Interview with Helle Høst-Madsen, Plant manager at Unomedical, Minsk, Belarus.

Conventional old communist thinking stood in the way of innovation and the ambition that the head office had. Many years of fierce efforts to mobilize managers and employees had failed. The change resulted in a more action-oriented culture with specific, noticeable results. The courage to try triumphed over the fear of failure.

– You are doing great. It is ok.

The Russian manager group at Unomedical in Minsk relaxed their shoulders in relief. The dispirited facial expressions loosened up bit by bit all the way around the conference table.

– You are doing great. It is ok.

The Russians’ Danish plant manager, Lisa Høst-Madsen, begins the week’s Race Meeting in the plant’s large conference room. During the last couple of days, there have been misunderstandings, despising looks and even a lead-up to power struggles. Now, we our focus was to motivate and retrieve the job satisfaction in the group, which today counts eight managers. The plant manager has the instruments. The company has used ResultPartner’s Race®concept for almost a year and has only experienced growth during that period of time.

Helle Høst-Madsen is a plastics engineer with a solid background in a field of strong operators in the Danish industry. LEGO, Superfos and NKT count as some of the companies she has worked for.

On the wall in the conference room in Minsk hangs the Race Matrix and Race®concept in the shape of a figure. The Danish engineer is wearing gold jewelry and stilettos and a fine, floral dress with ruffles. She is almost sociably dressed just like the other women in the management group.

Helle Høst-Madsen has charisma as an ever so bubbly bundle of energy and she also smiles a lot beneath the big, curly blond hair – a wry, subtle or cordial smile.

– I know that there has been a bit of yelling the past week. But let me tell you, we are doing well. It even looks like we can reach 95 percent security of supply before I leave for the U.S. in three weeks. So cheer up, the Danish manager says.

The posters with the Race methods are in Russian. One by one, the group’s managers has to stand up and tell outright how it went with the tasks during the agreed period that has gone by – their own tasks, that is.

The production manager starts. He has achieved his goal and completed the planned activities. According to Race®concept this tells him that he, among other things, should think about whether the ambitions and the amount of activities could be increased further. He should also reflect on the things he did right and see if he can learn something from the good efforts during this period. The production manager lets his colleagues know what he intends to do in relation to the outcome.

The plant’s project manager has achieved her goals, but she has not completed the planned activities. She should adjust her actions by, among other things, reflecting on whether the result can be achieved with fewer resources or whether her team simply got lucky. And she should consider which factors that have influenced the good result. She decides to declare that the team is satisfied with the outcome and that she has no corrections at this point. A manager colleague teases her and asks her if that is all the ambition she has. He just gets a smile in return.

The presentation continues. A project manager and her department haven’t reached their goal, even though they have completed the planned activities. The tall, wide logistics manager has plenty of self-confidence when he reports that the action plan is implemented and the goal achieved.

In contrast, the CFO has to acknowledge that he has failed to achieve results and implement the planned activities. There can be many reasons for this, but no explanations or excuses are given. Instead he uses the time to declare what he will adjust and do until next time.

The plant manager comes to his rescue. You see, a lot of things have been happening in the finance department due to the Government’s recently completed devaluation. It came as a head-on attack over night and it is the great topic of conversation among Belarusians on the street, at the home front and at the workplaces.

– Our budgets are beginning to suffer under the cost of transport. The price on gasoline is currently more than €0.7 per quarter of a gallon. This is not good, says Helle Høst-Madsen.

Corrections are always the most important thing at the Race Meeting. What are you going to do about the situation? Adjustments are necessary whether the results in the previous period have been terrible, mediocre or perfect. If the results have been really good, the ambition is perhaps set too low.

Lars Moeller and another consultant from ResultPartner sit at the end of the table. They observe and make a few comments on the results when the Race Meeting is to be wrapped up. Measurements are made on all important subjects at the Unomedical plant in Minsk, on every handling in the production hall and on every post in the administration. The measurements are also an important part of Race®concept.

