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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Quality Lesson from Hopeulikit

Don’t let personnel problems fester

Published: Monday, October 16, 2006 - 21:00

Last year I had the good fortune of doing some consulting with B&C Specialty Products in Hopeulikit, Georgia. B&C does light manufacturing, primarily plastic molding and assembly, and they also distribute imported products produced by companies in the Far East. They have about 150 employees and are the biggest employer by far in Hopeulikit.
B&C was a perfect place to learn about managing and quality. Every day presented a new lesson. Usually the lessons were hard-learned, but those are the ones that really stick with you. B&C was gracious enough to allow me to interview their personnel about things that came up during my time there. Here is one of those lessons: Don’t let personnel problems fester. The scenario is described by the people who actually lived it.

—Paolo Ferrari, manager of quality and logistics
"Time in this company can be divided into two sections: before Dr. Barnyard and after Dr. Barnyard. In the time before Barnyard, we were in the dark ages. We lived in mud huts and believed the world was flat. Now that Barnyard has graced us with his brilliance, we bask in the warm light of wisdom. Or at least that’s what he thinks.

"You see, Barnyard knows everything. I must admit to being a bit of a wise guy, but the doc has me beat hands down. There’s nothing he hasn’t seen or done. He has a doctorate, three master’s degrees, a pilot’s license and a Black Belt in B.S. You can’t tell him anything without him saying something to trump it. I mentioned that my nephew was going to climb Mount Rainier. Barnyard replied, no joke, ’Yes, I ran up Mount Rainier when I was nineteen.’ He didn’t climb the mountain, he ran up it! Barnyard always has to show that he’s superior to everyone else. About half the people here want to shoot him and the other half want to slowly strangle him. I guess we’ll have to flip a coin when the time comes.

"I’ll admit, Dr. Barnyard is a smart guy. He quickly understands technical issues and he’s usually right. The problem is that he has no idea of how to work with people. If all we had working here were robots, then Barnyard would be the king. He could act like a jackass and it wouldn’t matter. We don’t have robots here, though. We have regular people with feelings.

"What exactly is Barnyard’s job, anyway? From what I can tell, his job is to stir up trouble and make people angry. He acts like everyone here reports to him. Well, that’s where he’s mistaken. I’m the boss in this area and nobody’s going to come out here and tell my people what to do. I asked J.T. what Dr. Barnyard’s job was, and he said, ’He’s on a special project for me. I’ll tell everyone more about it in the coming months.’ Tell everyone in the coming months? We need some clarity on his role right now. As far as Barnyard is concerned, he’s in charge of everyone. Just thinking about it makes my blood boil.

"There was a time when I was a little like Dr. Barnyard. I thought I was always right. It was my way or the highway. My butt has been kicked enough times that I realize this is not the case. Maybe that’s what Barnyard needs: a good butt-kicking. I might just take him for a little walk behind the silos. Magic things happen behind the silos. The magic can be painful, but it’s always better in the long run."

—Brynn Vicki, customer service representative
"Dr. B is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. The man knows a lot about a few things and a little about just about everything. The only trouble is that he goes about things the wrong way. He likes to beat you over the head with his knowledge, and he has no patience for the way we’re accustomed to doing things. We’re a small company at heart and we’re used to talking things over in a friendly way. It’s part of what makes this company a good place to work. Well, Dr. B doesn’t care anything about that. All he cares about are cold hard facts, and the only facts that fall in this category are his. The result is that he turns everybody off.

"Here’s an example: Dr. B and I were in a meeting recently, talking about some new software we were going to use in customer service. I asked a question about the way the software connects with shipping. Our IT guy started to answer me, but Dr. B interrupted and said, ’That’s not an important issue.’ Poof, that was the end of my question! I’ve since learned that he was right, it wasn’t an important issue, but the way he responded made me embarrassed and frustrated. He made me feel like an idiot, and I’ll never forget it.

"I’ve started taking every opportunity to throw a wet blanket on any of his ideas, right or wrong. Because it’s not enough to be right, you have to be nice about it, too. That’s the way I was raised. When people stop being nice and stop caring about one another, this company will end up in the ditch, just like an old donkey cart with a busted wheel.

