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Bad news : Seeking concrete solutions to a cultural attitude

Daniel G. Little

I found that the reluctance to communicate bad news was not a trait of our Mexican employees alone, but I did find that it was more prevalent there.

It's a beautiful Monday morning on the high plains of Mexico. We had a great weekend with a few friends over on Saturday night and a very lazy Sunday.

As I took my first walk of the day through the plant, I met up with the plant manager and one of the maintenance technicians who were having a serious conversation. I asked them if everything was okay. They both replied, "Sí, jefe." I then asked them if there were any problems in the plant this morning and the reply was, "No, jefe."

I then mentioned that I had noticed that machine #15 was not running when I walked by and the reply was, "Yes, the machine is down and needs a new bearing." I asked if they had the bearing and the reply was, "No." I asked how long it would take to get the bearing and they answered, "One week." I then asked how much finished goods inventory we had for the part that ran in machine #15 and they told me, "Three days."

"So we will shut our customers' operation down in three days?" I asked and the response was, "Yes."

I then spent the rest of the day and most of the next finding the part, arranging flights to bring it into Mexico and tracking the progress. I also made sure that there were no other parts that would be required to make the repair, looked at the potential for the part to fail again and decided to order a spare. Finally, I had the team complete a problem solving exercise to find out the reason the part failed and to determine permanent corrective action.

I found that the reluctance to communicate bad news was not a trait of our Mexican employees alone, but I did find that it was more prevalent there. I found that there were a few simple things that made the discovery of issues possible on a timelier basis.

    1. Go and see. This is one of the basic principles in lean manufacturing. My habit was to walk the floor at least four times each day. You also need to go and check out the issue yourself when it is reported.

    2. Fashion simple production reports that you can receive on a timely basis that would draw your attention to unusual situations. Downtime tracking is one tool and there are many software/hardware solutions out there. Some will let you log on from anywhere in the world and see what is happening back at the plant in real time. One of the more cost-effective systems is Tracker by Bear Technologies.

    3. Set up an escalation process and enforce it. Our process was that the shift leader had to be notified if any critical piece of equipment was down for more than 10 minutes. The plant manager was notified after 30 minutes. I was notified after 1 hour. It was necessary to coach the employees to separate a real emergency (safety issue, customer shipments in jeopardy) from one that could wait, and anyone who called me at 3:00 in the morning got a heartfelt thank you for letting me know of the problem.

Once the second and third steps were put into place, I found it much easier to run multiple operations. It took out a lot of the stress that comes with not knowing for sure if everything at the plant is going according to schedule.

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2008 by Daniel G. Little © 2008
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