Ghosts of Eldon Avenue

Before being torn down, they painted over the name and gave the front wall a new coat of paint. Not unlike being buried in your best suit in hopes of absolution.

 As far back as I can remember I have been a little different. I was either the last one to “get” the joke or I was the first one (sometimes the only one). Somehow I was always a “half click” out of sync with the norm.

During my teen years this gave me a mild feeling of being an outsider. Later in my life, the “half click” became an advantage. Not only did I see things differently, but I saw thinks others sometimes didn’t.

While going through college I worked in the auto plants of Detroit during the summer. The work was tough but I could work all the hours I needed and the pay was better than your average intern “gig”. As it turned out, it was one of the most valuable lessons of my life.

Walking into Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle for the first time was like being led by Virgil through the circles of hell. The plant smelled of grease cake and the blue haze of welding smoke obscured my vision. Fire belched from furnaces and oil covered the floor. Somewhere off in the distance I swear I could hear Cerberus howling.

The first thing that struck me was the “vacant” nature of the workers. They were there, but then again, they weren’t. Their eyes looked like dark sockets, void of light; void of any reflection of the world around them. I wondered how people got like this.

I routinely worked 12 hours a day Monday through Friday, 10 hours on Saturday and 8 hours on Sunday, 78 hours a week. Since I was on the low end of the seniority list, I worked 89 days straight without a day off. This was tolerable because I knew that at the end of the summer I would be back in school. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. My co-workers didn’t have that luxury. Like Dante’s inferno this was their eternity.

Most of the time, I worked on the axle assembly lines. Decades later I still wake up in the middle of the night mimicking those motions; pull the left side brake cable, wrap it around the differential, pound the right side brake shut, slide the right side drum on and secure it with jam nuts, then repeat – 216 times an hour; 2,592 time a day.

While this was mind numbing, brutal work, it was about to get surreal. About one weekend a month a couple of my “low seniority” cohorts and I would be assigned to work the “Repair and Reclamation” area. This is where all the rejected axle assemblies were stockpiled. Thinking back over the numbers, the inline rejection rate was slightly higher than 25%.

During our R&R effort we noticed that well over half the rejections were the result of missing differential hex nuts. This was considered a scrap condition because if the nuts weren’t in place when they were machine tightened it would force the gasket and sealant out of place.

Missing hex nuts were caused when a worker at one of the tougher work stations fell behind and didn’t have the time to thread all the nuts. An easy solution was to position a box of hex nuts at the next work station and if a worker saw a missing nut they could thread one on. Three of my more dewy-eyed coworkers and I suggested this to the foreman where the idea was immediately dismissed (in terms my young ears had not heard before). We then decided to “just do it” (after all, how bright could a foreman nicknamed “Toad” be? We envisioned accolades for our insight; maybe even a raise.  A couple of hours later an inspector came sauntering up the line to see why there were no missing hex nuts.

While I was pleased that we had made an impact, I sensed (“half click”) that Cerberus was about to howl again. Within minutes we had several foremen, a gang of engineers and a half dozen union representatives descending on the line (which was now stopped).  I wasn’t sure if we were going to get fired by management or shot by the union. We were no longer thinking about raises. Working as an intern was looking better all the time.

In the midst of this heated discussion I was yanked aside by an irate engineer who shouted, “Kid you may think you are something special but you’re not. You aren’t paid to think, you are paid to do what you’re told.” After the yelling, gnashing of teeth and finger pointing (various fingers) had subsided, the hex nuts were removed from my workstation and we were back running a comfortable 25%+ reject rate. My value to the organization was returned to that of a “beast of burden” and balance had been restored to this dark universe.

For the remaining three weeks that summer, I kept my mouth shut and cashed my checks. The last week before returning to school, I was washing up at the end of shift when I looked up into the restroom mirror. Looking back at me were the dead eyes I had seen my first day at Eldon.

