Is Your Plant Organization Shipshape?

Rex M. Gallaher

You are in the engine room of the USS Lincoln. Your job as an oiler is to perform the cleaning and lubrication routes for the steam turbines. You are watching a control panel that monitors all of the ship’s mechanical functions. You have trust that the folks up on the bridge are in agreement about where and how the ship is to travel. All 2,000 sailors rely on the functional teams working in concert to make this voyage a success. You also have faith that this is the finest ship ever built.

From Robert Williamson’s NASCAR model of teamwork to this very large aircraft carrier, there are well-coordinated activities and responsibilities that are carried out in world-class style. Hopefully, this article will cause you to pause and examine the possibilities for you and your organization.

In my role as manager of the U.S. Postal Service’s Technical Support Center, I approved all maintenance management and maintenance work directives and manuals that were transmitted to the 450 plants to the 16,000 field technicians through their plant maintenance organizations. When I occasioned to visit plant workroom floors, I sought out the maintenance technicians and let them meet the name at the bottom of the directives. I usually inquired about the working environment in which they carried out their daily tasks. The usual questions were about information, tools, scheduling, equipment conditions and the visibility of top management.

The responses were what I expected given the metrics I reviewed and my knowledge of the individual plants. What I began to focus on was the response to this question: If I was able to clap my hands and something magically changes in your plant, what would you want to change?

More often than not, their response was: “We want managers to talk to managers and there be continuity in our operations across shifts and interfunction. It appears that managers are competing within their ranks — for what, we don’t know.”

Over the years, I probably asked this of several hundred employees, and many of the answers related to the interaction of management within the plant. They wanted the magic fix to be management that worked together, shift changes that were transparent, maintenance to work with operations, supervisors to be knowledgeable about expectations, and to feel part of the team. In essence, they wanted to perform like the USS Lincoln.

The best model to explain their chagrin is that of an organization chart turned 90 degrees. Think of the “Sweet Sixteen” in the national college basketball tournament. Where the normal organization chart represents structure, information and decision flow, the employees view it as a competition chart with management competing for different prizes that they do not understand. Is it power, turf, pride, confusion, floundering, ineptitude, leadership or mission that causes this issue?

I asked them to give examples. Their responses were:

  • Operations priorities do not match those of maintenance or customer service.
  • There is no shift transition process. This can be between maintenance shifts or within operations.
  • Process improvements on one shift are discarded by the next shift.
  • Managers purposely avoid other managers.
  • On-the-job training and breaking in new employees take too much time away from productive activities.
  • The most important employees (the machine operators and the maintenance technicians) are not a part of the management team.
  • Human resources does not support the supervisors.
  • The plant is dirty and signage is outdated.
  • We are unaware of the mission and goals.
  • There are conflicting goals.

They don’t want to run the place; they just want to know the game plan and where the ship is on its voyage.

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