Every new manager should always ask three (3) questions about an operation he or she will be in charge of:
- What does the book say should be happening?
- What do the people say should be happening?
- What is really happening?
Chances are each answer would be totally different from the others.
What does the book say?
The “book” in this case is the manual, memo, policy, or rule. What does the book say how an operation should be run?
What do the people say?
The “people” are the workers running the operation, your boss, and your peers whom you work with. They’re the men and women on the ground who know their jobs as well as those co-managers who think they know more than you.
You could also pose the same question to support staff like the inspectors & maintenance technicians, or to foremen and supervisors who oversee the workers. But I’d put more weight to what the people who are on the front-line say since they’re the ones who are right there doing the job itself.
What is really happening?
This is what is actually happening which comes from witnessing the operation itself.
Most of the time the answers to each question differ greatly. What the book says would differ from what the people you work with say and either would differ from what is happening in real life.
When a new manager notes the different answers, it provides a starting point on how best to manage the people and operations she will be in charge of. It will lead to more questions like:
- Why isn’t the operation doing what it’s supposed to as per the manual?
- Why are people saying differently from what is actually happening?
The idea isn’t to catch people and find fault. It’s to know what real problems underlie the jobs people are doing and the systems that run them.
The three (3) questions provide an opening into understanding what those challenges and difficulties are.
Case in Point: Production at a Refrigerated Margarine Packing Line
As a new manager of a refrigerated margarine packing line of a multinational consumer goods corporation, it was my job to make sure production would always be maximised. There was high demand for the corporation’s refrigerated margarine brand at the time and I had to make sure production was in full swing.
I noticed, however, that production per eight-hour shift never was more than 700 packed cases a day.
I went to check the work styles of the margarine’s operators. I had the three (3) questions in mind:
What did the book, the company’s manufacturing manual, say?
The manual said employees must be on the production line at the very start of their shift and can only leave their work-place during breaks and only at the end of their shift. During their work-time, they must be working and packing to meet output as dictated by the production schedule.
In other words, employees should be working throughout their shift except during breaks.
But if they are working throughout their shift, then based on time & motion studies, they should easily exceed 700 cases a day. So why weren’t they?
What did the operators say?
When I asked the operators how come they weren’t exceeding the 700 cases a shift, they said that is the maximum they can humanly do. Each case is heavy and packing them isn’t as easy as what the manual says.
When they pack a refrigerated margarine case, they said they have one person scooping up the margarine bars and putting them into a corrugated container. A second packer tapes the case and stacks it with others on a pallet. A third person who is also the operator of the production equipment moves the pallet to cold storage adjacent to the packing line and then provides a new pallet for the packets to stack new cases.
What was really happening?
When I went to discreetly observe the packing operation (I would observe from a spot where they wouldn’t see me), I noticed that there’d only be one operator on the packing line. The other two wouldn’t be there. In fact, whenever I observed the operation, there will always be only person doing everything: packing, stacking, and moving the pallets.
On the swing shift (afternoon to evening) and graveyard shift (evening to early morning), there would be no production operation for the last two to three hours of each shift. As in no one present on the production line.
When I confronted the crews about this, their first answer was that the other operators were on break when I was observing only one person on the line. When I countered that it wasn’t the designated company break time, they then said they took turns on breaks so that they could run the machine straight without having to turn it off and on again.
When I asked how come there was no operation for the last two to three hours of a shift, they said they were making up for the break-times they didn’t use up from going straight during the shift.
Finally, when the employees realised they weren’t making sense, they finally said:
Some years ago we were paid on incentive. We were given a quota of 700 cases a shift. If we exceed quota, then we will be paid extra. But the company decided two (2) years before you the manager came to scrap the system and raised every worker’s salaries to make up for the lost incentive. We at the refrigerated margarine line, however, felt no longer motivated to produce more than 700 cases per shift. And rather work throughout a shift, each of us operators took turns packing the items on the line. Each of us would really be working only two (2) hours a shift. After six (6) hours, when we reached the “quota” of 700 cases, we would all go upstairs to our locker room and rest until quitting time.
For the succeeding months afterwards, I worked with the refrigerated margarine crew in this regard. I didn’t outright succeed in getting more production per shift but I did change how production schedules were done and did organise the crews into teams that worked on reducing downtimes. Productivity actually improved despite the ongoing practice of producing only a fixed quantity per shift.
Asking those three (3) questions:
- What does the book say?
- What do the people say?
- What is really happening?
helps managers see what’s happening from three (3) different angles.
Neither answer may necessarily be the right one. The idea is to reconcile them all and identify the problems that underlie each one of them.