These are some companies where my unique approach helped us raise morale, productivity, safety, and profitability. You don’t have to take my word for it – refer to “What Others Say”!
Plumbing Company Gets a New Life!
In 2011, I met with the owner of a medium-sized plumbing and heating contractor, who wanted me to help him take the company to the next level of performance. I felt a little daunted by the assignment since it was so broad and somewhat undefined. First I set up individual meetings with each of the 20 or so employees and also attended their weekly group meeting with the owner. What emerged from all this was serious inefficiency in their dispatch function. The technicians working in the field were getting insufficient and/or inaccurate information from the dispatcher. As a result, they spent unnecessary time chasing tools and supplies they could have taken with them when they left the shop if they’d known more about the job. We worked with the technicians to assemble a list of the information they needed. Then we worked with the dispatcher to be sure he acquired and delivered that information to the technicians. Of course operational efficiency improved, as did morale.
More generally, we worked with the members of the group to help them see the value of more positive approaches to their relationships with each other. With that insight, they gradually became a more cohesive team, ready to move on to greater accomplishments. See Steve Labbe’s testimonial for the owner’s take on this experience.
Union Movement Thwarted!
From 2001-2010 I held various positions with Wiggins Airways, who provides small-aircraft “feeder” service to major air freight carriers.
In 2007 I became Chief Pilot, responsible for a group of pilots who were seriously demoralized. They felt they had no voice and were mere cogs in a machine, and their unenthusiastic performance reflected that. Building an effective team from this dejected group seemed a monumental task.
My boss and I began a program of personally visiting each of the pilots (challenging, since they were widely scattered geographically, and flew widely varying schedules). We listened to their concerns, updated their information on the company’s progress, and followed up with individual positive comments whenever we could find an excuse to.
Within a few months they began to understand that each of them was important to the performance of the company. With that mindset, they began to take their performance much more seriously – productivity, safety, and on-time delivery improved markedly. There was a palpable improvement in camaraderie and morale.
Another factor in helping these people feel more “loved” was my rigor in timely returning phone calls, emails, etc. When someone leaves a message, it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of recognizing it, or the folly in ignoring it. This is hugely important in helping people recognize that they matter as individuals!
A union-organizing effort simply disappeared. Who needs a union when you, as an individual, have direct access to your leaders, and they respond? See testimonials from Wiggins management and several pilots.
Americans/Indonesians, Engineers/Geologists – Different Cultures!
At VICO Indonesia, a large gas and oil exploration and production operation, I became Operations Manager in 1992. I was responsible for oversight and coordination of 5 operating departments. These five departments included about 600 employees and hundreds of contracted people.
First I spent a few weeks acquiring a “feel” for the operation and how work flowed in the field. I soon realized that cooperation was lacking between Drilling and Production. This was a serious detriment to efficient operation. I considered my next move carefully. Finally I began working with the Department Managers and their key people, helping them see each others’ issues and understand the value of cooperating with each other. The result was much improved production, cost efficiency, and safety. See “About John Stevens” for the story of my personal breakthrough during this experience.
During the year prior to this assignment, I served as Vice President, Technical Services, where we developed the programs for the exploration and production operations described above. There, what gradually emerged from my observation of the work was that there were two “camps”. The engineers were in one department and the geologists in another. First I attempted to work within that structure to improve communication between the two departments.
When I saw that wasn’t bearing fruit, we decided to reorganize the engineers and geologists into multidisciplinary teams. Each team “owned” a field, and bought into its effective development. This teamwork led to more efficient designing of our exploitation programs.
Here are a few examples of situations where I was able to improve morale and retain employees we might have otherwise lost, in the company I described above where I was Chief Pilot.
Valuable Pilot Resigns…
A few months into my Chief Pilot assignment, a several-year very satisfactory-performing pilot sends me a resignation letter – a total surprise to me.
This pilot has been a reliable, mostly uncomplaining, competent performer and I think he’s an important asset to the company. So I call him and ask what prompted his proposed resignation. He explains that he feels he was, in several instances, unjustly passed over for consideration of a base assignment he very much wants. He’s decided to pursue other business interests which will suit him better geographically.
I asked him to give me some time to dig into the background of his situation. Interviews with two former Chief Pilots and this pilot result in a very clouded picture. What promises were made? What considerations resulted in the decisions that were made? I couldn’t be sure.
I explain to him that I can’t judge the validity of the various claims (and we can’t undo anything anyway). Also I mention that I’m very impressed with his performance and reliability. I ask, “What could I do that would make your continuing service a workable option for you?” Tellingly, his response is, “Nobody ever talked that way to me or asked me that before. Let me think about it and get back to you.”
…But We Keep Him!
During the next few days, he and I discuss his situation. The assignment we currently have for him is less than totally satisfactory to him. Nevertheless, he agrees to continue, based on my assurance that I will respectfully consider any concerns he has. Again I remind him that he is an important and respected member of our team.
In the ensuing years, we have one circumstance where he interprets that the base assignment he wants should be given him. His interpretation of that is, in my assessment, incorrect and I respectfully explain to him why we can’t displace another pilot for his benefit. He accepts that explanation. A few months later, he accepts an assignment to replace a departed pilot in another location which suits him very well. He continues as a productive, dedicated, and happy member of the Wiggins team.
Without this careful attention to respecting an employee’s legitimate concerns, the company would have lost a valuable asset.
Slow Learner Becomes Valuable Asset!
We hire a pilot with quite varied experience, but none in the aircraft types we operate. During his initial training he seems very slow to gain facility in the aircraft we operate. I set up a conference with him and the instructor he’s working with. They both report that they are compatible personalities. The instructor reports considerable frustration with the slow progress. The new pilot states very confidently that he learns slowly but thoroughly. Could we be patient and allow him a few more hours to get “up to speed”?
During his initial ground school, which I had conducted, I’d gained an appreciation for this gentleman’s sincerity and professionalism. I decide, despite some resistance from Company management, that we should continue with his flight training.
Transition training completed, he becomes an invaluable team member. He is always ready to cover last minute sick calls, maintenance rescue missions to inconvenient places at inconvenient times, etc.. His pilot performance is impeccable. When he is called to do something, he invariably shows up with a smile and quietly does whatever needs to be done.
After a couple of years, he qualifies on a second aircraft type and with that becomes even more valuable. He becomes a top-performing team member we could have lost had we insisted on qualification in some arbitrary training time.