The Journey to Create a Happy Workplace in Manufacturing

In: BlogDate: May 14, 2020By: Billy Burgess

Derek Hill, managing director of Advanced Technology Solutions, came to the 2019 Happy Workplaces conference to talk about his organisation’s journey to create a happy workplace in manufacturing. Derek equates the company’s pithy mantra – “we make factories run better” – to the central philosophy of the book Will It Make the Boat Go Faster? The intention to make factories run better has been at the nucleus of ATS since its inception in 1985.

In this full length video for the 2019 Happy Workplaces conference, Derek explains how ATS employees have their purpose renewed by honouring the mantra to this day.

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The Journey to Create a Happy Workplace in Manufacturing

I kind of oversold the Scotch eggs thing. I was moved over to Scotch eggs, but they didn’t actually let me make the Scotch eggs. My job was to take the egg from the bucket and put the egg on a little round circle of meat on a conveyor and then it went along the conveyor to someone who was a little bit more qualified than me who got to pick both bits up and actually make the Scotch egg.

But I did that for eight hours a day and had lots of fun doing it. I’m trying to convince my daughter who’s 17 at the moment to do the same thing, but I’m not really succeeding with that.

So I just want to say, I’m very grateful to be here. We’ve had a long association with Happy and I’m really grateful to Henry and Cathy and all the team for doing this work and giving us the opportunity to be in this forum. It does always make me feel grateful when we get the opportunity to attend these events. There’s a lot of people in other businesses that never get this opportunity, and we’ve got the opportunity to talk about stuff.

I’m going to tell you a little bit about the journey we’ve been on. It’s very much the journey we’re in at the moment, so I’m going to tell you where we are and some of the things that we’ve learnt. All right, so I’m going to talk about our journey to create a happy workplace in manufacturing. It’s nice to be able to represent manufacturing. Sometimes manufacturing gets a bad press, but it is a very exciting sector to be in and we’ve got a lot of great things going on. So hopefully I can tell you some about what we’re doing.

One of the things I love about working with Happy, and trying to create a culture which is a positive culture where people can feel good about themselves, is about safety. So I’m going to share with you some of our beliefs today. I’m going to tell you about some of the things we’re going to do, but I’m also going to tell you about some of our mistakes along the way and some of the things we’ve done wrong. But hopefully they’ve been positive mistakes and we’ve celebrated those mistakes and we’ve been better coming out of it.

First of all I’m just going to give you some context about us. So, we help capital-intensive manufacturers across diverse sectors and geographies enhance the reliability and efficiency of their production assets, which enables them to increase their competitiveness by improving on time delivery and reducing their cost to manufacture.

We had a consultant came in a worked [that description] out for us, and we like that. We’ve never used that at all in any our stuff. What we talk about in our business is that we make factories run better and that phrase came up from one of our technicians because he heard the first one and he goes, ‘I just don’t understand that.’ What we do is we make factories run better.

That’s become a philosophy or a mantra in our business that’s been very empowering. That goes into people’s job descriptions and we talk about whatever they’re doing, if they’re making the factory run better, then that’s a good thing and they should feel empowered to do it. If anybody’s read the book Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?, that’s our version of that kind of mantra.

The business is interesting because like all good, fun businesses, it started in a pub. The founding members of our organisation, which is about 30 people, they worked for Caterpillar in the US, in Illinois. Caterpillar at the time were very into commercialising parts of their business and growing it out, kind of Dragon’s Den entrepreneurial. So the business started as an incubator project within Caterpillar. The guys in the pub after a few beers drew out this future vision of manufacturing, and our business is focused on making factories run better by providing world-class maintenance to make those machines run better.

They developed that and some of it’s lived with us since and I think about that and it created a real purpose and passion at that early point in the business. We’ve tried hard to retain that purpose and passion as we grow. We are quite unique as a business in what we provide. It’s meant that we’ve been able to grow fast with our customers and the business today has about three and a half thousand people worldwide. We operate in 185 locations and we’re principally based in the US, Mexico and the UK, but we do project work in most territories.

Unique things about our business and the interesting thing about culture is we’ve got these 185 locations, so we’re very fragmented. Teams of 10, 20 and all those teams have their own culture. The other thing that makes us a little bit unique is that most people in our organisation did not choose to join us. They’ve transferred to our organisation from other organisations and they still live on our customers’ sites. So we have all these mix of cultures that mean [we have to consider] how do we create a strong culture within our business? But it’s not really that different.

We talk about these three pillars of our business: people, process and technology. We invest a lot of money in technology, try and make work better, we’ve got some good processes we’re trying to make better, but most of our business is all about people. It’s where our cost is in our business, it’s how we serve our customer. So we have really focused on how we make our people feel about work. Because generally a person who works in a maintenance environment is not the most loved person or does not feel the most loved person in a factory. So we want to love that role, love what it can give the factory and for those people to see their value and feel good because of that.

