From Reactive to Proactive





ID-10071284We are so often caught up in the reactive, and it is an inevitable part of life and business.  There is too much data to be able to anticipate all of it coming at us.  So how do we make a transition from reactive to preemptive?

Know the Destination

You can’t go somewhere unless you know where you are going.  Simple, I know.  But do you jump in your car to go somewhere without having a destination in mind?  Probably not.  So what does your professional destination look like?

Taking time to plan an endgame is necessary for a huge transition.  You need to be able to define success not only for you as a leader, but for the team as well so that there is a sense of momentum and, ultimately, accomplishment.

Set up Your Waypoints

Every flight plan has waypoints, intermediate destinations that help to set the overall course.  Your journey from Reactive to Proactive should have waypoints as well.  In Project Management they are called Milestones.

The purpose of the waypoint is to provide you with a series of connected destinations that help to ensure a safe path is set and that you are moving in the right direction.  You can choose your waypoints to be in units of time, percent completion, accomplishment of specific events, or even arrival of the destination for only a part of the entire vision (completing the journey for one product line before expanding to another).

Understand Your Compromises

It’s difficult to get everything you want.  By knowing where you need to compromise you allow yourself a safety that will prevent you and your team from being discouraged.  Know where you can balk and where you mustn’t in order to help ensure success.  Some areas cannot be compromised, define them.  Others can be sacrificial should circumstances require it, be ready to sacrifice.

Communicate Your Destination

Give others the vision you have.  Allow your team and your supporters to envision the destination with you.  Take every moment you have to describe your destination in detail.  Outline how it looks and give them the ability to see it with you.  This will make others hungry to help you succeed.

If I told you we were going on a road trip your first question would be, “Where to?”  If I simply said, “West,” that wouldn’t be very motivating.  If I said, “The beach,” that might be more motivating.  But if I took the time to describe the beach, how it looked at sunset, the warm breeze that blew on my face, the sound of the waves crashing on the nearby cliffs, and the long boardwalk the stretched over the water, you might be more excited about going there.

Invest in the Change

Change is a movement of inertia.  The organization has momentum in its current direction.  If you want to change that direction, you have to be willing to invest in the force required to overcome that inertia.  This investment may come in the form of additional people, a new technology, external support, rebranding and marketing, or a number of other things that will give you the force needed to change your momentum.

Celebrate the Change

I am a big fan of celebrations.  They can come in small forms of encouragement or lavish company parties.  The purpose is to keep people motivated.  Once you have gained a little momentum in the new direction you have to keep pushing.  Celebrations as simple as a pat on the back can help to accelerate your change.

The Challenge

If you are in the midst of a change, look at your flight plan.  Do you know the destination?  Do you have your waypoints?  Do you know where you may have to make compromises?  Have you visualized your destination and shared that with others?  Have you made the proper investments?

If not, take the time to figure it out.

Do you see a need for moving from reactive to proactive in your business, in your life?  Start today with planning on how to get to your destination.

How to Get a Skilled Workforce

Image Courtesy of Gualberto107/

Image Courtesy of Gualberto107/

Right now we have a shortage of skilled labor in the manufacturing environment.  It is my observation that this shortage comes from three main areas: retirement of experience, educational demands, and an emphasis on college degrees.  But regardless of the reasons (and we will delve into that) I think I have come up with a solution.

So stop whining, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get to work.

The Reasons…

Loss of Experience

The Baby-Boomers are retiring.  This restless, workaholic generation is getting to the age where they can enjoy the golden years.  The baby-boomers were born from 1946 to 1964, putting the oldest of this group at age 68 and the youngest at age 50.  Many of those from this generation started working right out of high school with a company and, in the age of benefits and pensions, stayed with that company for the required 25 years before they could start drawing on their retirement funds.  That means that the earliest of the baby-boomers started retiring in the early 1970’s!  We have seen a decline in capabilities ever since.

Educational Demands

Not only have vocational training options been in a decline over the last several decades, but the technological requirements have been climbing exponentially.  Now, for a mechanic, not only does he need to understand how to turn a wrench, but also how to lock out equipment, interface with pneumatics, hydraulics, and even PLCs and light ladder-logic programming.

Electricians have seen their trade go from simple dry contacts and relay-logic to smart instruments, networking (Ethernet, ModBus, Profibus, DeviceNet), and a dominating world of micro controllers and systems such that even the simplest of machines have to communicate to another controller.