However, the free lunch and the free transportation by bus to and from work is not something that can be altered. For example, the workplace doesn’t discuss the use of parking spaces. Only few people get to work by car. But rather, they intensely discuss whether it is fair that some colleagues a little too often let their family ride with them on the free bus to and from work.

An important part of Race®concept is the measurements.

Measurements will be made on every handling in the production hall and on every post in the administration of the Unomedical plant in Minsk.

There sure is a lot of open space on the roads in Minsk. In the evenings and at nighttime, the big and very broad highways look infinitely empty. There is no median strip. A U-turn across the center with the large billboards is not unusual. Seeing cyclists and pedestrians in the slow lane is not unusual either. The boulevards of Minsk are so big, wide and pompous that they seem to be prepared for growth, growth and more growth – when it one day arrives. The huge buildings that look like barracks, in the city center are relatively new. Most of them are built after the Second World War which left the Belarusian capital bombed to pieces.

Danish manager

Unomedical’s 44-year-old Danish manager lives in an apartment in Minsk. She has been with the plant for two years and currently don’t get to see much of her family back home in Denmark. She is a trained plastics engineer and has worked as a plastics manufacturer at LEGO, with cables at NKT, with packaging at Superfos and for a period of time she worked as a manager at PBN Medicals in the Danish city of Stenløse.

Belarus only has one Danish owned company besides Unomedical. The country’s Dane Club counts three members, and as far as is known only four Danes reside in Belarus.

– Actually, I would have preferred to stay in Denmark and work for a Danish company, but I ended up here in Belarus at Unomedical which is an American-owned company. I must say, it has always been a great challenge and an exciting and different place to be. The Belarusians are good people and just my cup of tea, says Helle Høst-Madsen.


At the same time she admits that she found it “immensely difficult to put things in motion” at the plant.

– These people had to evolve. It was crucial for the further development of the plant. My manager, Sanne Hentze, was visiting and she suggested that we used ResultPartner. The name of the method was Race®concept and Unomedical tested the concept in the department in Slovakia with great success. We called them up. I remember that Lars Moeller was on his way home from the Czech Republic by car because an Icelandic ash cloud covered most parts of Europe. He would travel to Minsk as soon as possible.

Culture of punishment eliminates courage

The culture of punishment was one of the external obstacles for all further development of the employees at the Unomedical plant in Minsk. Race®concept is a tool to develop the individual employees’ leadership characteristics based on the recognition that each of them has been influenced by a strict culture their whole life.

– Eastern Europeans have almost always lived in a culture of punishment. They are afraid of doing something wrong. Even though things have changed in most places, the old culture of the Soviet Union is still dominant. There is nothing to say about that, but it is reflected in the way the culture still resides deeply within most people over here. It is about being invisible. That is the only way not to get tangled up. People don’t smile or say hello to each other in the streets. It is best to close one’s mind and only open up to someone you get to know really well.

– On the other hand, these people are very emotional. When we have gatherings, they all literally dance when the music plays. By now I know them so well that I’m never afraid of not knowing what level they are at. They will let it out some steam if something bothers them. But these people also hold a lot of inertia. Things developed slowly. Excuses, explanations and looking back are the constant challenges in Helle Høst-Madsen’s relation to the employees in Belarus.

– They spend a lot of energy on objections and good explanations. We have to go back to the ages of time and the Soviet whenever a conflict – or just a situation – is discussed. That is how it is with the background they have. Helle Høst-Madsen succeeded in implementing three reshuffles in three days. The employees had said that it would take at least eight weeks.

