Show your cards

Lisa Huntsman did not hold back as she laid out the problems she believed were hurting Lauren Manufacturing.

“You have to put your cards on the table,” says Huntsman, the custom rubber company’s president. “I think where people make mistakes is they try to skirt around the real issue. People can’t help if they don’t know what the landscape is.”

Sales had started to lag and were beginning to drag profits down with them at the 230-employee company. In her assessment, Huntsman decided the system was more of a problem than the people. So she began a process to better put their talents to use.

Smart Business spoke with Huntsman about how she got employees at the $50 million company to buy in to a new way of doing things.

Q. How do you deal with mistakes?

You have to exemplify it through the way you treat people and what your actions are telling them. What’s right and what’s wrong. If people know that if they fail, they are going to be judged and they are in fear (for) their jobs, then you’ll never move a company forward.

It’s through those failures that they will succeed down the road. It’s more about what are the lessons learned and what are the takeaways when we reflect back. If you’re trying to break paradigms in terms of culture, you have to be able to try something new.

Even though we know it’s not going to work sometimes, there is more value to allowing people to step out of the box and try. … It’s about making sure yourself and your senior staff is really conveying the same message and that they are living what we’re trying to get for the company.

It’s servant leadership. You don’t have to have the answers. You just have to lay the groundwork by saying, ‘This is the problem. No idea is a bad idea. Let’s start putting these things up. How can we approach this differently?’

It’s not as threatening. It’s about being open to new ideas and new suggestions and really involving the people who are at the base level of the organization so they feel like they have a voice in decisions that are being made.

Q. How do you convince people to get involved?

It’s really constant reinforcement. It’s applauding them for making the suggestion. Even if we don’t take it, it’s not making people feel defeated because they brought the suggestion up. Even though it may not be the best idea, it’s the fact they were able to put something out there. It’s being receptive to it and not shooting them down.

Most people don’t bring ideas up because they are afraid of failure. Promote that it’s OK to fail if it helps get us to the next level. Your idea may make us think differently and send us in another direction. It’s really trying to get people to understand a culture where the fear of failure causes us to not do anything.

If you don’t have any action, you’re going to get what you got, and you don’t get to move the ball forward. I always use the example of Abraham Lincoln and how many times he failed, yet he persevered. How many great people had so many failures in their life that made them a better person the next time?

Q. Did you expect big moves forward during this process?

It’s not about moving the ball from A to Z. It’s trying to move the ball from A to D. You’re just trying to make continual improvements, whether it’s a lead process in sales or a manufacturing process on the shop floor.

It’s making sure I have my finger on the pulse at all times. I’m on the shop floor every day talking to our employees and talking to the people in the office areas.

Listen to what people are telling you because you’ll start hearing a recurring theme. You’re always going to have someone saying something that’s a little bit off-kilter or out in left field. But if you start hearing repetitive patterns of things, whether it’s of activities or situations, then they’re real. My job is to make sure they get addressed.

Q. How do you push people past their reservations about taking risks?

You ask them to have faith in you. When you do have a win, no matter how small it is, you have to make sure you talk about it. And because so many times we’re so willing to show when we have some failures, which is good, people also need to have positive reinforcement, too.

If you say customers are the most important thing and you don’t acknowledge that when someone does something well, how do you say that it is really the most important thing?

Celebrate your wins because people have to know, ‘Did we make any progress?’ They aren’t being exposed to the e-mails going around and the customer activity. It’s really important that we share some of those positive things with them because that keeps them energized and moving forward, as well.

Everybody wants to know that what they do matters, whether it’s leading the company or making a product for the customers. My job is to make sure that I’m listening to what’s going on because I can help. People on our shop floor and people in sales and marketing positions, they are the ones listening and they are the ones engaged in those activities at a day-to-day level.

They have ideas, and we’d be foolish not to listen to them. If we had all the answers, then why would we need all these people?

How to reach: Lauren Manufacturing, (330) 339-3373 or www.lauren.com