Effecting Change

August 28, 2019

When I was Director of Operations of the Industrial Products division at Avery Label (now Avery Dennison Inc), my reports included four general managers (plant managers with P&Ls) and an HQ staff of Special Project MBAs (GMs in training). The plants were in Monrovia, CA; Cleveland, OH; New Brunswick, NJ; and Chicago, IL. As an extra duty, I was tasked with creating and staffing a greenfield startup to house the implementation of our proprietary new technology, 6-colour rotary U.V. silk screening, designated the Avery 1150. Of the 600 personnel in the division, upwards of 450 were reporting to my management team.


Getting to the point, the NJ plant was not profitable. Directly related to these results was a really bad rift between the local management and the union (some part of the AFL-CIO, as I recall). “What should I do?” I struggled one Sunday afternoon, as I sat alone in my den at home.


The next day I decided to call Giovanni, the union official working in New York City and was over 100 union locals (and the local presidents). The union president of the local in the NJ plant reported to him. “I would like to meet with you regarding the performance of the Avery NJ operation.” He agreed and we set up a meeting, for a week later.


Residing in California, the only thing I knew about east coast unions was unflattering folklore. Most of you can conjure up your own images; some might include stories of links to organised crime.


I arrived in New York and made my way to the restaurant he suggested. It was one where you need to walk up half a flight of stairs to reach the entry. It was 11 am and there were not many people around. I walked through the door and announced that I was there to meet Mr Giovanni. I was shown to a private room, that could seat 50 people, but it was just for the two of us. I am thinking to myself, “No one knows where the ‘hell’ I am.” Some scary movie clips quickly reran in my brain.


We shook hands and sat down to talk. This is what came out of my mouth, “I am not here to intimidate you….” I do not recall the end of the sentence. Giovanni laughed, and then smiled. I have no idea where that intro came from, but it broke the ice and set the stage for a candid conversation. I continued, “Our manufacturing plant in NJ is failing. I see two choices. Shut it down or you can help me fix it. I am here to ask you what you would like to do.”


“How can I help?” was his immediate reply. “I would like to meet with the NJ senior management team and the local union officials. I believe that your presence will change the dynamics of that meeting, particularly because you and I have the same objective, ‘keeping the plant operating, improving union/management relations and, subsequently, plant performance’,” was my follow-on. “I would be glad to join you in this effort,” Giovanni replied. “Let me know when the meeting is arranged. I will be there.”


As I made my way back to the airport for the trip back to California, I thought, “Wow, that wasn’t so bad…and I am still alive.”


Within a couple of weeks, the meeting took place. The NJ management, the local union officials, Giovanni, and I were assembled in the conference room. Frankly, it was a bit crowded, but worked. Keep in mind the management and the union have had strained relations for the past 20 years. Standing up is this relatively young (40) guy from California, that no one knows, with the exception of the general manager… and Giovanni (for one hour).


A few days before the meeting, I sat down with a paper copy of my Model of Induced Change to orchestrate a meeting plan.


All the eyes in the room were focused on me. I began, “What I am going to do today is write down every issue that the union management has with the plant management and every issue that plant management has with the union. Everyone in this room will participate. I want to ensure that every single issue is covered. When someone shares their issue, there will be ‘no’ evaluation and ‘no’ discussion. It will be accepted as stated.” Some heads nodded in agreement to the rules. Others sat silent and wondered what was next.


On purpose, I created ‘tension’ by forcing a ‘brainstorming session’ criticising the opposing party. I started with the union and began to record each issue on a flip chart. When the sheet was filled, I ripped it off, walked to the wall, and hung the adhesive-backed sheet. We started with volunteers and ended with a round-robin to ensure that each person had exhausted ‘all’ of their own personal issues onto these sheets. I followed the same format with the plant personnel.


After three or four hours, all four walls were papered with the issues from both sides. Union issues on two walls and management issues on the remaining.


I paused for a long three or four minutes, silently panning the issues to heighten the anticipation for what I was about to say. “This is really interesting. It appears to me that the union issues and the management issues have remarkable similarity.” From the sheets, I read aloud a union issue, followed by a similar management issue and repeated these three or four times to make the point.


I paused again, but for a briefer period. “So, here is my question to all of you. What kind of world do you want to live in? What is an ideal environment, in your mind?” This began the generalised goal-setting stage.


I do not remember the exact responses that I began to list on a fresh flip chart page, but, from experience, I knew that virtually all responses fall into the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ category. These are some examples of generic inputs: good communications, treating people with respect, being open and honest, and caring about one another. We probably listed eight objectives, including a roughly equal number of ideas from both factions.


