Meet the team is a series by Seraph, where junior team members lead conversations with senior Seraph consultants to learn from their experiences.
Today we present a conversation with Seraph’s Jay Butler, who brings 25+ years of experience in Automotive and Manufacturing. Before Seraph, Jay worked at Mercedes Benz US International, Brose Group, and Nissan.
Justin: What’s one of the problems you see occur most often in manufacturing?
Jay: There are two common problems, regardless of the type of manufacturing. Inadequate leadership and gaps in training and skills development. Starting with the second point, people get put in situations where technology is changing so fast, but there’s no opportunity for them to develop the appropriate skills. People are thrown into a job with little training and without a mentor. Often, organizations are so thinly resourced that it’s difficult to pull people out to get the training they need. It’s leadership’s responsibility to get the right people with the right skills in the right place and align them in a common direction. Poor engagement between leaders and their teams allows problems to compound. Getting out of the office and spending time on the production floor is required to understand what’s going on and what the team is struggling with.
Leaders need to develop their people and keep them engaged
Justin: What does good leadership mean to you? What are some of the practices good leaders do?
Jay: There are many things good leaders do. The best leaders give their teams opportunities to grow and develop. They challenge their team members to take on new things and then support them during the process of learning.
In my second professional job, I worked in a product development team for fuel system components. Our Director of Development challenged each of the engineers and chemists to be learning and developing constantly. He made a point to give us the time to do that. To support our efforts, in our Friday team meetings, each of the engineers/chemists rotated teaching something to the group. What you presented didn’t have to be directly work-related. Topics spanned from what people were reading about such as personal development and leadership, to new developments and progress competitors were making. The expectation was, get out there and learn some things and then come share with the team. One of the greatest ways to learn things is to teach others. When you have to teach a topic, you are forced to solidify the knowledge in your mind.
Secondly, a good leader understands that they don’t have to have all the answers all the time. They’re willing to ask questions, willing to be challenged, and willing to allow people to solve problems.
It’s problematic when a leader always thinks they have to have the best or the only right answer. Very quickly, the team can feel ostracized and will eventually disengage.
Leaders need to develop and trust their people. Subordinates will often have the best answers to the problems that the team faces. Developing people requires giving them the space to grow and come up with solutions. The goal of a leader is to bring the team together to design the best solution to the problem.
Problem-solving skills are always in short supply
Justin: Are there skills that you see in manufacturing that are repeatedly missing?
Jay: Problem-solving: knowing how to frame a problem, take the time to understand it, go through the problem-solving process, test, and validate assumptions.
When the assembly lines or manufacturing processes are active, there is a necessary urgency. It’s important to get a short-term countermeasure in place to protect the customer, protect the quality of the product, and keep the lines running. But once you get that short term in place, you have to go through a thorough problem-solving process. Oftentimes the first solution devised is not the real solution. When you finally have a validated solution, it’s critical to take those lessons learned and roll them across the organization.
One of my favorite examples of surface-level problem solving is: the operator made a mistake, so we’re going to retrain the operator.
As soon as you look closely, that line of thinking begins to crack. What happened with the initial training that allowed that mistake to happen? Is it a realistic expectation for anyone to perform that manual process 100% of the time?
We recently spoke with a client who was pushing a supplier to reach levels of quality that, given the volume and the way they measured that quality metric, would require running for a year with no issues. Without checks and balances, meeting that target in a process full of manual activities, where team members have to make hundreds of decisions throughout their day, is an unreasonable expectation. If reaching that level of quality is critical, the team would need to dig deeper and devise a new solution.
Knowing how to see things for what they are and avoiding a convenient scapegoat is a practice that has to be developed over time.
Structure is the first step in bringing operations under control
Justin: When Seraph is brought in for a crisis management project, things are typically chaotic at the client’s company. When it’s difficult to get accurate numbers, or things start to slip out of control, what’s your first instinct?
Jay: Start putting structure in place. Depending on the situation, that structure might be good inventory management or production tracking system. You need some process put in place, even if forced into the system, because it provides a baseline to measure against.
In a crisis, meetings need to be well structured to stay focused. Otherwise, it just exacerbates the chaos. Once a framework is in place, it’s possible to develop a meaningful stream of data to develop into actionable information.
Maintaining structure requires manageable goals. When I plan my calendar out for my week, I only target about 60-70% in terms of hard planning because I know that there will always be some chaos and priorities, and meetings will need to move. By building slack into my schedule, I can manage that without getting overwhelmed and behind on what’s most important. To make progress, you need to know where you’re at now.
As a side note, there’s a great book by Patrick Lencioni called “Death by Meeting.” He offers a solution for a structure around a meeting, what kind of meetings you should have, at what frequency, and what you should cover in those meetings. It widely applies to the industries we work in. It’s a simple framework for what you should cover the daily meeting, a weekly staff meeting, a monthly meeting, and a quarterly meeting. For example, your daily stand-up meeting covers the day’s quick highlights for yesterday and everything that’s on the plate for today. It’s a short-term view. Of course, daily actions should drive a bigger plan. Weekly meetings reflect on the previous week and set the sights on the next couple of weeks. A monthly plan should align with annual goals etc.
Problems occur when participants lose focus on the purpose of the meeting. When unrelated things come up, keep them on a list to address later.
Recently I attended a messy meeting where, according to the calendar, it was a standard daily review. Right away, I noticed a different crowd, and it was being run by somebody different, without communication on the purpose of this meeting. Some people weren’t there that should have been there. The introduction to the meeting included no background.
Get the right people in the room. Set a clear purpose. Allowing the meeting to veer off-topic or bringing the wrong people into the room are quick ways to stop progress and cause frustration.