– I thought they were going to hang me and I received a lot of sinister looks from the corners. They are certainly not crazy about changes and now it all happened so fast. It was a difficult process with a lot of avoidance of responsibilities. Everything stopped every time such conflicts, problems or just any kind of unexpected events occurred. You see, the culture of the place speaks against seeking out what is problematic and unexpected. No one questions what is problematic. If I was gone for an hour, a day or a week, the problem or challenge wasn’t touched for an hour, a day or a week. The entire management group simply waited to do anything until I was back and could decide what to do in a given case. It was difficult, difficult and difficult.

Defied the system structure

The Danish plant manager can close to replacing the entire management group, every single one person, but ResultPartner’s Race®concept changed that decision.

– Once Lars Moeller drove out of the ash cloud and joined us, things really started to happen. After the first seminar – which is called Target Meeting according to Race®concept terminology – it was clear that everyone’s behavior had to be radically altered. They all knew that they were facing a radical change, but I don’t think any of them initially realized what kind of consequences it would have for them personally.

The logistics manager, a real old-fashioned alpha male type, sensed something. He objected and had grasped that this was serious and would not end just when the consultant drove home. With the ongoing follow-up he immediately sensed that the changes were a serious matter and not to be ignored.

Race®concept was introduced with success. Hard work, adherence, persuasion and the employees’ strong intelligence made ​​it possible. It was a huge challenge for all of us, including myself. After all, Race®concept is about not giving up under any circumstance. Lars Moeller was incredibly persistent. It was a big change as the old system structure from the Soviet era was very powerful. This you can’t forget or overlook.

– The entire management team has become much better at succeeding. They really deliver. At first I honestly didn’t believe in the concept or that anything or any consultant for that matter could crack this nut. You see, I was ready to replace them all. Now they are performing. And they are still developing. Now they take turns at developing. The progress happens bit by bit for the individual and in turn. It is a very unique thing to experience.

The method of getting each of them to regularly expose themselves and report about the achieved goals and the goals that need to be adjusted has worked very well, according to Helle Høst-Madsen.

– Lars Moeller has managed to get them out of their seats. It has completely changed the rhetoric and mindset of many – for the better. Feel free to call it a reprogramming. One of the most significant changes was that all excuses were dropped. This was very important. It is also one of my fundamental beliefs that explanations and excuses in principle are unimportant. It matches my mindset. And scolding and rebukes are of course equally unimportant. You see, both of relate to the past.

– Instead of explaining, apologizing and scolding we consistently began to spend the time on finding solutions and figuring out what to do next time. To put it bluntly, it is a big achievement that we got them to go along with this – considering the background they have. They have always been terrified of failure. It was a hard struggle to get the Russian managers to dare to be open and show courage.

– We Danes are much more accustomed to accept challenges and stand up for a cause. Usually we complain loudly. They don’t do that at a workplace in Belarus. Instead, they are very good at hiding in their corners and sending sinister looks. And in this case, you can easily talk about the law of Jante. No one should believe that he or she is better than the other. That mentality combined with the reserved approach characterizes most workplaces here.


Helle Høst-Madsen also had to closely examine the different types of employees working for her in the management group at the plant in Minsk.

– I was also coached by ResultPartner and realized the necessity of treating all employees differently as they have different characteristics. Compared to most other places in the world, the people here are used to answer to one set of rules, but even in a system society the individuals are very different when all is said and done. I figured out how to handle them very differently so each of them could perform their best.

Not being familiar with each other and the lack of knowledge of each other’s working conditions have also helped blocking greater efficiency at the Unomedical plant in Minsk.

– Race®concept is based on the will of each person to make their work visible to the others in the group. For example, today we, the management group, can easily see that it is basically essential to the logistics manager and the production manager to be familiar with each other’s work and conditions. Now, they must report to each other and it has been difficult to get to this point. The culture here is based on the idea that everything will be alright as long as you do your own work well.

In Denmark we are gradually becoming more and more team-oriented. In Belarus, people are accustomed to being manager-oriented. You please the manager or at least just focus on the things that need to be said to the manager. Now, the concerted focus must be made completely clear to everyone. Meanwhile they get a sense of which level they are personally at.