The vertical corpses I worked with hadn’t come to Eldon Avenue with those eyes, they were created by a management that believed intelligence and creativity only existed in the front office.

Management hadn’t learned that with each worker comes a brain. Intelligence and creativity aren’t a result of education; they are a result of an engagement with your work, an ownership in the process. The unions hadn’t learned that every new idea doesn’t result in a layoff. Neither the management nor union understood the value of the sacred relationship between a worker and his work.

Today, more than ever, we need the labor and minds of all our workers. Our people are the only thing that makes us unique in a world of “me too” innovation.

During my time with Eldon, I learned what true waste is. Not the 7 wastes we’ve learned about from lean principles, but the waste of a human mind. No one comes to work to see their talent wasted. When that is all that is left, workers will define their value in other terms. If you bargain only for their physical efforts, you are negotiating for a commodity. When you take satisfaction and ownership of effort away from the employee the value proposition now becomes “more money – less work”; the exact opposite of what we are looking for.  Don’t blame the worker; they are just playing by management rules.

At the time I worked there, Eldon had about 2,000 employees, occupied 48 acres and had a manufacturing foot print of 1.2 million feet. It was a behemoth. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not pro union. However, I do believe that unions exist as a result of poor management.

In 2012 Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle (later renamed Detroit Axle) was torn down. A fence went up around the property. The machinery was quietly removed and the building was leveled. The old girl had lived almost 100 years (built in 1917). While she is gone, her lessons live on. But only for those that are a little “different”.

Barry Stuart

On what side of the time clock are your employees leaving their passion?

Several months ago Plastics News ran an article entitled “Another casualty of the anemic economy: employee ambition.” This was a great observation.

I think this leads to another issue; how do we keep our employees engaged? How do we get them to “spend” their talent at work rather than elsewhere? We need to make sure that we are giving people a chance to contribute their talents to the organization’s performance. This is not for their benefit, but ours.

I recently had one of my better workers ask me why I came to work early. I told him that I was fortunate in that I liked what I did and I got a great deal of satisfaction from it. He responded that he wished he enjoyed his job as much I enjoyed mine.

His response bothered me for the rest of the day. Finally I went back and asked him what he did for enjoyment. With a broad smile he said that he engraved handguns in the evening and on weekends. He quickly took a stack of pictures from his tool box and showed me his work. He was good. For the first time I realized that I had a rival for an employee’s talent; not another employer, but another interest.

With the technology available today there are multitudes of ways we can find fulfillment in life. We are no longer defined by what we do at our “day job”. An employee can be a welder during the day to pay the bills and be a poet in the evening to feed his passion.

The stiffest competition companies’ face today is not for sales or profits, but for the talent of their employees. If we succeed in capturing this talent, increased sales and profitability will naturally follow. Engagement is the cause, success is the result.

Barry Stuart


The “New Idea” Landscape

In today’s tough manufacturing environment there is no lack of “advice”, free and otherwise. You can’t turn around without bumping into a consultant, coach or manufacturing “mystic”. We need to be sure that we don’t let these experts dominate the idea landscape and smother the evolution of new ideas.


In 1967 Edward de Bono wrote a book called “New Think”. In it he talked about the risk of idea domination. He used the simple example of digging a hole.

“Lateral thinking is made necessary by the limitations of vertical thinking. The terms ‘lateral’ and ‘ver­tical’ were suggested by the following considerations.

It is not possible to dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.

Logic is the tool that is used to dig holes deeper and bigger, to make them altogether better holes. But if the hole is in the wrong place, then no amount of improvement is going to put it in the right place. No matter how obvious this may seem to every dig­ger, it is still easier to go on digging in the same hole than to start all over again in a new place. Vertical thinking is digging the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is trying again elsewhere.

The disinclination to abandon a half-dug hole is partly a reluctance to abandon the investment of ef­fort that has gone into the hole without seeing some return. It is also easier to go on doing the same thing rather than wonder what else to do: there is a strong practical commitment to it.

