Communication and persistence can make almost impossible assignments happen.

October 17, 2009

Some years ago, I got the project to set up a fish processing operation in Klemtu on the central coast of British Columbia. Some agreement had been made a couple of years earlier, as the whole project started with the set up of fish farms.

For the processing, we needed to not only equip the plant, but also train the staff of this small coastal community isolated on an island with no road connection to the mainland. Therefore, the logistics were quite adverse: an isolated island with about no choice of carriers except the one that had been appointed on a sea that is often dangerous to the point that barges do not even venture on it. The risk was that the fresh fish could be stuck and not be delivered on time. Of course, that would have been unacceptable for our customers, who were located thousands of km away.

When it came to the facilities, the local community was providing for the plant, meaning a very basic building with no specific equipment for salmon processing. In the plant’s yard we had to browse through a pile of old tables and pipes to figure out something. Since volumes were starting rather low, it would not have been sensible to buy automated processing equipment, because the cost per pound of fish would have been horrendous. Further, the isolation of the place would have made any call for a technician about useless, as it would have taken him a couple of days to be on the premises. All the work was to be manual.

The equipment was probably the easiest part, though. We needed to train the staff to modern food production and educate them about to all aspects of food safety and quality, as they had never been exposed to this. Everyone who has dealt with First Nations knows that they are dealing with a number of social issues and poor physical health and condition, unfortunately the result of past colonization and the destruction of their traditional society. As such, this exercise was a great way of merging two worlds and recreating a feeling of community between this village and the international food business including large retailers and food service companies in the US and Canada.

We developed the training program covering all theoretical aspects as well as the practical realities of fish processing. A few chosen crew members were sent to an experienced fish plant to get exposure to modern processing. We set up an exam to have an incentive for the potential employees to study our material. As it appeared the day of the exam, half of the students did not show up and someone explained to me that some felt uncomfortable with writing. Of course, this was an awkward situation and there was a chance of losing some of the workforce, which is not good when that workforce is already limited, and replacement not easy to find. I turned this around by giving only one collective grade. After all, I had repeated so many times that this would be teamwork, what better example could I find to illustrate that than giving the team the grade, instead of individual marks?

Considering how important it is to gut and cut the fish properly, I was more interested in the quality of the work than the productivity at first. Once they would master the technique, we could think of increasing the pace of the processing line. So, we started with the equivalent of half a truck the first day, and the second half for the following day. In a normal plant, a full truck was processed in five hours in those days. I was expecting that our first half load would be done in eight hours at most. The reality came out quite differently. After two hours, the staff got physically tired and I could notice that moment when all the shoulders started to drop. After eight hours, many of the workers went back home because they were tired. We finished the first production day in thirteen hours! The second day was even worse with some people not showing up at all, and it took 23 hours! The situation looked lost. However, my sense of persistence made me refuse to give up so quickly. I re-planned the next round of harvests to be only a third of a truck per processing day. This was the magical number, and from there, our staff was able to work within normal hours, and get more productive, while producing the proper quality. Within two weeks after this, they were able to process a full truck in 9 hours! What a turn-around! As production volumes were increasing, we were able to justify for the purchase of machines to help speeding up the operation and by then we were able to process fish as quickly as any other regular plant.

As time went by, some of the locals showed capacities to take charge of more and more things, and even the original agreement was clearly that management activities had to be carried out by non-locals, we created several positions that they could fill successfully.

Yet, beyond the business case, the most valuable experience for me had been to see activity coming back in a community plagued by 80% unemployment before this project started. Getting work did not only give them money, but it helped them become healthier, with many of the employees recovering from diabetes. The most important of all was a boosted self-esteem, as they found a new purpose in their lives.

They felt successful, happy and fulfilled again!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


I want to hear laughter!

June 17, 2009

Here is the best anti-stress medicine I know: laughter. I have applied it in my professional life as well as in my personal life and it works superbly, and there is no negative side effects known to man.

