Meet the team: Wade Phillips

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 Wade Phillips, an Engagement Manager at Seraph who previously held senior positions across the manufacturing industry including COO of Detroit Manufacturing Systems and Corporate VP of Operations at Spartan Motors. 

Understand the needs of the organization first

Justin: Thanks for taking the time today to meet. To learn a bit from your career, I'd like to ask you a few questions today.

Wade: Of course. From the feedback I've seen from Richard's interview, these seem to resonate, and I hope I can provide some useful insights like he did.

Justin: Knowing your background, I'm sure you will. So, let's get started with something that I've always wondered. When you take the helm of an existing organization, how do you understand the goals of the organization and get oriented? 

Wade: Typically, when I join an organization, there is a specific problem or situation needing improvement. In one instance, I joined an organization that was a brand-new company; that challenge was to get it launched. Another organization was very fragmented operationally, where each of the facilities operated independently. In that situation, it was my role to create standards for the operation in the organization, we had to link the organization together and transfer lessons learned across multiple sites. The first thing I try to do is understand the challenge facing the organization. Ultimately, this is what the strategic leadership (CEO, Board of Directors, etc.) is trying to achieve and what my piece of the organization's role is in making that happen. Many leaders want to implement what they believe to be what the organization needs without regard to what the company priorities are.

The team has to own the plan

J: Once you know what needs to be done, how do you engage with the team to develop a vision and plan to reach those goals?  

W: After understanding where the organization needs to be, it's essential to know where we are along the journey towards that vision. That requires gathering data to prove to myself and to the organization where we are and make sure everyone is on board. Manufacturing operations, really anything in business, is a team sport and requires bringing the whole team together. It's important to engage the entire team, not ignore them. It's easy for leaders to believe that they were put in place to give all the answers and provide direction on everything.

I believe leaders are put in place to:

1. Provide a vision

2. Make sure the right team is in place to execute that vision 

3. Get the best out of that team

The organization needs something to rally around. After establishing a rallying point directly linked to the priority of the organization, the team needs to be focused with a plan. Building an actionable plan requires input from the entire team. It has to be the team's plan guided by me, not my plan imposed on the team

People processes make the difference

J: At the start of our conversation, you referenced two distinct executive experiences, I'd like to dig into both of them individually. As the COO of a startup automotive interiors supplier, you were building a production system from the ground-up in 12 months, what were the essential principles you wanted to build that system on? 

W: As a startup, getting operations right was all about people processes. We built the company up from nothing. A year later, we were shipping 120,000 instrument panels and cockpits per month and had several injection molding machines that were producing parts to make those products. It was a rapid startup and launch. Most of the aspects of the launch, such as equipment installation, establishing production processes, and the acquisition of a plant, were a lot of work but pretty mechanical. Tasks like those are well defined and consistent with what you'd expect from a good manufacturing company. 

The processes necessary to hire and train about 1,000 people to launch the company were the most important. Operating a high-performing company requires great people who are well trained. We had to build the culture quickly. It was our highest priority.

J: How do you think that shaped the company?

W: We launched that company eight years ago. They were a great group of people to work and grow with. I'm proud of what that team did in getting the workforce ready to manufacture and assemble products so quickly. The company continues to grow, and if you follow them today, their priority remains around caring for, developing, and retaining their people. That focus drives excellence and leads to better performance around priorities of a standard manufacturing concern, safety, quality, on-time delivery, and taking care of their customers. All of the publicity you see around them is about their people, which I think is a legacy from when we started the company.

Becoming world-class is a constant process

J:  At your second COO-type assignment, how did you overcome the challenge of managing multiple locations? From my understanding, the management systems were fragmented from acquisitions, and the data capture systems were unsophisticated (or at least not uniform). 

W:  That one was unique because it was a company that had been around for a while but still didn't have a robust operating system, because of acquisitions and leadership changes as you mentioned. To build a comprehensive production system across facilities, we put together a group of people that were knowledgeable in their parts of production systems. We used the best of what we already had and then implemented those things that were just missing across the board. I'm confident that today they're still working on that journey – it's not something that's going to happen overnight. But I think we did a pretty good job establishing a production system and helped the facilities on their way to putting those processes in place.

J: How did you spend your time?

W: I spent a lot of my time at each of the facilities helping General Managers look for and prioritize opportunities to implement our production system tools. At the same time, I was looking for the nuggets of best practices that should be incorporated into the production system and spread to the other facilities. 

The right communication cadence pulls the team together

J: Beyond an underlying production system, what did you and your team put in place to facilitate sharing and understanding of the information the team collected?

W: We had robust communication cadences. I had a weekly staff meeting where I pulled in the general managers of all the facilities, which hadn't been done before. To keep communications flowing, I had specific Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) I expected from each of the facilities. Tracking KPIs together helped us see where everyone was on their journey towards their targets. It was the first time we pulled them together as one team, previously they operated mostly as independent entities. The weekly cadence started to generate some crosstalk around things like, "We do this pretty well in our facility; maybe we can help you with your facility."  