We have been working with Happy since 2015. Part of what gives me energy is to go around and see other companies. I was in a benchmarking group and went to all these fancy manufacturers and learnt stuff. One session was with this weird place in London that wasn’t a manufacturer so I wasn’t really sure where I was going, but I met Nikki and I thought, god, this is for us. I went home and I read the Happy Manifesto and I didn’t know Henry but I sent him an email and I told him all the things I had done.

We’ve done some really cool things and Happy’s become really important to us. We have a happy leadership programme within our business today. We have some guys who’re doing the apprentice programme. We have some other people who’re doing the ILM level five programme. It’s really become a word or a kind of language within our business that’s bonded us together. But I will tell you about some of the things that we’ve done.

One of the things in that is getting real about culture. Henry mentioned it up front in his presentation. I think about Dunbar’s number. Has anybody come across Dunbar’s number? Dunbar’s number is from research by this guy, an anthropologist, and he came up, through research of tribes, that 150 was the limit of maintaining stable relationships. After 150 individuals, tribes become harder to keep together, there’s more politics and that sort of thing.

I think about the business that I look after and you always look good when you’re small and it’s fun and you can do things and all problems can be fixed. Then you just start to grow and it gets kind of tougher. How do you keep that going? It’s really tough. So I think about this Dunbar’s number and I think about how do we maintain that small exciting environment, but within a bigger organisation?

We have our culture on the wall. We need to refresh it; it’s a bit long. Our cultural commitment is continuous improvement within our organisation. We talk about that on a business, on a customer, on a personal level. We’re all about continuous improvement. And then we have all these eight tenets. We spent a lot of time previously inducting our people in these tenets and educating them and telling them all about what we’re about. But I recognise on that, that that was just really organisational level.

That was OK, but we had teams and we had individuals within the organisation who had different aspirations and different values and how do we bring that together in a much better way? That got me thinking about those things and I kind of presented in this a cultural iceberg. So there are three levels.

We had these explicit values that we put on the wall and the website and we were really proud of ourselves because we said, ‘Well other companies do this, but they don’t really live them.’ We felt that we really live these and we could show all these examples of how things happen. But then it was like the implicit day-to-day behaviours. These are the things, we’re courteous, we’re hardworking and we look after each. The things that happen but you don’t need to talk about.

But then what I was interested in, especially as we grew, was the underlying assumptions. These are the things people don’t say. The behaviours they adopt because it’s just the way we work around here. Some of those can be very positive things and other things can dysfunctional in their nature. It’s important to keep an awareness of those so you don’t have one of those crashes into the iceberg.

Exercise 1: this is an exercise a guy called Rob Goffee shared with me. I thought it was really interesting to do. So thinking about those underlying things – you all have your values and your things on the top and on your presentations, but you’ll have the things that go on within your organisation that make people successful on a day-to-day basis. So I want you to talk amongst yourselves, to think about I am joining your organisation and you’re going away on a sabbatical in five minutes. The taxi’s ready and you just have that five minutes to brief me on the five headline things that I need to do to survive, number one, and be successful in your organisation.

The only rule is they can’t be kind of bullshit things. There might be some bad things and some good things in there, but to think about what those are and reflect on those. All right, who would like to share a fab, magnificent rule that they’ve got for my success and survival?

Delegate 1: ‘Bring cake.’

Bring cake? That’s cool. That is good.

Delegate 2: ‘My favourite’s everyone’s a contributor.’

That sounds good. Anybody else?

Delegate 3: ‘Listen.’

Yep, that’s good. I like those. So this is the example. We run this exercise now. I think it tells you a lot. When I did it I felt I had some conflicting rules as well. I should only know things about being very open, but not wanting moaners in the organisation, was one of mine. But I thought, maybe on different days that can mean different things to people and maybe that’s confusing.

But now what we do is we use this as part of our on-boarding of new people in the organisation. So we’ve stopped inducting people and telling them about everything. We get their colleagues and teammates to share their true experiences, but not just what the culture’s about – how are they going to help them as individuals with advice.

This was a recent workshop we were in where we had a new site manager joined our business and we got his new team together and they all shared their view and it was really empowering. It’s quite scary when you let everybody free up there to say what they think, but what everybody did was they wrote down their Post-It Notes and then they got up in front of the team and they talked to the person, but they said why and gave some meaning behind that Post-It Note. I think it was a very valuable thing for that individual, because they got all this feedback of how they can be successful, but also it was a great reflection for everybody involved in the room about what’s important and what makes the team.

