I interviewed Philip Uglow who discussed Improving Supply Chain Performance Through Front Line Involvement.
Can you start by providing a brief background of yourself?
Sure, thanks, Dustin. It would be my pleasure. I have a B.A. in economics from York University in Toronto, and an M.B.A. from the University of Toronto in global business. My business background is, I started in the construction industry and invented a roofing/drain plumbing product and started up a company to manufacture and sell that, first of all, through North America and then Europe. Ran that for about 20 years, sold it, got involved in and started three other companies, distribution, manufacturing plastic-coated fabrics for roof membranes and walkways. I had a startup that invented a process to rapidly prototype the embossing of plastic membranes and sold that off. And then I got in to the consulting business about six years ago and have worked in a number of fields on the consulting side in oil and gas, construction, manufacturing, the steel industry, worked at a startup, a solid oxide fuel cell startup on the green energy side, and as well as in the electrical-generation side of the business, a bit of energy. I am located in Calgary, Alberta, in Canada, in the heart of the energy area of Canada.
What is the problem with front line involvement and what needs to be improved?
Well, what happens a lot of the times with front line folks is that, over time, in many companies the front line folks start o shut down a little bit, and it’s a problem because these employees, these folks are the ones that are dealing directly with customers, clients, suppliers, and facing real-world daily problems. The problem is that if they’re not involved and not passionate about what they’re doing and not looking for new ideas, companies miss out on an incredible resource there.
Are there specific tools or other ways to improve this, improve the front line involvement?
Sure. There’re a number of different tools, but basically what needs to happen, Dustin, is: Senior leaders need to create an environment where front line employees have the comfort level to do things on their own. What that requires is for senior leaders to set expectations that they want improvements in supply chain performance, for example. That’s pretty much all they have to say. And then they download that responsibility to the front line workers, and the actual tools that are used to help front line leaders deal with that are listening exercises, communication-skills training, that type of thing. But, also, the main tool that really improves the performance of front line workers is first creating key performance indicators—so, deciding what key performance indicator to track. If you want to call an indicator a tool, that’s one thing that needs to be tracked. But then the other more important thing on a weekly and at least monthly basis, put a system, a little tracking meeting in place, which we would call a tool, to track progress toward the goal, the key performance indicator goal or target. And, most importantly, creating action items to drive improvement toward those goals. You would want to have an action-tracking tool, an action log; that’s where employees put down who does what by when. And every week that’s looked at and then whether the action was successful or not is determined and its success is determined by the movement in the key performance indicator. Those are the basic tools: expectation, listening training tools, building confidence, and tracking tools on at least a monthly basis.
How would you go about actually setting up these tools and processes to get implementing this?
The best way to implement it is to get the front line to do it. The reason for that, Dustin, is that if I go in and say, “Dustin, thou shalt do this,” you might do it for a little while while I’m there, but it doesn’t, it’s not a sustainable process because you're not living it, you’re not creating it, you're not feeling the hurt from some of the mistakes. The best thing to do, again, is to set the expectation that improvement should be made and then start having conversations with the front line folks. Usually, what we do is bring people together in a group if there’s a team environment and just talk about even what some of the expectations from some of the front line employees’ viewpoint is. It’s surprising what some of them will say. Some senior leaders are often shocked that they feel that improvement in certain indicators would be greater than what senior leaders might expect. If you get them talking about what success looks like from their point of view, that’s the way to start it. And then what you do is start to translate those visions and ideas into practical tracking systems to see if what you're doing is correct. To make a long story short, to summarize, a lesson learned there is really to ask the front line folks what they want to do and keep asking them questions about how they will track it, how will they know these types of questions so that they’re driving the process, they’re coming up with the ideas, they’re even coming up with the indicators to measure their success. Senior leaders having nothing to lose from that because at the end of the day, they’re the boss, and if they think there’s a crazy idea there, they don’t have to do it.
Can you discuss some examples and you have seen some success with this approach?
Sure. This isn’t a specific supply chain story, but it’s a great story because it involved a steel company, and they were making steel pipe—it’s called casing pipe and it’s used to line the inside of well holes when you drill for oil. Anyway, the big problem in the plant was cutting the pipe to length, and the problem was that the saw had, I think it was 40 percent downtime. If you can imagine, 40 percent of the time, the plant was shut down as they were trying to get this saw working. There were all sorts of leaders looking at it and then complaining and trying to solve this problem. What we did was we came in and we just got the saw operators in. The first thing we did was give them the information that they had 40 percent downtime, and they had never been given that information before. People were complaining and arguing and yelling at them, but nobody actually said, “Hey, Joe, do you know that the saw’s down forty percent of the time?” and they were shocked. So, that was the first thing that happened. Then the second thing, the most amazing thing is: They, on their own, got together and started taking about why this was happening. It’s a bit complicated, so I’ll shorten the shorten the story here. They came up with a system where they just changed their behaviors on the way they cut the pipe and the way they serviced the saw, maintained the saw so that the throughput was increased by about $200 million a year without spending a penny on any capital improvements, so a huge amount every year. They came up with that idea themselves; they knew what measurement they needed to track, which was tons through the mill; and came up with some ideas and actions to solve it, implemented those, and were successful at it. From a consulting point of view, I was looking at that, and I could’ve made some suggestions, but it was much more powerful when they realized how poorly their performance was, how really embarrassed they were, and how that hurt them a little bit. The feeling of success they had when they had solved that problem; there was literally a spring in their steps as they were walking through the plant. That’s hard to get and the only way we’ve found that you get that is when you actually help people come to those realizations themselves.
Thank you, Philip, for sharing this inspiring story and also this approach for improving supply chain performance through front line involvement.
Oh, you're welcome. It’s my pleasure, Dustin.
About Philip Uglow
President Renshi Consulting Group Ltd.
3000 - 150 6 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB, Canada, T2P 3Y7
T: 1-403-879-1990 x10