It is not possible to look in a different direction by looking harder in the same direction. No sooner are two thoughts strung together than there is a direc­tion, and it becomes easier to string further thoughts along in the same direction than to ignore it. Ignor­ing something can be hard work, especially if there is not yet an alternative.

These two sorts of commitment to the half-dug hole may be regarded as commitment of invested ef­fort and commitment of direction.

By far the greatest amount of scientific effort is di­rected towards the logical enlargement of some ac­cepted hole. Many are the minds scratching feebly away or gouging out great chunks according to their capacity. Yet great new ideas and great scientific advances have often come about through people ignoring the hole that is in progress and starting a new one. The reason for starting a new one could be dissatisfaction with the old one, sheer ignorance of the old one, a tem­peramental need to be different, or pure whim. This hole-hopping is rare, because the process of education is usually effective and education is designed to make people appreciate the holes that have been dug for them by their betters. Education could only lead to chaos if it were to do otherwise. Adequacy and compe­tence could hardly be built on the encouragement of general dissatisfaction with the existing array of holes. Nor is education really concerned with progress: it’s purpose is to make widely available knowledge that seems to be useful. It is communicative, not creative.

 To accept the old holes and then ignore them and start again is not as easy as being unaware of them and hence free to start anywhere. Many great discov­erers like Faraday had no formal education at all, and others, like Darwin or Clerk Maxwell, had insuf­ficient to curb their originality. It is tempting to sup­pose that a capable mind that is unaware of the old approach has a good chance of evolving a new one.

A half-dug hole offers a direction in which to expend effort. Effort needs a direction and there are few more frustrating things than eager effort looking for a direc­tion. Effort must also be rewarded by some tangible re­sult; the more immediate the results, the more encouraged is the effort. Enlarging the hole that is being dug offers real progress and an assurance of fu­ture achievement. Finally, there is a comfortable, earned familiarity with a well-worked hole.

To abandon a sizable hole without any idea as to where a new hole ought to be started is unreasonable’ and demands too much of practical human nature. It is difficult enough even when a site has been chosen for the new hole.

Oilmen do not perhaps find it so difficult to appreci­ate the paradox that sitting about deciding where to dig another hole may be more useful than digging the same hole deeper. Perhaps the difference is that, for an oilman, digging costs money, but for scientists and in­dustrialists, not digging is more expensive. Without a hole, how can the mind exert its well-trained effort? The shovels of logic lie idle. There is no progress, no achievement. Today achievement has come to be ever more important to the scientist. It is by achievement alone that effort is judged, and to pursue his career a scientist must survive many such judgments.

No one is paid to sit around being capable of achievement. As there is no way of assessing such ca­pability it is necessary to pay and promote according to visible achievements. Far better to dig the wrong hole (even one that is recognized as being wrong) to an impressive depth than to sit around wondering where to start digging. It may well be that the per­son who is sitting around and thinking is far closer to digging a much more valuable hole, but how can such a thing be judged until the hole is actually started and the achievement becomes visible?

In the long run it may be far more useful to have some people about to achieve the right thing than have everyone actually achieving things of lesser worth; but there are few who are willing to invest in mere possibility. In the present system who can afford to think? Who can afford the non-progress of abortive thoughts?

An expert is an expert because he understands the present hole better than anyone else except a fellow expert, with whom it is necessary to disagree in order that there can be as many experts as there are dis­agreements, for among the experts a hierarchy can then emerge. An expert may even have contributed to­wards the shape of the hole. For such reasons experts are not usually the fIrst to leap out of the hole that ac­cords them their expert status, to start digging else­where. It would be even more unthinkable for an expert to climb out of the hole only to sit around and consider where to start another hole. Nor are experts eager to express their expertise as dissatisfaction with the hole, for dissatisfaction is too easily expressed, and often more forcibly, by many others who have not earned the right to be dissatisfied. So experts are usu­ally to be found happily at the bottom of the deepest holes, often so deep that it hardly seems worth getting out of them to look around.”