Beyond that, we would have a monthly operations review where everybody stepped back to assess the journey. For any particular activity, we would understand precisely where we were, concerning our goals, and evaluate the course correction needed. Then, semi-annually we had a manufacturing summit where we brought all the facilities in one place. At the summit, we reviewed: where we were with building the production system, what needed to be tweaked, and thought about what was missing. We used that opportunity for training on the production system, by hosting at one of our facilities as a 'live laboratory.' We would tour the floor, looking at those aspects of the production system on paper versus what was happening in that facility. The team was able to celebrate good things in action and see where the facility was trying to improve based on their journey. By noticing what things that they hadn't gotten to yet, we fostered good discussion on ways that they might get there. 

Performance must be visible up and down the organization

J: You talked to sharing KPIs on that weekly cadence. How do you determine what the KPIs should be? How do you communicate them throughout the organization? How did you encourage ownership of those KPI?

W: KPIs should be developed on the priorities of the organization. Many organizations want to measure everything or measure what they've always measured. Neither works in the long run. I've seen the latter several times in both my corporate and consulting career. The typical rationale amounts to, 'well, we've always measured that.'

 Selecting KPIs requires careful focus to drive the right behavior in the organization. Measuring the wrong things encourages the wrong behaviors and choosing just to measure everything creates directionless chaos. Periodically, and always in the budget planning process, a team should take stock of where they are in the journey toward the priorities in the organization, then determine the highest priority next steps. Once the next steps are known, the team can document an improvement plan together. Only then does it make sense to define and measure the input activities that would result in progress to the plan.  KPIs ought to be kept simple, on task to the improvement plan, and get everybody involved in their achievement. 

Communicating those through the organization and making them applicable to each facility requires two key steps. First, creation must be a team event, and secondly, management must be done visually. You and I talked a little bit about KPI trees when we were on a project together. It's common for companies to use their performance management process to hold people accountable to their KPIs. That is appropriate, but not enough. Just putting KPIs in somebody's performance review or objectives for the year is not enough to manage the performance of an organization. 

Public KPI trees guide the team to a common goal

W: I'm a big fan of a very public KPI tree where everyone on the team can visually see how their KPIs contribute to the improvement plan. The entire team should be a part of developing it, and the whole team should be responsible for viewing it together periodically, in some cases daily. The accountable team members must provide actions to achieve those KPI targets. KPIs should be visually managed and not only housed in a computer or server. 

KPI data needs to be more than accessible, it needs to be visible. When asked about the location of critical performance information on some particular aspect of a business, a typical response is, "it's in our system.' If it's in the system, who knows about it? Who's reviewing it every day? Who's looking at it to see whether we need to change course or not, and how often? Ultimately, KPIs should be visible where the work occurs, owned by the people who do the work, and should drive the behaviors required to reach the ultimate objectives of the organization. All of the team should have common goals and should have KPIs that support them up and down the organization.

J: When you said the entire team should be a part of determining KPIs, what team did you mean? 

W:  When I say team, I'm defining the team as whoever's responsible for those KPIs down to a production supervisor. Front-line leadership is the foundation of an organization. A production supervisor who takes ownership of their area of the facility and for their results needs to understand how his/her results support the organization's goals all the way to the top. A supervisor's KPIs support the production manager's objectives, which supports the facility's objectives, which supports a region's objectives, which supports a company's objectives. Ultimately, in whatever way the structure exists, each of those teams should be involved in the development of their KPI tree that supports the next level.

An undefined problem can't be solved

J: When you come into an unknown difficult situation, how do you prepare? Once you are there, what steps do you take to understand it?

W: Given the premise that it's a difficult situation, I can only assume there's a problem. Step one is always to define the problem. When things are on fire, people tend to begin by trying to solve things without a firm understanding of what the problem is. It could be a bad plan being well-executed or a good plan being poorly executed. The scenarios require different solutions. 

On arrival, I spend my time data gathering, talking to stakeholders, and listening. In a difficult situation, it seems that everybody has an opinion. It's essential to listen to all of those opinions because some may be based in data, but once all opinions are out, it's more important to validate the problem with data. Once you understand what the real problem is and it's validated, then you can focus on solving it. In too many cases, I see stakeholders consumed by opinions while the real problem is clouded and left unaddressed. That seems to be the genesis of crisis situations we tend to get called in for. Problems can't be solved efficiently if they are not defined. 

Use data to align the team, not opinions

J: It sounds like the sharing of opinions is important and may be a much-needed catharsis. How do you know when to make the transition to talking about the data? Is there a structure you use or some set amount of time?

