’t be there. They’ll be evident to people and have faith and the way that the people are going to treat you and judge you and it’ll happen. It goes back to the expectations lead reality.

Mick: You know, I’ve seen this approach work really, really well. I would encourage you as Bruce’s done to go and connect with your people, go and spend time with them at their point of execution and get to know them as people and you will have profound impact on your organization. Thanks very much, Bruce.

Bruce: Thanks very much, Mick.

Mick: We’ve got more episodes coming up looking at similar topics. So if you click the follow button, you’ll be the first to hear about them. Also, if you like this podcast, please leave us a rating wherever you listen to your podcast because ithelps other people find us too.

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