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Being the New Boss in Production

(April 2002) posted on Thu May 16, 2002

Learn how to take advantage of early opportunities for improving the business while demonstrating your commitment to employees.


By Terry Combs

Taking over as the new boss in a production operation is like changing schools when you're a teenager. It's a little scary, but you also get the chance to redefine yourself. Much like changing schools, taking a job with a different company allows you to reinvent yourself as a manager. You get the opportunity to use and implement what you've learned in former positions under former bosses. You also get the chance to discard the techniques and ideas that didn't work before. You can not only throw away ineffective concepts from your own personal experiences, but you can avoid the pitfalls that you've seen others create for themselves in similar situations. On your journey to a position with a new company, pack your bag with the best of what you've learned about the industry, and leave the rest in a plastic trash bag by the door. Taking over a working production operation can be exciting and challenging. It can also be a daunting task. There are hundreds, even thousands, of differences between production floors of different companies, but there are also many areas that are common to most operations. These common areas are the zones that you first can address as a new manager. When you take over as the new manager, you inherit the processes and procedures of a former manager. It would be easy for you to view the new operation with a skeptical eye and question every step and every idea the previous manager implemented. But your new production crew views those techniques and producedures as the way it's done. Your predecessor just might have had a few useful ideas--even if his ideas differ from your own. The previous manager might have also been popular among the staff. Be cautious of alienating yourself from your crew by critically questioning the previous manager and his ideas, no matter what you heard in your interview with the company owner or senior management. My experience tells me that it isn't necessary to go into a new operation with a hammer, chisel, and a five-gallon bucket of paint to tear down and then recreate the production floor in your own image. Instead, look at what you've got, assume ownership of the best of it, and gradually and methodically change the rest. The first 90 days Your first day on the job, senior management will formally introduce you to the crew, who, by the way, will look at you with curiosity and a wary eye. You'll make the greatest impact during your first 90 days, so begin right away. Your first step is to meet your staff one on one. Depending on the size of your new operation, speak with at least each supervisor individually. If possible, meet with each employee on the production floor for a brief meeting where you get to exchange names and ideas. These meetings will help you get your fingers around who you've got to work with, their level of knowledge and ability, and what the general attitude is in the operation. Look for your employees' ideas and their personal views of the entire production operation as it currently stands. Ask questions like "If there was one thing you could change about your job, what would it be? What one thing could we do to make your job easier, more efficient, and a better work experience? What is the absolute best part of your job?" Ask similar types of questions to the owners and other managers as well, especially if you weren't able to address these questions during your interview. Ask "What one thing would you change about the production operation if you could snap your fingers and change it today? What could production do to make everyone's job easier, more efficient, and a better work experience?" During the first 90 days, also focus on efficiencies in company processes. (This includes the processes that do not necessarily originate or terminate in the production department, but those that impact production nonetheless, such as order entry or procurement.) Test and document operator efficiency and spoilage, production flow, and perhaps most importantly, downtime. You can make your greatest immediate impact on the company by focusing on downtime. Study the sources and causes of downtime throughout the production operation. Immediately set up downtime logs in all departments and study the results. These logs should list the time lost and the reason for downtime. Are press operators waiting for substrates? Are screens arriving to the production floor with pinholes, wrong mesh count, or other technical problems? Documenting and studying the causes of downtime, then immediately addressing the problems will have a sudden and often spectacular impact on efficiency, quality, flow, and even employee morale. It will also make an impact on the morale of company owners and senior managers. Understanding where you stand Through the interviews with management, you will discover what is presumed about the production operation and staff. But through your interviews with the production staff, you'll discover what is the reality about life on the production floor. Using this information, determine a starting point for changes that you'd like to implement in the production area. Some functions and procedures will absolutely beg for improvement. In fact, I guarantee that you'll find areas that need improvement even on the production floor of the most efficient printing facilities in America. In a perfect world, we could solve all the problems in production and proceed into a utopian screen-printing environment. However, problems reoccur, new problems arise, markets change, and products, equipment, and supplies are improved. Also, people on the production floor and throughout the company experience highs and lows, including both personal and professional problems and challenges. These people and their situations will always be a constant source of variability in any business. Remember that the person running your automatic press manages a machine. You, on the other hand, manage human beings. Your job is to know your staff, relate to your staff, and to be responsive to your staff. Let operators and workers manage machines and processes. You must focus on managing the people. Also keep in mind that no matter how good intentioned the company or previous management, most likely, you will inherit a staff with little ongoing training in their particular jobs. The opportunity to change this is available in its greatest abundance during your first 90 days, when the staff, and more importantly, owners and senior managers, are more open to change. This is your golden opportunity to convince the company to adopt regular, ongoing training programs. You can set aside 15 minutes a week for a review of the basics and to teach new techniques. The teaching can come from you, other employees, and outside experts, such as vendors. Managers and supervisors in other departments can explain to the production department their own jobs and how the interrelationship with production affects both departments. A sales rep can talk about what he faces day to day. An employee from the order-entry department can discuss his job and the challenges he faces when interpreting each order. In the first 90 days, you also have the opportunity to set up cross-training classes during evenings or Saturday mornings. With cross-trained employees, you gain a deeper bench that can be helpful when you have employees away from work for various reasons. And your newly cross-trained employee gains the short-term reward of bonus pay or points toward promotion. When you implement change, do it one step at a time. Attack the areas of greatest need on the production floor first. Wholesale change can grind all production to a halt while employees relearn the process and their own jobs within the new process. Understanding ownership and senior management Hopefully, you had a pretty good grasp of who you were getting involved with when you accepted your new job. But, understanding the new company and its management is an ongoing process. Chances are that you weren't the only one putting your best foot forward in the interview process. You know what they say: You're only perfect two days of your life--the day you're born and the day you write your resume. It's the same with company management. They want to sell the pros and put a positive spin on the cons during your interview with them. In the day-to-day routines, you'll get to know the owners and senior managers and their style. You'll come to understand what I call the eccentricities of ownership/management. Owners will vehemently deny they have anything even close to eccentricities, but most likely, anyone in the company can pull you aside and fill you in about upper management. I've worked with owners who regularly pulled employees from their jobs to run personal errands, held up production with long-winded and impromptu meetings, and put pet projects into the production schedule ahead of other jobs. I've even come across owners who insisted on parking in the handicapped spaces instead of walking from the back of the parking lot like everyone else. These eccentricities are sometimes convertible, but more often are a fact of life that you either have to accept or leave behind for another position. Typically, however, ownership eccentricities are more the fodder for employee jokes than a true reason for ending your professional relationship with a company. Taking over as the new manager in an up-and-running screen-printing production operation brings obstacles and rewards. Take the best of what is there, add the best of your skills, and make it a positive and productive experience for all.


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