Tips on managing multiple initiatives

Managing multiple initiatives is very common in today’s manufacturing environment. While the corporate folks believe they have done their part, in most cases they completely miss the training required regarding how to manage multiple efforts.


I was recently at a client site discussing the upfront work that goes into performing a Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) analysis as well as putting together a charter for the company managers and RCM team to review, agree to, and sign when someone in the room finally had the nerve to speak up.

“How are we going to do all of this? We are stretched so thin already with CMMS upgrade, we are still trying to roll 5S out across the site, and we are also behind at completing the RCAs we committed to.”

The room is silent for a few seconds when the Plant Manager sits back in his chair, looks around the room and adds; “And we have to stay on or below our budget goals, and our safety program will be audited next month because we have had 2 lost time incidents this year, and we have been told there is a freeze on hiring.”

Managing multiple initiatives is very common in today’s manufacturing environment. While the corporate folks believe they have done their part, in most cases they completely miss the training required regarding how to manage multiple efforts. Courtesy: AlThe Quality Manager jumps on the pile and adds; “Don’t forget that we are also tightening our specs on both lines as a result of the new clients we landed last quarter. The thought is we know we have been able to meet those tolerances before so we should just gear up to run that way continuously.”

The Production Manager gets up from his chair, heads to the door, looks back and says to the Quality Manager; “You do know we had to drop the speed of the machines 30% to meet those tolerances? You people are unbelievable, did anyone ever think to talk to the people who actually make the product before we agreed to make this our required standard? What the heck do they teach you all in that MBA program? Apparently one course is how to never say ‘no’ to the boss, followed by the ever-popular Simon Says where you all do exactly as the boss says or you’re out of the game.”

My meeting is now off the rails; it’s not looking like it’s a good time to begin a new RCM effort. In fact, there is nothing worse than dabbling in RCM. That only results in people trying to take shortcuts and wasted money. In the end, people walk away with the idea that RCM doesn’t work, when in reality what they experienced was a half-hearted effort. I finally speak up; “What I would like is for you to be successful with RCM and I know you can be, but that requires a small handful of people who are dedicated to making the effort work. I have never been one to sugarcoat what it takes to be successful at RCM. Performing an RCM analysis is the easy part; getting the tasks implemented and completed is where the real work gets done.”

The Site Manager is also finally ready to have his word; “Everything that has been discussed here this morning is a corporate initiative. We have no choice but to participate, to put in our best effort and if it doesn’t work, they will come up with something different next year.”

What is going on with this team and how do you deal with this problem?The poker face is important here because I can’t help but think; “Wow! I’m sitting at a table with the decision makers of this plant and I have yet to hear anything positive from even one person.”

Managing multiple initiatives is very common in today’s manufacturing environment where corporate leaders expect to see continuous improvement on a quarterly basis. And while the corporate folks believe they have done their part if they provide the training to each plant site, in most cases they completely miss the training required regarding how to manage multiple efforts.

As a result, I have a list of requirements for managing multiple improvement initiatives.

  1. Delegate – Nothing is more frustrating than to walk into an organization and see the Site Manager, Operations Manager, Quality Manager, Maintenance Manager, and Safety Manager involved in every team initiative, and then setting up an additional meeting each month so they can report the progress to each other. While managers and supervisors should sponsor teams to make sure they have what they need to accomplish their work, the reality is that the managers and supervisors need to let go and get the hell out of the way so the teams can get their work done. Your job is to remove road blocks, provide resources, and report progress.
  2. Stop having meetings about meetings – When this is part of your work culture, when you actually begin to have meetings to talk about what is going on in other meetings, it should be a clear sign that someone has stopped leading and now wants to dictate or micromanage the work of others. Team progress reports can all be accomplished through electronic communication in the form of team notes that can be sent in an email. What is the team working on? What action items have been assigned, completed, or need requests for management assistance? If you’re having meetings about meetings, you are headed in the wrong direction and wasting people’s time.
  3. It’s all about the business case – We all have to manage corporate initiatives or directives, but how many of you have actually challenged the business case for change? The team I am working with had a directive to tighten their quality specifications for 1 customer. The order to do so was based on what amounted to less than 1% of what they manufactured on an annual basis, yet if they indeed had to slow their machines down to meet the specifications, they risked missing delivery on 47% of their orders. In the business they are in, missing orders is the number one reason customers listed for finding new suppliers. When someone finally pushed back on the directive to tighten the specs, they were told to instead begin researching how they could tighten specifications in the future while maintaining normal speed rates. Everything we do should have a business case, and as managers, we need to request the business case for every new initiative or directive that comes from corporate.
  4. Set behavior-based goals and rewards – The mistake I see most often from management teams is rewarding people for things a “dead man” could do. Working 1 year without a lost time accident for example. I could come to work and do absolutely nothing at all and accomplish this goal. In fact, most people who work in the office area do exactly that. They don’t work in a hazardous area; they are not exposed to rotating equipment, pinch points, trip hazards, or head knockers, but when it comes time to reward the plant for a good safety record, by God let’s make sure everyone gets the same thing. Working in a safe and environmentally responsible way is about behaviors and rewarding the right behaviors is what helps to improve performance in these areas. Reward things like near misses reported or mistakes discovered in a lockout/tagout procedure and the performance of safety audits and you will notice not only an improvement in performance but your people will clearly see that Employee Health, Safety, and Environment are truly the top priority. (If you would like to learn more about the “Dead Man’s Rule”, read OOPS! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time & Money (and what to do instead), by Dr. Aubrey Daniels.)
  5. Stay out of the way! – Nothing will slow the wheels of improvement faster than a manager who believes he/she has to be involved in everything, such as who is on each team, who are the team leaders, and what problems they are working on. Simply demand a business case from each team; if there is a business case for mitigating or eliminating the problem, then give them the green light to go to work. Reinforce them for meeting on a regular basis, for showing that they are using a structured approach to solving problems, and for providing open communications. Stop trying to manage every change or improvement your teams develop; simply stick to the fact that every recommendation has to have a business case. When you continue to hold true to and reinforce this mantra, your people will have a clear understanding of what it takes to make good business decisions where the change will be sustained.

So, there you have it. Stop trying to dictate change; stop listening to the naysayers who would always like you to believe that “we are too busy to take on anything new that might actually help us free up more of our time to work on the important things.” Simply take a step back and lead those who are willing to step up to the challenge!


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