George Perry

Every CEO would agree that a fully engaged and motivated work force translates to high company productivity and is more likely to quickly develop creative solutions to issues that threaten to derail a company’s progress toward its defined goals. It is also true that a disengaged or demotivated workforce can really put a damper on a company’s performance.

What are the keys to keeping a work force motivated and, on the flip side, to recognizing and avoiding behaviors and actions that might prove demotivating to employees?

In my experience, sensitive, compassionate, high integrity leadership virtually assures that a work force will remain highly motivated, even when times are tough. Such leaders routinely communicate both good and bad news to the organization in a timely manner, make sure that they are especially visible to employees and clearly in control during any company or industry crisis, and are careful to provide the rationale behind any business decision.

In many ways, the leadership practices I’ve just described are not only motivating because people feel informed and confident in their management but also head off one of the leading causes of discontent among employees — the spreading of rumors. It appears to be human nature that when people are uninformed they assume the worst, so frequent and honest communication is an important weapon in management’s arsenal.

Leaders earn the respect of subordinates when they consistently act in a way that serves these critical employee needs while failure to serve these needs is a sure way to destroy motivation. Note that I said “consistently act.”

I’ve learned that people interpret what you say by observing what you do. Modeling the behaviors that you say you value and are important to the company is the best definition I can come up with for “walking the talk.”

Any modern-day leader understands the importance of treating people with respect and can probably list the things that he or she does in that regard. But can he or she define “meaningful work” in the way that their subordinates would define the term? They would probably define it as job responsibilities that directly support the achievement of measureable team, or department goals that are aligned with the goals of the company. Employees feel valued when they are recognized for their contribution toward the achievement of those goals. Having mastered the methods and behaviors that serve these first-order critical needs, leaders can further engage and motivate employees in the following ways:

  • By providing education and training in problem solving and process improvement tools and methods at non-traditional levels of the organization, and
  • By encouraging and supporting risk-taking at levels of the organization below those where decisions are traditionally made.

In the first case, employees appreciate the investment in the development of their skills and view the investment as a validation of the value they bring to the organization. In the second case, empowering employees to take risks can unleash a level of creativity and employee commitment sufficient to enable an organization to outrun its competitors. There is a danger, however that these initiatives can backfire resulting in a workforce that becomes disenchanted and risk averse if the organization is not fully convinced of their benefits and fails to properly support their implementation.

It is the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that his or her management team models the behaviors that will result in a fully engaged and motivated work force. Although not every CEO is cut out to be a great communicator, he or she should be able to build an employee relations staff, as well as a communications department, to both keep his or her finger on the pulse of the organization and to assure that employee communication is timely, widespread and relevant. 

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. Reach him at gncperry@comcast.net.

Do you want to strengthen your company’s performance, increase customer satisfaction and improve its bottom line without having to resort to high-priced consultants or sending your employees to expensive and time-consuming seminars?

First, introduce your salespeople to your accounts receivable staff. When you’re done, continue making introductions throughout the company until each person knows the people in every other department whose work either affects or is dependent upon their own output.

If you’ve not gone down this path before, you’ll be very surprised how quickly it will enable the management team to generate improved business results. I know I was surprised.

I discovered the power of this approach not by experiencing a moment of brilliance but by becoming frustrated over the lack of progress in solving a serious problem. The company was experiencing significant aging of its receivables beyond the targeted time frame. To make matters worse, the number of bankruptcies in the industry had been rising for years as both the customer and supply base faced continued economic uncertainties, increasing the risk that some of our receivables could become uncollectible. We engaged many of our top people in an attempt to quickly get to the root cause of the problem.

Was it the customers who were at fault or were we the problem? To make a long story short, when we got all of our salespeople and our receivables staff in the same room to put an end to the finger pointing that was going on, we discovered that many of these long-term employees had never met face to face, despite working on the same customers’ accounts.

We also found a lack of clarity as to where the roles and responsibilities of each party began and ended as well as what authority each had to troubleshoot issues or bring them to a head. Once this situation was recognized, it didn’t take long to clear up almost all past due receivables (very few were caused by customers), and the improved clarity and communications between those departments provided assurance that the new level of performance would be sustained.

Improved intra-department communications was also found to be effective in driving down inventory, shortening lead times, increasing production, improving product field performance and reducing warranty expense. Why should this simple act make such a difference?