Machine operators are expected to understand how to work with HMIs (Human-Machine Interfaces) that are increasingly complex.  They have to troubleshoot on a daily basis with equipment that is both mechanically and electrically more complex than ever before.  Additionally, companies are trying to run leaner and have reduced technical support functions to a minimum, requiring that operators know more about how their equipment works and how to fix it for simple repairs.

Everyone has to go to College

Only 62% of college graduates are actually working at their education level.  Only 27% of grads are working in a field of their degrees.  So why is there such an emphasis on college?

We have been conditioned in my generation that we must go to college if we want to have a successful life.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a big proponent of education.  But I feel that our educational system is broken as well as overstated.  We are being educated in the wrong things.  Some people are just going to college to get the degree.  I know of several people (and maybe you are one of them) that went to college before they knew what they wanted to do for a living.  Most people don’t even figure it out until they graduate.

However, college tuition is getting to a point that the average student will pay over $120,000 after 4-years (this is from the University of Illinois for Resident).  If that is taken out in a student loan and paid back over 10 years it will require a monthly payment of over $1,300 (from  The recommended annual salary to pay back this loan is over $100,000.  As a matter of fact, you have to extend the term to 30 years to get below a $100,000 annual salary.  Really?  Is this realistic?

The Solution?

Get your company to do some research on how you can tap into government funds.  There should be some options with your local government or state that can help you offset some of these costs.

Look into apprenticeship programs.  The oldie is a goodie.  You can pay a smaller wage to the inexperienced and incentivize them to take classes and perform onsite qualifier tests to move to the next wage bracket.  Get back to building your own trained workforce.

Develop your own training programs.  Stop trying to hire them in with the technical skills.  Teach them yourself.  Create a training program that is supplemented with community college programs.  You can even bring back that retired expert part-time as a trainer so that he can teach your young folks how to work on your specific equipment.

Talk to your community colleges about adding vocational studies.  Partnering with these schools can help to get your costs down and provides you access to additional resources.

In short, stop expecting to find the right person off of the street.  It is probably not going to happen.  Instead, stop complaining and make something happen.  Create your own talented workforce.

Ockham’s Razor doesn’t Always Work

Image courtesy of adamr/

Image courtesy of adamr/

The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

But this isn’t always true when it comes to people.  We are exceedingly complex; emotionally, socially, psychologically.  Humans are influenced by internal, unseen drivers just as much (if not more) than obvious external stimuli.

The problem is not that the method of Ockham’s razor is flawed.  The issue is that there is typically insufficient data to arrive at reasonable assumptions in the first place.

In Life

I love my wife dearly, but I just don’t understand her sometimes.  I’m sure she would say the same of me as well.  Most of the time we try to be honest and open with one another, but it isn’t always easy.

I have recently had to deal with the death of my dog, Sandy.  She was very important to me and it has been a difficult recovery.  I don’t always show things the same way that my wife expects me to, and she interprets that as a different emotion.  Likewise, she tries coping with the loss in ways that I can’t understand.

As a result, based on the data we have observed, we have made assumptions about one another.  Those assumptions led us to believe that our assessments of one another were accurate because they were the simplest of the solutions.  However, our assumptions were wrong, based on a misinterpretation of the data, and we have had to engage in more open dialogue to better understand one another through our grieving processes.

This is true in many personal situations when interacting with friends, family, and acquaintances.  We make assumptions that lead to judgment.  It is natural.  It’s human.  It’s complicated.

At Work

We often forget that people are people.  We try to separate work from home, but that doesn’t really happen.  We have a hard time relating to people that we simply don’t know well.  We may be having a rough day and then someone asks something of us that is troublesome and we immediately jump to conclusions about motive and method.

Solving problems at work is easier when it is about a machine, a program or a system.  Those things don’t muddy the waters with emotion and intellect.  They simply work.  People, on the other hand, react, anticipate, judge, emote, and in general, complicate the work environment.  This level of complexity can be a bit much and the data is too intricate to fully understand.  As a result we make assumptions about people, but our assumptions can lead us astray.

A Good Assumption

I have found my own razor when working with others.

This person’s intentions were right and good unless otherwise proven.

By using this razor I have simplified my life.  It has prompted me to ask questions, get to know people, and expect decency from others.  It has changed my perspective of people.  And I firmly believe it is true.

I challenge you to take one week and apply this razor to your life.  See if it changes you.

Are You Working on the Right Things? Getting the bang for your buck.


Dog-catches-own-tail_1We all chase our tails at some point in our careers.  Some of us more than others.  We are looking for a result that is not even possible to achieve but we are so consumed with the chase that we aren’t even looking beyond the circle in which we are spinning.