A prime example

The plant manager at Unomedical in Minsk suggests Race®concept as “a strong managerial and excellent concept.”

– I’m a structure-oriented person, maybe because I’m an engineer. Therefore, it is very important to me that such a special format exits for us to use as a management tool. I’m quite frankly surprised at how well it worked. It is impressive that we have advanced so wildly in less than a year. And we are still at full speed.

Unomedical’s plant in Belarus was the black sheep of the group. Nothing seemed to be doable when the other departments called them. Now, this plant is among the “best performing” out of the group’s 13 departments worldwide.

– We have been highlighted as a prime example within the group, but also among plants in Belarus in general. Our results have been so good the last few years after we implemented Race®concept that the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, came to visit us on 1 April, 2011. The visit lasted a long time and was filmed and shown on all national television channels. We had been highlighted by the governor of our province and the president then decided that he would pay us a visit. It was fantastic. The employees were genuinely proud and of course I was proud myself as it was a big pat on the back for the plant. The president arrived with a huge delegation and toured throughout the plant. To us it seemed like a state visit.

The governor had highlighted the Unomedical plant as a model plant and the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, chose to pay us a visit. The president was toured around the plant by the Danish plant manager, Helle Høst-Madsen.

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, was flanked by the Danish plant manager, Helle Høst-Madsen and the logistics manager, Yury Panov, when he visited the Unomedical plant in Minsk.

A turning point

Race®concept became a turning point for the Unomedical plant in Minsk.

– All of us simply began to think differently. I will recommend this tool at all times. We also came to understand that things don’t necessarily have to take a long time just because you devote a lot of time to it. We learned to closely measure in what ways and how quickly we could perform the various processes.

– Everyone wants improvements, but they don’t want change. You need to realize that fact. It has not always been easy. We also had to be careful about the ones who would easily end up playing the role as the victim during the process of changing our behavior. For some it was obviously easier to develop right away while others had a hard time coping with the new role of having to take responsibility.

– Concurrently with the implementation of Race®concept, we have looked at the organization and the activities and implemented lean. It had been quite a handful, but it suited us fine. The employees and the management group in particular, had to learn the American way of talking about everything that went well. And now they have become very good at openly declaring when they do something well.

The fact that Helle Høst-Madsen is a female manager has been an extra challenge.

– That is just how it is. There is a big clash between me being a woman and deciding over these men and among other things also coaching them. It is an evident challenge that I’m a woman, a foreigner and an engineer and at the same time have a driving license. It is prestigious and very few women in Belarus have a driving license. But we have even managed to get through the obstacles related to prestige and image. I would not have believed that we could overcome so many challenges if you asked me in the beginning of our concept process, says Helle Høst-Madsen.

Plant manager Helle Høst-Madsen and the production manager Andrey Rutman holds a Target Meeting to look at the results.

The courage to try triumphed over the fear of failure. Unomedical’s goals for savings at the plant in Minsk were raised to one million dollars in the course of the eight months that ResultPartner’s Race®concept was implemented. The goals were met and the plant was granted the status as the best among the group’s 13 departments worldwide.

The goals of the Unomedical plant in Minsk were met and the plant was granted the status as the best among the group’s 13 departments worldwide. 

– Helle Høst-Madsen used Race®concept in the traditional way as a management tool to improve the plant’s results and succeeded in style, it has to be said. Along the way, her big challenge has been the usual system-based way of thinking both within the management group and in the context of the external conditions that affect the employees’ ability to develop, says Lars Moeller from ResultPartner.

– The execution scope was very small. When the group came up with suggestions, things were made out to be complicated and irresolvable. Relatively simple problems became complicated and the many years of experience and technical knowledge was used to find explanations for why it couldn’t be done – instead of finding solutions.