You can’t see it at the top there, but there was a lot of Post-It Notes on ‘ask for help.’ That was good to see that we don’t expect everybody on our team to know everything. It is about the team and it is about working together. So I’ve got less worried about the culture on the website now, the explicit, over the top [stuff]. I’m worried about what’s underneath and is that real?

This is it really: ‘stay ahead of the culture by creating the culture.’ I recognise now that the culture in my business is evolving all the time as new people come in. It can make it much more positive, we can learn new things. It isn’t about being ATS, it isn’t about being brainwashed into our way of working. It’s about our evolution as a business and keeping sharing that as we go on and bringing each together with us.

So I thought about these things, the things that Happy’s brought to our business. A change from management to coaching, so we focus a lot more now on discussions and how we help people be what they want to be within the organisation. I mentioned to Cathy during the break, her example of the paramedic was a good one for me to look at because I know that lady because she worked in ATS.

Her name was Sam. She was a material specialist, she bought parts, but at the weekend she volunteered for St John’s Ambulance. That was her passion and that came up in the coaching discussion. As part of her development plan, she did a GCSE in biology, which some people in the business thought was a bit mad, but that was her passion and that’s what motivated her and then she was able to then gain that qualification and go on to be a paramedic. That’s a very positive example for us within the business.

Two weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone who wants to start a sustainable transport business in the next two years. He’s one of our site managers today. I’ve got another person in the business who wants to go and work on a game reserve. So it’s meant those meetings have got a lot more exciting and hopefully they’re good conversations to have.

Induction rather than reinforcement I’ve talked about. So it’s not about us, it’s about the collective that we are and how we move that forward. And then the last one, outcomes and intent. This was a really interesting one for me – how we enjoy what we’re doing and focus on what we’re doing and don’t be overly focused on the goal. We need goals to see where we’re going, but we want to judge ourselves by what we do. We talk about trying our best all the time: have I done my best? And that’s not an easy thing to say. It’s really have I done my best in what I’m doing?

I want to talk about one thing I got wrong. Intentions and outcomes, they can be a bit difficult. I’m going to tell you stories, we like to talk about stories. I’m going to tell you about the freezer and the choc-ice. I thought I’d done this really well. This is a good one, food related. I thought, they’re going to love me. I’d seen all the cool things that Rosie did previously. I thought, the freezer and the choc ice, this is going to work.

So this is Julian. Julian loves an ice cream and a lot of our technicians love ice creams. So if anyone’s been to Happy training you’ll know they have an ice cream break. So we have an ice cream break in the afternoon. We’ve become famous on our sites for ice cream breaks. We get contractors come to us, customers come to us – I spend a lot of money on choc-ices. I’ve never questioned this. I’ve felt that the benefits of it are good enough, so we do it.

Julian works at a site down on the south coast and in there our favourite afternoon treat is the Magnum almond version. Very, very popular. It cost two pound a whack that one. So one of our site managers in our continuous improvement culture – because that’s what we’re all about – thought, ‘I’m going to improve this.’ We were pre-approving, so I was following all the models here. It should’ve gone right, I don’t know what happened.

One day we went to Morrison’s and that is a day I’ll never forget. It should’ve been OK. We got the Chockas. They look the same. They have slightly different packaging. They actually get much better ratings than Magnums from users, but there is a perception that Magnums are better. So this caused lots of problems in my organisation. I was not happy this day. I heard about it very quickly. It was the number one thing, it went on for weeks and it was kind of funny right up until someone came to me and said, ‘Derek is the business in trouble? We’ve changed Magnums for Chockas.’

I reflected on that. This person genuinely cared about it, worried about it, worried for his future and his family, all over the change from the brand of choc-ice we were using. So it made me think about what I’d done for this to happen and I realised I’d really focused on creating a happy workplace culture, but I’d focused on the ping pong and the perks. We had Playstation competitions, we went paintballing, we had choc-ices. It was great and people enjoyed it and I wanted them to have a good time at work, but it was about the good time. What I hadn’t focused on was the resilience and the purpose and the passion.

That’s what I tried to show you at the start with the napkin. That team had purpose and a passion. They probably never had a choc-ice. They never did all the things that we did, but they had purpose and a passion and it was far stronger than what we’ve had. I see lots of high stressed environments that have ping pong tables and slides and stuff like that. Those are good – I’m not saying they’re not good, I enjoy going down a slide in certain places – but if you haven’t got the purpose and the passion then you can come into problems.

So I created an environment which is probably more sociable. We were enjoying ourselves, we were being more creative because people felt pretty safe, and we were having lots of ideas and there was effort. People liked being there, people liked being part of ATS. People used to be real positive when they joined our company: ‘This is great. I’ve never worked for a company like ATS before.’ That used make me feel good. I was probably a little bit indulgent in that, but we were getting indulgent as a business.