Hahaha!I have spent a long part of my career in industries dealing with perishable products. Per definition, such products cannot be stored for very long and this makes the business dynamics quite intense, and often stressful, as “everything must go” and for a profit, mind you. Therefore, my assignment to them, next to (or I should say as part of) doing the job was to make me hear some laughter. It did not matter what the reason would be, as long as there would be fun. In that line of work, we were lucky to be able to find many reasons to laugh because we were dealing with colorful characters and we could easily find the funny absurdities of the business. The head office would involuntarily also provide for much material to us as well. If my staff would not laugh frequently enough to my liking, I would pop in and bring some craziness of my own to help them out.
The results were amazing. With a small team (comparatively to other units of the company or to competitors), we were able to deliver a performance second to none, we were able to solve more problems than the others were, and we were having fun. Even as we worked long hours, nobody burned out. On the contrary, success was constantly bring new and more energy to our team. Once again, the boring, unimaginative and bureaucratic HR department was wrong.
Managing is getting things done by your team. Therefore, you had better take good care of your people, and the best way to do that is to have them laugh on the job. It means that they are having fun, and when you are having fun at work, it does not feel like work. Good managers know what is right for their business. Have them laugh!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Energizing frustrated employees

May 11, 2009

Here is one of my favorite ways to help the staff focused on work, and not get distracted for too long by the frustrations that their work sometimes causes them.

Tensed

We had two main rules:
1) There had to be a good reason, as I had no interest to be disturbed for insignificant problems. After all, my staff had to be able to deal with most issues themselves.
2) They would make sure that I would be available at that very moment and, if not then, we would agree on a time to review the matter. “Can I come in and vent?” would be the password.

This technique has delivered wonders, and the funny thing about it is that in most cases I hardly had to say much at all. I just would ask a few questions about what, who, how, when or why and they would tell me all about the issue.
In most cases, they would know how to solve the problem that had arisen, but they actually were looking more for support and confirmation that they had the right solution in mind.

Back to SerenityThis is just an example of how important presence and availability are in managing people. If you have done your hiring properly and brought in the right people in the right jobs, they will understand very quickly how to do what is expected from them and deliver the performance that meets, and in most cases exceeds the targets. The role of the manager in such a situation is a little comparable with a shepherd. You keep a good oversight of your troops, but if any one wanders in the wrong direction, you just bring him/her back on the right track.

Further, once people have vented, they can “breathe” normally again and they will get back to work, not only happier than before the session, but actually energized to go out there and deliver more results.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Everyone has potential, just allow them to show you!

May 11, 2009

j0414117[1]To illustrate this, I cannot think of a better example than one of my employees when I was in the aquaculture business.
She used to work for the accounting department of a different division, and her performance was not great. At that time, I needed someone to help us out with administrative tasks and with the processing of information.
I was offered to hire her, although all the negative feedback I had heard was not encouraging. Fortunately for her, the manager under which she was working, was not exactly an example of trustworthiness or integrity, and I decided to meet her and see for myself who she really was.
I remember meeting her on a ferry to one of the islands off the coast of Vancouver Island. She was sitting in her car and did not expect much good from me, as I am known as quite straight forward and decisive.
Anyway, we had our meeting, which went rather well, and I decided to have her meet further with the rest of my team to discuss the operational needs a bit more in details. As there still was some hesitation about her real abilities, I decided to give her a chance, under the condition that we would review her performance after 3 months and then decide. If the performance was satisfactory, she would stay; if not she would go.
And what a transformation! From an unmotivated and dull person, she turned into a dynamic and resourceful collaborator. She did an amazing work, had a great productivity and came with many great ideas on how to process and present the information we gathered.
Later, the person to whom she was reporting (who reported to me) surprised us with a change of attitude for the worst, and unfortunately, I could not have her to tell me what the reasons of that change were. After several attempts to get her getting back to her former self, it appeared that this would not work, and I fired her, which left a hole in a rather sensitive position. I went to the other lady, and asked her if she felt she could take over from her supervisor. She was a little hesitant about a fairly big step forward, but as I guaranteed her that I would fill in temporarily for the areas that she did not master, yet, she agreed to take the plunge.
It was a position with much more responsibility and that needed decisiveness and authority, as she basically had the mandate to stop the plant if production was not in order. And once again, what a beautiful transformation it was!
She not only adapted to a higher position, but delivered a quality of work that I rarely had seen elsewhere, and I had been in quite a few many places!
She became the best QA Manager in the seafood business that I have met in British Columbia, and she has survived 2 mergers where I am sure she was in competition with people who had a much more solid academic background. She now is in charge of Food Safety for the largest salmon farming company in BC (and in the world)
All that was needed, was for her to have the chance to be able what she really was made of, and that would have never showed up on her resume. It was selection on the job, in the real world!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Too old to change. Or was he really?