 Strike a chord?

Barry Stuart

Uniqueness in the Eyes of the Customer…

I recently sat in a bidder’s conference where each of five companies were asked to give a 30 minute presentation on their organization and it’s capabilities. Each group gave a glossy PowerPoint presentation ranging from 18 to 20 pages.

The participants used all the appropriate buzzwords and graphics. They were all working on lean techniques, they were all working on six sigma; all had hired black belts who were busily training greenbelts and mentoring programs.

Not surprisingly, they all were using similar equipment; had similar plants and information systems.

All the participants gave excellent presentations. There was only one thing missing…differences.

After almost three hours of “me too theater” they had successfully defined themselves as a commodity. The only thing left was to negotiate on was “price.”

We need to remember that we don’t compete on what we have in common; we compete on differences – on what we do better. It is what makes us unique.

The programs each company presented were important, but we need to remember that lean, six sigma and like programs are critical tools, but they are threshold events – it’s what gets us in the game; it’s not the finish line. These initiatives will only give us parity with other organizations using the same adopted programs.

So where does unique advantage come from. I suggest that we first look to the most underutilized asset in most organizations – our workers.

We tend to look at labor as just that, labor. Workers are more than just the muscle behind management’s intelligence and creativity. Understand, with ever worker we hire we also get a brain. Most floor workers are doing what they do because they lack education or training, not because they lack intelligence and creativity. So how do we tap this intelligence?

We need to access all the talent available. Innovation is not the sole province of the corner office. Those companies that ignore this fact run the risk of becoming the underclass of the next economy. They will compete solely on price if competing at all.  While they may survive, it will be at the will of more dynamic organizations.

While Kaizen events are one of the best tools to generate employee involvement, they are also commonly misused. I asked a floor associate if she knew what a Kaizen event was. She responded, “I have been in a couple. It’s a three day meeting where managers come out on the floor and explain to us what we think. If the event succeeds, they take the credit for showing us what we were doing wrong. If the solution doesn’t work, they say it’s because we didn’t understand the genius of management…sometimes we get a tee-shirt.”

This was not a stupid employee, she had seen through an organization’s attempt to misuse Kaizen to forward a predetermined agenda. She wasn’t fooled and the organization lost her engagement as a result.

We need to be sure that Kaizen events sincerely draw on the associate’s intelligence, creativity and their need to contribute to progress of the company. We need to define success not just in general terms, but how their specific function contributes.

If you want innovation from the workforce ask for it. Make it part of the job description. Let worker know that you value their minds as well as their physical efforts. We need to be sure that outside programs don’t dominate the idea landscape smothering internal innovation – the innovation that defines us.

Another technique for structuring this effort is a tool called “Idea Portfolios.” This is a process where managers meet with the operations teams on a bi-weekly basis to explain and update the challenges facing the team’s area. We would explain management’s plans for improving competitiveness including capital investments, training, etc.

Then we would ask them to find ways to generate additional savings; a specific percentage, generally 2%-4% depending on the opportunities available. Two weeks later (and every two weeks thereafter) they would present their ideas and plans. Leadership was responsible for supporting them with data, technical expertise and capital when it was justified. They were responsible for the generation, implementation and execution of their ideas. They documented their progress and key indicators in notebooks called “Idea Portfolios.”

As you start this dialog with your workforce, it generates some interesting dynamics.

First, you will be challenged to defend some pretty weak management positions. In this process, a team leader can assign a task “up” the organization. This process can force management to reevaluate the factors behind long standing practices. While this makes us better managers, it can be a humbling experience.

Second, the composition of your workforce will change. Employees that are only willing to offer their physical efforts tend to disappear – wandering off into other organizations. The employees that are willing to engage in this challenge tend to spread the word and attract new workers with similar values.

