"All things being equal, if you had to choose between an engineer with
highly trained technical competence but only average ability to motivate and
manage people and an engineer of only average technical ability but with superb
abilities to motivate and organize people, who would you choose to manage one of
After an ambitious six year cultural change effort involving a number of nitrogen plants spread over the United States and overseas, one engineer CEO did not hesitate: "Before I started this cultural change business, I had a number of technically superior engineers running my plants; frankly, they were not doing well; reliability was either going down or operating at unsatisfactory levels. I realized that I didn't really understand this process of "people change" all that well myself. I learned that the culture of a plant was a system. Like any mechanical system, it had logic and was open to intervention and change. I had to face the fact that most engineer-managers don't understand that human process is a system open to direct intervention.
Looking back over this six year period, he said, "When I could get my technically trained people to come on board in seeing cultural change in their plants as a process, a process that can and needs to be managed and; when they understood that people function systemically and have a domain logic and way of thinking on their own, they became wonderful managers. We had to move some managers to other positions; they could not grasp that such intervention was possible or that their knowledge of systems was a key to being a good manager of people."
Time and dollar expensive "Miracle weekends" and "people managing intensives" ended in the same way: the manager returns from a very expensive workshop. After a few days of motivated interaction with employees, the old way of organizing and motivating workers returns to previous patterns where employees just "don't respond to spec."
Successful corporate leaders have only recently set aside the "great leader concept. This is the idea that leaders are born and will be great no matter what the context. Unique aspects of a specific plant domain and the personality of a particular manager are washed over by the "logical" analogy to the transferability of technical competence. "Look, technical competence is technical competence," they say. "A good alignment man will be good no matter what the plant scenario." Back at corporate, the challenges of ever more stringent competition in times of declining capital budgets and other resource constraints makes such common sense analogies painfully simplistic. Corporate leaders eager to make equally dramatic change in this more complex milieu find no such easy transferability.
Against all this complexity, there is one point of consensus: CEOs and managers who discount the importance of context and culture in positive change efforts are "planning to fail." Fresh contract signed, the newly hired manager confronts a wall of inertia and a river of disbelief when he is told about "the way we do things around here." They realize the importance of systemic change too late; in forgetting their training, they learn that firing a manager and getting a new "hot-shot" doth not a new plant make."
What is wrong here? If weekend workshop makeovers and hiring a new manager are not equal to making a plant a more competitive global player, what is the answer? CEOs around the world have learned some basics:
Managers must be made to feel the increasing pressure and hear the harsh questions so much a part of corporate leaders' life. Stockholders and stakeholders ask "Why invest more in a plant that can't achieve levels of plant reliability with current plant assets or even keep its best workers?" The challenge of enacting flexible adaptation to the complexity of radically changing global scenarios can only be met on the plant level. The CEO's yearly requests for higher capital budgets can only be written in the continual upgrading of social capital at the plant level. Successful CEOs will have managers who can skillfully combine the expansion of the physical assets budget with the intentional upgrading of the social assets of each individual plant.
That flexibility will only come at the hands of the engineer manager who sees the social asset as being at least equal to the systemic complexity and intelligibility of the physical asset. They must see their workers as acting within an intricate web of constantly interacting individuals who understand "the way we do things around here." Like any system, they will "respond to changed spec" of a new change only if the intervention into that system is done with a clear understanding of its plant-specific rules, roles and rituals. However, there is little hope that change "down in the plant" will be equal to the market changes the CEOs confront unless they comprehend and believe two central concepts:
At the very top of today's marketplace demands is the requirement of employee flexibility. The renewed demand for flexibility can only be met with plant level investment in employee centered initiative and customer-centric responses.
Before any intentions are planned, the successful engineer manager
will reevaluate his own current beliefs about the people he depends on to
make that success real. Most managers never consider that when they are
withholding information about a cash flow problem, giving pep talks, or
preventing employees from hearing customer complaints, they are acting out their
intent to control and manipulate employees based on a belief that the employees
are incapable or unwilling, or just not bright enough to respond constructively
to the information.
Engineers as managers must confront entrenched disbelief about employee capacity and willingness to contribute. They must understand how the social systems that make up the culture were created by a multitude of factors not the least of which are the history of management practices and employee responses to them in their particular plant.. Understanding the site-specific and systemic nature of these relationships and communications will reveal the beginning of an answer to achieving the internal commitment and intrinsic motivation the manager seeks. He will realize that the answer lies in his understanding of plant culture in general and of his plant in particular. The manager must begin to look at himself and his role within a frame of new demands for flexibility - a demand for flexibility not all that different from the one he wants to see in his employees' responses.
In this new global scenario, flexible and committed employees will not be approached as easily manipulated, woefully unaligned objects but as complex human beings capable of initiating breakthroughs in efficiency, cost and quality as a second-nature response. From the manager's point of view, the intention to achieve high levels of flexibility begins with his own beliefs and understandings. He must actively structure this internal commitment and the rationale for it into daily operations as an unquestioned but deeply understood and appreciated assumption. CEOs and managers must invest in people and relationships rather than hard-wired positions and motivational workshops. They must find accountability and responsibility in the web of relationships of unique individuals working through a unique, domain-centered culture.
Practically translated, this means that when customers have a problem, they don't have to wrestle layers of management to get it solved. Employees act as agents of the business actively seeking ways to improve the customer experience and business profitability. We see examples of this in companies like Toyota where continual improvement is a way of being, or cultural attribute. Managers do not demand it, or manipulate it into being; they simply enable it to occur by creating the environment that engenders such attitudes and behavior.
Again, meeting the increasing demands for flexibility in our rapidly altering global markets will demand more flexible managerial responses to both physical and social assets. Like all effective change approaches, positive combination of belief and intention begins at the top, is experienced at the bottom and is realized in the bottom line. This will require:
How must the engineer as manager change?
In a traditional supplier-controlled market world, manager soon learn that to obtain results they must "hold people accountable" as if that will somehow create some breakthrough in compliance behavior. The get-that-SOB-in- my-office management style has moved from merely being annoying to being seriously lethal to a plant's survival The CEO, quoted at the beginning of this article, "moved engineer managers over" when they could not be convinced that their primary role and priority responsibility was that of listener and a facilitator. This new role requires a new level of flexibility in his beliefs about the nature of his relationship with his employees and the utilization web of relationships that chronically produce and reproduce "how we do things around here."
Continuous improvement begins in this web of relationships and in the culture those relationships spawn. Flexibility in response to variety and change begins and ends in these relationships and the specific culture of his plant domain. The engineer as manager must set aside his belief in the easy transferability of models for change appropriate only to physical assets. However, once this is accomplished, the highly trained and self-developed excellence of the engineers' comprehensions of systems and legendary comes to the fore in amazing ways. When this understanding of systems and the ability to innovate ever more complex solutions is combined with new beliefs about human process as a system of relationships open to intelligent intervention, the engineer as manager is without equal and, ultimately, will be in greatest demand. At this point of self-realization these professionals will be the best candidates for the management of people inside plants or inside the board room.