May 11, 2009

As the Sales Director of the poultry plant, I also was managing our sales office in Germany.
The problem with that unit was that it had not generated any new significant customer for years, and as we were growing aggressively, we needed to grow in Germany as well as we were in our other markets.
Many discussions and meetings further, I came to the conclusion that the German sales office was simply useless and that we should sell to the German customers directly from our plants in The Netherlands and in Belgium.
Of course, this was a very bumpy situation. My superiors trusted my judgment, but were quite afraid of losing business in Germany (our largest market), which the General Manager of the sales office was of course not missing to tell them over and over. After all his job was on the line…
Anyway, the decision to shut the sales office was made and we had to figure out the next step.
Most customers were very old relationships, and this was important to take that into account when deciding who to appoint as the sales person for Germany. From the whole office in Germany, we decided that we should keep only one person for sales, the nine other employees would go.
There were two inside sales persons, and two sales reps. Quickly, the two inside sales persons did not make the cut and were eliminated. The 2 sales reps were very different. One was a young fellow, quite aggressive, well-connected and able to move large volumes, although quite a bit of a loose cannon, and with the tendency to yield to the customers when it came to price. Lots of volume but not much margin.
The other sales rep was in his early 50’s, a very good relationship manager, but with no track record of developing new accounts for a long time. General opinion was that he would get good prices but low volumes. General thinking was also that he was to old to change and adapt to the new strategy, and would be useless to the organization.
Yet, I chose the latter sales person, even though I shared the same worries as everyone else, but I knew one thing: he would listen and do as told, and he would bring a sense of continuity and trust to the existing customers.
We decided to keep him, and I would spend quite some time in Germany with him, visit all existing customers and accompany him in some new prospecting activities.
I presented him the sales plan, the objectives and the timelines and there we went. He simply became the best salesman we had. From a very apathetic and almost unproductive salesman, he turned into a dynamic, entrepreneurial and enthusiastic representative that brought new business, and lots of it. In the first year, our sales grew in Germany by 24%, while the industry average was only 2%. His performance was stimulating the other sales people, including me, to perform better in their respective markets.
He was not too old. He just had lost passion, because he had no clear idea of what was expected from him. In the new structure, this changed, and then he could do what he was good at: selling! And he did a great job, because by then he had become happy at work!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The hopeless rude guy from Planning

May 11, 2009

When I became Sales Director of the poultry processing plant, I also supervised the Inside Sales/Planning/Logistics Department.
One of the employee of that department was causing quite a few conflicts with the Production Department, mostly because of very poor communication skills. Requests sounded more like barking and politeness was a scarce commodity from his side.
That problem probably should have been addressed a long time ago, but OK, I had to deal with it now.
All I got was criticism about his conduct and “fire him!” kind of advice. Yet, he had many years of experience and had quite a lot of knowledge. That bothered me to just take the short cut and let him go.
So, I had a meeting first with him alone and later with his supervisor. In the first meeting, I addressed the problems and made him clear that I wanted to understand what caused him to act the way he did. With his supervisor, we reviewed his job description and analyzed what he liked and what he did not like about his tasks.
And bingo! We discovered that he felt very uncomfortable dealing with foreign customers having to speak in languages he did not master. The stress of the phone ringing and hear someone speaking German or English was just too much for him and he reacted his stress on his colleagues.
We decided to remove the customer contact from him, allocate that to another employee who actually enjoyed the sales side more than the production side, and dedicate our difficult friend more to the technical and planning side of production. Within days, I was receiving positive feedback from production people who were wondering what I had done to him, because now he was such a pleasure to work with.
And for him, as he was in his late 40’s, we also avoided a painful layoff that might have had severe personal consequences.
He was now doing what he liked and what he was best at. And he became very happy at work!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.