Don’t Be the Hub of a Wheel

Aug. 17, 2006
Successful ‘green-field’ site start-ups depend on developing a team, says Senior Editor Dirk Willard.

The sun was breaking over the distant tropical shoreline. It would’ve been a beautiful sight if I, and the Filipino crew I was training, hadn’t been up all night struggling to keep a pickle liquor pump running. The acid regeneration plant had crashed during a 24-hour operational acceptance test (OAT) at a steel mill. I knew why. There was no teamwork and instead of looking among themselves to find leadership — they were looking to me.

It reminded me of what I had been taught as a young Air Force cadet. We watched a movie about the 8th Air Force during the infancy of daylight bombing over Germany. It starred Gregory Peck and was entitled, “Twelve O’clock High.” The moral of the story was: never, ever, build a team like a wheel, with everyone depending on the hub for decision-making. A good leadership model is a nodal network, flexible, with major decisions made by the hub but ordinary decision made by the individual nodes. As a network, the leadership at the hub can be quickly replaced because there is confidence in others in the group.

What I had was a wheel. It was a small wonder. I had one plant manager and a dozen operators. I knew I had to find some leadership fast. Recalling what it took to be a good leader, a natural leader, I thought about my experiences with the crew. I noticed that three of the operators seemed to be the ones that everyone turned to when there was a question or a problem — that is natural leadership. What was missing was the power to act. I watched these men carefully over the next two shifts. A day later, when the Filipino management wanted to know why we failed our OAT, I had a plan.

At the meeting, I presented a chronological list of the incidents that occurred during the OAT. Highlighted in the list were those where on-the-spot leadership could have made a difference. After that, I went into my spiel about why they needed foremen. At the end, I passed a list of names, the three operators I had observed, recommending their appointment. There was a pause; I half-expected to have my visa revoked.

When I came back several months later to complete the OAT, the foremen were running the show. Instead of making decisions, I was an advisor. We completed the OAT with relative ease. During the second attempt, the manager of the steel mill stopped by to thank me for my suggestion.

Finding the leadership is only half the job. The crew needed to be primed for the change. With the sun rising behind us, I had a long talk with my trainees. It was necessary to break the mold. I told them that they really needed to work together, recognize and use each other’s talents, and form a team. “You’ll be running this plant after I go,” I told them. They must have taken it to heart. That team worked well because the leaders, the foremen, knew their weak areas and those of the operators. One operator was an expert mechanic, another was a budding engineer. The leader used the budding engineer, who operated behind the control board, to manage inventories and investigate process problems. The mechanic was assigned basic maintenance, which he relished. I worked closely with the foremen to continue their education and helped them when they requested additional engineering or laboratory support.

Building other teams can take a lot more effort, though.

In France, the most immediate leader was a young French engineer who was more inclined to manage than lead. No amount of coaxing could convince her to work side-by-side with the operators. This situation provided less freedom for team-building. After some thought, I came upon the idea of the “buddy system.” I paired up individuals, striving to match the quiet thoughtful ones with the all-go/no-quit types. This worked well, in most cases, since the quiet ones were a gentle brake on the ambition of the bolder operators. As I had little support from the engineer, who was also my interpreter, I worked carefully to teach the operators while improving my French. At each opportunity, I stressed the importance of reliance on members of the team.

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