Building credibility at your facility to effect culture change

May 6, 2022
In this episode of Assets Anonymous, George Williams and Joe Anderson examine what it means to become a fire marshal.

Assets Anonymous is a 12-step podcast series designed to help you get grounded in reliability basics and create a culture of continuous improvement with your team. This series will feature interviews with George Williams and Joe Anderson of ReliabilityX. ReliabilityX aims to bridge the gap between operations and maintenance through holistic reliability focused on plant performance. In this episode, George and Joe focus on how to become a fire marshal.

PS: Episode three outlined something that you termed the Circle of Fire, which is a vicious cycle that teams can get in when it comes to firefighting, and repair jobs, and you can't really break into more productive modes. Today, we're going to focus on becoming a fire marshal. And a lot of that zeroes in on how to build credibility among your team to effect culture change. George, you had outlined the various levels of what it means to become a fire marshal, can you talk about those two levels?

GW: Yeah, sure. For me, I see this as being a two-part stepped approach to becoming a fire marshal. One is the advocacy piece, right? The “How do I engage with operations with senior leadership with...” and we're saying from the perspective of the maintenance manager, and even with the technicians, "How do I manage the change of looking at defects as early as possible to mitigate them before they become a risk to the business or even a catastrophic event that has a business impact?"

And then the other side of that is, "Well, what steps do I take as a fire marshal? How do I actually become one in terms of my actions? What do I have to do to mitigate defects as early as possible?"

PS: Joe, you've written a couple of articles for Plant Services, where you really effectively outline the various layers of communication that good maintenance techs need to engage in to communicate with the plant. And maybe we can start the question of how you become a fire marshal by talking with you about, there's various levels of the maintenance organization, where people can have a different kind of impact on becoming a fire marshal. There's the frontline technical crew, there's supervisory level, which is sort of middle management, then you get more into the senior plant manager kind of levels. Maybe we can start with, from a technician level, the frontline, what can those folks do to become fire marshals?

JA: I think with them, it's about engaging with the operators. So as a maintenance mechanic, we know that you always rely on your best operator, right? And so when your good operator calls you over to a line, you know you need to bring some tools, because typically they're taking care of stuff on their own. But the problem is, we dread the call from the operator that doesn't have as much skill. A lot of times that upsets us because we're not really upset at the operator, we're upset at management for allowing an incompetent person to come out and work on our machines, right? They have this built-in excuse.

I lay a lot of that blame on the maintenance folks, and the fact that they're not out there, trying to make their operators better. And so when, as a firefighter, if I was a fire marshal, as a mechanic, I would be out working with my operators, the ones on the lower end of the spectrum and trying to help get their skill sets up. And you know, in the meantime, I might actually learn something from them too, which typically happens, right, which makes you a better mechanic.

And so spending time with them, focusing on their skills, teaching them some of the nuances, because no one's trained these operators most of the time. Most of the time, it's okay, you've been here three months putting things in a box, now you're running this machine. And that's the amount of training that they get. We get upset at the operators when it's not really their fault. There's a lack of a training system to pass people on. There's no qualification on how to run this machine and all that stuff. I would focus, really getting their skill sets in shape as well as focusing myself.

I know that we have problems, right? What can I do to fix them? And if you don't have the knowledge, everyone has the internet today, everyone has a cell phone in their hand. You can start Googling questions you have and I'm sure people have responded through blogs or videos or podcasts or anything else that can help you start to change your skill set and the way that you see things out on the floor. The biggest thing is, how can I solve problems? If I don't know how to solve problems, you know, how do I go about doing that?

Root cause analysis, for a mechanic, when they hear that term, you almost cringe because the implementation has failed due to a lack of understanding from an organizational level down. And so they hear, "What do you mean I got to do root cause? I got to go fill out a piece of paper and turn it in?" Because you're forced to, for every failure, turn in a piece of paper that said you did a 5 Whys or something.

