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I once had the privilege of starting up and managing a completely new function for a division of a large corporation. The impetus behind the need for this new group came out of a clear business mandate. It had been identified that a significant competitive advantage could be gained through implementation of reduced supplier lead-times. I was given the task of designing and implementing a supplier development function which would provide “boots on the ground” support for making what eventually would come to be recognized as Lean Supply Chain Performance a reality. (You’ll find a detailed write-up of the initiative in the October 2013 and November 2013 issues of Industrial Engineering magazine).
To make a long story short, the supplier development group ended up being immensely successful in its work and, as a result, the company realized significant financial benefit. Over the years I’ve come to understand that there were many factors behind the group’s success. One was a well-defined mission, which kept us on track over a significant period of time. Another was that I was successful in recruiting people for that group whose background and skills specifically aligned with the job that needed to be done. But in the end—there is no doubt at least in my mind—that the primary reason for our success was that as manager I was committed to giving credit where credit is due. Let me explain.
To meet the group’s skillset needs required recruitment and hiring of highly capable manufacturing engineers. In a group of 10 (including me), we ended up with one PhD and seven with master’s degrees; I was one of the two without an advanced degree. People with these levels of credentials typically have their choice of plum assignments in industry. Here they were being recruited for supplier development positions, i.e. jobs that can be accurately described in many ways but certainly not as glamorous. How were these high caliber people motivated to accept these job offers? It wasn’t with money, for in spite of their qualifications they were recruited within my company’s standard profession-level wage tier.
One reason they joined the group was that I was able to excite them about the initiative. For instance, how could anyone not be interested in working on ground-breaking work like developing a lean-performing supply chain? I made sure they realized they’d be “plowing new ground,” something that usually appeals to highly motivated professionals. Just as importantly, though, I could point out that there would be a great deal of executive interest in the work being done and I would commit to both the supplier development function and the individual people doing the work—them—getting credit for what was accomplished.
Anyone who has “worked the trenches” in supplier development understands that when I say these jobs are not glamorous, I am making an understatement. Supplier development engineers spend the vast majority of their time on the road at suppliers’ facilities getting their hands, clothes and just about everything else dirty, working elbow-to-elbow with supplier manufacturing and operational personnel. They eat bad food and live out of motels. The work itself usually stretches across shifts with 10- to 12-hour workdays being commonplace. And what gets done is almost completely out-of-sight of the company employing them. The only way any recognition is given is when such work significantly moves the needle on a particular supplier’s capability and/or performance, and in that case it’s usually given solely to the supplier development function, not individuals.
To capture the essence of what it’s like to work in supplier development I’d like to recount one example of a “hoop” that one member of my group once had to jump through. Early one Saturday morning I got a call from a senior vice president requesting immediate supplier development assistance. Without that help—and maybe even with it, he explained—another division within our company would experience significant factory downtime (translation: financial loss) due to lack of supplier capacity. I replied that we’d get right on it after the three-day July 4 th holiday weekend, which started that morning. After a long silence on the other end of the phone my boss’s-boss’s-boss replied he thought it might be better if I could have someone “on site” at the supplier that day. I got his point.
The needed experience and knowledge lined up exactly with one of the group’s young engineers—one who had, in fact, picked that 4 th of July weekend to move his family into their newly-built home. I called him just as he was starting that move. He told me that if I could convince
his wife to let him go he’d take on the assignment, and then immediately handed the phone to her. After a very interesting conversation she agreed to let him go, and he was on a plane later that morning, arriving on-site at the supplier that night. In a matter of a few days he successfully analyzed and applied both short- and longer-term fixes. The impact of his efforts was that the other division experienced no production downtime. Talk about success. But under ordinary supplier development circumstances very few people would know the “who’s” and “why’s” of how it happened.
So why would highly educated and motivated employees put up with this type of work? One reason was because at the end of each of their projects they knew they’d be given the opportunity to write a short (one page, both sides) description of the work they had done and the impact it had made. And they also knew that I had committed to making sure that their write-ups were circulated not only among the impacted supply management community but also through the executive level within the division. The standard report form we developed for this was so impact-oriented that it virtually couldn’t be ignored. I knew we had hit a home run with it when the vice president of supply management for the entire corporation telephoned me to say someone on his staff had shown him one of the write-ups and he wondered if he could be put on the distribution list for all future issues!
We were talking about managing employees, weren’t we? As their manager, I couldn’t hide the fact that they were taking on a job where they would have to work harder and longer hours than many of their peers in other comparable jobs in the company. I also couldn’t hide the fact that the work would be difficult, i.e. every new supplier project required integrating themselves into a completely new culture on top of trying to implement often-times radical processing changes. But I could promise that if they were successful their efforts would be recognized. And as I said, their work had a very positive financial impact on the business, so I had plenty of successful projects to give visibility to.
You may wonder what happened based on this visibility. Results included:
- All ten of the initial employees (including yours truly) ended up getting promotions, either “in place” or (usually) to an area outside of supply management. Several went on to get multiple promotions.
- I had current internal employees coming to my office requesting to be considered for future openings in the group—essentially asking for harder work and longer hours!
- Supplier capability and performance was significantly higher and the support provided by supplier development in making this happen created tremendous goodwill across the supply base.
What happened to the guy who had left his wife to finish the move into their new house? He was able to write up a high impact project summary that received enterprise wide visibility. A couple years later when a very desirable management job opened up in a factory in another division, this individual was selected above many other more experienced people to fill that job largely because of the impact he had delivered and the visibility he had received from that previously cited project. I also owed him and his wife a night out, which they collected on a few months later!
What was my role in the above? In addition to all of the other things that effective managers do I had identified the one thing that my particular set of employees desired most—recognition of their efforts and impacts. And as you can see from the above, I did what I said I’d do—gave credit where credit was due.
That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? Let me ask you a few questions:
- Do you know what motivates your people, above and beyond their paycheck and benefits? Do you try to address that with your high performers?
- Do you position your employees to have high-level impact on company business?
- Do you reward employees in the thing that most motivates them when they deliver high impacts?
- Are the achievements by your department and employees recognized across the organization?
It really does seem simple, doesn’t it? But how often do you as a manager do it or hear of other managers doing it?
My next column will build on giving credit where credit is due, switching the focus from employees to suppliers.