“Who would like to take issue with or remove an item from this list?” No one responded to this offer. Based on your lack of response, I am going to draw the conclusion that everyone in this room is in unanimous agreement with these eight objectives/goals for union/management relations. “Are you ‘all’ in agreement?” My eyes circled the room. As I did, I witnessed the affirmative nodding of heads. “This may be the first time there has been unanimous agreement between the plant management and the local union hierarchy about anything! Congratulations!”


“Now, each of you, personally, needs to write down what you are willing to do to contribute to reaching our new goals. Will you do that?” “Yes”, was the spoken and silent response. “We will gather these commitments on one piece of paper, without names, and publish them on the bulletin board. Do you all agree?” All agreed. These are the ‘specific goals’ subject to group scrutiny.


An impromptu hand was excitedly raised by a lower echelon plant union rep. He began, “What we went through here today was truly amazing. It is a shame that all of the people in the plant did not experience this.”


My response was, “We have been at this for 4+ hours; I need a break and I am hungry. At 2:00 pm, we will shut down the plant and deliver our message to everyone. During that break, I will write opening comments, to be delivered by Mr Giovanni, introducing myself to the plant personnel. Does this work for everyone?” Giovanni happily agreed he would read these comments as written. I think he was truly amazed at the psychological distance travelled by these long-term opposing parties, bringing them into sync.


I had ‘zero’ credibility with the plant personnel. No one is going to be impressed by some ‘dude’ from California in a blue suit. At best, they might enjoy the break from working. But Giovanni, he was a union mogul who travelled from New York City to talk with the plant personnel; this was a big deal. My momentary decision was to ‘hitchhike’ on Mr Giovanni’s prestige.


I ate lunch and crafted the introduction. The plant was shut down as scheduled and all 90 personnel gathered in the most convenient location. As planned, Giovanni opened the meeting with my prepared remarks…word for word. This piqued the interest of the plant personnel to be receptive to my comments. I enthusiastically presented a rendition of the morning meeting and the positive results.


I ended with this thought, “You are all supervisors.” I paused to elicit the puzzled looks. “First, each of you needs to supervise your own work every day. Second, as experienced workers you are responsible for training/supervising all the new people. Third, and finally, I expect you to supervise your foremen. They need to be told exactly what you need to be successful at what you do. Will you do that, for your sake, for the sake of your fellow employees and for the sake of making this plant a successful operation?” I noticed some smiles in the audience. My motive was to demonstrate to the rank and file workers, that I respect them personally and what they do and I meant every word.


The plant remained open and results improved substantially. I really had no appetite for putting a hundred people out of work. I am thankful that Giovanni had the proclivity and wisdom to cheerfully help out. Complimenting the model of Induced Change, his support was a critical lynchpin to our collective success.


There is an amusing and surprising follow-on story that emanated from the NJ event.


About two months later, I am sitting in the office of the general manager of our Cleveland operations. The door was open as we talked. ‘Knock, knock’ on the door frame turned our heads to see the gentleman standing in the doorway. It was the president of the Cleveland union local. “I heard that Skonord was in town. I am here to demand that he does in our plant the same thing he did in New Brunswick.” I was not prepared to do anything on the spur of the moment, but I agreed to set up the process in the next month or so.


By now you understand the ‘intervention’, so I am not going to go into any detail. It pretty much proceeded in the same manner as NJ, producing the same positive results…and I did not even know there were union/management issues in the Cleveland operation.


As we took a break for lunch and I was walking back to the GM’s office, he smiled and whispered to me, “I can’t believe that the union thinks you are some kind of objective third party and you are my boss.”


The Cleveland plant went on to be the most successful one under my jurisdiction, propelled by excellent management and fueled by dominating the automotive label business. They did become a Q1 supplier in 1983, which means they had developed all the documentation required for their TQM (total quality management) programme. This is the ‘refreezing’ phase of the Model of Induced Change.


One of the talented MBOs from my office was dispatched to the plant to assist/oversee in these efforts (TQM implementation). My advice to him was, “Create perceived value with the local management” as his overarching goal. Following this simple advice, he and his cohorts were able to integrate into the local plant management and produce great results as change agents. I know that because I started getting calls demanding their help…this is atypical of decentralised operating units.



Doug Skonord runs the REF Peer Advisory Groups in the region around Milwaukee, WI, and focuses on bringing better health to your business, career, and personal life. You can reach him at 262.893.8007


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