More importantly, your organization will be better prepared for the challenges of the next economy.

Adopted external innovation, while making us stronger, can make us less distinguishable from our competitors; a commodity. Added internal innovation makes us unique to the markets we serve.

Barry Stuart


Article originally published in Plastics News March 2, 2012. Entire contents copyright 2011 by Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

Echoes of Innovation…

It is one thing to understand the challenges we’re facing today and the underlying need for change. It is entirely something else to identify that innovation which represents real value to our customers, employees and shareholders. It’s this innovation that builds a robust organization. It’s what makes us unique.



Change comes to our organizations in one of three ways:

  • Adopted Solutions (external input)
  • Adapted Solutions (external input, blended with internal factors)
  • Internal Innovation

Over the last fifteen years we have seen an increased willingness to adopt “just add water” change programs as a tool to help offset ever growing competition.

By adopting existing programs managers believed that they were demonstrating the type of decisive leadership that would keep companies competitive. In the quest for business’s “Holy Grail,” the last thing that we wanted was to be seen doing nothing.

At the same time, we have seen the unprecedented growth in the consulting industry. It is estimated that the number of consulting firms supporting these pre-packaged change efforts has grown 97% since 1990. During the same period the number of individual consultants grew by 170% and consulting revenues grew by a staggering 334%.

Prior to this explosion of “canned” solutions, management had been accused of ignoring potential improvements simply because they weren’t “home grown.” Katz and Allen referred to this phenomenon as the “Not Invented Here” syndrome (NIH). Clearly there was truth to this concern. Our egos and arrogance had fostered a “bunker” mentality that seriously damaged our ability to compete. We were trying to survive by “driving the old process’s harder.”

However, there is a much bigger threat to industry than “Not Invented Here,” We are now facing the threat of “Nothing Invented Here.” We are allowing external initiatives to dominate our idea landscape. We are moving from a class of innovators, to a class of implementers; implementers of the ideas of others.

As leaders we need to be aware of new technologies and techniques and determine their true value to our customers, our employees and our shareholders. No one else can do this for us. Customer Relationship Management, Enterprise Resources Planning, Material Requirements Planning, Just In Time, Kanban, Process Mapping, Kaizen Events and Lean Techniques; each of these programs and tools brings value, but they no longer represent level one innovation. These programs are the echoes of the innovation that came before.

Adopting is a tool that gets improvement into our organization faster and easier than inventing. However when we adopt we are “standing on the shoulders” of others who took the time to understand the essence of the market they serve. When we embrace these programs at face value, we may understand the “how” of change but not the deeper “why.” We haven’t earned the knowledge.

Today,Toyota is one of the most imitated manufacturing organizations in the world. The Toyota Production System is not a “random collection” of adopted systems. It was developed out of a “clean sheet” process that encompassed a value system, an understanding of the market they were entering, and an understanding of their own limitations in post warJapan. It was designed to address the challenges they were facing.

Almost fifty years later, the TPS is the premier manufacturing system in the world, dominating such mass production giants as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.Toyotaearned the knowledge. They understood the “why.”

This is not to say that we can’t adopt or adapt if the time or cost advantage offset the value of local innovation. But, understand that when we adopt we lose the opportunity to innovate; to gain a unique advantage in the market. It is innovation lost. Those companies that choose to follow will become the “beasts of burden” of the next economy.  While they may survive, it will be at the will of more innovative organizations.

When we adopt “Off the Shelf” programs we are not gaining a competitive advantage. At best we are gaining parity with the hundreds of other organizations adopting the same program. It is a defensive move, not innovation. We don’t compete by being the same we compete by being different; by being uniquely better. If we don’t offer uniqueness in the areas of technology, quality and responsiveness we are forced to compete solely on price.

When we allow “me too” programs to dominate the idea landscape, we do so at the expense of true organizational innovation. Inventing is a critical element of a dynamic organization. We need it; it defines us. It is part of our organizational DNA.

