A Fresh Start

This plant hired an entirely new workforce. Your shop might find an even better way forward.

Columns From: 11/24/2008 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

All of the workforce at FS-Elliott—subject of the article under “Editor Picks” at right—is relatively new. As the article explains, a labor agreement required the new owners to lease the workforce from the old owners. The arrangement didn’t work out, and the leased workforce was let go. Plenty of experience was lost. But on the other side of the scary move was an opportunity. Manager Bill Turek got 110 fresh employees. He says there are aspects of the plant’s effectiveness and efficiency today that he doubts could have been realized without the clean slate.

Plenty of people working within established organizations can probably appreciate how the new beginning could deliver advantages in this way. Given how valuable experience is, why is fresh blood also sometimes valuable? Part of the answer lies in the fact that experience can sometimes turn bad. The phrase “10 years of experience” might describe 10 years of doing something in an underproductive way.

We discover this sometimes. Within an organization, we need one another to accomplish anything worthwhile—a fact that is both the beauty and tragedy of our working lives. We need one another ... and this means we almost always need the buy-in of someone else, perhaps someone with experience, in order to implement any idea or improvement we have in mind. If your own idea or improvement runs contrary to such a person’s experience, then suddenly you may be confronted with a problem many have faced. The “experience” is part of who this person is, perhaps even part of how he defines himself, and now you are saying there is another way. A better way. The ensuing struggle can make it impossible for the idea to advance. The frustration may even make it impossible for you to see just how deluded your own idea actually is.

Yes. Maybe it is your own “experience” that is incomplete in this case—or pushing toward the wrong conclusion.

Have you ever been too quick to decide your own ideas are brilliant? I have. Resistance to change is not necessarily bad. Resistance to change is entirely healthy if the change is the wrong way to go.

The case of FS-Elliott shows that experience is not everything. The chance to let go of past habits and preconceptions allowed this newly reinvented manufacturer to explode out of the gate.

But this one case does not prove that things will always be better if the resistance of established people can be bypassed. In fact, this example is not the very best model of a renewed organization. The very best model is one in which the people of influence in a staff or project can get the unsaid things that need to be said out into the air, and can come to a shared understanding and truly shared commitment to a mutual set of goals.

The organization able to do this can retain the benefits of good experience while jettisoning the bad—including outmoded habits, mindsets and even grudges that have crept in over time.

Once the shop can do this, stand back!

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