Pulling into the snowy parking lot and contemplating today’s meeting, my mind wandered to a line from Michael Margolis, the CEO of Get Storied, “If you want to understand the culture, listen to the stories; if you want to change the culture, change the stories.” Carl, the site manager of Excel, the inside-outsourcing service provider at this motorcycle plant, had called a few weeks back and enticed me to visit by stating, “I have a great story for you.”
It was 5 a.m. as I stepped out of my car and headed to the employee entrance. I fell in line with dozens of others, all bundled up and walking in the same direction. As the groups passed through the door, more than half headed to a bank of time clocks for the plant’s hourly employees on the left of the aisle, while the balance headed for time clocks on the right where Carl was posted, greeting his team members.
“Good morning, Dean. It’s great to see you again,” Carl said, shaking my hand.
“Same to you, Carl. I apologise for being early. I was not sure how the driving would be, so I set out early,” I said. Carl smiled warmly, and asked if I wouldn’t mind waiting for about fifteen minutes until he finished up.
“Be glad to,” I responded, and stepped down the aisle a few feet to a large white board entitled “Site Operating Plan,” and bearing Excel’s logo in the top right hand corner. I started looking over the board, but found my attention drawn back to Carl as he continued to greet everyone on his team as they clocked in. What struck me was how many of the team members lit up when they saw him, asking him how he was doing and how the plant ran last night. In turn, he responded to each using their name. With each brief interaction, Carl let the team member know he’d be sure to catch up with them later during his plant tour or over lunch. What really struck me was the genuine level of connectivity between Carl and his team. I was also amazed how he knew each person by name. Some were easy like Bill and Mary, while others more complex like Guadalupe and Alejandro. I am guessing he greeted better than 80 to 100 people, his entire first shift team.
As the last of Carl’s team arrived, he finished up and headed towards me. “Dean, sorry for the delay. Let’s get some coffee and make our way back here to the board,” Carl stated, pointing towards the canteen.
“That was a very intriguing event for me to witness,” I said to Carl.
“Actually, the fact you got her early and saw our start of shift ritual will really help our discussion this morning,” Carl said.
As we drank our coffee standing by the Site Operating Plan board, Carl reflected back to my last visit some two and a half years earlier. Carl, his team, and his contract had been in trouble. His customer, who was initially thrilled with their services, was viewing them as run of the mill. Carl had done a great job of getting things like schedules, standardised work, layered inspections and counter-measures all in place, and routinely performed contracted services. Like many customers who forget the past, his customer was more interested in what had been done lately.
“When you were here two and a half years ago, you facilitated my management team through a change in mindset. You walked us through purpose, and had us identify reasons for our customer’s desire to outsource by having us define their needs. You then held up a mirror, forcing us to assess our operating processes and their alignment with our customer’s needs, followed by a deep dive into our people only to discover how disengaged and misaligned our team was with our customer’s needs,” Carl stated matter-of-factly.
“Yes, I recall the sessions well. From there we developed strategic action items your team needed to undertake to reposition yourselves in the eyes of your customer, and to re-engage the team,” I said, hoping he would agree.
“Absolutely, and we hit the ground running. Within three months the plant manager, production manager, and personnel manager all commented on the positive changes,” Carl said to my relief. The one thing I detested in life was wasting my time.
“That’s a relief. I was a bit worried we’d wasted our time,” I said, sipping my coffee.
“Absolutely not, but the story gets even better. Wait until I show you the results.”
As I turned to look at the board, Carl pointed out that the data on the board was set up on a rolling monthly basis, allowing teams to see how they progressed on a month-to-month basis. What he wanted to show me was data trends going back two and a half years, to just before our sessions.
As we walked towards the team conference room, I pointed out to Carl that his performance data was impressive, and his team and customer should be feeling very good.
“They are. Everyone is very pleased, but the reason I talked you into the trip is to show you something we discovered,” Carl said, opening the door of the conference room.
“Good morning, Miguel. How have you been?” I asked, walking over to shake his hand. Miguel was the onsite business analyst, a very sharp guy with a great affection for turning data into useful information.
“Great to see you as well. I’m glad Carl convinced you to make the trip north. We have a very interesting story for you,” Miguel said, striking the keyboard on his tablet, making the wall screen behind him come to life.
For the next forty-five minutes, Miguel and Carl walked through their key performance indicators, starting from the month prior to our sessions some two and a half years ago up to the current month. The results were impressive. Safety, morale, participation, absenteeism, turnover, idea generation, profit, cost savings, elimination of redundant non-valued activities, and so on, were all in a steady positive trend.
“Do you notice anything?” Miguel asked with a knowing smile.
“Actually two things. The first is the uptick a couple of months after we completed the sessions setting the direction for the site to follow. The second is extremely obvious, but I can’t figure it out.”
