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Hats off Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

When Abe Miller looked around the shop floor of Graffiti Inc., he knew something had to change. Employees were sitting at sewing stations making baseball caps and were exhausted by day’s end. The manufacturing process itself was inefficient and not as flexible as it should be.

Miller knew things could be better, but he also knew that making changes wouldn’t be easy.

Fixing the problem would involve the installation of a modular sewing system that would have employees standing instead of sitting as they produced their caps.

It would take a lot of effort on the part of Miller, the 65-employee company’s founder and co-owner, to get his employees to buy in to the new system.

“If you show them how it directly benefits them, then it’s going to work,” Miller says. “If you have a plan that’s only going to service the company and not your employees, you better get another one. You better make sure they are going to make more money, work less hours, and have a better life and a stronger future. If you’re not selling it, it’s not going to work. You have to be sincere, and it’s got to benefit everyone.”

Miller did some soul-searching on his own and convinced himself that it was the right thing to do. He gathered data that showed bringing in the new system would help his employees feel more comfortable at work, even though they would be standing instead of sitting.

And he found a way to change behaviors despite sour feelings, and in the process, he positioned his company for success in the future.

He did it all in the name of sales at the $5 million company, which is the most important function of just about any business Miller can think of.

“Don’t do anything that doesn’t relate to more sales,” Miller says. “I don’t care how much equipment you have. You can always get a machine. You can always rent space. You can always buy whatever it is you need to buy. Try to get on the phone and get an order when you need an order. That’s the only thing that can shut you down.”

The key for any good leader seeking to make a smooth change is to understand the difference between changing peoples’ feelings and changing their behavior.

“Maybe their feelings are they don’t want to do this new system and they are never going to do it,” Miller says. “You’re never going to change their feelings. But we’re not just interested in their feelings. What we really care about is their behavior. If you get them to do what you want, you’ll eventually win their feelings over.”

Take your time

Facts and figures did not play a large role in Miller’s decision to move from batch manufacturing to a modular system.

“That probably would have made a lot of sense, but I made it by the seat of my pants,” Miller says. “I said to myself, ‘At the end of the day, it’s just physically exhausting. There’s got to be a better way to do this. You’re just beating your head against the wall trying to get orders out. The world is just passing you by.’”

Miller spent time on the floor and saw the exhaustion of his employees. He knew what he wanted to do. As the leader of your business, sometimes you just have to make the initial call yourself.

“It’s really fashionable to say, ‘Let’s sit down and get a consensus and see what people have to say,’” Miller says. “And if you do that too much, there are too many gatekeepers and too many people that are going to keep you down. They’re afraid of change.”

Of course, you can’t simply climb your ivory tower and issue a proclamation to your employees if you expect your company to adapt to your idea. So Miller began at the top.

“I met with supervisors to get on board and say, ‘Look, this is what we’re going to do, and this is how it’s going to benefit you,’” Miller says. “You’re going to have more time at home and less overtime. Your life is going to be better. We’re going to be more organized. We can’t keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it. It’s abusive.”

Confidence is key. But you still have to accept the fact that you may not have thought of everything. Find the person in your company who you know will give you a straight answer and not just tell you what you want to hear.

“Be careful who you rely on for information,” Miller says. “Maybe there is a new solution and that’s what you go to discuss. Talk about it on a daily basis.”

As Miller began talking about his idea with his leadership team, he looked at research opportunities out in the field where he could see the systems in action that he would be looking at to bring to his company.

“Explain, ‘I’m going to go visit this facility,’” Miller says. “‘I may want somebody to come.’”

Find consultants who have worked with other companies on making similar changes and engage them in the discussion.

“We went out and interviewed consultants,” Miller says. “There were only two really available that did modular manufacturing. They were both experienced, but one of them had done textile factories. They really understood.”

As often as possible, try to meet at sites that will allow you a firsthand look at their operations.

“You’re going to grow, and you’re going to learn a lot,” Miller says.

Miller found what he was looking for with the second firm he met with, a company that specializes in consulting in the manufacturing industry.

