The Power of Creating a Story

The Power of Creating a Story


The traditional method of the executive in communicating with management and the work force is well known and there is a plethora of articles about effective presentations and effective meetings. Having used these as a routine course of action, I have found that on occasion, there may be more effective ways of gaining attention and achieving follow through actions by others. These ways rely on several underlying principles. First, virtually everyone desires to meet the expectations of the leader so long as those are not irrational or unethical. Second, irrespective of what the leader thinks, others are always watching and their behaviors will be somewhat dependent upon the leader’s behavior. Third, leaders communicate their priorities and expectations more clearly by where they spend their time not by what they say. Fourth, if the leader can somehow enlist others in the communication process and they repeat the core principles, then the effectiveness of the message will be pervasive and enduring.


Experience oftentimes is the result of having to learn from something that resulted in failure or at least ineffectiveness. Hopefully, its lessons are acquired through observation of others rather than through direct learning.
At a large manufacturing plant, we had the ability to acquire a lot of information about consumers complaining about our product. The snack food plant produced millions of units monthly and there was an 800-number system. The complaints that we were most concerned about were in the definition of “foreign matter”. These would include things like a human hair in the product, or a lump of seasoning in a bag of chips. Obviously, not very appetizing and something that good manufacturing practices like properly wearing a hairnet, or cleaning conveyors regularly would prevent. The packages would have a freshness date, as well as, some additional information that the manufacturer could use to track information such as the manufacturing plant, the production date, the shift the product was manufactured, the packaging machine number, and even the hour of production. This information was provided from the call-in system back to the manufacturing plants and could be used to track trends and then focus the management’s attention on action plans that would reduce the occurrence of these incidents.
The amount of information available was phenomenal. However, it had some major flaws as it related to being useful information for problem solving. First, only a fraction of the consumers receiving these unappealing extras would complain. Most would simply throw out the product and perhaps no longer purchase from our company. Second, the time lag between someone inadvertently losing a hair and the consumer purchase was several weeks and between purchase and consumption another few days or weeks. The consumer was asked for the package information which they would often provide. This was entered into a database and provided on a routine basis to the manufacturing plants. From there reports could be generated and data analyzed to develop action plans for the various departments. My role was to support the director of production and I repeatedly observed the pattern of analyzing reports, development of action plans, inconsistent follow through on actions, and then observing no discernable difference in results. One of the reasons for that is that because not all instances were reported by consumers, it was widely believed that the plant’s reported performance (worst out of 30 plus plants on incidences per million units sold) was due to consumers in the Midwest being somewhat different demographically with a higher propensity to complain than other consumers and therefor the plant’s real performance was not different than other plants. Therefor the complaining consumers were blamed somewhat for the plant ranking in poor performance. The second major reason was that once per month when the reports were published and analyzed there was a group of managers who would develop the action plans that no one really believed would have an impact on the results so implementation and follow through was inconsistent. The third major reason was because the information was so granular, the director of manufacturing would focus on the individual on the production line at the identified time and investigate the event that occurred perhaps 6 to 8 weeks earlier with no real ability to determine cause and effect. This weak process of communicating through a few individuals failed entirely to reduce the complaint levels.
Following the director of manufacturing’s removal from his position, as his successor, I was determined to engage the entire workforce in their immediate actions to remove the causes that might later result in a consumer complaint. My first night on 3rd shift began with unannounced inspections of the production lines and the immediate shutdown of any line on which any teammate wore his or her hair net improperly including if I observed them taking off the hairnet in the cafeteria and putting in back on before returning to the production line (difficult to know if the inside which protected the product stream from a loose hair was now on the outside and allowing the loose hair to be on the outside of the hairnet). Production lines were shut down due to other potential foreign matter causes. After leaving the plant, I returned a few hours later 3rd shift to repeat the intervention and again did so on 1st shift a few hours later. By the time the teammates started lunch breaks the dominant conversation throughout the cafeteria is that hairnets must be worn and conveyors cleaned regularly or lines would be shutdown. This spread rapidly through all 3 shifts and all production lines. My new quality assurance manager and I repeated this pattern for several weeks with multiple line walks each shift. The in-plant incident rate of non-compliance dropped dramatically (within hours). Teammates were there to produce and were motivated to avoid shutdowns much less being identified by their colleagues as the cause of the shutdown.
Within 3 weeks of the start of this program of engaging the entire workforce, the results were dramatic. There was over a 65% reduction in consumer complaints for foreign matter in the product. The intense two-year prior effort had resulted in no discernible change, while this demonstrated the power of communications in an entirely different way that engaged the entire workforce in a change in their behaviors.


