Meet the team: Jennifer Sullivan

Meet the team is a new series by Seraph, where junior team members lead conversations with senior Seraph consultants to learn from their experiences. 

Today we present a conversation with Jennifer Sullivan, a Senior Consultant at Seraph with more than a decade of experience across the Automotive industry. Jennifer previously led initiatives in Logistics, Capacity and Supplier Quality for Mercedes-Benz as well as Production Planning for Mannington Co.


When in doubt stick to the fundamentals 

Matt: Hi Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. I'm excited to glean some insight from you and your experiences in the Automotive and Manufacturing space, so let's go ahead and get started. 

Matt: First thing I'm curious about- either at Mercedes or as a Seraph team member, what’s a "fundamental" that managers or companies claim to have down in practice but in reality, often lack: it could be an important concept or a process that is usually glossed over or improperly defined especially when you enter a distressed plant.

Jennifer: The first thing I usually notice when entering a distressed plant is a KPI board with tracking and numbers and maybe charts that are printed out. It’s large and complex and the morning meeting will be conducted around this board. But if you ask any employee what any of it means almost none of them can answer the question. You'll have a management team that turns to all this tracking and thinks the team is on top of the issues. The box is checked, we're doing it.  But then you'll realize some of the data is a month old and no one is actually looking at the data besides the guy that's printing it out and posting it. You would think the biggest issue would be a lack of information, but typically it’s not utilizing the information. The actions, the next steps, and accountability to what they are tracking is what’s missing.

Matt: So what's something then; a principle, process activity that you incorporated into your daily routine? Maybe an event you structure the day around or just something you find makes the team more productive? 

Jennifer: One of the things I made sure that always happened even at our busiest is team communication. Everyone tends to get sucked down to their individual roles and what their own tasks are, and you typically lose sight of what's going on with the larger picture or even with your colleagues. In team meetings, there would usually be a time to speak about what's going on from a larger perspective. Giving that feedback and not assuming that everyone knows everything already has been helpful. Giving everyone an opportunity to speak about what they're doing; about what project they're working on and get some insight/feedback from others on the team. So often someone else on the team is going to know something that helps you get where you’re going faster or at least a contact for better information.

Teaching for the future 

M: As a manager, what is something you frequently encounter trouble with trying to teach? Whether it's a process or new technology that's poorly taught, or the resources to effectively teach that skill aren’t available.

J: If you have the proper materials and the trainer is knowledgeable, I don’t see too many issues, but one of the few issues I have seen is trying to cover too much ground too quickly. If you’re going to try to cover 20 topics in an hour, don’t expect anyone to learn anything.  If you’re covering something technical that requires a lot of detail, don’t expect people to absorb more than 30 min of information at a time. Especially when it relates to software or IT training.

M: What then would you say is the most common disruption to the supply chain, regardless of industry?

J: Over-reliance on systems- systematic failures and the lack of due diligence to follow up on those failures. The worst impacts I've had to deal with were when something was wrong within a system and no one did a sanity check. No one said, "this doesn’t feel right". Not to say you shouldn’t be utilizing systems, the alternative can be even worse, but always have some sort of validation process. If the numbers look wrong, look into it.

Get comfortable using every resource at your disposal 

M: Turning towards the team aspect, how do you make the “dream team”? Whether it’s a client’s team or your team, what do you value you most and what are the characteristics you look for to drive success?

J: Having a team that's proactive, that listens and works together even if they don’t necessarily get along would be anyone’s dream. Having a team that can accept constructive criticism, even from colleagues. People that can rebound in a tough situation and aren’t constantly spewing negativity.  Negativity can bring down a great team fast. When I mentioned accepting criticism, I meant truly constructive. Constantly shooting down ideas without bringing anything to the table can be demoralizing for the entire team.  As a manager, you have to address that. Praise in public and criticize in private is a good adage, but occasionally an issue has to be addressed then and there to bring out the best in your team.

M: When you have had to work with a client team, what’s one thing you often try to do to break down that initial friction or barrier between you and them?

