The scary part about AIG, the Big 3, and similar types of broad media coverage into executive scandals, is the potential affect on manufacturing leaders—particularly, those who are afraid of being viewed as “bad” managers, but don’t necessarily know how to be good ones.

That said, please stop with all the trendy improvement initiatives. I understand that consultants need more than a handshake and a smile to make a sale, but I’ve seen more companies get bogged down with flashy new systematic improvement memos, and pamphlets that promise flashy new ways to make a quick buck.

When you think of it, some are not that different from the signs stapled to poles all over your city. You know: the giant white piece of faux cardboard that promises an easy way to work from home and make $3,000 a week? Some companies do need a change—but beware the gimmick.

I used to get a kick out of asking executives about their mission statements. I was either dragged out to the shop floor where a giant vinyl banner greeted every employee every morning with a quick bright-blue reminder of the company’s new mission statement. The other scenario involved a scavenger hunt through dusty file cabinets and old folders. The statements were never on bulletin boards in the break room, or in a modest frame on the exec’s wall.

I’m a fan of the “If it works, why change it?” philosophy. Unfortunately, not all mission statements are useful or even relevant in the new millennium.

Relevant mission statement or not, embracing a set of business values is useless when the company is problematic at its core. Do you, as a leader, understand the damage that ‘flavor-of-the-week’ improvement initiatives can have on long-term employee buy-in?

Find new ways of becoming proactive—ones which take into account your specific environment, versus something you might find in a book, or on the internet. Some improvement initiatives are tried and tested, yet with your process and your people, might create some sort of chemical combustion. Do you know the elements here, or are you looking for a quick fix? Do you have an X Factor, and are you fearless enough to find it?

The point is not about strong, visible leadership, but the behind the scenes incisive know-how to be able to tell the difference between the right and the wrong approach to your business.  

If a good leader is in place, right and wrong should be inherent. The management at AIG or in Detroit are fitting into the ‘bad guy’ role easily. Financial ruin, coupled with inflated executive salaries, will do that. I’d argue it’s just as bad to try to fool your associates with consultants or, as they might see them, hucksters with fancy degrees. Mike Rainone, a smart man, once wrote, “One can only wonder if the crisis in Detroit could have been avoided had the yutzes who run those companies really embraced “quality” back in the ‘80s instead of turning it into a PR buzzword.”

After ‘quality’ became the jargon of the year, companies began cherry-picking from GM’s roster of talent and replacing sturdy lifers with new talent featuring a new recipe for success (and impending disaster).

I look into my own past. I’ve been working on the floor when the new talent first walked into the clean room sporting expensive degrees and metallic ties that shone through the smock. The former VP, who knew every employee by name, was well-respected, and—while he didn’t flood our locker room with best practices initiatives—got us all to work hard, fast, and effectively.

Then came D-day: the day that the VP returned from a free “New Best Practices” seminar with a portfolio full of promises in one hand, and a resume from a man who promised to deliver in the other.
The next day, the fan favorite (VP) was out and Johnny Slickhair (or one of the many other terms of endearment he was called from the QC table) was given a corner office; the former VP’s office was easy to refurbish since he was always on the floor and never pushing paper.

Johnny moved presses and machines. Johnny moved people, QC stations, and assembly lines. I remember how he would always walk fast, point across the room and talk a little louder when Bossman would walk through the shop.

Morale suffered. Output decreased. People quit – back when it was easier to be disgruntled in our former economy.

I’ve never really kept up with former employers after I moved on, but I recently heard that Johnny took a walk (“took a walk”… “was pushed out the door”… it’s all semantics) and the regime change put the power into the hands of management who saw light.

I heard another odd tidbit. Morale is up. Output increased. And there’s a waiting line of new talent and old faces looking to come back. In this economy?

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