Case Studies

Basic Changes For Humans In An Almost-Automated Plant (Breakfast Event)

Oct 2017

A summary of the presentation by Ronnie Huggins, Plant Manager at African Explosives Limited’s Initiating Systems Automated Assembly Plant, at Legitimate Leadership’s recent breakfast event on the subject Cultivating Accountability and Ownership.


Comment by three attendees at the presentation is given at the end of this summary.


Ronnie Huggins, who has been Plant Manager at African Explosives Limited’s futuristic new (explosives) Initiating Systems Automated Plant (ISAP) for the past five years, presented on how, primarily through working with his staff, a huge increase in productivity was achieved in less than a year.

Huggins said he believes the dramatic improvement in plant performance could be attributed to a change in the people on his plant to the point where they took accountability and ownership.

The plant is a 24-7 operation employing 129 people, mainly woman, many of whom are single mothers – in other words, they have a lot of priorities outside of work.

According to his presentation, greater ownership and accountability were achieved through four basic changes: he listened to his people; he valued their input; he came to understand them as human beings; and (perhaps most importantly) he made the transition from being an engineer to a plant manager who encourages his people’s willingness.

Said Huggins: “Being in explosives, there are many safety concerns. And the question is asked whether ownership and accountability can be created in such a stringent environment.

“The assembly process that I manage comprises five high-speed machines. There are over a thousand moving parts in each machine, so they are highly complex and technical. I am also responsible for the shock tube extrusion plant and its high-speed extrusion lines.

“ISAP is a project which started in 2006 and came into operation in 2009. Because it was largely automated, it was supposed to become the ‘factory of the future’ – the leader internationally of automated production of initiating systems for explosives used in mining and elsewhere.

The challenge

“But in 2009 the plant had a big problem with productivity which was well below design capacity, poor product quality and attendance and morale issues in the workforce.

“This was my challenge when I took over as plant manager in early 2013. Simply put, we needed to increase the productivity of the machines by at least a hundred percent within a year. Almost everybody said this was impossible – not least because the machines were new technology and had never been proven at that run-rate.

Seek to understand, not to be understood

“When I started I had to make a paradigm shift from being very task-orientated (having come from an engineering background) to becoming people-orientated because although the plant was largely automated, still, people would have to do the job and reach the targets.

“Of the 129 people on the plant, one was white one was of Indian origin and the rest were black. So there was a cultural learning aspect for me to understand the people in the plant.

“I went in with an open mind. The first thing I did was to try and listen to people, to understand what the challenges were.

“If you have something to say you want to be taken seriously – it doesn’t matter whether you are a director or a shop floor person. Even if the idea is nonsense, I believe that you must be given time. The willingness to listen is probably half the battle.

“When I started, we had an 8-hour shift pattern. A 12-hour pattern had been proposed by some in leadership and the proposal was strongly supported on the shop floor. But one opposing view was that such a long shift in an explosives environment would be unsafe.

“I studied the issue and concluded that the 12-hour pattern would be safer because of accumulated tiredness. I managed to negotiate a three-month trial for the 12-hour pattern. We set the ground rules for what we would do and how we would measure the success or otherwise of the trial.

“After three months, there was an overall increase in productivity of 25% and a 20% reduction in unit costs – just from changing the shift pattern. And there was better staff morale. Because there was more time off, shop floor people were coming to work more engaged.

“It was a good first step! I had been prepared to listen to an issue that had very little to do with me – it was about them.

“Today 12 hours is the standard shift pattern throughout our organisation, not just at ISAP.

Support initiative, don’t kill it

“The year before, in 2012, leadership felt that a senior person’s presence might be important to keep people engaged at ISAP. Senior people were therefore put on a roster to visit and walk around the plant. I was still an engineer at the time – not yet the production manager.

“One night a regional director visited our plant. The assembly machines were constantly jamming, to the frustration of shop floor operators. Some operators had invented a cardboard disc which they inserted to free jam-ups and move the shock tube along. When the regional director saw one operator using her cardboard, he angrily forbade it.

“What struck me about the incident was the operator’s facial expression – as though her best toy had been taken away from her.

“What the regional director did not understand was that this was not an example of poor productivity. He should have understood that this was an operator who was engaged and willing and knew something about what was happening in her machine.

“I would much rather have an operator who takes initiative than one who sticks rigidly to operating procedures without applying her mind. This indicates that that person is engaged and wants the machine to run. She is looking at the machine and seeing issues and coming up with ways to get it right.

“So, when I became plant manager, I started to expand on the concept of people using their own ideas. I invited operators to talk to me about their ideas – no matter how silly they thought they were – and some of the ideas were silly. But I don’t discourage any of them – as long as there isn’t a safety issue and as long as it would not cost too much money.

“One of the jewels that came out of that initiative was that we had a crimping unit which is at the heart of the machines in the assembly process. At the time, this unit was costing us large amounts to maintain. It had to be serviced every day, it was a nightmare. A lot of the quality failures and customer complaints were a direct result of this crimping unit’s dysfunctionality.

“One day some engineering people and operators on the plant said they had come up with a concept that they thought might work. But they didn’t know quite how to put it together. So I organised a design team to model their idea.

“We got the design together and built a prototype, then we produced the final crimper, for use across the five machines.

“Today, following application of that prototype, productivity has been vastly increased for the whole plant.

“What is fundamental for me is that the idea did not come from any external source or a project team or a project house. It came from two operators who together put a little drawing on a piece of paper.