“They were doing a job in Cleveland, and we connected,” Miller says. “They knew the right words. They understood all the different operations. I said, ‘Wow, this is a fit.’ They were telling me stuff that I didn’t even know about. They had been inside. They can show you a new way or tell you things that you haven’t even thought of.”

When it comes to making the ultimate decision, money must be a consideration.

“Sit down with your accountant and crunch those numbers,” Miller says. “If the system costs more money than it’s every going to produce, that’s sure failure.”

Be patient

Miller knew that many, if not most, of his employees would probably be unhappy about having to stand instead of being able to sit while working. So he spoke with experts who could provide data that indicated his people would actually be better off standing.

He printed out their findings and showed them to his employees. “When you stand and you can move to the left and the right, you’re going to be less tired,” Miller says. “These are all proven facts. That’s one of the reasons people went to modular manufacturing. It’s actually less abusive.”

In terms of getting the ball rolling on engaging his employees in his plan, Miller avoided an all-company meeting or a mass e-mail that would simply tell them what was going to happen.

“Do it during lunchtime,” Miller says. “Do it during break time. Do it with showing pictures of the equipment. The bottom line is, once you know you’re going to do it, the sooner the better. People need time to adjust to things. Make sure that you’re there doing it. Not just applying it, but that you’re there in the beginning to the end in implementing the process. Breaking the news to them is part of it.”

As you get closer to actually going forward with the idea, be prepared with facts and figures that show employees how the change will benefit them.

Incentives can also be very helpful in getting employees to feel better about the change you want to make.

“We set up a whole bonus structure,” Miller says. “‘If you produce 500 units a day in two weeks, each one of you gets a $100 bonus. If you go up to 600 a day, each one of you will get a $150 bonus.’ They loved it. You get them to behave and the feelings can transfer.”

Take caution about keeping the bonus plan under control, however.

“Offer them a little more money because it’s going to be a little harder in the beginning,” Miller says. “But don’t make it where their lifestyle is going to change four weeks later.”

The thing you need to remember is that it will often take time to win people over on change.

“Get them to do what needs to be done,” Miller says. “How do you do that without changing their feelings? You’re not. The behavior will overcome their feelings. Forget about winning them over in a meeting. Get them to do what you want done and the rest will come. Just because somebody gives you a really weird look, just stay focused.”

Stay positive

When it finally comes time to roll out the changes, Miller says you need to be prepared to be stressed.

“We planned ours during a shutdown to move the equipment around,” Miller says. “The change for some people may be moving. You need to do dry runs. Just do it in phases. There is no easy way on this. This can be as big a decision as deciding to start the business. You’re going to be nervous and you’re not going to sleep.”

As the leader, you should avoid the temptation to be too hands-on in helping your employees. Let the people who are installing the system or the consultants that you are working with handle the training.

“Don’t jump in,” Miller says. “You can do it privately and pull the consultant aside if you have some knowledge on a particular employee. Hopefully, you’ve already conveyed it.”

When the inevitable glitches occur, stay positive about the change.

“If you believe in it and it makes sense, it will make sense to others, too,” Miller says.

As things move on, employees will likely settle in to groups divided by those who quickly grasp what you’re doing and those who take a little more time.

“They’ll kind of separate themselves,” Miller says. “My role is to be optimistic throughout the whole thing. Make sure no one gets abused and your employees don’t get put down. Make sure the consultants aren’t mistreated either. You have to be a referee to make sure everything is being handled in a professional manner. That’s what your role is.”

The change of manufacturing systems has helped Graffiti Inc. be more flexible in its working capacity.

“The system has allowed us to do smaller orders and change orders,” Miller says. “It’s quicker, faster, and you can ship on time.”

The key to making any change is remembering the balance between your needs and the needs of your employees.

“You either think of yourself or you think of others,” Miller says. “Somewhere between the two, you’ll find happiness.”

HOW TO REACH: Graffiti Inc., www.graffiticaps.com or (216) 881-5550