When we're talking about root cause analysis, I don't care if you document it or not; it's nice to have that documentation so that if you see that problem again, you understood how you fixed it. Or you can trend problems over time. But let's throw the paperwork aside, and let's just solve the problem. What is the root cause of this issue? What is causing this issue to occur? Right? And going out and solving the problem. So from a mechanic perspective, I would work with my operations group, and I would work on my own skill set when it comes to problem solving.

PS: You know, that reminds me of a quote from Colin Powell, actually, from back in the ’90s, the first Gulf War days, when he's talking about leadership. And he says that when people stop coming to you for help, they do so either because they think you can't help or that you won't help, and either of those conditions is a failure of leadership. And Joe, it sounds like, from what you're talking about, that mechanics are really taking on a leadership role here, without saying "I'm a capital L leader," you're simply being of service and of use and growing knowledge based on the operators.

JA: Hardly anyone in any organization is a leader by title outside of those in the upper echelons of management. The problem is that every one of us are leaders in some aspect of our life, so we throw that term out, and people think, "I'm not a leader," all they're doing is saying, "Don't blame me, it's not my fault." You know? And it's like, well, you're a leader, are you a father? Are you a mother? Right? You’re leading children, you're doing stuff all the time. And so to me, that's excuses. If you want to get better, you're going to find a way to get better. And if you don't want to get better, you're stuck in this mode of “I'm sorry, I can't help you.” Until you come to the realization yourself that you need help, I can't help you. So it kinda is what it is.

GW: And it all boils down to leadership. When you think about why the maintenance folks are not talking to operations folks on a regular basis, or why folks in the office are not walking the plant floor, that all boils down to leadership. Did you ever see the movie Office Space?

PS: Oh, yes. Yeah.

GW: Right. So I take requirements from the customers and give them to engineering. All you have to do is listen, right? Why can't they do that? "Well, I got people skills," you know. We just listen. If the maintenance staff listens to operations, if operations listens to maintenance, and the leadership is asking those folks to listen to each other, actively – I don't mean they said that once three years ago during an annual meeting, I mean, they are active advocates of that communication, and bridging that communication gap – you'll make a difference in your organization simply by talking to one another and listening to one another.

JA: Yep.

PS: Well, let me move on to the next level of the maintenance team, which is a supervisory level, the middle managers. Tom Moriarty in Plant Services has done a leadership survey over a couple of years now, and he's once again finding that supervisors happen to be the part of the team which often report the least amount of motivation. They have the most responsibility and the least amount of authority to solve problems. Outside of, you know, you're both talking about that personal authority which comes from credibility, but this is the team that gets pinched, and also the kind of team member that will get put into a formal leadership position without a whole lot of leadership training.

JA: Of course. Happens all the time. "Hey, this guy can really fix machines, he'll be a good supervisor."

PS: Right. Tom found that the average time between promotion to supervisor and leadership training was eight years. That was the average time.

GW: That's because there's a lot of infinities there.

JA: If you're still there in that position eight years later.

PS: How are people in that position? How can they help themselves become fire marshals? Or where would you tell those folks to seek support for that? Because they're in a unique position of, they have a lot more people work than the mechanics do.

JA: They do, but through credibility, you develop influence. And at that level, influence is highly, highly important, which means you have to get credibility. At level, it's about getting the quick wins, and then sharing the wins, not taking credit for it. The credit to the team: the team did a great job, you did nothing in the scheme of things. So for you to take credit for it is selfish and ignorant. And in the end, you ruin your credibility.

The goal is to go get some quick wins. You see a bag jamming 100 times a day, and everyone clears the bag jam. And they go on about their life, no one is solving the issue as to why the bag is jamming. Right? So I go out, I solve that problem for the operator, that operator loves me to death now, because I made their life easy. That's credibility.

You have to actually be out there, like George said, listening. And when they tell you about problems, you give them priority. The problem is, some of your most frustrated employees are the people that are almost toxic, and no one wants to go around these people. But a lot of the reason they've become that way is because they've known about problems for years and no one has listened to them.

