The big idea: For those in the business of making consumer products, few things can justify halting production for a launch. On the other hand, nothing can shut things down quicker than accusations of harsh working conditions. Given the constraints, how can results be delivered?
The scenario: Just as PBM Plastics, a manufacturer of disposable baby-bottle liners, was building its inventory for a product launch, the factory central air conditioner broke down. A new one couldn’t be delivered for weeks. With the machines running at full-tilt, the temperature inside the plant was stifling.
The manufacturing manager told Adam Burke, the company president, that it was too hot to keep workers on the line. Burke reminded him that customers depended on them. Another manager suggested renting portable air-conditioning units for $20,000 a day — a financially catastrophic option.
By day’s end, the whole group of managers came back to Burke, “like one big mob,” and told him they would resign if he didn’t do the right thing for employees and shut down the plant or rent the AC units.
The resolution: Burke said he had a creative, quick and inexpensive solution that would solve the problem quickly and easily. He went to the grocery store and filled up a cart with premium ice cream, fruit bars, ice cream sandwiches and drinks. At the plant he filled up the freezer in the break area. Then he gathered the management team and all employees on the shop floor. He thanked them for their hard work, acknowledging the brutally hot and exhausting conditions. “Everybody has a choice to make,” he said. “We have a customer depending on us, and we need them also for the long-term survival of our business. If we don’t deliver the product, we’re going to let them down.”
He told the group that they could keep the plant running with him and every other member of the senior team working by their sides until the air conditioner was repaired.
All air conditioning, including executive offices, would be shut down until the plant floor unit was working. In addition, the refrigerator would be kept stocked with free frozen treats and cold drinks. Employees could go on breaks as often as they wanted, as long as they relieved each other. “We’ll make it happen,” the floor workers said.
Two days later, the air conditioning was operational, the firm had not lost a single person, and they met their commitment to the customer.
The lesson: Burke had a clear purpose, a keen grasp on manufacturing processes and seemed to value human capital. This enabled him to see the market, production process and human resources involved in the business clearly and logically. Management optimized variables and constraints. And leadership delivered results.
Yemen is a senior researcher, Burke a visiting executive lecturer and Weiss a business professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.