Case Studies

Improving Employee Trust And Maintaining Customer Service Even As A Manufacturing Site Is Being Closed – ‘Last Shift, Best Shift’

Apr 2023

By Sean Hagger, formerly General Manager of the site; now a Legitimate Leadership Associate.

By 2020, technology advances in automotive catalyst manufacturing, and competition from lower-cost new plants in other countries, resulted in one of the first plants to have produced the catalysts in the UK becoming uncompetitive. The whole sector was moving from growth to value. This prompted a new strategy from the UK company which involved the phased closure of one of its legacy plants.

For site management, a particular challenge given the length of the ramp-down, was how to make the phased closure as positive an experience as possible for employees, and how to maintain or even improve service to customers.

In March 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic, which mandated lockdowns throughout the UK, as well as managing complications caused by Brexit, did nothing to improve matters.

The UK plant had been one of the first two sites to start manufacturing catalysts for the automotive industry and some sections of it were 20 years old. The productivity gap between new, modern sites and this legacy site was growing as new technology and improved process engineering redefined the standard.

Approximately 900 people were working at the site. It produced a complex product mix with over 600 different products over 15 work centres which included primary and secondary manufacturing processes. It also shared the whole site with the European Technology Centre for the same sector and two other business units for different sectors, as well as the global headquarters for the business.

Given the site’s proximity to the technology centre, it was used to receive new products and processes and had become a pilot plant of sorts. As the manufacturing of catalyst became better understood the site had gradually been left behind over the past 10 years as more modern sites were built globally. The site’s diverse mix of products and ageing facilities had sent costs and efficiencies in the wrong direction.

A strategic decision was taken to transfer production to the modern and more efficient sites. In summer 2020 the site leadership team, led by myself, started consultations with the workforce for the first wave of a series of redundancies which would eventually lead to the closure of the site entirely by 2024.

Even before the first wave of redundancies the site was characterised by low levels of employee engagement and trust. This was evidenced by:

  • Poor safety metrics.
  • Poor quality metrics, including customer satisfaction.
  • High absenteeism.
  • High levels of grievance and employee relations (ER) cases.
  • Increased numbers of direct and indirect employees, with the ratio of indirect employees being too high.
  • Poor employee engagement survey results, showing year-on-year declines.

Apart from these harder measures, the culture was also characterised by high levels of entitlement, a feeling of unfairness and low levels of energy.

The site was not working at its potential – it was in decline and it looked like it and felt like it.

Make Your Last Shift Your Best Shift

The leadership team at the site had experience of Legitimate Leadership and decided to use the framework as a way of enabling the culture they wanted while taking the site through its last journey. Previous Legitimate Leadership profiles had diagnosed the site as ‘high care and low growth’.

Allied to that, the leadership wanted to ensure that the workforce was given every opportunity to stay within the company. And, if and when people did leave, the leadership wanted to provide high levels of support for the transition to new roles outside of the organisation. They wanted the workforce to adopt the mantra, ‘Last Shift, Best Shift’.

A Legitimate Leadership Intervention Has Four Deliverables:

  1. Legitimacy – re-establishes the legitimacy in the relationships of power in the organisation. That is, the leadership gains the support of the majority of employees.
  2. Trust – the people believe the leaders have their best interests at heart.
  3. Contribution – the people on average are committed to making an above-and-beyond contribution – willingly.
  4. Accountability – less than the best is not tolerated. People are held to account for the choices they make.

12 Processes To Embed Legitimate Leadership On Site

1 Understand Current State – Provide The Means Constantly review where the collective leadership stands in terms of legitimacy. Where does the allegiance of the majority of employees lie? Assessing qualitative and quantitative measures through the lens of Care, Means, Ability and Accountability. What does this tell us about how we are leading the site? It’s a mindset change and is concerned with using the scoreboard as a compass to provide direction. Is what we are doing making a difference, if not, then we must change. This requires the leadership team to take in more information than just living and dying by the results. What you measure is what you get.
2 Initiate, Perpetuate And Maintain The Flow Of Information – Provide The Means Talk with the people, not to the people. Meaningful dialogue is essential. Most important is listening to responses to the communications. The noise that surrounds the leader always means something. Fail to listen to your people at your peril. The leadership team created and deployed a communication strategy:

  • Two ‘town halls’ a week.
  • Weekly newsletter.
  • Biweekly consultation meetings.
  • Monthly employee engagement team meetings.
  • Weekly surgeries on the shop floor.
  • Communication plan for large announcements.
  • Commit to corporate communication initiatives.
3 Act – Don’t Just Listen