GW: Joe and I walked a facility about two months ago and there was this proprietary technology that was being used to insert the product into a package. The folks that were giving us the tour were bragging about this proprietary technology. Meanwhile, there was a human in front of it fixing the product, because it wasn't actually doing what it was supposed to do correctly.

The next day, we asked if they might put work orders in for the stuff we saw while we were on that tour, the answer was no. You're so focused on it explaining how awesome this is, but clearly, there's a problem, right? I mean, we've got somebody in front of this correcting this issue that doesn't need to be there, that probably has better things to do with their day. But unfortunately, their function is to make up the slack for what this technology was not doing, and probably easily solvable. I don't know the answer to that we only took a brief tour.

But that's the type of stuff, that's an immediate eye-opening defect that should not exist. And if you walk by this and consider it white noise, then you have not raised your bar high enough. Whether it's the supervisory level or any of the additional levels we're going to talk about, the bar needs to be “defects are not acceptable.” And every time you walk by a defect, you should be finding out why it exists and what are we going to do about it? Because it should be completely unacceptable.

I took a plant tour once and the plant manager walked us around the tour, and there was one place where we walked by these pallets and there were nails sticking out and the plant manager walked by and shimmied past it. And I stopped and bent the nail out of the way. And then we walked up on a catwalk and there was a bunch of cleaning equipment, brooms and poles that they used to clean something, laying on the floor of the catwalk that's a trip hazard. This person walked right past it, stepping in between the stuff to show me something on the catwalk. I just took those things and put them where they belong and came up, and I've never been in the facility before. We walked by trash on the ground, and I would pick it up and put it in the trash can.

Listen to the entire interview

You have to have your bar set at the level of expectation you expect from everyone else, because everyone's bar will be at or below yours. That's how you have to act every day. Where your bar is, expect everyone else's to be slightly lower. So if your bar’s on the ground, then that's the expectation you're giving everybody else, and it doesn't matter if you're the supervisor, the manager, or the plant manager.

JA: The other piece is you have to learn to see. So what I mean by that, okay, the advantage that I had as a maintenance manager when I left a place and started at a new one is I had fresh eyes. Okay, but I would notice that over a period of time, those little problems became a part of the picture. Because I would walk by them again because I'm consumed with everything else. I would see them every day for the first six months, and then all of a sudden, I didn't see them anymore, right? Because I've become acclimated, and I've got all this other stuff on my mind and I'm not thinking about it.

But you have to take a step back, because we get sucked into the fire, right? And there's times, especially as a supervisor or maintenance manager, where you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and refocus, and go out there again, like you have a fresh set of eyes looking for problems. Right? What it is, is we quit looking, because we're so consumed with the fire. So take a step back, go back out with fresh eyes.

What I teach people, especially like when you're looking for defects, is the use of a flashlight. I don't care if it's broad daylight. You use a flashlight, because it helps your eye focus on the light. This is why the CSI people prefer the lights off, because this field of view is huge, so you might miss something. They shut the lights off, and they use a flashlight because it helps them focus just on that one little specific area. My recommendation is to take a flashlight out with you and start looking for issues. When you see somebody jump up and grab a box off a conveyor because the corner of the box caught on something, that's a problem. They shouldn't be jumping, one, you put them at safety risk, by having them overstretch and do stuff, right? And you just walk by it like it's nothing, like you don't care. If you truly care about peoples' safety, that's a problem.

It's all these little things, and they start adding up. All these little jams in machines, guess what that's doing to the machine? It's fatiguing everything, to the point to where you're going to start brinelling on bearings and chunks of metal are going to start flying off and then it starts other defects. If you can eliminate all these little jams and all this stuff, right, that we consider a part of the picture, it frees you up. I'm telling you, it gives you a lot more time when things aren't breaking all the time.

PS: And I think the point you're both making about seeing – especially what you just said, Joe, about things become part of the background – is really profound, and that does seem to be a particular responsibility of that middle manager. Let's talk about the plant manager level, like the senior maintenance leadership, because that is their responsibility of course, but also there's a financial dimension to that part of becoming a fire marshal. Could you talk a little bit about how is it different at that plant manager level, to their version of what it means to be a fire marshal?