I had such a situation when I was managing a production department.  I was tasked by my managers to reduce changeover times on my high-speed bottling lines.  Changeovers accounted for over 8 hours of downtime each week.  When you cyphered how much production that amounted to it became quiet the priority to reduce that number.  It was also the number one cause of downtime on my production lines when Pareto’d with all of the other documented downtime reasons in my department.

As a result of the data, we were putting a lot of time and energy into reducing changeover times.  We were trying alternative crewing, modification of equipment parts, timing of lunches and breaks and alternative scheduling whenever possible.  We did see some modest improvements, but nothing that removed changeovers from the top spot of the downtime list.

During a meeting I was asked by the V.P. what the improvement on the line would be if we were to reduce changeovers.  Through all of the efforts we had made, we had never stopped to ask the simple question of the potential of the improvements.  So, I answered with a political, “I’ll get back to you on that,” and I went to my office to crunch the numbers.

It turned out that we were only capturing 20% of our actual non-productive time (some of that was in reduced performance and minor stops as well as untracked downtime events).  But changeovers were tracked 100% of the time.  Using these numbers along with our scheduled run time over the previous year I learned that changeovers only accounted for 7% of our inefficiencies.  Even if we were able to cut changeovers in half we would only realize a 3.5% gain in efficiency on the line.  My lines were running at an average of 85% efficiency (against an accounting standard, that is a whole other topic) when my budget was 98% efficiency (again, a whole other topic).

All of that effort wasn’t going to get me even close to my goal.  My efforts had to be in other areas and it would take a combination of improvements to get to where I wanted to go.  I immediately changed by tactic and went back to the meeting with a whole new approach on how to improve my production.

Excited about the new opportunity, I began informing the V.P. of my intentions and how they would better our systems.  His reply, “That’s great, but when are you going to get changeovers down?”

The moral of the story is that you need to look at the potential gains before you invest all of the effort.  This can be a hard science application like my example, or building a team, or investing in the development of an individual (you can’t send a duck to eagle school, see here, and here).  Understanding what you can gain will not only give you proper motivation when the gain is significant, it will help you set a plan to put the efforts of you and, more importantly, your team in the right proportions to maximize success and reduce frustration.  In short, as Mr. Stephen Covey stated, “Begin with the End in Mind.”


The End of Winter…Perhaps? A Lesson in Extremes

Image courtesy of dan/

Image courtesy of dan/

I live in the Chicago area, which means that along with corrupt politicians I am plagued with cold winters, hot summers, and not much time in between.  For those of you that have been keeping up with the national weather this winter you have noticed that the entire United States has been through quite a bit of a cold snap.  Chicago had to deal with actual temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit (I didn’t make a mistake, that is a negative sign).  It the summer we will undoubtedly have a week of highs that will reach, if not breach, triple digits.  That is a 120 degree swing!

We can cope with these changes because they are gradual.  Yesterday was 50 degrees and it felt like a wonderful summer day to me.  Everything is relative.  If you peppered 100-degree days in with -20-degree days it would be miserable (not that they aren’t by themselves).  However, the gradual changes makes for a more tolerable extreme.

The caution I am giving here is the analogy of the frog in the pot of boiling water: put a frog in boiling water and he will jump out, but put him in warm water and slowly boil it and he will stay in and not notice the difference.

If you are in a working environment where the pot has slowly started to boil, how can you tell?  Have you ever worked with the people that say “we have always done it like that”?  Those are the folks that started in cool water and have reached a boil and don’t know it.  Extremes can sneak up on us if the change is slow.   And these extremes aren’t limited to processes or equipment, they can be related to culture and working relationships as well.

So how can you make sure you are not in hot water?

  1. Benchmarking.  If you can, benchmark your industry and see where you sit.  Don’t give yourself excuses either, if you are at the bottom, so be it.  Get better.
  2. Long-term trending.  See if you can get trends from the last decade.  Don’t look at the last few years as they may be too small of a sample size (Have you seen the stock market daily chart versus the 3-year?  One is not necessarily and indicator of the other.)
  3. New-hire assessments.  Use your new people as thermometers to gauge your water temperature.  Have them write honest one-month, three-month and six-month essays about your organization.  Make them anonymous so that they can be completely truthful.  They are the frogs that just entered the pot.  They can tell you if the water is too hot.
  4. The Right KPIs.  Make sure they are the right KPIs (read here).  It is not always easy to tell if you have the right one, but looking at these trends versus your standard can help.  You should always evaluate your standard, too.

