Plant camaraderie beyond beer and machismo

To learn more, read Why safety should be a fundamental part of your plant culture

One of the early stops on the journey I laughingly call my career was the inside sales group of a Motor City car parts plant. In order to have enough leverage to get anything through the plant quickly, inside sales guys (It was the early 1970s, so we were all guys.) needed to bond with the production control guys in the plant. The best place for this kind of bonding was at the plant manager’s end of shift meeting. What made the situation interesting was that the meetings took place at 5:15 PM every day in the bar of a bowling alley a few blocks from the plant. An inner circle of six or eight guys would meet and discuss the things that needed to be coordinated across the silos in the organization. Production, maintenance, quality, scheduling and sales were all there.  In the hour that the meeting took, Bob the PM, would cover the necessary issues and drink half a dozen beers.

At the end of the meeting, Bob would walk briskly to his Buick and jump in. To my amazement, he would start it so quickly that the engine would catch as the door slammed. Then he’d be gone. I’m not sure how he remembered anything, but somebody did. Deals that were struck in the “hydraulic debrief” seldom failed to be delivered. Fortunately, we other attendees did not try to match Bob’s drinking pace. 

J. Stanton McGroarty, CMfgE, CMRP, is senior technical editor of Plant Services. He was formerly consulting manager for Strategic Asset Management International (SAMI), where he focused on project management and training for manufacturing, maintenance and reliability engineering. He has more than 30 years of manufacturing and maintenance experience in the automotive, defense, consumer products and process manufacturing industries. He holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in management from Central Michigan University. He can be reached at or check out his .

I would usually make it to the hydraulic debrief two days a week. That was enough to get my orders through and maintain communication with the key guys. Bob’s technique was effective, though hard on his liver. He cut through organizational boundaries the way effective leaders must. By dispensing and demanding favors at the same time, he accomplished an early version of the give and take that makes any effective plant organization work. Bob, a pretty good table pounder, powered the whole thing with the strength of his own personality. That was how plants ran in those days.

Today we hear about safety huddles and kaizen events that generate the same kinds of meetings, though they’re on company time and premises. Several of the plant leaders we interviewed for the July cover story begin every shift with supervisors’ meetings, often in dedicated areas. In these meetings follow-up of safety and continuous improvement work items is performed and charted daily until the items have been completed. This kind of continuous attention to safety issues and individual workers’ improvement suggestions demonstrates the same kind of energy that kept Bob’s plant humming.

In the most effective organizations, training and standardization of work have replaced “because Bob said so” as the impetus behind improvements. Automation and data systems have replaced a lot of the wheeling and dealing that used to organize our work flow. Table pounding and other forms of machismo have given way to corporate cultures based on shared values. US productivity, as measured against other countries, has improved a lot since the ‘70s, which suggests that we’re meeting our organizations’ needs better.

What hasn’t changed is the need for energetic, determined leadership insisting that our organizations get better every day. Fortunately we are able to get it done without some of Bob’s swashbuckling, but the energy and ideas still have to be there.

Read Stanton McGroarty's monthly column, Strategic Maintenance.