Interview with Niels Frost, Plant Director at ConvaTec in Michalovce, Slovakiet.
The engineering plans were plenty, but they suffered under the amount of space between tasks. A new way of looking at the plans resulted in a much quicker implementation of the plant’s projects. In addition, the plans came from the “the left hemisphere”. This meant that no one had taken the process of motivating the organization into account. The plans were now supplemented by more humanism which created the necessary motivation and desire to execute.
– You have three months to deliver good results. Or you are out of here.
This was more or less the message given when the Danish engineer, Niels Frost, sat down in the chair as plant manager at the ConvaTec plant in Michalovce in Slovakia. The group, which counts 13 plants worldwide, manufactures critical care products and is owned by a private equity fund.
– It wasn’t going very well at the plant and I felt a huge pressure to provide a proper turnaround plan. We had no toolkit with the right means and it was necessary to change the whole culture of the workplace, says Niels Frost.
– Therefore, I asked for outside assistance. We hired Lars Moeller from ResultPartner because I knew him from previous projects and because I felt I could trust him. It turned out so well that out current goal is to make the plant in Slovakia the House of Excellence Key Operation for ConvaTec in Europe – i.e. the place where the products are assembled.
The culture of punishment, conventional thinking and old communist solidarity became some of the heavy barriers on Niels Frost’s obstacle course to be in the leading top of the group.
– It was somewhat easy to get the younger generation to understand the changing times ahead of them. However, all above the age of 40 went through their education under a communist regime and in that time nothing encouraged them to take responsibility. You only do what you are told. When they were students, they often had to go out in the field and help when it was needed – without being paid of course. It was just the tradition that you did what you were told to do.
When Niels Frost came to the plant in Slovakia, he could also feel that nothing happened until he had given an order. After some time, he found out that the employees in Slovakia could be cut in salary if they made a mistake.
– This is the practice of many companies down here and this of course entails in people not being very communicative about production and in particular about irregularities in the production. It is fatal especially for a company like ours where equipment failure can cost the patients their lives.
– It turned out that many of the recruited managers were unanimous about the culture of punishment. And the whole culture is characterized by that position although ConvaTec does not cut people in salary if they make mistakes. People slowly began to tell us things and that way we discovered a lot.
The attitude was deeply rooted. Being on a modest salary would make it difficult for many to get by if being cut an additional quarter or half of the salary. Therefore, it is generally the case that no employees tell what may be wrong in the production process. People are scared of accidently singling out each other.
– It was hopeless. It wasn’t possible to get to the bottom of the cases if there were complaints or if the quality control for example had stopped a production process – all kept quiet out of fear of destroying a colleague’s livelihood.
Neither Niels Frost nor the other managers wanted to implement Danish culture in any way as only four out of 672 employees were Danes.
– But in relation to the culture of punishment it was important to change it. We had heard about people – in other workplaces, though – who experienced that the entire salary had been cut for a period of time because there were errors in the production. It goes without saying that here was a portion of conventional thinking to overcome. They all live together in a small town where everyone knows everyone and have been used to help each other. The incomes are modest and the culture is that one good favor deserves another.
If you are about to build a carport or need help with transportation because you have lost your driving license, there is always help at hand. That help will disappear if you have ratted out a colleague at the workplace. Any explanation or clarification regarding the production process is the same as being an informant in the system they know.
Niels Frost began with himself when he started the change of culture.
– For example, all the gifts I have received will automatically go to our shared Christmas lottery. I’m amazed to see the things suppliers sends – wine, meat, VCR’s and so on. I would of course not keep these to myself, but pass them on to the shared lottery. My attitude earned respect and made the distance between the managers and the people on the floor smaller. Then we had come so far.
Culture before lean
In fact, the plant should have begun the change with the introduction of lean.
– But first we had to go in a different direction as it was of no use to talk about lean before the culture of the place was transformed from closed to open. We are talking about a world where everyone have complied and learned to live with the conditions under which they have been oppressed and always characterized by domination from the outside world. So something had to be done to open up that culture.
– To put it frankly, Lars Moeller from ResultPartner was a fantastic coach and psychologist when we needed to change the culture. He didn’t tell us what the solution was. He didn’t tell us that people needed to learn how to gossip about each other. Instead, he took hold of the individual and made plans with him or her. They had to learn to take responsibility for their respective areas. It is possible – and understandable – that one don’t wish to not tell anything about where things have gone wrong in the production process. But then an employee can learn how to start with himself or herself, for example by telling if he has made a mistake or is about to.
– The consultant got them on the right track towards a whole new culture. ResultPartner’s Race®concept was well received. The vast majority ended up being happy to use Race®concept as they could see that it worked. The success was also very much due to a skilled consultant’s work with the psychological mechanisms.
The manager was coached
The plant director has used the ResultPartner consultant to “loosen up a fixed mindset.”