Saying that we are in the plastics business is like saying that Jackson Pollock was in the “canvas” business. We are all in the innovation business. Our end product is only the medium we work with. It’s the creativity, curiosity and intensity that we bring to that medium that determines our ultimate success or failure.

Barry Stuart

Article originally published in Plastics News December 23, 2008. Entire contents copyright 2011 by Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

Authenticity: Bridging Personal and Organizational Values



Early in my career, a mentor offered me an excellent piece of advice. He told me that if I was to be successful in the plastics business, the character of my company would be critical. At least once a year I should ask myself two questions:


1. Am I proud of my company?

2. Do I trust my company to do the right thing?

He went on to say that while we are all careful when we make the initial decision to join an organization, companies can change. We need to be sensitive to how these changes affect the organization’s key values, particularly in challenging times. It is easy to start peeling back the layers of our core values to fit short-term economic challenges.

At the time, it seemed like simple advice. While these questions are fairly straightforward, they have become more complex as time went on — as global competition reduced our margin for error. Beyond the surface of these two questions lies a larger, more compelling one, the one he didn’t share with me: What do you do when the answer you get back to either of these questions is “no”?

All too often today we have seen the story of greed and deceit in the private and public sectors. It’s the story of Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and others. It’s the story of actions that robbed thousands of people of their savings, jobs and dignity. It’s the story of organizations that treated their values like a sales jingle.

As we watched the legal proc­ess unfold, we saw the perpetrators get what they deserved (or at least part of it). We were amazed at the pain these leaders had inflicted on shareholders and employees.

While these were obviously illegal activities, I have to wonder why they went on so long. They should have hit the organization’s value “radar” long before they became the province of the legal system. Where were the organizational values that allowed this to happen?

For each of the Ken Lays of the world, there were hundreds, if not thousands of others who knew what was going on and chose not to take action. Was it for the profits these employees were reaping or was it out of fear for their jobs — each of us needs to understand this at the personal level.

Enron’s motto was “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.” The company’s “Vision and Values” statement said: “We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.”

To my point, this is an organization that treated their values like so many words on a yellowing document framed and hanging in the lobby.

Who is responsible for the values of an organization? Does it come from the top down? Are senior executives responsible for a company’s guiding principles? If so, what happened at Enron?

I propose that the character of a company is the sum of all its parts. While senior executives clearly have more leverage on values, they don’t have more power unless they are granted that power by a disengaged workforce.

This is not just financial wrongdoing that we are dealing with. We have witnessed instances where companies have routinely cheated their customers. Even worse, others have put their employees at risk by not supporting and funding a safe work environment.

These positions are becoming more frequently rationalized in today’s competitive market. While we need to survive economically we cannot tie our values to external conditions — one set of values for good times and a second set for more difficult times.

Now, back to my earlier question, What do you do when the answer to my mentor’s two questions is ‘no’?

Companies need to understand that compromising their ethics and values will cost them their best, most productive employees. When faced with the cost of losing key talent, the rationalization falls apart. It’s easy to blame senior manager, but that is an excuse. If we tolerate unethical behavior, we then own it. We own the values we tolerate.

As demonstrated with Enron, can we afford to look the other way?

I propose that every employee is capable and, in fact, responsible, for establishing and maintaining the character and values of their organization. The employee sweeping the floor in the shipping department is no less responsible than the CEO in creating and sustaining the character of our organization.

We need to treat our values less like “cool words” on our website and more like a tattoo, permanent and visible for all to see. This is who we are; this is what we stand for. Each of us shapes our organization.

Homework assignment: The next time you put together your annual budget, take it out to the lobby and compare it to your company’s mission statement hanging on the wall. Make sure you can reconcile the two documents. If you can’t, it might be time to update your resume.

Barry Stuart

Article originally published in Plastics News November 23, 2011. Entire contents copyright 2011 by Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.