An Improvement Story: When “RIF” Does Not Mean “Reduction in Force”

DuPont NylonOur small, twin-engine turbo-prop had flown over Lookout Mountain just prior to descending into the Tennessee River Valley. As we landed at Chattanooga Municipal Airport, it rained a summer rain which tries but fails to provide relief to the heat and humidity of the Deep South. I collected my luggage, descended the 20 steps onto the tarmac, and thought about this new assignment.

In the early 1990s, we were asked by Ed Woolard, then CEO of DuPont de Nemours, to undertake a massive improvement program aimed at transforming the 190-year old chemical giant into a progressive, modern enterprise as measured by (1) nimbleness in the competitive marketplace, (2) responsiveness to customer needs, (3) agility in manufacturing operations, (4) advancement of its people, (5) profitable, global growth, and (6) attractive financial returns to shareholders.

The business unit of this assignment was the DuPont Nylon division. A DuPont scientist had invented nylon in 1935. Initial products such as nylon-bristled toothbrushes and nylon stockings drove the first wave of growth for the business. The Second World War drove the next wave with high demand for nylon to be used in vehicle tires, flak jackets, and parachutes. The third wave of growth emerged post-WWII with the booming U.S. population and domestic economy.

This third wave of growth spurred DuPont executives to decide to build a chemical plant in Chattanooga and begin nylon manufacturing operations in July of 1948. Exactly 44 years later, our team stepped onto the 500-acre site to launch the transformation of the facility. The still air sweltered and the smell of burnt plastic stung our nostrils.

The reception was mixed. Some people truly welcomed outside help, others accepted us as it was the politically correct thing to do, and a fairly large contingent viewed us as doing “the devil’s work”. Those that truly welcomed outside help formed the nucleus of what was to become an ever-growing portion of the workforce focused on making improvements around the plant.

As we uncovered opportunities for improvement, we discovered there was an enormous amount of pent up demand among the employees for positively changing the business. The employees, however, needed ways to channel their energy to make change happen. They lacked the necessary tools to start initiatives and then, see their ideas through implementation. Our main thrust in the early stages of the transformation was to provide the tools and the training required to ultimately realize results.

At the time, improvement tools included team building, problem solving, statistical analyses, root-cause diagrams, work elimination, and many other traditional methods. But we were surprised to learn not all employees had one critical and fundamental tool. And that fundamental tool was the ability to read and write!

Approximately 10% of the 2,000 employees were functionally illiterate. Each person functioned in his job, understood his responsibilities, and knew how to operate his machine as this knowledge was passed to him on the job “by the last guy”. Even more startling was that nearly 30% of those who volunteered to participate early in the transformation program fell into the functionally illiterate group. This would not work for the transformation.

We quickly teamed with plant management to launch an adult literacy program to improve the reading and writing skills of those employees in need. This served not only as a critical step towards engaging employees in the transformation effort, but also as an opportunity to fill a gap in people’s life skills. The benefits included increasing management’s ability to engage a higher portion of the workforce in the transformation program, an enhanced stature for DuPont in the community, and the new readers were enabled to further grow and develop individually.

As a result of the transformation efforts, the Chattanooga facility realized significant improvements. Machine uptime increased total effective capacity as a result of improved preventive maintenance, accelerated product changeovers, and synchronized material moves. Fixed costs decreased from interventions targeted at eliminating unnecessary spending. Manufacturing material costs stepped down through reductions in scrap, rework, and other sources of waste. Cash flow from operations increased enough to mostly self-fund a $250 million plant renovation project completed in 1997.

RIF does not mean “reduction in force”. RIF means “reading is fundamental”.

Are you experiencing pent up demand and energy among your employees to make improvements to your business? Are you leading major change in your enterprise today as Ed Woolard was at DuPont in the 1990s?

Do your people have the fundamental and necessary improvement tools given the global nature and complexity of the today’s business environment? What modern improvement methods are you implementing which give your organization a sustainable competitive advantage? What are your competitors implementing?

4 responses to “An Improvement Story: When “RIF” Does Not Mean “Reduction in Force”

  1. Reminds me of work I did at a smelter in South Africa. The key was getting people to understand we were there to help them achieve their goals, including staying in business and keeping their jobs. Once that was achieved, things took off.

    The challenge is in getting buy-in. There are many different approaches and I don’t know of any that work in all situations. Your example is among the best when applicable.

    • Communication is one of the important keys to success, but the follow up, actions and consistency that build the credibility of the mangement team are the key to success. In other words, talk is cheap but delivering on the message day in and day out is both more difficult and ultimately, more important. This is what builds sustainability and the proper culture.

      • John, you are right. Looking back at what I wrote earlier, I meant something far beyond “understand”. Believe would be better. Commitment probably best describes what is needed to get buy-in.
        Getting the buy-in was the key I meant to identify. As you correctly point out, communication is a necessary but insufficient requirement.

  2. “Reading is fundamental. ” I smiled when I read that.

    I was a big advocate for helping our electrical controls line assembly understand basic electricity and troubleshooting. It was hard to get buy in from the middle managers. I was making some progress before I got laid off.

    Oh well. I will take my little victory with me to the next assembly line.

    Thanks for the great article.

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