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Get the Fire Extinguishers

04.05.2009

“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

My corollary, similar to that famous quote is, “Risk of being killed can have positive consequences”.

Fire Extinguisher

Years ago when I was Director of Engineering for a division of Honeywell, I was curiously following a long-standing problem facing my colleague, Tom Armfield.  Tom was a seasoned manager who had just been promoted from field service manager to Director of Manufacturing.  (See “Production vs Prototype Sales” for more on Tom.)  The problem was with the work quality of the team that manufactured the electrical control cabinets was terrible and it was affecting the entire company.

We were in the business of making complex industrial measurement equipment that usually had very expensive electrical cabinets that could cost up to $100,000 each. Wiring in these cabinets was often so wrong that the final inspection and calibration technicians took to disassembling every wire connection and individually checking each circuit before they would apply power and begin the testing process.  This extra step often took several days. Given the typical tight shipping schedules, these extra steps required heroic efforts by these technicians.

Tom’s predecessor first tried retraining the assembly technicians. He then added wire shop inspectors between manufacturing and final test. Since the wire shop was not only sloppy, but also usually late, final test and calibration would often need to bypass this added manufacturing inspection/rework cycle. He then tried adding more wire shop people and even more inspectors.  This helped a little, but the cost was huge.

Tom took a completely different approach. He immediately eliminated the wire shop quality inspection and had all the inspectors reassigned to other parts of the company. Next he instructed the final test and calibration engineers to take cabinets directly from manufacturing and apply power immediately. “Are you crazy?”  “We will have electrical fires!”  “These cabinets take months to build and cost up to $100K!” was the universal response to Tom’s orders. Tom was resolute.  He explicitly forbad the final test engineers to inspect or delay in any way- “immediately, plug them in and turn them on” was Tom’s clairified order.  To be sure they were encouraged to take necessary safety precautions such as readying fire extinguishers and stationing people to instantly shut off electricity.

You can imagine the terror on the faces of the first team of wire shop technicians as they turned their cabinet over to the final test and calibration engineer.  For them, it was high tension; for others throughout the company it was high entertainment for now feedback would be instant and very public. There were now consequences!  Within the next three weeks, nearly 40% of the wire shop staff quit (one was fired). Those that remained were not about to ever be embarrassed again.  From that time on, the wireshop became a team that consistently won company honors for top quality performance.

This principle of exposing people to the natural consequences of their actions left a big impression on me. Always before, I believed that you protected people until they could assume responsibility.  Since then, I have seen similar examples confirming that sometimes you need to remove the protections before people will take responsibility.

As a result, my first rule for managers: Don’t be afraid to create a work environment that allows your subordinates to face the natural consequences of their actions.  Peer pressure from within the team and direct and open feedback from  it’s external customers will force the team to take responsibility for its actions.

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