“It’s the second uptick that has you confused isn’t it?” Carl excitedly blurted out.
“Definitely, and the size of the uptick,” I stated with a puzzled look.
“The second uptick began around 30 days after we adopted the start of shift ritual you witnessed this morning,” Miguel said.
“What you witnessed this morning we do at the start of every shift, including weekends,” Carl said with a broad smile.
“Okay. I am guessing now is when you tell me the story?” I asked.
Miguel and Carl walked me though a series of “aha” moments that led them to adopt the start of shift ritual. Carl, on one of his routine floor walks, had checked in on Ann, a team member cleaning the women’s restroom. He congratulated Ann on the work and asked for any ideas to improve how the work was done. Ann gave Carl some feedback, resulting in Carl spending more time with Ann to discuss implementing her ideas. This type of interaction for Carl was pretty normal. He was an excellent leader who always sought ideas from his people. What made this interaction unique was Ann telling Carl how great it was to finally get to know him. During their discussions, Carl shared with Ann a bit about his family, and it turned out both Carl and Ann had seniors at the same high school in town. Over lunch, Carl shared the interaction with Miguel, who commented on how great it would be if they could achieve that same level of interaction with all of their team members.
The following week, Miguel read an article on how we individually process 50,000 thoughts a day, many of which are replayed over and over. The article stated that thoughts lead us to how we think about the day and how we will act. Again over lunch, Miguel shared the article with Carl who was still percolating on his interaction with Ann. Miguel and Carl, both of whom enjoy philosophising, brought Abraham Maslow into the lunch conversation, recalling and discussing the hierarchy of needs – our collective need for love and belonging, our need for self-esteem, and our need for self-actualisation.
“At that point, the light bulb turned on for us,” Miguel said.
“How so?” I asked, completely enticed with the story and trying to predict where it was going.
“As we spoke, the discussion about Ann came up, as did a dozen or so other team member interactions. Taking notes as we talked, we discovered a thread woven through each that Ann had pointed out. In each interaction, we allowed our team member to really get to know us, and we in turn got to know them,” Carl said, the smile not leaving his face even for an instant.
“Armed with this mini-epiphany, our management team met over beer one Saturday, and within a few hours put together the start of shift ritual. The uptick you see in those graphs is a direct result of that initiative. Did you note how the uptick spanned about two and half months?” Miguel inquired, flipping back to a few previous charts.
“Yes, now you point it out, it is very obvious.”
“That was how long it took for us to get comfortable standing at the time clocks, and, I’m embarrassed to admit, to know each team member by name. It was extremely difficult at the start, but thanks to Miguel who monitored the KPIs that told us we were gaining ground, we all stuck to it. Today, some sixteen months later, it’s just who we are,” Carl declared, this time with a very serious look on his face.
“Dean, when you left, we quickly implemented strategic actions and made measurable progress, but something was always missing: a genuine feeling of being one team, all 300 of us,” Miguel stated.
“As a result of our lunch conversations and happy hour meetings, we realised our team recognition was overly formal. It needed to become more genuine. We felt by greeting each team member we were saying, ‘you are important, you are an individual, and your contribution counts’. The thirty-second interaction each day shows each team member how they belong to something and are appreciated. It triggers how they view their day and how they act,” Carl said, the smile returning to his face.
“So simple to grasp, but I must applaud your discipline to stick with it. I can only imagine the first few weeks as your team viewed you with skepticism,” I said.
“Actually, the first month was tough. The logistics, getting in earlier, making sure each shift’s start was covered by one our site management team, the embarrassment of not knowing names, and further embarrassment of not remembering them day after day. All of a sudden, though, it just clicked,” said Carl, refilling everyone’s cup with coffee.
“Let me show you this graph. To me it’s the clincher,” Miguel said, flipping through his charts. “Our site has grown by 23% as a result of our teams’ efforts. Our customer also abandoned its plan to dual source our work and use our competition to motivate us.”
“That is excellent, Miguel. What a great story. By feeding the minds of your team with genuine thoughts of respect and appreciation, you trigger your team members’ actions, and, due to your persistence and discipline, those actions become habits, and those habits become your brand.”
“Eloquently put, Dean,” Carl said, again smiling ear to ear.
“Now our finale,” Miguel said, also smiling ear to ear.
With that Miguel popped up the final slide that showed how the team organisation was flatter even with the increased revenue because the ratio of team member to management personnel had improved by over 37%. The team members with their newly attained attitude towards work allowed them greater autonomy and self-esteem.
Driving back to the airport, the words from Michael Margolis once again ran through my mind, “If you want to understand the culture, listen to the stories; if you want to change the culture, change the stories.” Carl and Miguel changed the stories in the minds of each team member. Simply by greeting them at the start of each shift with a tone of genuine concern and appreciation, team members stopped seeing themselves as low-cost labour. They knew they were important and valuable members of the team.