J: Not coming in too hard, some companies like to come in like a bulldozer and at times this can slow down the process. Coming in from the perspective of I'm here to help you, I just want the win, if you win, I win.  Coming in from an empathetic angle and not an accusatory angle. Seeing consultants can make team members anxious or worried in what may be an already stressful situation. In most cases, once the client team understands you’re there to help them, they open up and are accepting towards the process, sometimes even grateful for it.

M: What about a good leader? What does “effective management” look like to you?

J: A good communicator, with consistent communication (in message) and the ability to work at all levels. I would expect a good leader to understand all facets of his or her team and an understanding of the business at more than just the C level. I’m not implying for instance that the CEO of a shipbuilding company should also be a proficient welder, I mean that they understand and appreciate the basis of what makes the company successful and to value their people along with the numbers.

Looking ahead for Automotive 

M: Focusing on some broader trends within the industry, how do you see Big data/new tech affecting manufacturing? Where do you see the most potential for improvement in operational performance thanks to technology?

J: A lot more tracking beyond barcodes with RFID and similar technologies since they're getting cheaper. Initially, the barriers were high and it was too expensive, but today it’s not as cost-prohibitive and set up has been simplified. I see that becoming used more and more, getting to the individual tote level in more than just the largest companies. I’m also really interested to see how utilization of blockchain impacts industry as it becomes more widespread within supply chains, especially as companies focus on validation of ethical sourcing and points of origin.

M: On the flip side of that, what about areas in which you frequently see, or expect to see, “mis-investment” in technology?

J: Unfortunately, I've seen a few catastrophic failures where the tech was relied on so much that there wasn’t an out when things went wrong. I’ve seen automatic retrieval systems were a glitch in the system was a complete show-stopper. Suddenly needed product is 100 feet in the air and no one had planned how they’d deal with it.  I've seen companies that have automatic dock doors have a power outage and they couldn’t load their customer’s shipments even with available product on the floor. Over-reliance on technology or automation without backup plans or solutions to deal with failures will end badly.  It’s a when not an if, be prepared.

M: In your mind what is going to be the biggest hurdle to suppliers in the upcoming EV “revolution”

J: The new technology. Most US suppliers have either been in business for decades or they're coming from a very well-established EU supplier and they rely on their years of internally built knowledge and expertise. But this is tech that literally no one has worked with before, or if they have successfully its proprietary knowledge. You're not going to easily find people that have had years of experience on the technical side of things. You’re talking about handling materials that have different requirements, there's going to be hazmat issues, maintenance issues that people haven't dealt with before. It’s going to be really interesting.

Keep the right people around

M: With unemployment is at an all-time low, what are some strategies you have seen that successful companies use to retain talent? Especially in areas where labor is very competitive. 

J: You see a lot of focus on work-life balance.  There used to be this expectation that you're working 10-12 hours a day probably 6 days a week and that’s just how it is. Companies now that run that way as their normal state don’t keep good people, they’ll keep people, but not good people. Ensuring people are taking vacations and aren't working excessive overtime on a regular basis are a couple of ways to retain good talent. Of course, there are times, especially during a launch where long hours can’t be helped. Make sure your people know they are valued and know that you have their backs when times get rough. This can’t be something you just say, you have to mean it. Combine a lack of balance with lack of support and what you’ll have are a lot of job postings.

Never stop learning

M: What's the worst recommendation you commonly see/hear in plants?

J: To throw labor at it. If there's a problem, let's just throw more people at it. Not problem solving, not addressing root causes or creating a fix, just adding headcount. You typically see this at the plant or shop floor level. Unless your problem is being understaffed, extra people aren’t going to help. If your team informs you they’ve solved a problem by adding labor alone, take a deeper look.

M: What’s a good book or training you recommend to coworkers/colleagues related to operations? 

J: The 4 Disciples of Execution. I’ve gone back to this one often as a lack of execution is where great ideas can die. As far as training goes, a particular one doesn’t stand out but just continuing to get training is critical.  You’re never finished, keep learning.

M: Well, Jennifer thanks again for taking the time. I think we certainly have some interesting takeaways to share.

J: No problem, I'm excited to see how it turns out. 

14 March 2020