Learning through experience Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2010

Sometimes you’re learning things without even knowing it.

That certainly was the case early in my career, and the things I learned helped me to successfully overcome what, at first, appeared to be an insurmountable challenge.

The Apollo program was already in full swing when I got out of college in 1966. I joined Grumman Aerospace Corp., the company that built the progam’s lunar module, and was assigned to the reliability engineering team. Starting with my indoctrination, every day, I went to work knowing that the No. 1 objective was to assure crew safety.

Other “mission success” objectives were clearly defined and in ranked order, as well. It seemed that everyone in the company could recite them, and they guided our every decision. I was fortunate to have worked on every manned lunar landing mission, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the unequivocal success of the program was due, in large part, to the clarity and pervasiveness of the program objectives.

Not too many years later, working in the auto industry, I was one of six Americans selected to help start a joint venture electronics company from scratch in southern France. The company grew to be very successful and still enjoys that success today, despite several changes in ownership.

In hindsight, I believe the key to that success was building a multicultural, diverse management team that recognized and respected each others’ contribution to the shared goal of an outstanding product and company launch. Each new employee added to the launch team joined a well-organized, cohesive unit with clearly defined goals and was fully engaged in achieving a successful outcome for the company.

I was able to draw on these two experiences when, as the newly appointed general manager of an underutilized plant with a history of frequent product changes and management turnover, I took on the challenge of transforming the facility into a world-class center of expertise for the company’s most critical, high volume, new technology product. To meet its quality, reliability and cost goals, an unproven automated assembly, calibration and test process had to be successfully installed on the factory floor.

To make matters worse, the unionized work force had little experience with process automation and was extremely unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead. This fact was not lost on the union leadership, and it did not help that their relationship with management had grown adversarial over the years of employment uncertainty.

I recognized immediately how important it would be for me to define success and to clearly and credibly make the case to the entire work force for the fundamental changes that would be necessary in order to achieve that success. I also needed to gain ownership of the leadership team in the goals and milestones as well as in the critical group and department objectives. I knew that my biggest challenge would be to get the union leaders to trust me.

The solution I chose was to make them a part of the leadership team, helping to oversee these changes. They attended world-class manufacturing seminars along with the salaried managers. We developed a “pay for knowledge” initiative, through which hourly employees could augment their pay by completing certain community college courses. Even though initial resistance was high, we remained steadfast in providing everyone with frequent, honest communication as to our performance against the critical objectives we’d established earlier.

In addition, our managers were on the manufacturing floor every day, providing encouragement and support to the workers and reinforcing the required disciplines. In the end, we earned the trust of all stakeholders, and they became fully engaged in assuring the success of the enterprise.

For my part, I look back at this and the two earlier assignments as the ones that taught me the most about managing for success.

George Perry has more than 40 years of experience in engineering, operations and executive management. He retired as president and CEO of Yazaki North America Inc. in December 2009.