– He is an expert in asking the right questions and getting you to think new and different thoughts if your own thoughts and solutions are beginning to run in circles. Personally, I’m not the ideal person to put in charge of change. I’m very structured, almost with a militaristic approach, and honestly prefer to put everything into boxes. Lars Moeller has led me to see that things that can be different. I might not understand it, but he manages to get someone like me to accept that there was need for a different kind of progress. Similarly, I have seen that he is able to make unstructured people accept the fact that sometimes structure is also needed. These skills are in fact the major strength and advantage behind ResultPartner’s method.
Niels Frost has previously used different consultants – without seeing any greater effect.
– This time it worked, even after the consultant had left. It is very interesting that everything ResultPartner have contributed with stays with us. Race®concept is still onsite as the method works.
To Niels Frost it is obvious that Lars Moeller has been truly interested in the people he had to deal with.
– He is not affected and he doesn’t make 16 somersaults before he gets to the point. That is something people like. He also presents methods in a lively way, has a good body language and is also fun. That is the kind of man we all want to listen to. He is wise on life and interested in the work and the people he has to deal with. Most people know of superficial consultants. Lars Moeller surely doesn’t belong to that category. Sometimes, it can almost become a handicap as he wants to understand everything. He won’t give up.
The precious time
Results must be created faster. The basic philosophy of Race®concept came strongly into play when ResultPartner looked closely at the time at the ConvaTec plant in Michalovce. How much time is spent? And how is the time spent? These became key points for the change of the workflow at the plant.
– “A task takes the time you devote to it.” This is a logic in Race®concept and should be a matter of course everywhere; but that isn’t always the case. I like this principle. For example, 14 days have been devoted to a task or project and then you ask randomly: “Have you started?” And almost automatically the answer is: “No, but we will start in a few days because we have to be ready on Friday.”
A project should not take a month if the task can be performed in two or three days.
– Any company manager will recognize this situation. The human brain is apparently arranged in such a manner that you will wait to the last minute on commencing a task. Race®concept literally challenges the time it takes. This is among other things achieved by dividing the projects and tasks into smaller sizes.
– The philosophy is that things shouldn’t take a month if the task can be performed in two or three days. ResultPartner’s attitude is not meant to imply that people aren’t doing anything in the remaining time. They just want to make sure that the tasks are structured in a more efficient order. In the traditional way of doing things, people will talk a lot back and forth while the task is in progress. If you only have the amount of time it actually takes to do the job, people will work and talk more focused to achieve the results quicker.
– But people haven’t felt pressured or forced to perform more with the new method. On the contrary, they have become happier and have more drive and energy.
Turned a roaring deficit around
The results became visible within five months.
– We turned a roaring deficit to a profit of a few million Euros in five months. And we still achieve good results at the plant in Slovakia. According to the measurements, we have occasionally been the plant with the best performance out of the entire group. The goal is to continue to be in the top three out of 13 plants. Our overall goal we must not be chosen if the senior management has to merge or close plants. While working with the change, we definitively made it clear that we stand for quality and financial security at the plant in Slovakia.
– Our results gave rise to after-effects throughout the entire organization which no one had expected. The senior management expressed that they would wish they had done this two years earlier. We were dealing with a pure cultural change. The plant became so efficient that the total number of employees went from 1000 to 670. The same quantity was produced by fewer people.
– People were basically willing and happy about the change. They had co-determination in the process and a healthy competitive spirit was also created. But it was of course hard to announce layoffs in a time where it actually went well for the plant. Now, I look forward to a time where I can bring more positive news. Only then, people will finally understand that the big cultural change has been necessary for us to be competitive at the big market.
The management at the plant in Slovakia aims to be the most attractive workplace in the region.
Optimal preparation and planned high goals at ConvaTec in Slovakia turned a roaring deficit into a profit of couple million Euros in five months.
– We have luxury goods which aren’t found in most other businesses in the area. These include pension, insurance, lunch arrangements, summer parties, Christmas dinners and above all good safety and working conditions.
Eliminate the tedious report meetings
Niels Frost sees the weekly Race Meetings as one of the great benefits after eliminating the conventional way of thinking and the normal workflows.
– I call them the weekly stand-up meetings. Here people tell what has happened during the week in relation to our strategic plans and whether they intend to adjust anything. They have to take responsibility and be part of the process. Previously, it was really a matter boring report meetings where I as the manager simply stood there and talked and listened in between. And no one claims responsibility of anything when the manager speaks. This is well known in most places.
– The stand-up meetings are much more dynamic and people listen more carefully than they do at the traditional table talks or when the manager does his monologue. Now, I’m mostly functioning as a coach for the employees. I need to figure out whether they have experienced any obstacles during the week, whether I can help them and whether they intend to make necessary adjustments.
