How to lead from the factory floor

May 16, 2022
To drive continuous improvement: be visible, communicate your vision, and always keep listening.

Plant Services Managing Editor Anna Townshend spoke with authors and manufacturing leaders Kathy Miller and Shannon Karels about their new book Steel Toes and Stilettos: A True Story of Women Manufacturing Leaders and Lean Transformation Success.

Karels is a senior operations manager who has led multiple Lean transformations and run operations for two large corporations across multiple industries. Miller is a senior operations executive, who has held numerous global vice president and director positions in manufacturing and Lean enterprise leadership. She is a Shingo Prize Recipient for Large Businesses as a plant manager.

The two friends wrote the book together about their journey as women leaders, but their leadership message transcends gender or experience.

PS: I would like to start at the beginning of this book adventure. So, tell me about your decision to write this book. Why this book, and why did the two of you decide to do it together?

KM: Shannon and I, as you learn in the story, became very good friends through the course of this transformation. And one day, we were reminiscing about our time together and all the achievements of the team at that time, and really got thinking about why was that such a successful endeavor? What were the key elements of it? What were the ingredients? And as we thought about it more and laughed and reminisced about some of the challenges, we thought, “You know what? We really have a good story here. And maybe some people could benefit from it if we took some time to write it down.” So, we said, “Okay. Let’s do it.” The next day, Shannon texted me, “I’ve got a title for it.” And within a few months, we had outlined the basic timeline. It’s a business book, Anna, as you know, but it’s not real prescriptive. It’s our true story. So, it’s a blend of Lean transformation roadmap, but also, the personal challenges and triumphs, and stories of friendship along the way. It is a true story and it allows people to see themselves in different aspects of the story.

PS: Well, there are so many great topics to talk about here. And I don’t want to talk about gender too much, because I think most of the leadership advice you give really far transcends that, but it’s definitely a part of your book, and because as women in male-dominated industries, it is part of our lives. But rather than focus on some of the negative situations and things that we’ve all encountered, can you talk to me about what it means to be a female leader? And how does that shape how you work in the manufacturing world?

SK: A big part of what we talk about in the book, and Kathy and I discussed when we were writing this is you’re right, it is one factor of our roles and our total identity in this industry. As you mentioned, we don’t dwell on it as much because we just were there to do a job. And we were too focused on our goals and our task at hand to focus on whether or not we were the only woman in the room. And we rarely brought that up unless someone else did, and we rarely recognized it unless someone else brought it up and made a comment about it. So, you’re right, we didn’t focus on that as much. And we were busy. And, it wasn’t until afterwards when we were talking about this book that we started to recognize it a little bit more and started to discuss what it meant to both of us. And our biggest driver for some of the things we discuss in the book about being a woman is to show young female leaders that you can stay true to yourself, you can be your authentic self, and not have to conform to different stereotypes of being in a male-dominated industry and still be successful. And I think a big driver for us is that we wanted to just show these women that you can jump into this manufacturing career and be a great leader regardless of your gender.

PS: Great. I think that’s wonderful. And I hope women out there read this and think you have some witty things to say about some of those uncomfortable situations that we’ve been in. But I hope men read that too and take note of maybe some of the different situations that we have to come across. But I think very well said. I do want to talk about industry just a little bit. This book is about your experience leading a manufacturing team through a Lean transformation. So, let’s talk Lean a little bit. Why is that so important to the work that you do? And what do you think is most important for those who maybe don’t know exactly what Lean is all about to understand what that means in the manufacturing space?

KM: Lean is based on the Toyota production system, which has been around for decades. It’s about delivering value to customers with the least amount of waste. It’s a very simple concept. Why it’s difficult in manufacturing sometimes is how measurements are set up. Batch operations are normally used to maximize the efficiency from the investments that you’ve put in, the pieces of equipment. So, trying to take your measures from how many widgets you can put out on a certain piece of equipment in a certain amount of time to how value flows to the customers at the rate that they want to consume it is really what the transformation is all about.

Shannon and I have been doing these sorts of transformations for a number of years, and it’s so powerful. It’s very difficult at first. People don’t understand that vision. They’re used to cranking out a lot of inventory and pushing it through the system and, eventually, good products come out at the other end and someone matches it up to what customers want.

But we have just seen so many amazing results when you get the team onboard and work through it in a systematic manner. And I think you saw, Anna, in the book that over three years, the level of results that we got from being persistent and putting something in place and seeing what worked well, what didn’t work well, and how to build on that, and just continue to eliminate waste. And what’s really powerful about it is, if you do the whole system, it’s built on the concept of respect for people. So, it’s not just me, as the general manager, or Shannon as the transformation manager coming up with all the ideas and saying, “Thou shall.” It’s really about creating an environment where everybody can recognize waste and help you continuously improve. And when you get those light bulbs going on, and people understand that, “wow, you respect me for my mind and my heart and not just my hands,” the rate of improvement really accelerates and the ideas are amazing. And while the principles are the same, regardless of what enterprise you’re putting in, there are always nuances in every business. So thinking and creativity are required. And setting up that inclusive environment where people can bring their ideas forward is really one of the key things that we appreciate about it, and understand it is fundamental to getting the rates of improvement that you want.

Listen to the entire interview

This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

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