JA: It’s a huge financial dimension. As all these minor stops and things that happen, typically, from what we're finding, maintenance breakdowns are only about 3% of plant losses. And so everybody thinks that there's a maintenance problem, but that's because they have these two humongous loss buckets called “planned downtime” and “unplanned downtime.” They don't take the time to break down those buckets and what all the losses are.

So typically, you're not walking into a maintenance problem. Typically, you're walking into an operational problem, right? And those operational issues have a huge financial impact because you're not getting the throughputs that you paid for through designed equipment. Okay, so your equipment is designed, say a line you design it...well, I'll give you an example. One line that we worked on, George and I together, was designed to do 60 million units, and they paid over $100 million for this line. But their best year, I think, was 17 million units before we started helping. We started helping in mid-year, and they ended up with 25 million units, which was their best year, and this line had been in service for over five years.

But what happens is the new normal becomes, "Well, the best we can do is 17 million, so now that's our ideal rate." And they mask 40, 60, 80% of their capacity behind this thing they call an ideal rate, instead of getting the design that they paid for out of this line, and so your cost to produce goes through the roof. But what they do is they say, okay, well, now we have to pass it on to the customer. In some industries, you can, and they'll just accept it. In most industries, you can't, because your competition will put you out of business. Especially in food and beverage, you know, it's very tight margins, and cost to produce has to be lower to be competitive.

If I can get, you know, for example, a 70% increase in throughput, but I have the same number of people working on the line, producing more units, my cost to produce and my cost per unit drops significantly, so there is that financial aspect and the impact of firefighting.

So what can I do to get that money back? Well, one, as a top leader, you remove obstacles, your job is there to listen: What problems do we have? And what you can do to help remove those obstacles? That is the biggest thing at the leadership level. And supporting them and defending them at times. You know, you're going to have to, because "I don't agree with that, why did you let them take this machine down?" And that's where you, as a maintenance manager, a plant manager, or a senior director or whatever, you have to take the bullet sometimes, and say, "Listen, our integrity is on the line here. We're about doing things the right way. I have confidence that they're going to do it the right way. So you can blame me if this fails." And taking the heat off of these guys and some of the pressure and removing obstacles.

And then developing a relationship again, with the operational folks, it's key, whether it's your peer going, "listen, you guys have severe gaps that are leading to a lot of issues, and I would love to work with you to solve a lot of these problems." Instead, it's maintenance vs. operations, and we're punching each other. And it's ridiculous.

Somebody at some point has to grab the bull by the horns and do something. Sitting there and blaming and cussing and screaming and fighting does nothing for the organization. At some point, there has to be this one person that steps up, grabs the bull by the horns, and says, "I'm not accepting this. We need to be different. You're either with me or against me. But I'm going to do what I can to convince you that this is the right way of doing things. And I want to work with you and solve problems."

And then the final piece of that is: you don't know it all, so seek outside help. It makes the journey go a lot quicker. You can spend years with your pride thinking that you can do it all on your own. And, you know, trust me, I thought I could, and it never worked out in my favor. Not until I got really good at what I do. Right? It's the moment that I realized that man this has taken me five years to get to where I want to get, when I could be doing this in six months or less if I had the right help. And so don't be afraid to seek outside help.

Now, vet the help. Just you know, because everybody calls themself a consultant, doesn't mean they know anything. And, you know, I have huge trust issues in larger corporations because you're just another number to them, right? So find people that know how to do plant turnarounds or help solve maintenance issues, help solve operational issues, people that actually get results. You will be surprised how quick you catch on and your skill set goes to the moon, and your ability to take that knowledge with you.

GW: I think at the plant manager level, and at the senior leadership level, sometimes they feel like the organization should fix itself, so they say, "Well, we've empowered everybody, and they're just not doing it." I think there's a fundamental lack of understanding of what empowerment is.

