When in the Valley, Thrive not Survive

I can vividly still remember three of the toughest days I have ever had as a leader with IP.  The first was some twenty years ago when I was part of a management team that had to inform 850 employees that the mill was closing.  Ten years later, I would stand before approximately 140 people, some of the finest folks I have ever worked with, and tell them our plant was being close as a result of an acquisition (with better assets) in the same market area. Several years later, I would stand in front of about 80 people in a new acquisition located in my home town and inform them that the plant was closing due to a lack of volume in the market area.  I knew many of those folks from high school, and I was quite frankly the only IP person they ever saw or met. 

Those were tough moments.  I can tell you though that in each case, those employees would work the rest of their time injury free, take care of the customers through transition periods with no issues, and maintain productivity levels at or above normal rates.  They also did an outstanding job of prepping the mill/plants for dismantling.  Those were outstanding folks to say the least!

Now, I hope you don’t have to go through any of those issues in your future as a leader.  You are currently though going through some challenging times right now.  Raw material shortages are severely impacting your ability to run productively and take care of your customer base.  You are dealing with ongoing pandemic related issues.  Customer demand is unpredictable from week to week.  On top of that, we are understaffed (hard to hire folks right now) in every facility and absentee rates are higher than normal.  You have your hands full! 

Whether you are leading a shift or a multi-plant complex, let me share just a few thoughts on how to not only lead through tough times, but come out of the “valley” better than before.  I used some of these concepts in those challenging times noted above and actually using some of these right now as well.

  1. Simplify the focus to what is essential for right now.  Work safe and take care of customer base.  By focusing on these two areas, we take care of our people.  We take care of their physical well-being, and we take care of their long term job security (customers drive jobs). 
  2. Communicate these two priorities to everyone in your area of leadership.  People need to know what our top focus is and why it should matter to them.  By understanding why it matters to them, they are much more likely to engage and help!  (no guarantees, but much more likely)
  3. Shorten the increments of time you manage within.  When uncertainty grows, we have to scale down and focus on the “right now” to ensure we execute at a high level on what’s most important today.  I am not saying big picture doesn’t matter, but if we don’t execute today, the month won’t make any difference.  The question is what do we have to do today to keep everyone safe and take care of our customers.
  4. Utilize this opportunity to streamline your operation to what really matters.  Refine the customer base to what “fits” your plant identity and capability.  Drive reliability focused efforts every chance you get (after people and customers are taken care of for the day).  Don’t just wait to come out of the “valley” better equipped for long term success, make the most of your time in that valley as you work your way out.  Don’t miss this unique opportunity to refine, reform, and realign your operation. 

You are no doubt leading in some tough times.  Embrace it and lead well.  Real leaders come to the forefront in tough times.  That’s when you are needed the most.  Simplify the focus.  Communicate why it matters. Shorten your time focus.  Finally, utilize the opportunity to thrive not just survive. 

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