– Here, it isn’t possible to make excuses or pass on the problem to someone else if the planned activities are not implemented. And namely this part of Race®concept has been a huge exercise. It takes a lot of coaching to overcome excuses. I must get people to see that instead they have to let me know upfront if they can see that they can’t keep to the schedule. The maneuvre is to get them to get an overview quicker and then if necessary put their foot down while there’s still time. This allows us to make some other decisions instead of waiting till the last minute.
– To make it clear, I usually use the example of suppliers who don’t deliver on time. It usually costs the same to deliver late, but it is poor service not to notify in a timely manner. Communicate honestly from the start so everyone can adapt to the possible situation.
The Race®concept process is long and intense, but Niels Frost doesn’t believe he could have achieved the same success without the process.
– I have to recommend it as you have to be a very old, fierce and conservative person not to be converted and won over by Lars Moeller from ResultPartner, says Niels Frost.
A break with the culture of punishment
The way to spend time and the culture of punishment are prominent elements at the ConvaTec plant in Slovakia and became important focal points for ResultPartner’s work with the plant.
– The culture was deeply rooted. To live in a system where your salary can be cut in case of errors doesn’t in any way motivate employees to implement change. In these cases, we must use a dramatic approach and often change the company’s basic rules and incentive structures, says Lars Moeller.
The focus is making the individual understand that this doesn’t concern gossiping about errors and irregularities in the production process. On the other hand, you also need to make each person understand that the situation is unsustainable and in the longer run will cause the company to be poor at competing. One could say that they did two trivial and basic things at the plant in Slovakia: they didn’t punish or expose the employees. Naturally, they weren’t cut in salary either.
– And then a significant effort was made to coach managers and employees into understanding the need of taking responsibility for themselves and their own effort, says Lars Moeller from ResultPartner.
When time is crucial
Time was also crucial at the plant in Slovakia. Too many projects and tasks were disturbed by the fact that there was devoted too much time for them.
– There was a tradition of putting a lot of space in between each activity in the project plans. At first, this may seem wise, but the result was that people just waited until the last minute before they started the activities – just as with assignments in school. You wait until the last minute. Often, we saw that there had been put so much space into the plans that employees and managers lost their focus on the plans. Therefore, a lot of time was spent on recapitulating when the project was set in motion again. It is a well-known situation. It takes too long to get into gear again. You should start out by saying that you dedicate yourself fully to this project. The implementation would thus happen much more efficiently and over a shorter period of time.
In Slovakia, the projects had gradually become slow and inefficient. This had created a culture of a slow pace that managers and employees had distanced themselves from.
– In the real world, it is not always possible to force the pace. But a new and different way of thinking may help turn up the pace and helt ensure that you merge some tasks and realize how much time each task actually takes. For example, two pieces will always be more efficient than seven pieces. It is about completing tasks in a shorter and more concentrated period of time. If you don’t do that, you will deal with a whole lot else in the meantime. When you continue with the task, you almost have to start from scratch and begin to recapitulate to know how far you actually were in the process. Way too much time is spent on the recapitulation at the workplaces.
Follow-up by the consultant
As part of the Race Process, ResultPartner introduced a new method for planning projects.
– Our role with Race®concept was basically to have all the different plans and initiatives executed. Several consulting firms were involved in the plant at the same time and all of them were obviously eager to get their method implemented. Our role was basically concentrated on “energizing” all these methods and creating real results with them. It is certainly our experience that absent results rarely are due to wrong methods. The good results depend on the consultant’s ability to get the organization to use the methods with dedication. Consultants must simply decide people need to have completed the tasks.
– We have no problems with empowering tools that others have implemented. For example, we note that several companies have thrown quite a lot of money on training their organization without even getting an outcome that corresponds to the investment. This applies to lean among others. In practice, we note that much work with lean ended up in talks about tools, post-it notes and dull morning meetings to try to engage managers and employees without this actually working. Difficult concepts such as Kanban, Value Stream Mapping and Push-Pull principles do in fact make the implementation very difficult. Therefore, the trick is to get people to see the real purpose of lean. In this way, the results will come.
Structure and humanism
In most of ResultPartner’s execution tasks, the task is to supplement the competence of the senior management when it comes to changing its managers. A person with a scientific or engineering approach must be made to understand how to also work in a humanistic world.
On the other hand, a person with a strong humanistic background usually needs more structure and understanding of the process to achieve the ability to set goals and divide them into to some specific plans.
– It is our experience that people often lack perspective and expectations for business results if the process or the strategic initiative stem from HR. The final result is not thought through – that is, what should the company gain from this? On the other hand, you are aware of what to expect when the initiative comes from the business side. In return, this side is less focused on the process itself. You don’t really consider how the organization should be involved to actually make the new methods and strategies happen. Niels Frost, who comes from the business side, had no problems setting up goals, but he had trouble focusing on the process, says Lars Moeller.
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