It was an unexpected turn in my life. After two years of living out of a suitcase working as a management consultant, my previous American employer called out of the blue to offer me a job. I was both stunned and flattered.
It’s worth mentioning that my old boss was calling, the former head of the Customer Service department, now heading Purchasing, someone I respected deeply both for his intelligence and compassion. Only problem was that after working in Customer Service under him for almost five years, I learned that sales was not my bag. It didn’t stir my passions.
I thanked my old boss for the opportunity then said, “I don’t want to go back into sales.”
“No worries,” he said. “We’re looking for someone to run the factory.”
He had my undivided attention.
We eventually went through the motions of negotiating. The job came with some nice perks, and there I was, back in corporate America where I started. My new role was plant manager, the head of an injection molding and assembly operation business unit. Life was good. Or at least better. Or so I thought.
Looking back I had way too much confidence in my ability to smoothly implement in an American company what I had learned the previous 2 years working for a Samurai Japanese productivity consultancy. I really thought my experience improving factories had prepared me for turning around any factory. But what I didn’t have was a team of Japanese mentors and colleagues to drive improvements. I was on my own.
My biggest mistake was unforgivable: prior to launching my improvement initiative, I failed to invest the proper amount of time upfront to nurture key relationships in the organization, particularly at middle management level. I moved too fast to change things while assuming subordinates had sufficient knowledge and information.
At the risk of tooting my own horn, the quality and productivity numbers improved steadily during my 4-year stint. But life in corporate America ultimately proved to be as foreign to me as Japan is to most Americans. I was a tadpole out of water. And it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
A Cautionary Tale of Work Burnout
Several months before the planes hit the twin towers in 2001, business was waning at my employer. My division was its own separate business unit, although we relied on our centralized customer service department to generate customer orders.
Naturally I monitored the numbers closely, to the point that I could predict several months in advance if we were going to be profitable under our current condition, allowing me time to take pre-emptive measures to counter any precipitous drops in sales. One fateful day after going over the numbers with the maintenance manager, I remember the moment the truth hit us: we looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, “we have too many people.” Based on our best calculation, 20 too many.
At this juncture I was at a point in my career rapidly approaching burnout. And now this.
In the Japanese manufacturing world that I was raised in, cutting operators was taboo, it just never happened. The logic was that lack of sales was not the poor operators’ fault! In this case the company’s struggles were truly a result of strategic blunders made at the very top of the organization. I wanted no part of any layoffs and my maintenance buddy agreed.
In my mind, the company leaders’ priorities were way out of whack. They were good guys with good intentions paving the road to hell. Their focus was on technology and flavor-of-the-week fads and high-margin work from a select few products vulnerable to big order swings–all at the expense of mastering the basics. A top-heavy organization, they had dropped the ball in bringing in new customers and maximizing sales with existing ones.
And the innocent folks in the plant, doing their best to produce quality work, were about to suffer for the sins of leaders oblivious to the human consequences brought on by their missteps.
The writing was on the wall and we knew we had to take pre-emptive action. Taking a cue from Japan’s elite companies, the maintenance manager and I approached leadership with an offer to take a 20% pay cut and go to a 4-day workweek. We also asked our subordinates in management to voluntarily take cuts. Some folks just couldn’t afford it and we didn’t hold it against them. But to my surprise, most middle managers volunteered to take at least some kind of pay cut, and it was an uplifting silver lining in a very stressful ordeal. This measure lasted about a month and a half, when the sales numbers dropped beyond even our worst-case projections. We proceeded to plan B.
Once again the maintenance manager and I huddled together. After considering all our options we concluded that we didn’t want to lay anyone off, and that we’d both have a much better chance of finding employment elsewhere than our subordinates. We went to our bosses to request they lay us off.
To upper management’s credit they accepted our proposal and gave us both nice severance packages, enough for me to start my own business. In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally, because from the ashes of my former employer’s failures, arose my new company, my passion.
Life Beyond Plastic Parts
My stint as a plant manager had its highs and lows for sure. But from a career development standpoint it was gold.
In retrospect I’ve concluded that plant management just doesn’t float my boat. Yes it was fun at first, but it got old about 3 years into the gig, right around the time the factory stabilized. An insight born of this experience is that my passions were kindled by the challenges that came with turning around a factory, not maintaining one. And the idea of working 60+ hours a week to shoot and ship plastic parts was starting to depress me. It didn’t feel like a meaningful way to spend such a large chunk of my existence, not to mention the work didn’t at all match my personality and passions.
And the truth is I grew weary of the politics that come with any organization. It doesn’t help that I’m a terrible politician. It was as good a reason as any to move on and start my own company.
Looking back, my wife says I cared too much about the employees. (Is it possible to care too much?) My answer is of course I cared! Because of the relationships we built and my appreciation for the employees’ efforts to improve our factory, the burden of managing a stable, efficient company that would continue to keep them employed took a toll on me. I was immersed in stress and didn’t even know it–wouldn’t know it–until I left it behind.
So this is where my head was at when my 4-year stint ended as plant manager. Thankfully my life was about to take a positive turn, to a place much more meaningful than shooting-and-shipping plastic parts. Unfortunately my good friend the maintenance manager, someone I’d grown to love after a very rough start in our relationship, wouldn’t be so lucky; within a year he was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed on after waging a courageous battle. But my friend was kind enough to leave me with a precious gift: memories of his sincerity, humility, and passion for life.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012