Those 50-degree days seem great in the winter, but they seem downright cold in the summer.  Make sure you are using the right thermometer when you gauge the temperature.  A point-of-reference is necessary to understand your true situation.

Running by the Numbers

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/


We are all measured on what we do and how well we do it.  After all, if you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it.  But what happens when we measure the wrong things?

The answer is simple, we get the wrong (or suboptimal) results.  Having KPIs is a good thing.  But the wrong KPI or the wrong target can spell disaster.  It is important to find the right measurements before you implement a tracking system.

Step 1 – What do you want to accomplish?  Define a goal.  It doesn’t have to be quantifiable at this point.  It can be something as simple as “reduce operating costs” or “improve customer satisfaction”.

Step 2 – Is your goal one that will not contradict others?  For example, if instead of “reduce operating costs” we used, “reduce labor costs” that could cause a reduction in throughput and then a net increase in operating costs if we are not careful.  Don’t improve in one area simply to worsen in another.

Step 3 – Determine not what will get you there, but what will hold you back.  Understanding the constraints to your goal will help you to find the areas where your KPIs will assist one another rather than conflict with each other.  If you want to decrease operating costs know that you still will have to conduct changeovers and shutdown for cleaning, etc.  Quantifying these impacts will help you understand the real room for improvement that you have.

Step 4 – Create your baseline.  If you don’t have one, you need one.  If you have one, confirm it.

Step 5 – Set a realistic, time-based goal.  Don’t shoot for the moon on your first try.  Set something modest and make sure you have enough time to accomplish it.

Step 6 – Celebrate your wins.  Learn from your losses.  Too often we are focused on the bad.  Take some time to recognize when you and the team have done well.  Don’t punish failure, rather learn from it and publish the results or talk about them in a team meeting.  Don’t hide from failure either.  People should know if they didn’t hit the mark and how to do better next time.

Step 7 – Repeat.  This is a process.  Don’t rest, but don’t change things up so much that you don’t have time to make significant strides.  Try to have fun and make sure you are winning more than you are losing.

Leading Operational Change



I read an interesting post on about change management and reactive vs proactive maintenance.  The article, by Ricky Smith, was thought-provoking.  He talks about culture change in the organization and how to determine if you are in a reactive or proactive organization.

As leaders, regardless of department or function, it is our duty to create and build the right culture.  Below are 5 tips on how to do this in an operational setting.

  1. Set the expectation.  It seems easy, but it isn’t.  Expectations must be realistic.  That is not so simple.  It takes a bit of educated guessing and self-temperment.  Often, as leaders, we expect others to be as capable or more so than ourselves.  That is not always the case.  Don’t underestimate the ability of people, but don’t set the bar so high as to create discouragement.  Remember that there is a limiting factor to the progress that can be made, find that and then set the pace.
  2. Create the game plan.  Here is strategy.  Don’t confuse strategy with goals.  Strategy is the route that you plan to get to the destination.  Jim Collins has had some great books and one of the lines that has stuck with me is the “20-Mile March” from his book Great by Choice.  Pick your march.
  3. Don’t be a flavor of the month.  You can’t be a fad (read more here).  Once this happens you lose all credibility.  Trying to recover from a lackluster start is just as bad as never starting.  Don’t let up and keep your strategy in view.  Even when times get rough, continue your march to make sure that you can gain what is needed.  If you said you would shut down the line once a week for maintenance, do it…even if the schedule is tight.  It will be worth it in the long run.
  4. Get the team on board.  Make sure your teams are supporting the change.  There can’t be any undercutting of the program behind closed doors.  Encourage your team to vent to you if they are frustrated with where the change is going, but make sure they don’t vent to anyone else.  The team must have a united front everywhere in the organization.  If not, this is poison to the change process.  It is painful to do it, but you may have to cut loose those that aren’t supporting your culture change.  One rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch.
  5. Celebrate success.  Celebrate your accomplishments.  As milestones are achieved, make sure that people know you are proud of them.  Don’t celebrate if you don’t succeed something, that makes it superficial when you do celebrate for just cause.  Culture change is a long road and these celebrations keep people motivated along the way.

Change is never easy.  In any organization where deadlines and customer demands are put before everything else, you can never accomplish your own goals.  We tell people that they need time for themselves, so do companies.  Treat your company right and your customers will notice.

Placing Blame: It’s All Your Fault


It is easy to point fingers and highlight problems.  The difficulty comes with solving the issues.  If you find yourself finding problems more than you are solving them, you may want to change your approach.

