- July 12, 2017
- Posted by: David Marshall
- Category: Management
A few weeks ago, I talked about how I was never afraid of unions when I was the president of Robroy Industries. That’s because as the person whose name appeared on everyone’s checks, I always reserved the right to direct communication with anyone, one-on-one, about any issue, whether it was a shared interest or something wrong on the factory floor.
I also wanted that same direct communication from them. In other words, I wanted them to communicate directly and honestly about the things that concerned them. It didn’t always work that way, so I sometimes had to shake things up a bit to make my point.
One day, someone asked the question of their supervisor, “why is it that an associate is allowed to be in the facility when there’s no supervisor around?” It was actually a good question, although it was made more in the form of a complaint, was sent up through “proper channels,” and it eventually reached me. I wondered why that would ever be the case in the first place.
I figured we needed somebody we could trust to come in two hours early, start the boiler, and leave two hours earlier. We also had some women who had young children they had to get ready for school or daycare, and they preferred to start their shift earlier and leave earlier to pick them up. That is, we were making exceptions for those particular associates and trusted them to be in the building without a supervisor.
Except this seemed to be a problem for the person who asked the question. The way they had posed the question made me think they had something else on their mind. It wasn’t a regular question, it was more of an accusatory question. And because it had gone through official channels, we had to address that particular question.
I declared that the only way to solve the “problem” was to have everyone start and finish at the same time and said this was going to be our new procedure in a few weeks since we didn’t otherwise have a supervisor coming in two hours early. This way, associates would always be in the building when a supervisor was present.
As I expected (and you probably guessed), this caused an absolute furor within the organization, because it disrupted everybody’s life, and the key question was still unanswered.
I let that percolate for a week, and then I called a couple people involved with the question into my office, and I said, “Now, tell me the real story.”
The real story was that in the winter, before the official start of the shift, one person would come into the building before the start of the shift, but they didn’t have access to the break room to get a coffee. That was the genesis of the issue.
The guy who posed the original question was trying to play the union card that they were obliged to be in the facility to perform a function but without a supervisor present, so why couldn’t he get a key to the break room for a coffee? All he really wanted was to be able to get into the break room for a coffee, but instead he tried to make it a union issue, rather than to ask the question he really wanted the answer to: “Can I get a key to the break room so I can get coffee when I show up early?”
I always tried to create an environment where people could express concerns and ask questions of me or other executives, and this was a case where a simple question could have been easily answered.
Now, the simple solution was to ensure this person had a key to get into the break room to get a coffee, but their message was framed as “why are associates permitted in the facility unsupervised?”
I said the person could have a key, and we were going to rescind the previous schedule change, but that I had wanted them to stew about it for a bit. I knew that was an inflammatory question in the first place, and I wanted to the real reason to come out into the open. But I also wanted the group to police themselves and to remind their coworker that direct communication was always the best course of action, especially for something so simple.
By having a forum and an environment in which people have direct communication with the boss (me) without necessarily having supervision around means I learned a lot. But it also helped the people believe they have access and an ear, and they can ask their direct and honest questions.
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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