W: It's less about catharsis and more about seeing what needs to be looked at to gather data to define the problem. I don't think that the two can be separated. There isn't a transition between listening to opinions and gathering data; you need to be gathering data while listening to the opinions. Opinions will either fall in line with the data, or they won't. When an opinion doesn't match the facts, it's important to show it and put that opinion to pasture. Put the supposed problem against the data, and ask what it shows. That starts to pull everybody together to move towards the real problem and get everyone' rowing in the same direction'.

When taking on a leadership position in a crisis, you find that people are not rowing in the same direction because of those opinions. It manifests in phrases like, 'if we just work on 'this,' then everything would get better," or "if we just do 'that,' everything would get better.' Those opinions aren't necessarily accurate. The required solution may be a combination of 'this' and 'that'. It may be 'this' or 'that,' but the data will tell you what the real problem is and where you should focus. Set the rallying point and let the team use data to get to that vision. 

Learn from those all around you

J: Changing gears a bit, I've heard you describe some of your earlier days a Plant Manager as the most fun you've had at work. What made that role so exciting? 

W: Yes, it is the most fun I've had in my career, and I've been fortunate to do it a few times. 

First, a plant manager job is a people-oriented job, and I've gotten the opportunity to work with some great people. The relationships you develop as a plant manager are fulfilling, and I've learned a lot from people who've worked for me as a plant manager. The first time I was a plant manager, I thought I was taking over a plant and knew what I was doing. As it turned out, I had no idea what I was doing. The people who worked for me were really good at what they did; learning from them made me more successful in my subsequent roles. 

Secondly, in a manufacturing organization, all the value of the organization is created where the manufacturing occurs. Plant managers are responsible for the value creation of the organization. To be on the plant floor, at the scene, real-time, effectively working with a team of great people to create value as the most rewarding place to be for me. That's where the action is.

Lastly, as a plant manager, you measure time in seconds, minutes, and hours, not days, weeks, and months. You need a wristwatch, not a calendar. You get constant performance feedback as a result of that. At the end of each hour, shift, and day, you know whether you're performing or not and have the opportunity to course-correct as necessary. For me, it's a great feeling to drive home at the end of a long but fulfilling day and know whether we were successful not. If not, you know what you are going to do about it to change that.

Team players end up as the individuals who stand out

J: You mention you've worked with a lot of great people.  What qualities do you look for when you are going to work for a company or a particular person?

W: When I look at the kind of commonality among the greats that have worked for me, they weren't in it for themselves, or at least they didn't appear to be driven by gaining recognition for themselves. Instead, their actions were guided by the needs of the team and their willingness to see the team succeed. In today's environment, even people known as 'individual contributors' are members of a team to some degree. It's interesting to me that the people who focus heavily on the team's success versus their individual success are the ones that stand out. 

If the principles aren't working, it's not the principles

J: In all of your experience, what is bad or misleading advice you frequently hear from operational leaders? Or just share something that makes you scratch your head in the facilities you've seen. 

W: There's a lot of head-scratching that goes on in operations. In crises, I often when I hear things like: 'That won't work here,' or 'we tried that and it doesn't work' or my personal favorite, 'but we're different.' Typically, in a crisis, you'd want to be open-minded, versus closed.

These kinds of close-minded statements are common obstacles to improvement. Earlier, we talked about using data to navigate through opinions to get into the real problem. When you get to the real problem with data, you typically find that it actually will work. If they tried it and it didn't work, it was probably poorly executed or not supported for some reason or another. Operations principles are just that, principles. They've been proven over time, and we have to learn from them. Each situation is going to be different, and every problem has nuances, but there are some standards that will work when appropriately applied in operations, period. Unless you're close-minded to them and create your own obstacles by explaining they won't work here. 

An equally painful alternative to the defeatist view ("I understand that works most places, but we're different") is the buzzword junkie who says, "all we need to do is implement [insert buzzword here] and everything will be fine." There are a lot of great tools that improve operations. Good tools are published everywhere (lean, etc.), and some leaders try to use the tool for the sake of the tool instead of what it can do to solve a real problem. A strong operational leader can apply the right tool, to the right problem, at the right time, and then have the discipline to use those tools. Discipline is where I see a lot of the tools fail. That's the critical piece. It's common to think that the implementation of a tool means that the problem is solved, as tools were 'set and forget.' Would you set a hammer next to a nail, walk away, and expect the house to be built? No.

Read: "The Goal"

J: What's a book, course, or training program that has helped you to excel at work? Why? What did it teach you?

W: Early in my career, I read "The Goal" by Eliyahu Goldratt about the theory of constraints. It was inspirational for me, not because it applies to every problem, but because thinking through the science of constraint management early on in my career helped me think about the science of other things in operations. Approaching problems systematically improved my ability to understand safety, quality, production control, and logistics.

J: Well, thank you, Wade, I'm grateful for the time you gave me today.

W: Thanks, I appreciate what you guys are doing with this project. 


05 February 2020