"Dr. B is leading a capital project in our extrusion area. You didn’t hear it from me, but I know quite a few people who are working hard to make his project a failure—just to give the doc a black eye. One of the guys told me, ’Maybe then he’ll put his s*** in a box and go back to the University of wherever he came from.’ Our company has quite a bit riding on that project, so it would be a shame if it failed. If failure means getting rid of Dr. B, then I’m all for it, though. It will be painful in the short run, but much better for us in the long run."

—J. T. Ryan, president
"This company is a lot like a family. We fuss and fight some, but we always get the job done. We’ve also avoided becoming a bureaucracy. We don’t have a bunch of organizational charts and job descriptions. I’ve always thought that things like job descriptions limited what people did, instead of empowering them. The same with organizational charts. Some of my best people would be on the bottom of any org chart that we could draw. You think that would make them more motivated? Of course not. It would just take the wind out of their sails and limit their ability to get things done.

"When Armand Barnyard came on board, we agreed that he was my number-two man. He would report to me and everybody else would report to him. Armand has full authority to make any decision and spend any money that he needs to. I didn’t see fit to rub everybody’s noses in these facts, though. I have some managers who have been working here for 20 years, and they would be quite upset to hear that suddenly they’re not reporting to me anymore—they’re reporting to Armand. So I’ve decided to go easy on it.

"My human resources lady has told me that there’s some friction between Armand and some other staff members. That doesn’t surprise me. Any time an organization makes big changes, there’s bound to be friction. It will all work itself out over time, though. When everything settles down, I’ll formally announce Armand’s role in our company so there’s no confusion. Now’s not the time for that. We’ll work through this the way we’ve always worked through issues, and we’ll be the same big family we’ve always been. After all, org charts and job descriptions don’t get any work done, smart people do. And we’ve got a lot of smart, talented people. I’m excited about out future at B&C Specialty Products."

—Armand Barnyard, director of operations
"I was J.T.’s faculty advisor when he worked on his master’s degree. We stayed in touch over the years, and last year he asked me to join the company. I was brought in to make big changes. In J.T.’s own words, he said, ’You need to transform us from a small business to a technology company.’ I like challenges, so I accepted. I had no idea of how big a challenge it would be, though.

"The first problem was that J.T. never told everyone what my role was. He just sent out a memo saying that I had left the university and joined the company. He completely neglected to mention that I reported directly to him and that all manufacturing and engineering functions reported to me. Those functions learned they reported to me a few weeks later, and there was a considerable amount of resistance. J.T. then back-pedaled and refused to say exactly what I was in charge of, for fear of angering his long-time employees. I was left trying to sell myself to these people as their manager. They weren’t buying.

"Because people were constantly challenging my credibility and experience, I found it necessary to educate people about my background. I’ve since learned that people were alienated by this. Well, I’m sorry their self-esteem is so low. Maybe their mothers should have hugged them more when they were babies. No matter. I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make changes.

"Speaking of changes, the list of things I’m supposed to get done is very long. I don’t have time for a lot of chit-chatting or nonsense. This company has more chit-chatting than a ladies’ knitting club. When I walk into a meeting, I want to hear facts, analyze the situation and make a decision. My approach has angered a lot of people, but nothing gets accomplished when people are talking about auto races or football games.

"Frankly, I’ve become very frustrated by my situation here. I’m in a no-win role—lots of responsibility but no formal authority. Good thing I never resigned my professorship. I will probably be teaching classes again next fall. I like challenges, but this might be the one challenge I wasn’t able to tackle. "

When you’re dealing with personnel problems, remember:

  • Top management must clearly define the responsibility and authority of all personnel. Then their responsibility and authority must be communicated.
  • Personnel who are responsible for making changes in an organization must have the clear support of top management.
  • The informality that facilitates success when a company is small becomes much less effective as the organization gets larger.
  • It’s usually easier and wiser to work with the culture of an organization, instead of trying to fight it.
  • Even the smartest decisions should be backed up with good communication skills, diplomacy and sensitivity.
  • Change agents do not have to be liked, but they do need to be respected. Change agents must have enough self-awareness to understand when their actions generate respect and when they don’t.
  • It’s top management’s responsibility to ensure that their key personnel receive coaching and counseling when needed. A “sink or swim” approach rarely benefits anyone and is usually costly to the organization in the long term.


About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.