Plant Managers

These key members of the management team must be chosen carefully, with an eye toward both technical and people skills.

By Anthony G. Noel


Between March and June of 1999, we featured in this space a series on the difference between owning a company and running it, concluding that ownership does not necessarily translate into management ability.

The final installments of the series looked at determining when or if your company might be ready for an operations manager, and what traits to look for when recruiting one.

Though the job market was tight when that series was published, it's even tighter now. Help-wanted ads go unanswered for days and weeks. Many people answering them seem to be unhireable or "ladder-climbers" — people looking to capitalize on the need for skilled help, many of whom lack the broad experience to get the job done once they have been given it.

Such an employment market can make it difficult to hire anyone with confidence, and doubly difficult to hire someone for what is, without question, the key position in any manufacturing operation with five or more employees: the plant manager.

It is doubly difficult because a good plant manager must fuse two very demanding sets of skills, people skills and technical skills, if he or she is to have any chance of long-term success. Add to these requirements a positive attitude, interest in company profitability and decision-making abilities, which must remain uninfluenced by a host of external factors, and it's easy to see why hiring a plant manager is tough, even in a great employment market.

But if you need a plant manager, odds are you can't wait around until the job market improves to find one. All the more reason to keep the above-listed qualities in mind as you embark on your search. If you do, you will have an even-money shot at finding the right candidate. Let's look at each trait in a little more detail.

Perhaps most importantly, consider the first two traits — people skills and technical skills — as utterly necessary from the get-go. Though I have seen rare instances in which a plant manager lacking in one or the other has ramped up quickly and been successful, such people are exceptions to the rule, exceptions which the current market severely reduces the likelihood of stumbling across. The other attributes — a positive attitude, interest in profitability and objective decision-making — can wait to be developed (not for too long, but they can wait, particularly if there is solid general/operations management in place).

People skills are critical for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. A plant manager's ability to decide when to employ passive versus active people management techniques goes a long way in setting the overall tone on the shop floor. An atmosphere where innovation and personal accountability are valued is what you are after, as opposed to one where fear of failure or, more accurately, fear of the consequences of failure, reigns.

Shops with either type of manager are easy to spot. If employees look like deer caught in the headlights when the plant manager or another member of the management team strolls through, you can pretty much rest assured you are not in a shop where innovation and initiative are highly valued.

On the other hand, if employees are outgoing, productive and quick to suggest production-boosting or efficiency-increasing ideas, you are on the right track. And if vendors' reps are the ones who look like frightened deer, your PM is often doing just fine, at least from a people-management standpoint.

Vendor relationships can say a lot about a plant manager, not only on the people-skills side, but on the technical side as well. "Scared" reps are often that way because they know they will be held accountable for products or services that don't perform as they represent them.

If, conversely, knowledgeable reps are impatient with a plant manager, it may be due to a lack of technical ability or aptitude on the PM's part. A key to reading this correctly is knowing whether the rep is knowledgeable (there are plenty out there who are without a clue and to whom dissing a good PM is all in a day's graft). But if a rep you know to be expert in a particular area (yes, they still exist) grows increasingly impatient with your PM, it may signal a shortcoming in technical aptitude on your PM's part.

Relying on vendor relationships to qualify your management people is a dicey prospect at best, however. It is better to get a read from the people and equipment in your plant.

If your PM places a high priority on equipment maintenance and employee training, these are great initial signs. The advent of CNC equipment in woodworking means that poor maintenance can wind up costing a company lots of money, very quickly. And tossing an inexperienced or untrained operator on any machine can have devastating results for both the individual and the company.

A passable PM should know at least a little about every piece of equipment in the shop or take very rapid steps to learn. A good one should know how to operate all of them. And the really great ones can grab a maintenance manual for any machine and regularly find the technical problem they are trying to cure, or they are able to do so with phone assistance from the manufacturer. (Remember that "regularly" does not mean in every instance. That's why God created field service technicians.)

If you are confident of your PM candidate's ease and experience with both the people and technical aspects of the job, give him or her a shot. If your company doesn't already have a 90-day probation period during which new hires have to prove themselves capable of doing the job, now would be a good time to institute it. And remember, you want this to work. So consider holding regular meetings during the probation period to see how things are progressing.

We said that the other three skill areas — having a positive attitude, interest in profitability and objective decision-making — can wait, but not long. Here is a brief look at each:

First, consider your own performance when you have had the unpleasant task of working beside someone with a defeatist attitude. It's like losing before the game even starts.

Good PMs (good managers in general) have a positive, can-do attitude that is infectious. And if it is strong enough, it can even compensate for temporary shortcomings on the people and technical sides, because such managers are often so determined to succeed that they will do whatever it takes to make it.

Interest in profitability is important because PMs who train themselves to look at every facet of the operation in terms of efficiency are bound to introduce - and encourage employees to suggest - time- and money-saving ideas. A plant in which everybody is trying to find the best way to do things, taking quality, cost and efficiency into account, is a plant bound for success.

This bring us to objective decision-making.

Plant management can be a lonely job, and the need to make objective decisions is why. Plant managers can't afford to get too friendly with any employee, because employees change. They can go from highly productive to useless in a matter of weeks or months.

If he or she is really good, the PM will know (or have access to a grapevine that will inform him or her) when something is up and will nip potential problems in the bud. But even the best PM can't know what is going on in each employee's life at all times, nor should he or she try to. Coldhearted as it may sound, the PM's primary concern must be production. If he or she must let someone go for lack of performance or some other reason, it will be much easier to do so if he or she has maintained an arm's-length relationship with the employee.

Similarly, an employee with plenty of initiative may rise in the company; but a PM who is too close to this type of employee can be accused of playing favorites. The key, again, is for the PM to set the bar at the same level for everyone and strive to be as objective as possible, so others will recognize that objectivity and know that everyone is held to the same standards.

People skills. Technical skills. A positive attitude. Interest in profitability. Objective decision-making. All are important traits to look for in finding your plant manager.


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