Friday’s post on the 101 Dumbest Moments didn’t discuss one incident we all heard of last year: Radio Shack firing 400 employees via an email message. It takes a true invertebrate to concoct such a gross abdication of responsibility. I’m sure that most readers of this blog have had to make very difficult business decisions, but I’m guessing they also took on the responsibility to communicate the decision in an appropriate manner.
Most humans would. Because they recognize that fellow humans are impacted by their decision. And in many cases they may have been on the other end of that type of decision in the past. The human side of lean manufacturing is often forgotten, and sometimes we need a course correction like the one our friend Norm Bodek gave us last September.
I’ve had to make such decisions a few times as well, most notably on September 10th, 2001, the day before 9/11, when I laid off 183 people, including myself, and shut down two plants. The next day helped put things in perspective, but doing something like that changes a manager forever. My team had done a good job of communicating continually and openly with employees during the sharp business downturn, which helped prepare them. However I still felt like I failed as we had created a world class lean operation and I couldn’t convince the corporation to keep our facilities open instead of the far less efficient operations closer to headquarters. That’s one reason I included myself in the layoff. The other being that jobless was still better than living in LA. That leap of faith did lead to starting my own contract manufacturing company and several consulting gigs.
Last week as I was reading the 101 Dumbest list and reminiscing about the Radio Shack incident, I was flying from California to northern Michigan for the second time in five days. A grueling cross-country trip requiring three flights in each direction, arriving in a blizzard, and this time for just a one hour meeting. But it was important: I had to tell a plant that they suddenly had a new plant manager. I won’t go into the reasons for the change, but it was a good decision, and we identified a top-notch replacement. Coincidentally he’s one of the guys that had helped create the great organization I had to shut down on 9/10/01. I was able to get him (and a few others) into a company I’m currently working with, and he created a great team that generated amazing results. In promoting him to his first autonomous plant responsibility, I felt like a proud papa watching his son go out into the real world.
The employees at this plant were very apprehensive when the two of us showed up unexpectedly. That’s understandable. When two executives go to the pain of swooping in from the mother ship in the middle of a blizzard it must be bad news, right? These people lived in a rural (but beautiful!) part of northern Michigan where good jobs are very hard to come by, especially in a non-automotive sector like medical products. They were concerned about their livelihood, their families, and their future.
We spent the next hour doing the opposite of what they expected. We explained the reasons behind the decision, how we identified one of the company’s best to be their new boss, and how the company was also going to invest in the future of the plant by adding several other new people and growing several product lines. And we told them first, before the rest of the company found out. A potentially difficult or scary meeting became exciting and positive. Almost everyone thanked us for making the trip and said they were impressed that the company considered them important enough to invest many thousands of dollars of management time and last minute plane tickets just to tell them first, in person.
As I arrived home, weary and blurry-eyed, I continued to see in my mind one employee who shook my hand and simply said "you did it right." That made it all worthwhile. $217 million golden parachutes can’t give you that feeling. That day it simply felt good to be a leader.
Because we treated employees like humans.