“Taken together, all the improvements resulted in a sea change in productivity.

How to enable ownership

“In terms of ownership, I believe a plant manager in this kind of situation needs to make a mindset change: that people matter!

“It’s not about ‘because I’m in a management position or because I’m a leader, you must listen to me’. You must want to manage people. If a machine has a problem you can fix it; but that is not necessarily so for a person.

“This means that you have to be people-centric, which takes energy. Listen and take people seriously, no matter their position or background. I have an open-door policy – anyone can come and talk to me at any time. For me that is part of the leadership role – I have to make the time and interest for people. People want to feel that they matter.

“A big thing for me is to create an environment in which people can thrive. And the environment that we create starts with us as managers, in the example that we set. People need to see in us what they would aspire to. The fact that I’m a plant manager and you are a cleaner does not mean that you cannot come to me and we can have a conversation about strategy. Come and tell me, ‘Ronnie, you made a shit decision last week; you should have done this.’ Don’t beat around the bush. I would be completely okay with that.

“By doing that I’m creating trust with people. And trust is a powerful enabler.

“But trust is mutual: we cannot expect others to trust us if we don’t trust them. This is a big paradigm shift for many people.

“Also, you as a leader need to take accountability yourself. If you make a mistake, stand up and say ‘We made the wrong decision’. If you do not do that, you cannot expect anyone else to own their mistakes.

“And if I entrust or empower one of my people to do something and he makes the wrong decision, I also need to own it because I’m part of that decision. We will have a different conversation afterwards about how we could have done things differently, but I must stand with the person and not let him hang out to dry.

Context matters

“But I propose one more thing about this concept of accountability: that context matters. Yes, we want people to take accountability and we want to hold them to account. But we often don’t understand the issue of context. For example many of the people that work for me are single mothers. Quite often I get to hear that someone was late for work or didn’t arrive. In one case it was because the employee’s nanny had arrived drunk and late. The policy is quite clear: if you are late for work, we can discipline you. But put yourself in the single mother’s position. What should she do?

“I have another interesting lady who works for me. She is 24 years old and a wheeler-dealer – up and down selling tupperware and other things. People often ask why we are letting her sell things here; they complain that she’s just chasing money and she must have a gambling problem, etc.

“One day I sat down with this woman to understand the context. She is one of nine siblings, all girls. Her father, who had two wives, died a few years ago. The other eight sisters all also have children. In a household of 17 people, no-one works except her; she is the sole breadwinner. She tries to make ends meet, she is at work every day, and whenever there’s overtime, she is the first to put up her hand. It helps to understand that this person is coming from a very different context, to understand her challenges.

“Understanding the context and where people are coming from enriches us as leaders to make better, more informed decisions. And through that we ultimately create ownership and accountability.”


BY LEONIE VAN TONDER, COO OF AFRIKA TIKKUN, A LARGE SOUTH AFRICAN NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATION (NGO): “Every person has a story. We have 460 staff members and we have about 4,000 beneficiaries every day. Listening to people’s stories, absorbing them, giving them an opportunity to talk is fine – but it cannot happen every day and it cannot happen continually. It’s good to understand people and context. But somewhere along the line, human resources policies kick in. If I had been in the situation Ronnie talks about, discussing alternatives would be in order. But there needs to be an understanding of what we do and what the alternatives possibly could be. Changing timing; changing hours; maybe child support – there are many ways to address something like that. But you need to keep a standard of rules and regulations that are there for everyone. The addressing of this at the coalface by the person in charge would also include activating the support systems of a person who is confronted by such problems – family, colleagues at work, social workers or social work entities in the community. But we are confronted – you are confronted – with this kind of thing on a daily basis. Sometimes we don’t know about it because we don’t enquire.

“I think it is important that we know the stories, but it is also essential that we interpret them with the head, not the heart. Because if we continuously interpret them with the heart, we will not survive and the tail will start wagging the dog. Because we cannot be emotional about every situation. If we as an NGO cried about every situation that we are confronted with – like abuse, rape, etc – we could not function. Interpret it with your head and make a decision which is usable and sustainable for everyone in the organisation that is subject to this kind of thing.

“Finally, remember two quotes: ‘Trust is the currency by which you buy legitimate leadership’ (Wendy Lambourne) and ‘Preach the gospel every day, if necessary use words’ (St Francis of Assisi).”

BY NOTHEMBA MXENGE, EX-ASSOCIATE, LEGITIMATE LEADERSHIP: “A precondition to holding people accountable is showing genuine care. Care is the licence for you to hold people accountable. But before you hold them accountable, you must provide the ability and the resources.

“If you have satisfied yourself that you have done those, then you need to have the courage to hold them accountable.”

BY WENDY LAMBOURNE, DIRECTOR, LEGITIMATE LEADERSHIP: “Ronnie’s story reflects two achievements, neither of which are easy. The first was his personal transformation from engineer to plant manager. There are many excellent engineers who manage tasks completed to deadline but who just can’t make the shift from controlling and managing things to leading and enabling people. Ronnie is one of the few who has. He is still a good engineer but he is a better leader and I hope that he continues to play to this strength. His second achievement was in cultivating extraordinary levels of ownership and accountability in his employees. He did this by connecting with them as human beings, caring sincerely for them, valuing their opinions and trusting them to do the right thing. He took the Legitimate Leadership principles and practiced them in his day-to-day engagement with his staff. In so doing he stands out as an example of care and growth leadership. The dramatic and sustainable improvement in the performance of his plants followed naturally from this.”

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