In a gap in his career, a manager, Lee Thomas, who had gone through the full process of a Legitimate Leadership intervention at his former company years before, applied what he knew to turn around a business which was in a steep down-spiral. He did not remember all the Legitimate Leadership terminology, but the approach was “hard to forget” he says – and it had dramatic results for the business and its employees.
It was an owner-run engineering and manufacturing business. It had been going for 49 years when Lee became involved, and by then the owner was in his late 70s. The owner had a tough background and ran the business in a tough way. He and three men he had appointed to run it with him controlled it with tight fists – often actually. Most of the approximately 55 employees were minimum-wage and were working there because they could not find other jobs. Management’s approach was, “Use the stick, and if that doesn’t work use it harder.” The owner spoke of it as a family business, but it was anything other than that.
The results were not good – reflected in high staff turnover (about five people every month left and had to be replaced) as well as an extremely high 85% rate of returns of products sold due to quality problems.
High street banks had stopped lending to the business, and in order to keep it afloat, the owner had been forced to go to private banks which charged higher interest rates. But the banks had insisted that he restructure and revamp the business. Which was where Lee came in.
Lee was the third outsider to attempt the turnaround project – the first candidate had been escorted off the premises, the second left after two months.
Before Lee accepted the year-long contract, he attended at the business for two days a week to observe and decide whether he could succeed there. He comments: “It wasn’t organised chaos because there was no organisation. There was a culture of force and bullying. If an employee didn’t like it, they were told, ‘there is the door’.”
There were two production lines – the first was running at 18% of capacity and the second at 17%.
Initially on these observation days, people would not talk to him because they thought he was a spy. Then he managed to get one person to talk – the cleaner, “One of the most important people on the plant … because cleaners are anonymous but they see and hear everything.”
He took the assignment because he felt he could make a difference, even if only to a few of the employees.
When more employees began to talk to him he explained why he was there and asked them for their contributions – “Everyone has something to offer, and it’s a case of bringing it out.”
He spent weeks talking to individuals. Firstly, he asked the people who were doing the work why the business had its inefficiencies. Some of the inefficiencies related to working conditions, he says. For instance due to a hole in the roof, cold streamed in and even snow during winter. And, for instance, the production lines were not set up for people of different tallnesses.
Most of all, this gave opportunities for employees to talk and be listened to.
Lee also spent a lot of time observing – watching the game. He also got supervisors to do operators’ jobs because, “You cannot tell people what they are doing wrong if you don’t know what they are doing.”
After all these conversations, the factory and the processes were reorganised. “People would come in to do this in their own time on Saturday mornings – bacon sandwiches were provided by me.”
Communication between management and operators was improved and barriers were broken, “But it was basically a case of investing in people and giving them accountability.”
”People would come forward with suggestions like, ‘If you do this, the benefits will be X, or 5% more production could be achieved.’ Some suggestions couldn’t be carried out and some were unreasonable. Some suggestions absolutely failed but we learned from them. Change is a frightening thing but if you show the benefits of changing, more people will buy into it. Some people were quiet but we tried to draw responses from everyone. And we gave promotions, which had been almost unknown previously. We built trust in the team.
“Essentially once we got past the former management approach of take-take to giving, people would come forward with contributions and we had to worry less about staff turnover and returns.
“We set targets but they were reachable. The operators got job satisfaction, which meant that they became more productive. There was an excellent maintenance man who could fix or create anything, but he lacked tools. His face lit up when we got him a tool cabinet – he said he could now fix all kinds of things, which he had been wanting to do for years. It was about giving people the opportunity to be better than they thought they were, and the company incidentally reaped the benefits.”
Of the three men the MD had to run the plant:
“The most time and investment was in the MD. When I left, he wasn’t interested in firing people for mistakes but in getting them into the office to discuss why the mistakes were made and how to prevent them in the future.
“All this came from my understanding of Legitimate Leadership. The new approach to employees had to be installed before Sigma or Lean or anything else. I had gone through the complete Legitimate Leadership process in my previous company. Although I didn’t have the course and module materials, the approach was within me. I did not remember all the Legitimate Leadership terminology but the approach was difficult to forget.
“It’s not nice all the time. You have to make people accountable but if you give them the means, generally they will do the right thing. It’s listening and how you respond to them.”
Overall, Lee believes the intervention made a difference because the company is now thriving and the people feel valued. Absenteeism was high and is now low. Previously, when the factory doors opened at 6AM, no one was there; now they are there, keen to work and be held responsible for what they do.
During the final three months of his contract, the staff turnover at the business was two people: one reached retirement age and another young person left to join the Royal Air Force. He had been picked on and pushed around and he himself did not have the right attitude. But he was intelligent. Time was invested in him under Lee’s guidance. When he recently became an air force corporal, he sent Lee a thank-you photograph of himself with his parents.
From a business perspective, the improvements have been dramatic: