The Best Leaders Are Discontented

            That concept of discontent, at the heart of a lean strategy, was recently confirmed by the results of a survey of manufacturers conducted over the past two years.

            Imberman and DeForest, a consulting firm that specializes in designing employee incentive plans, surveyed 427 manufacturing plants in 16 industries in six states (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). The survey of top executives took place in 2004-2005, but was followed by interviews with mid-level managers and first-line supervisors. It also included analysis of the financial records of the companies. (The survey is described in a recent issue of Target, the magazine of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.)

            The consulting firm analyzed the results to determine what distinguished the better-performing companies – according to metrics that include inventory turns, scrap/rework, employee turnover, on-time shipments and return on sales – from all others.

            Two key factors emerged, both pertaining to leadership. In the Target article, firm principal Woodruff Imberman, Ph.D., defines superior leadership as:


            …a gnawing internal drive to improve and dissatisfaction with any performance short of the best… The leaders of those companies reporting top (for their industries) performance in our survey exhibited a perpetual drive to improve, a focus which balanced outside sales and opportunities with a concern for efficient internal operations. Such a drive generates a sense of self-respect, credibility and urgency. Executives in the less-profitable companies lacked these key leadership traits; in turn, they accept the status quo rather than attempt to improve on it.


Imberman said the second key factor emerging from the survey was how lower-level managers and supervisors are trained and directed.


Those with good financial results trained supervisors and management how to organize their employees’ work efficiently within an environment of continuous improvement. The ones with poor results trained supervisors how to manage their employees’ behavior.


As an example, he discusses a Wisconsin foundry that, in the early 1990s, added a machine shop to finish rough castings.


Nearly a decade later, the effort still floundered. A group of supervisors from the foundry’s machine shop reported that they lacked a system to monitor accurate rates and scrap and that no one checked blueprints coming down from engineering. As in many other “also-ran” companies, supervisor training covered how to manage employee behavior – absenteeism, etc. Organization of their work was ignored.


What I found even more insightful was Imberman’s description of what he said were the “almost universal” traits of those companies in the middle or back of the financial pack. These include:


·        The tendency to deal with a problem by talking rather than acting

·        Confusing effectiveness with “busyness”

·        The inability to listen

·        A failure to communicate effectively to subordinates the need for high goals


He concludes:


Many manufacturers say their employees are their biggest asset, and boast they urge them to “work smarter, rather than harder.” Yet many do not provide the inter-related tools, the monetary incentives, the properly trained supervision or the systems of work for them to do so.



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