Empowerment is not a leader who stands on a stage and says you're empowered. That's a minor, minor piece of an empowered organization. The more difficult piece is the acceptance of empowerment. For an employee to accept empowerment requires them to have the confidence to act empowered, the knowledge to identify where to act empowered, and the skill set to implement that empowerment. And on top of all of that, the understanding that if it fails, it will still be rewarded because they act empowered.

And if those things are not in place, you can stand on the stage all you want and tell your organization they're empowered to make a difference, and it's not going to make a difference. You've got to get them skilled and trained enough to make a difference and they have to be comfortable enough to make a difference through confidence and knowing that the organization is not going to backlash when something doesn't go well.

Because if you do have an empowered organization and five things go well and one doesn't, you're still better off. But if you're in an organization where that blame now gets placed on the one time it didn't work out, do not expect your organization to act empowered. You can say they're empowered all you want, but that's not the same, they're two different things.

PS: As you're both pointing out, the issue when the culture turns towards blaming instead of taking responsibility, that's a very quick way to get people to hide their behaviors instead of putting them out in the open so you can see them and fix them and modify them and improve.

JA: Well they hide numbers, they hide everything.

GW: There’s no transparency.

JA: They're always green, all the time they're green, and they have the worst facility when it comes to practices, but somehow they're always green. And so that shows you that KPIs are used as brow beaters instead of improvement metrics. The reason you measure something is to improve. So red is a good thing. It shows opportunity.

GW: Right, what actions do you take when they're green, right? Don't take any actions.

JA: No, but that's why you want to show green so the heat stays off your back because you're getting beat with a baseball bat with KPIs.

GW: Well, because your ego means more than learning and improving.

JA: Yeah, for sure, because it all rolls up. Right?

GW: The entire reactive, not just reactivity, but plant performance, all of those, all the successes for the individuals and for the success of the plant: the tipping point is when you recognize it's your fault. And it doesn't matter what position you're in, it doesn't matter what your title is. When you recognize and own the performance of everyone else – and it doesn't matter if you're the janitor or the plant manager – anyone can begin to raise the bar for everyone else. So when you self-reflect and accept the fact that the plant's performance rests on you having your bar raised and influencing others to raise their bar, that's what will start turning the plan around.

JA: I compare it to wanting to be like a Peyton Manning. Peyton Manning is the type of leader that made everyone around him better. The only name on the Broncos team that you heard outside of Manning was Von Miller at the time. You didn't know who their receivers were, you didn't know who their tight end, you didn't know who anyone was.

Now all of a sudden, these receivers and running backs are making the Pro Bowl. And a main driver behind that is a leader like Peyton Manning that made people better. The coaches above him didn't make Peyton the person he is, you know what I mean? He came in from college and being developed through all that, being the person that he was, to focus on making people better around him. And it didn't matter what level he was in the organization. The point is that he had an effect on a lot of people, and a lot of people became Pro Bowlers and all stars or whatever you want to call them. Your goal should be, it doesn't matter what level the plant, is to influence others in a way in which you make them better.

PS: I'm struck to by that analogy too, Joe, it doesn't didn't matter what team he was on. He won a Super Bowl with the Colts and then won a Super Bowl with Broncos. And now he's making ESPN better where his Monday night show is actually from what I can tell it's starting to be as popular as the main feed.

JA: Well, you think about it, right, Julius Thomas was a Pro Bowl tight end. He left the Broncos after Manning left. Have you heard of him? You haven't heard anything from him. Demetrius Thomas, the same thing. He made them so good, right, because of the type of leader that he was. And, again, that happens in any level of the organization. It doesn't matter where you are.

PS: I got a soft spot for Manning too, because he led my fantasy team in 2006, and I won!

JA: That's awesome.

About the Author

Assets Anonymous | Assets Anonymous

Assets Anonymous is a 12-step podcast series designed to help you get grounded in reliability basics and create a culture of continuous improvement with your team. This series will feature interviews with George Williams and Joe Anderson of ReliabilityX, which aims to bridge the gap between operations and maintenance through holistic reliability focused on plant performance.

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