With structured meetings, you can create some certainty around how the team will approach problems and manage toward improvement. You still have to be flexible but not to the detriment of what can be controlled.
Establishing KPIs doesn’t mean they can’t be changed later as the project evolves. KPIs change as you pass milestones. When teams can manage on their own, you can pull back accordingly.
By putting in place standard operating procedures and aligning objectives, everyone can march forward toward the same goal. That’s painful for organizations that are just accustomed to shooting from the hip. It’s a big change to go from putting out ‘the fire of the day’ to a structured approach. It’s important to remind everybody of the meeting’s purpose and go through all the KPIs. If something critical comes up, don’t minimize it, but make sure the right people are in the room to solve it – which might mean calling a special meeting or solving it once the KPIs are accounted for. That’s why we push Standard Work so often on our engagements.
Seek out new opportunities to grow
Justin: What’s your advice for someone early in their manufacturing career?
Jay: For more experienced people: If you want to move up in the organization, take the opportunity to coach and mentor some of the organization’s younger team members. Those are the kinds of things you have to do as a leader. Take on more leadership opportunities. Even before you officially become a leader, demonstrate to people in leadership that you can lead before a formal hiring decision gets made.
For new entrants: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are no dumb questions; dumb questions are the questions that don’t get asked. Next, regardless of your degree or background, be ready to learn continually. Be prepared to step outside and try something new. When I joined Mercedes after working in the industry for a while, I jumped into the electrical world as a quality engineer manager without an electrical background. That was probably the most fun time in my career in the last 20 years. Be prepared to learn outside where you are formally trained and seek out chances to do so. Find somebody who’s been there longer to learn from them how things happen how things get done. Ask what they like or don’t like about their job.
Never stop learning. I started working on an MBA when I was 48 years old, and I will finish this December. It’s been a great opportunity to grow relating to finance and strategy.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but learn from them. Don’t give up too soon. There will be good days and bad days and you’ll get jobs you don’t like within a company. At Mercedes, I changed roles seven times over 12 years, across different departments or positions within departments, and lead different teams. Sometimes in my comfort zone, but most of the time outside of my comfort zone. At a good company, you’ll have opportunities to do that. They’ll give you those opportunities and they’ll pay for those opportunities, but don’t count on someone else to give you those opportunities; find them yourself.
Problem-solving solving tools drive performance
Justin: Back to problem-solving, are there frameworks for problem-solving tools that you have found particularly helpful?
Jay: There are many standard tools out there that are used in automotive and manufacturing in general such as, Six-sigma, 8D, and ‘5Why?’.
There will always be different versions and company-specific alterations. In some cases, it will make sense to use simple tools that don’t require time-consuming forms to get to a solution. Most of the problem is not with the tools but the application of the tools. You could give anybody a table saw and a hammer, but that doesn’t make them a carpenter.
‘5Why?’ is a great tool to uncover the root cause of a problem, but without the proper mentality, bias naturally pushes you toward what you want the issue to be. Team members need to challenge answers.
To return to my previous example of a quality issue on a manufacturing line:
A required bracket wasn’t installed on a particular vehicle.
- Why was the bracket missed?
- The operator didn’t install the bracket,
- Why did the operator not install the bracket?
- They missed it on the truck on the option sheet.
- Why did they miss it on the option sheet?
- They didn’t follow their process.
Initial Solution: Retrain the operator.
That’s leaders need to step in and refocus the team and dig to the root issue.
They missed it on one car. They got it right on hundred cars. So, 99 times out of 100, they got it. Perhaps they only missed it once out of 500 opportunities. When you dig deeper, you may find it’s not even 100% option, so some cars get it some cars don’t.
- Why did they miss it?
- They missed it when they looked at the sheet.
- Why did they miss it on the sheet?
- The sheet changes every time, and it’s just a list of numbers, and if they happen to skip over one, they’ll miss the option.
Then you can start devising solutions to prevent that from happening.
- You could redesign the product and make it a 100% option.
- We’re not going to do that.
- You could put a system in place that electronically checks, either through tooling or scanning the bill of materials, and then a machine checks to make sure that every option is done on that particular body.
If you’re counting on a person to get it right every time, you can only achieve a certain level of quality.
Electronic controls allow you to be more certain. A good use case is on safety-related topics like torques. In automotive assembly plants and good suppliers, critical torques are computer-controlled. When a product comes into the station, it will ensure that that step is done and electronically documented. That part cannot go to the next station to all those processes are done and pass.
When it’s not about safety and human life, the question becomes how much money we want to spend. In other words, if that gets missed, what are the consequences. How much does that cost to complete a repair? Might a mistake stop a process? With adequate risk-reward tradeoff information, it’s possible to understand if it’s worth investing in technology to prevent the defect.
Another quick example of lazy problem solving is opting to put 100% inspection in place. That inspector will still have their misses.
The core problem-solving issue I see is the skills that people have. They don’t know to ask those kinds of questions. They don’t dig through the dirt and go after a true solution. They take the easy, fast way and then add more inspectors. It’s like having shoes that don’t fit and opting for a band-aid to prevent blisters instead of thinking deeply and asking if something is wrong with my process?
Seraph’s team of operational managers and senior consultants intercede on our client’s’ behalf to fix crises putting businesses at immediate risk, turnaround situations damaging the bottom line, and restructure operations to improve the balance sheet. Seraph has successfully delivered projects in the Americas, Europe, China, and India. Seraph’s industry expertise includes Aerospace, Automotive, Energy Infrastructure, Healthcare, and Medical Devices. Through our other operating companies, we are continually looking for distressed situations where we can put our expertise and capital to work to create value.