Care – Passing The Intent Test


This doesn’t mean being compliant and agreeing to everything, but discernible and palpable effort must be witnessed on resolving issues.
  • Lock in and secure redundancy terms and conditions early.
  • Upgrade the facilities.
  • Update security procedures.
  • Make changes to Covid restrictions based on feedback.
4 Spend Time On The Things That Matter

Care – What You Give Your Attention To Shows What You Care About

Getting the balance between reactivity and proactivity is vital. Spending time on critical leadership tasks, such as 1-2-1s, watching the game and team meetings, and the quality of those interactions, is critical. Ensuring leadership AND management tasks are completed.
  • Develop leadership drumbeat.
  • Leaders’ Standard Work.
  • Planned in and gave accountability to people processes such as talent management, succession planning and absence review.
5 Breaking Down Silos

Provide The Means Through Enabling Structures

There had been many organisational changes over the years – e.g. 14 different permutations to the shift patterns – divided teams and duplicated management roles.
  • Increased spans of control.
  • Fewer layers.
  • Unified shift pattern.
  • Worked hard on integrating support functions into the value stream.
  • Creation of a wider leadership team – everyone who had people responsibilities.
6 Cross Training, Resource Levelling

Provide the Ability

There was extremely poor distribution of skills across the site which allied to the silo working mentality. We wanted to provide freedom within constraints.
  • Systematic cross training programme.
  • Removed unnecessary controls.
  • Removed >1,000 standard operating procedures and simplified.
7 The Train is Leaving the Station

Provide Accountability

There were some very disaffected individuals on the site who after numerous opportunities were unwilling to contribute to the minimum levels of performance and behaviour. They needed to go. The change in morale was noticeable when only a few disaffected people left.
  • The leadership team tackled the poor behaviour.
  • Several people were exited from the organisation.
8 Burning Bridge

Showing Care By Suspending The Agenda For The Right Thing

A serious safety incident led to uncovering some long-standing concerns with odours from some equipment. The odours were unpleasant to work in and the controls listed as opening the doors weren’t sufficient.
  • Stopped production for 3 weeks to fix the equipment.
  • Created a maintenance schedule to sustain performance.
9 Leadership Training

Provide Means And Ability

Took all 50 people leaders through a tailored 1-day programme to re-ignite Legitimate Leadership and create the wider leadership team. It’s a very personal experience to close a facility and the leaders take the brunt of the emotion.
  • Clarified expectations of leadership in the plant.
  • Provided strategy and direction.
  • Team building – you’re not alone.
10 Fit For The Future


Provide The Means And Ability

The leadership team wanted to ensure that all useful and relevant information pertaining to the redundancy situation was readily accessible and clear. The HR team created a ‘Fit For The Future’ programme. 4 pillars on a foundation of Wellbeing:

  • Redeployment
  • Training and Development
  • Talent Retention
  • Outplacement

A compendium of projects aimed at empowering and enabling the workforce to grasp their future opportunities.

11 Reduction Of Complexity

Provide The Means

The business had grown overly complex. There were too many controls, and too much control coming from central corporate groups.
  • Challenged centrally with a positive attitude and data.
  • Reviewed and removed unnecessary controls – e.g. extra checks.
12 Push Accountability Down The Organisation

Provide The Means

Leaders were working at least 1 level and sometimes 2 levels down the organisation. Handing over decision-making authority to the next layer down in a systematic way is critical in 2 ways:

  1. Ensuring the necessary work was evenly distributed.
  2. Freeing up leaders to do the critical leadership work.
  • Clarified meaningful objectives.
  • Created deliverables at the top two tiers.
  • Pushed down accountability on large responsibilities such as capex, audits, redundancies.
  • Improved the quality of the 1-2-1 discussions, with feedback from those above.



  • The three critical health and safety KPIs (Lost Time Incidents, Riddor Reportable Incidents, and Environmental Incidents) all exceeded 500 days, thus pushing the site to the top of the organisation.
  • The most recent quality audit received 0 minors, 0 majors and 0 opportunities for improvement, which was the best score in the history of the organisation – something only the top 3% of automotive companies achieve.
  • No positive COVID results for 9 months until Christmas 2020.
  • Absentee rate reduced by 50%.
  • Engagement pulse survey showed significant improvement.
  • More than anything though: there was more positivity and more energy. It could be felt!

The site got its energy back. It is in the most challenging times that leaders can show people what they really stand for. The leadership team on this site took that opportunity with both hand

Improving Employee Trust And Maintaining Customer Service Even As A Manufacturing Site Is Being Closed – ‘Last Shift, Best Shift’

Improving Employee Trust And Maintaining Customer Service Even As A Manufacturing Site Is Being Closed – ‘Last Shift, Best Shift’


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