Perhaps it’s not news to you that any given department is sure that many of the company’s problems stem from the incompetence that exists in one or more of the other departments. Oftentimes, when these folks understand each other’s roles, responsibilities, and more importantly, the issues faced by those in other departments, they develop a new respect for those colleagues. Then the hard work of continuous improvement can begin in earnest.

A good management team should take advantage of this phenomenon by creating cross- functional teams that are given ownership of specific key processes or company metrics. These teams could set targets, establish meeting schedules, assign priorities, create action plans, monitor performance and report out to management at predetermined frequencies.

To get started, select one or two key processes or company metrics that are in need of improvement. It’s important that you make the case for the needed improvement to the team by clearly defining the benefit to the company. It’s wise to initially select areas where you suspect there might be some low-hanging fruit, because you’ll want to publicize early successes throughout the company and recognize successful teams.

Making sure that people in different departments get to know each other isn’t just a nice thing to do. Properly exploited, that practice can be the catalyst that enables your company to pull ahead and stay ahead of the competition.

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. Reach him at gncperry@comcast.net.

Achieving a sustainable competitive advantage in any business often seems to be an elusive goal.

There are many ways to gain a competitive advantage, but in today’s world, information crosses the globe so rapidly that ideas and methods are soon copied and technologies quickly become obsolete.

Executives of high-tech companies claim innovation as a core value and point to an extensive portfolio of product and process intellectual property as evidence of a “culture of innovation.” It is this culture that they claim to be their source of competitive advantage. Why then do so many such companies find success short lived despite maintaining a robust IP portfolio?

I won’t deny that there is a strong correlation between technical innovation and competitive advantage, but the fact is, a true culture of innovation encourages and supports creativity from all associates, not just those in the technical community. To eliminate any confusion that might arise, I prefer the more encompassing “creativity” label for the core value necessary for sustainable competitive advantage.

Many companies struggle with the conflict between standardizing every process, method and procedure to minimize risk and/or assure consistent quality and allowing associates to be creative, encouraging them to think outside the box and rewarding risk-taking at every level of the organization.

The secret to achieving a sustainable competitive advantage lies in finding the solution to this apparent conflict that works for both your internal organization and all of its customers.

I have observed that companies that are not successful in finding this solution, and they often fail for one or more of these three primary reasons: poor communication within the company, an ill-defined process for implementing improvement ideas, or inadequate associate training in the use of the tools of improvement.

A communication plan should be a fundamental part of any company strategy, but it becomes even more important when the organization is in transition. Management must make the case for change to all associates, create a picture of what success will look like, establish metrics and provide frequent progress reports. It is important that all supervisory personnel are on the same page so the message is consistent throughout the company.

Continuous improvement programs must be built around stable processes. These processes provide a performance or output baseline from which the effectiveness of any proposed change can be measured. The first step, therefore, often missed, is to establish that a process is stable. This is how the risks associated with constant change are mitigated in an environment of continuous improvement.

Of course, disciplined use of the tools of improvement throughout the organization is the backbone of the change control system. Integrating the use of these tools into the fabric of the company can be done in a number of ways, ranging from hiring specialists to support improvement teams to training all associates in selected problem-solving methods.

Given that these elements are in place, delegating responsibility and decision-making to subordinates at lower organizational levels while accepting accountability for the business results often opens the floodgates to continuous improvement, resulting in quick, creative solutions to company and customer concerns, issues and problems.

The goal is to develop a work environment in which each and every associate is empowered to help the company succeed by finding and eliminating waste and inefficiency in his or her job function as well as throughout the enterprise, has the necessary skills to do so effectively and willingly accepts that challenge.

With the right checks and balances in place to protect its customers, a company that goes down this path will be on the way to achieving a sustainable competitive advantage.

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. Reach him at gncperry@comcast.net.

Too many leaders take internal company communications for granted and fail to capitalize on one of the most powerful components in a manager’s tool kit.

They dutifully explain decisions and provide directions to their staff, expecting that managers will pass on the relevant information to their direct reports, who in turn will do likewise, and so on down the line.

The problems with this approach are many. Parts of the message can get lost in translation, some managers simply don’t communicate well, some just get it wrong, and still others choose not to communicate at all.

I’ve learned that when communication from management breaks down, the organization at large makes its own assumptions as to what is behind the company’s actions and decisions, and often those assumptions reflect poorly on the current management team’s competence.