– We saw many examples of knowledge standing in the way of finding solutions. When knowledge is used to determine why things can’t be done it is used incorrectly. Unfortunately, knowledge is rarely used to figure out how to do something new. It is no secret that the plant in Minsk had very educated people at its disposal. The bumblebee lesson could not be used on them. They knew too well the ratio between the bumblebee’s body and wings and they already knew that it couldn’t fly. They used their knowledge to relate to things with skepticism. In Minsk, our only desire was to get them to try. But the fear of failure had defeated the courage to try. If they say yes to do something then they run the risk of not succeeding. And under the system they were accustomed to it had always been dangerous to fail.

A shoal of projects were another major challenge for ResultPartner at the plant in Minsk.

– The magnitude of projects took away the attention from the core business. In a plant, emphasis is placed on producing the goods most efficiently and to deliver on time to the customers. In Minsk, they had launched so many projects that the attention was taken away from the core business and the essential key performance indicators and goals. They were more concerned about implementing these projects than to make sure that products came out the gate on a daily base, says Lars Moeller.

– If the managers only support and give praise in relation to projects, all the employees will go in that direction. This is to be expected as all people want credit and attention. When ResultPartner arrived at the plant to initiate the process of change, we experienced that the manager in charge of the daily operations was hiding in a corner almost ashamed. Apparently, he didn’t think that his work was considered important enough.

– In fact it was him, the production manager, who made the money flow and the wheels turn as it was namely him that got the products out of the door and delivered on time to the customers. But for a long period of time, the other managers and the employees turned to the projects to discuss the agenda that was popular here and now.

After all, the plant management wanted to implement the projects and then naturally the managers focused on the projects. Going slightly against their client’s wish, Resultpartner chose to draw the attention more towards the daily operations. For a while, the projects received less attention.

– One could easily have the feeling that the goal was to implement changes for the sake of the changes. Therefore, we reacted in a manner which is atypical for consultants and went back to the old virtues. We focused on achieving the daily goals. The projects came in second.

Let the management take the heat

To think of the system as strong and the individual as weak is an integral part of the culture of the old Soviet countries. That culture is used as a pretext for inaction and avoidance of taking responsibility. It will be hard to carry out the strategy execution. People will always refer to the system and fail to take responsibility in a culture where the system is strong and the individual weak.

– The management, the system, must take the heat if the plans come to nothing, the philosophy states. The situation is similar to the one were the management of a business in Denmark returns from strategy seminars with caps and slides and declares: “this is how it is going to be”. Then the typical three guys sit in the cafeteria saying: we will believe it when we see it. It just doesn’t work. You can’t return home with a stack of slides and t-shirts with new slogans and then expect that things will happen. You see, the entire initiative has been top-down and without influence from below.

They also had a top-down management in Belarus. Here, one could use municipalities and various other authorities as pretext for inaction because permits always had to be obtained from such places. It was without consequence to dismiss responsibility as one could just refer to the system at all times. And no one will challenge the system over there.

– It may be the case that people in Denmark are trying to find new ways, but a comparison with the systemic countries will be obvious if the senior management is strong and arbitrary. Then the authorities won’t be challenged either. When the CEO fly’s in from the head office everyone nods and smiles. But you should not expect change and action when you walk out the door again. You see, employees and managers had not been consulted. The way to solve problems and new challenges is to include them. In the beginning, it is indescribably difficult to include them because they’re not used to it. It is so convenient not to take responsibility. Let the management take the blows – not me. On different levels, all of us can recognize that attitude – even if we didn’t grow up in a former Soviet country, says Lars Moeller.

ResultPartner’s focus areas at the Unomedical plant in Minsk were clear from the start:

– We set goals for the individual and not just for the collective. We created a space where it was allowed to have ambitions and to dare to show them. The individual was helped to develop courage. And the employees’ sense of ownership had to be created. This was done through delegation and involvement. Employees and managers came to believe in their own strength and talent instead of leaning against the system which they had been accustomed to their whole lives.

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