The problem is perception.  While you may think you are doing a good thing, you are really just creating work for other people.  Granted, it may need to be done, but it creates a negative vibe and that doesn’t help to motivate.

What are Some Alternatives?

Instead of just pointing out the problems, try partnering the issue with a potential solution.  Take some time to work out a way to fix the problem before you tell someone about it, especially if it is something that is not directly under your authority to fix.

If you get into a finger-pointing match try to take the conversation back to a root-cause analysis.  Even an informal RCA discussion will start your conversation on the path of figuring out how to fix something rather than trying to figure out whose fault it is.  Blaming doesn’t do any good if the problem still exists.  Using 5-Why or Fishbone diagrams are examples of more formal ways to conduct an RCA and may be appropriate depending on the complexity of the problem or the audience you need to convince.

Be willing to own the problem, or at least help with fixing it.  It makes the pill a lot easier to swallow if you are willing to work with people to get things done.  You may make some valuable allies along the way as well.  Remember that you probably have some issues of your own that you haven’t identified that your new ally may be willing to help you with down the road.

Set aside personal agendas and do what is best for the organization.  Allocate some of your labor or budget to fix the problem if it is worth it.  Your generosity will help the organization and will earn you more respect in the long run.

Create a list and prioritize.  Stephen Covey, in his book First Things First, uses a quadrant approach to categorize items as Not-Urgent/Not-Important, Urgent/Not-Important, Not-Urgent/Important, and Urgent/Important.  Using this method is a good way to categorize your finds and determine the amount of effort that needs to be put to them.  Keep in mind, however, that your filter may not be the same as others and take that into consideration when working in groups.

If you are approached by a finger-pointer, guide the discussion one of the directions above so that you are talking solutions rather than taking the blame or retaliating.  Remember, it is easy to find problems, but it is difficult to find solutions.  The people that find solutions are the valuable people in an organization.

Survival of the Most Adaptable

be like water

I read an interesting blog post about the responsibilities of companies to change their views of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.  This article is about corporate social responsibility and the ways that we interact with nature.  While I think it is a great post, I would like to talk about the same concept, but on a level that is more for the manufacturing middle-management folks.

Let’s interpret the phrase “survival of the fittest” to be “the best at adapting”.  In business that means flexibility, versatility, and nimbleness.  But how can we influence these factors when we are a cog in the big business machine?

  1. Strategic development of a process model that allows for smaller runs and higher flexibility.  As an Operations Leader, you have the ability to influence how you design your department.  Most companies are looking for the big runs, fewer changeovers, and highest volume.  But what if you could create a section of your department that is specialized at small runs, reduced inventory, and high-speed turnaround?  Could you provide a service to customers at a premium?  Could you handle frequent changeovers as a matter of course?  Check out QRM.  This methodology might be able to help you get started with something.
  2. Stop focusing on reducing changeover time and start focusing on eliminating minor stops.  Let’s look at a typical production line.  If you run a product for 16 hours with equipment speeds of 20 cases/minute you should see 19,200 cases at the end of that time.  But it takes you 20 hours to run that amount.  Then you have to perform a 2-hour changeover to the next product.  Most companies want to reduce changeover time because that is downtime where you are making zero units.  But the changeover has to happen.  Even if you cut the changeover time in half you only saved 1 hour.  But it took you an extra 4 hours to run the product.  Cut that in half and you save 2 hours.  Minor stops on a line can result in huge hits on efficiency.  Quicker runs equal more capacity for new volume.
  3. Slow down to speed up.  It sounds like taboo, but Maintenance groups will tell you that if you run your car at 9000 rpm you won’t get as far as if you run it at 3000 rpm.  But that is exactly what we do to our production equipment.  We run it to the max and shorten its life and Mean-Time Between Failure (MTBF).  This not only increases downtime and Maintenance costs, but it also reduces the machine’s availability for more volume.  Conduct a constraint analysis on your line and set the limiting machine to at least 10% below its maximum rate.  You will see a smoother run and a more predictable life of the equipment.  Remember, it is about cases out of the door, not units per minute off of the filler.
  4. Set goals for management and supervisors that reward flexibility.  It is a difficult thing to do, but try setting department KPIs around how you manage the department, not how much volume you push through the door.  You may have to create a set of KPIs that you track internally and still publish the ones that upper management wants to see.  Think about how the behaviors of your team will benefit your business and create metrics around those behaviors.  It will take some thought, but you will have a better performing system out of the deal.