Over the course of my career, I’ve experienced the benefits that accrue to a company from a well-designed, comprehensive internal communications strategy that is well executed.

There is no better way to gain employee alignment with the company’s mission and objectives or to short circuit the company rumor mill that so often negatively impacts employee morale, performance and productivity. Equally important, all employees, regardless of job level, want the same things from their employer: to be respected as individuals as well as for the value they bring to the company and to be recognized for their contributions to the company’s success. These elements can and should be integrated into the company’s communication plan.

Periodic, planned messages from the top to the entire organization are also fundamental to a good plan. These messages are best delivered live to a group audience with time allocated for questions, but video or written communications can also be effective if the coordinating managers are fully able to respond to questions or concerns expressed by those receiving the message.

In addition, business unit and department heads must also hold team meetings at least quarterly to review progress against the team’s objectives, provide updated company information and respond to concerns expressed by their teams. It is important to communicate both good and bad news and to reaffirm the objectives going forward.

I’ve found that setting up common metrics and targets that foster friendly competition between groups or departments ensures that goals remain visible and encourages employees to work in teams and build on each others’ ideas. To be effective, top managers must routinely review and comment on posted charts and graphs and openly discuss progress toward goals or the lack thereof. When managers pay attention to metrics, so do employees.

Of course, individual employee goal setting and performance measurement must be part of the plan and linked to the overall company objectives. Often, this critical link is missing, and employees have little to guide them when they encounter what appear to be conflicting objectives. This can cause a program to go off track or at least slow down progress until the direction is clarified.

Take advantage of all of the possible benefits a sound communication plan can bring to your company. So far I’ve found only one drawback; no matter how often you communicate and how much information you provide, it will not be enough to satisfy your employees.

Now that’s a good problem to have!

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.

Friday, 18 February 2011 11:51

Getting help

Tired of answering business phone calls, checking e-mails or responding to text messages all hours of the day and night, on weekends and even when you’re on vacation? You might be surprised to learn that the person you see in the mirror could be to blame for those constant interruptions. And you don’t have to shut off your phone and unplug your computer to regain control of your life.

I’ve often been asked how I was able to balance my personal life and my work life while carrying the responsibilities that come with being a CEO in an industry as dynamic as automotive.

My answer: I made sure that I could comfortably delegate many of my responsibilities to my direct reports.

You can’t just go to work tomorrow and start delegating. The hard part is getting to the point where you really are comfortable delegating decisions to others while your superiors hold you accountable for the results.

I’ll explain what it took to get me to that point.

Let me start with something I learned after having been exposed to many different organizational structures, work teams, individual jobs and workplace situations. I consider this as gospel: All company employees, regardless of job level, have at least one thing in common. They want to feel valued for the skills and capabilities they bring to the company and want to be recognized for the contributions they make to the company’s success.

When this is the case, they will come to work every day engaged and motivated to help the company achieve its goals.

In my experience, nothing destroys that motivation faster than a supervisor who micromanages every situation, insisting on getting the work done his or her way and being involved in all decisions. The consequences of this — however well intentioned — can reach beyond simply slowing down the decision process, particularly if those exposed to this behavior have already achieved a level of success in the company.

In your role as coach, you need to begin by challenging staff members to think more deeply about how they should handle a certain situation, gradually allowing them more latitude to decide on a course of action. It will be difficult at times to resist telling them what you would do, but you must. You must also expect (and tolerate) the inevitable small mistakes they will make as their capabilities grow. Recognize, too, that some individuals will require more of your time than others, but in the end, this will prove to be time well spent.

I must caution you that taking on the role of coach does not mean that you must abdicate your position as the leader of the department or company. You must be very clear about the personal and organizational behaviors you expect, such as honesty, integrity, fairness and risk tolerance, and you need to model those behaviors in your daily work.

As you grow more comfortable and release the reins on your staff, they will assuredly do likewise with theirs, and the benefits to the company will become more and more apparent. Fewer and fewer unresolved problems will reach your level, decisions will be made more quickly making customers happier, and business results will improve at a faster rate because employees will feel more ownership in driving the results.

And, of course, you will be able to enjoy your life outside of work without being constantly interrupted by business phone calls, e-mails or text messages.

Try delegating. It may take some preparation, but I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

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.

Sunday, 26 December 2010 19:00

Learning through experience

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.