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.

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.