On several subsequent occasions, I have intentionally created events which would call to either management or workforce attention the need to radically re-think the approach to problem solving which led to immediate and dramatic change in performance.
The next example is that I wanted to call attention to chronic waste at a particular type of production equipment. Previously, the plant leadership and I had discussed what I perceived as a high level of waste. They had made some progress in reducing the waste over several months, however, I suspected that the level could be dramatically lower. As I had a number of plants that reported to me, I would conduct quarterly reviews at each site where the plant manager and his direct reports would present information and action plans to improve performance. Prior to the quarterly meeting, I had calculated that we could save around $600,000 annually if we could reduce the waste in this area by 50%. As one defective unit was produced every 52 seconds (over 5 machines and amounting to a $1.2 million waste issue), I had collected a box of defective units and brought them to the conference room before the presentation. When the plant manager began the PowerPoint presentation, I started a timer and at the 52 second mark, I reached into the box and threw into the corner a defective unit. I was immediately asked what I was doing and informed the team that it was unimportant and to pay no attention to me. He continued the presentation and 52 seconds later a second defective unit similarly joined the first in the corner. He valiantly continued as did I. Finally, after about 20 minutes, he could not continue and insisted that I explain my actions. By now, I clearly had his and the team’s attention. I simply explained that I was asking them to do what they were, by their inaction, asking me to do which is ignore the chronic waste created on the manufacturing floor. Realizing as a team, the magnitude of the waste problem (which was hidden from them due to the prompt clean up and disposal on the manufacturing floor), we immediately adjourned the meeting to move on to the important opportunity of discovery the causes of and the potential actions to resolve this chronic waste issue. Without going into the specifics, this waste area was reduced by more than 50% over the next month saving more than $600,000 annually for a plant with annual total sales of $65 million. By the time, I arrived back at the headquarters, the story had been told in the other plants and there was a near immediate problem solving at these other locations.
Another example in a different plant was concerning a production constraint or bottleneck. Having discussed the specific topic on prior occasions, we were on a tour of the plant manager with his production leadership team. We stopped near the machine that was not being loaded with incoming materials continuously which then limited its output and resulted in 30% of the potential production and more labor and cost than there might have been. In advance of the plant tour, I had stopped by a bank and obtained many $5 bills. As we were observing the line under-producing, I began to drop $5 bills on the floor in the middle of the group. Quickly, team members picked them up and attempted to return them to me. I resisted. Of course, I added a comment to the effect that you are willing to pick this money up off the floor, but you are not willing to stop the company from wasting money by allowing this machine to under-perform. With a relatively brief period of observation, the cause was identified and the problem resolved. As this specific machine limited the overall output from the plant and that we had insufficient capacity to service customer demand, not only were costs lowered by there was a near immediate increase in plant profitability. Again, this story reached the other plants well before I returned to the headquarters.


Note that in each situation, the normal communication process had been followed. What precipitated the extraordinary event was the basic fact that the process was not working because these problems were there every day and did not stand out to the management team as anything unusual, just a part of the ordinary course of operating the plant. When first identified as an issue, it was not readily apparent that there was anything wrong with the way things were being operated or how teammates interacted with the production environment. By doing something extraordinary in a highly visual way, this called attention to the problem areas. As I have learned through many years of experience, managers and the workforce are great problem solvers, but generally much worse at seeing the problem.
Also of great importance is that because it was a different event that were highly visible, a story was rapidly shared throughout the organizations which many times were in different locations, time zones, and countries. This multiplicative effect of having created a “Legend” had benefits in many areas beyond the immediate problem and plant. Oftentimes when I meet with former colleagues, they will recall the event that occurred 10 to 25 years ago.


Sonya Hamlin in How to Talk To People advises that between hearing and sight that sight is the more important and powerful sense when it comes to communication. She wrote, “As a species, we remember 85 to 90 percent of what we see but less than 15 percent of what we hear.” In a more traditional communication pattern, most of what has been communicated fails to change behavior for any number of reasons. By visually pointing out the above issues in a highly visible and unusual way, the communications were extended well beyond the immediate audience.


Business growth is dependent on the shift from primary reliance on past knowledge and aging practices, to a forward-facing perspective with a clear view of evolving business environment and best-practices aligned with conditions in today’s marketplace.