February 2005

The Circles of Solidarity for Manufacturing Success

Part 1 - Communication

This first of a three-part series examines the impact of communication on a typical woodworking company.

By Tom Dossenbach

In my consulting practice, I have found that if a client is floundering, far more often than not, there is a lack of solidarity among the people within the company. This represents a serious crack in the company's foundation.

What do I mean by solidarity? I have taken the definitions from five dictionaries and condensed them into the following: "A woodworking company with solidarity is one where there is a union of interests, a purpose, a fellowship of responsibilities and all of its people are in the same boat (so to speak)."

I hope the subjects I present over the next three months will help readers shore up their company's foundation and greatly improve their employee recruitment and retention efforts.

For this series' purpose, we will examine a company from three vantage points represented by the three circles of solidarity - Communication, Integrity and Empowerment. To illustrate my points, we will look at communication within the imaginary Deep River Millwork Company (DRM).

DRM is experiencing very intense competition from a cross-town rival, as well as a new start-up company 50 miles away. DRM has cut its prices to compete for business, but, unfortunately, the company is no longer profitable, even though it has more than $20 million in annual sales.

When asked how things are going, the average employee responds "things are bad" and "they are cutting back." Upper management is not telling employees what is going on. Rumors are flying that the company may close. Twenty people have been laid off in the past two months. Tension in the plant can be cut with a knife. Morale is low and people are irritable. Why?

Flying Blind

During World War II, a revealing phenomenon was observed about bomber pilots returning to base after a mission. Often, the pilots left for a sortie in weather that was marginal at best. They took off when visibility was almost zero at the airstrip, as long as it was clear over the target. They knew the terrain around the airport and had instrumentation to take off and fly to the target, so bad weather at departure was not a big deal. Assuming everything went well, they would finish their assignments and return to base.

Upon their approach to the airstrip, radio communication would be made with the control tower. This was pretty straightforward, unless the weather had not cleared. If the airport was cloaked in fog, the air traffic controller would follow the plane on radar and guide the pilot to the runway. The procedure was to "talk the pilots down."

It was discovered that as long as constant communication was maintained, the pilots kept their calm - even though they could not see the ground. However, as the pilots neared the airstrip, things got testy. If a moment of silence from the tower lasted as little as eight seconds, the pilot would experience anxiety, just short of panic.

Think about that - seasoned pilots losing their cool if they did not hear from base with reassuring words for as little as eight seconds! Come to think of it, I might not make it for three.

How does this critical need for communication and feedback apply to Deep River Millwork?

In the Fog at DRM

Like WWII pilots, employees at DRM - or any company - do not like flying blind. Everyone senses that bad things are happening at DRM, but the employees really do not understand what is going on or what the short- and long-term implications of the layoffs and rumors are.

Brad, a window builder, finds himself asking the same questions repeatedly: "Am I going to be the next employee to lose my job?" "Is the company going to close its doors?"

No one in upper management has really discussed the fact that DRM's productivity has been slipping over the past few years. Even Brad's supervisor, Pete, does not know the extent of the problems because no one has ever told him how the company is doing or where it is heading. A few weeks ago, however, a memo was posted scolding employees for not working hard enough and being too wasteful; it exhorted everyone to participate in a campaign to cut costs, without offering details about what to cut or how to cut it. Pete held a brief meeting one morning to tell everyone in his department about the memo, but that was the extent of it.

Brad left that meeting feeling bitter and confused. All he and his fellow employees knew was the company was not as busy as it used to be and some of his friends had lost their jobs. His talks with other employees revealed they all wondered why they should bust their fannies to cut costs knowing they might lose their jobs any day as a cost-cutting measure. During the lunch break one Friday, some of the window shop assemblers said they were already looking for a new job.

Ironically, the owner of DRM is reluctant to share the seriousness of the problem because he thinks morale will suffer and some of his employees will start looking for work elsewhere. Besides, he really does not want to share details about his company with employees or staff because he does not think it is their business. While this line of reasoning seems illogical and shortsighted, it is very common, especially in smaller companies.

The fact is, the morale at DRM is already low and fear is steadily building among the employee ranks while the company remains silent. Brad and his fellow workers feel the same way WWII pilots did when there was not constant feedback from the tower. It is as if the DRM employees are flying blind amid the clouds and fog, clueless about where they are going.

Constant Communication

It is hard to imagine a woodworking company like DRM being successful without practicing good communication throughout the company. Solidarity is not just a fancy word. It describes how employees must feel if a company is to survive, let alone thrive, in today's highly competitive industry. How can there be any "union of interests or purpose" or "a fellowship of responsibilities and interests" if everyone is not on the same page? How can a large group of people be on the same page without effective communication?

The days of strict separation between owners, managers and employees are long gone. Today, a company is made up of partners. Successful owners and managers make all employees feel they have a stake in the company's direction and performance. This begins with an open channel of communication, something DRM clearly lacks.

If you want your company to become one that can withstand global competition, your first step is to make all of your people feel as if they are partners and then pull them together as a team. If you do not, your company will remain just a place to where employees punch the clock.

If you want your company to last a long time and be able to recruit and retain good employees, the best first step is to make sure good communication abounds. Remember, don't become a Deep River Millwork!

Next month, we will look at the second circle of solidarity, "Integrity."

Tom Dossenbach is managing director of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. He can be reached at (919) 775-5017 or at www.dossenbach.com.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.