Diamond Cutting:

Volume 132, No. 48  - Friday, May 30, 2008

In the days before lasers, diamond cutters would study a rough stone carefully, looking for seams in the complex crystalline structure. Only after careful study would they select the seam that is most likely to yield the best result.

Carefully placing the chisel so chisel and seam align, without further hesitation, they would strike forcefully.

Hesitation at the moment of the strike can be disastrous. There was no other way but careful study, careful placement then one swift, forceful swing of a hammer.

Businesses, like all things, have their cycles; each with unique challenges. None is more delicate than the challenges faced late in a well-established cycle.

Whereas carefully planned baby steps are preferred as agents of change in most situations, the way in which the business functions can crystallize over the years. Sometimes, after great care and study, when a single seam can be uncovered, a forceful gesture will produce the best results; a gesture made wholly and completely and without hesitation.

Too often, top management is comfortable with the way things are, and resistant to change; especially if everything has come to depend on them. The illusion of control is hard to surrender. The system fits their needs, and has worked for years!

But everything comes to an end, and smart operators prepare well in advance for change. As Dr. Deming points out, a company can work wonderfully and be very profitable for years with the saying if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but if they make carburetors and someone invents the fuel injector they are out of business!

James Manning, of Edco Foods of Green Bay, WI, and RES Internacional SA of Saucillo, Chihauhau State, in Mexico, is someone who understands clearly that it is better to prepare for future than just let it happen. (James will be familiar to anyone who cares about the quality of the peppers in their cheese.) I had the honor of being invited by him to do a consultation.

I am not a liberty to share too many details, and he will have read this and given his consent to print, but I must share the pleasure it was for me to be able bring to bear the full arsenal of my training, abilities and experience to help James study the crystalline seams in his enterprise, RES Internacional to help clarify in what direction, and how hard to swing to affect real change.

Leadership takes courage; courage to recognize help is needed and to find the right resources, and the will to listen and change. It is not so easy to invite a stranger in, and should be legitimate concerns over who and what they bring to the table. It is never without drama, as pent up frustrations are released and old wounds allowed to begin the healing process.

I taught classes on how to supervise and manage based on my philosophy which I call “Managing by Natural Law.” We studied Dr. Deming’s groundbreaking work “Out of the Crisis,” and parts of the extremely helpful “The Toyota Way” by Prof. Jeffrey Liker.

We sat for many hours discussing, studying, talking, sitting with the Mexican team of managers, both together and one on one; drawing people out to understand the hidden “truth” that needed to addressed to create positive change: the diamond in the rough.

I preach using the scientific method to examining problems: studying factual evidence, suggesting solutions then testing them to see if they work. For this work, James had been prepared in advance by his son, Ed Manning, who, in addition to working with his father has more than a casual understanding of statistical process control, as a safety and quality auditor for three of the best known quality labs in the country.

As well, the management team of RES Internacional in Chihuahua is made up of positive, bright, well-educated people and supported by a squadron of what Dr. Deming so aptly called “willing workers.” And it is not that they didn’t function well before. Times were changing, and James wanted to be able to step back some from the day to day operations.

We were able to move with lightning speed in finding the “seam.” As always it involved communication. There is an old German saying that the fish starts stinking from the head, so if you want to solve a problem, you need to go to the head of the fish. While the saying is a bit too harsh here, the spirit of solving by starting at the top rung true.

On my third day in Chihuahua, at breakfast, Mr. Manning and I discussed what I had observed, and where I thought the best point of attack was. Grasping things without hesitation he swung hard and struck the mark, and while the dust is still clearing, RES Industries has turned down the road towards growing from good company into a better one, a real gem, ready for the future.

Within days they were well into the process of developing their own homegrown version of a “Learning Company”: a fact driven process focused company set up to clarify and eliminate the wasteful use of people, machines and product and continuously add value for their customers.

And their definition of customer had changed. They now understood that the next person in line in the flow of raw material to consumer is their direct customer, and they have the responsibility to add value to that customer; so procurement’s customer is production, they have to add value to the production crew, their next customer in line. Likewise production has to add value to shipping, and shipping to the office and the office to sales and sales to the company's final customer, the cheese company that buys their peppers.

Working in three languages, English, Spanish and my not quite perfect Portuguese we played leadership games, explored the method of Plan Do Check Act and how to apply the lessons of Toyota production to cultivating, fermenting and selling peppers. But the most impressive thing was their immediate desire to put what had been learned into action, to solve problems, meaty problems and coming up with real solutions.

Communcation is almost always at the source of problems. Managers and supervisors are rarely trained in what works and doesn’t work in supervising and managing people.

As I was to repeat often that week, most companies take their best worker and make them manager, losing a good employee and getting a bad manager in return. One of the pleasant surprises for me was the number of people at the plant who had studied Dr. Deming in school: well educated employees, some with degrees in engineering, microbiology, and other sciences.

Not many know the name Fredrick Winslow Taylor, but they put into practice his severely limited theories every day. What my hosts have done required swiftness and resolve.

I want to personally thank the Mannings, Silvia Román Sáenz, partner in RES Internacional and general manager, (who had won the Business Woman of the year for the State of Chihuahua), as well as Javier Grajeda, a strong clear thinking and charismatic manager who gets to the point, Darren Humphrey, a thoughtful and productive production manager, and Raul Rodriguez, who works directly with the farmers, and the rest of the team: Ramon, Francisco, and Rosy, too many names to list here: a whole host of willing workers.

Which is not to say that bumpy roads don’t lie ahead. The needed change was in communication, with one generation changing its role from commander to wise council, allowing those who will have to assume leadership in the future the opportunity to grow while they can be carefully tended to help avoid pitfalls. The beginning of a new cycle is fragile; much work remains.

Real change takes three to five years to become the habit, and the danger remains of falling back on familiar ways. But the courage to face life as it is, to work to reveal the truth in any situation and deal with it humanistically is the royal road to long-term survival as a business. •

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at dan@danstrongin.com


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