And there was compromise. We wouldn’t make the tough decisions and cliques had started to develop within the organisation when you looked at it. So there was good and bad.

I wanted to look at this differently. There’s sociability and then there’s solidarity. What holds us together, powerful as a team? And what gives us focus, urgency and achievement? I thought about that in our founders. They had those three things a lot stronger than we did at that point. But within that there comes conflict, potential higher stress levels and a risk aversion of not wanting to change things, feeling less safe. I’d seen that in the previous version of the business as well, so there was a middle ground.

Again I use this model just to show you this example of solidarity and sociability, where it sits on the two. We probably started off as a mercenary organisation, which had high solidarity but low sociability. We were a hard place to work, we were winners – if you’re a winner, come join our business, you’ll be OK – but we didn’t look after people very well. We moved to a network organisation where we became a great place to work, but we lost some of our edge and our attention to result and our focus.

What I am trying very hard to do at the moment is move… I don’t want to move to a mercenary organisation. That’s not where I want the business to be, but I do want it to have some of the good bits of that. So I want to move to a communal [structure]. That’s what we’re working for within purpose and making sure job roles are better, people are clearer on goals. Clarity is part of what I see in there.

Henry doesn’t like lots of words on slides. So this is my cheat slide. There’s lots of words on here, but I just highlighted two so you could read them. For me, reduce formality, that’s a good thing. There’s lots of bureaucracy. There’s a great statistic that I can’t remember now, there was a trillion spent in the US through needless bureaucracy. So we should remove that. Reduce formality, but solidarity’s really important – gaining commitment, why I come to work. Not that just I enjoy coming to work, but the joy comes from having that real sense of purpose.

So what we’re focusing on now in the business is these two enablers. Transparency has been the key buzzword in our manifesto this year. We always question ‘are we being transparent enough? Why am I not sharing something? What needs to be confidential, what doesn’t?’ We use lots of tools for that. And ownership’s the other one, thinking about how people own their roles.

Some quick examples: we use a lot of technology to give us transparency, because we’re fragmented. We use things like Smartsheet where all our scorecards are open to someone. So we have no secrets, everything’s out there. We use Slack as our communication tool and we ban private channels. I look to that as a measure, actually – what percentage of direct messages and private channels versus what percentage is out there in the open.

Everything’s an open conversation. If you want to be involved you can get involved. And we talk about the opportunity to achieve and get promoted, it’s about taking responsibility and getting involved in the organisation. Transparency has helped us to do that.

One of the other things, I do this thing called two minute Tuesday. Every Tuesday I do a two minute video. Last year I managed to do 44 videos. Every week I stand in front of the camera and I just say what’s going on – good stuff, bad stuff. It’s great talking about all the good things and the fun things, but I’ve had to talk about factory closures, I’ve had to talk about people losing their jobs, I’ve had to talk about one colleague who passed away. So it’s not all the good stuff, but it’s just being totally open in what we’re doing.

This actually gives me energy, because it’s tough when you’re in a business which is fragmented getting around everyone. I really enjoyed shaking everybody’s hand when we were smaller. It’s tougher now, so this gives me a connection to do that and hopefully allows us to share everything we’re doing within the business and people to feel part of it.

Then ownership, copying the Happy model here, we talk about the job ownership model. This is about being really clear with people on our principles and what we stand for; allowing them to influence those principles; clear on goals and accountabilities; where they sit as individuals; support and feedback.

OK, so, infinity and beyond, just to finish it off. Liberating structures – this is a Happy thing I was involved with earlier in the year. Did anyone go on the liberating structures immersion workshop? It was great. I didn’t know what I was going to. I like development so I just booked up to this session. I didn’t know what it was about and it was mental. I walked into this room. Henry says other people didn’t know what was going on, but I really didn’t know what was going on. It felt quite uncomfortable but I kind of went with it. But lots of great structures.

They talk about getting better results by creating a structure that allows people to have freedom within the structure and be more creative. One I use a lot in my day-to-day is the life cycle. This really got me thinking about culture in the business. I was on this journey from the culture we had to the culture we wanted to be. I felt that, well that’s going to be kind of like a line and maybe it’s going to have some ups and downs, but it’s going to be that trend. And I’ve realised that it’s not that and it’s much more thinking about it as an eco-cycle. So this is how I think about my business today.

Things start, they’re in early life, maturity and then we need to disrupt them. We need to bring them back to early life, because it’s important for people to feel part of that. This is like my little resilience loop now. When things are bad, I don’t think they’ve gone wrong and we can never fix them. I just think it’s time for change and we’ve got to pre-empt that change and push it forward.

One of my learning points would really be about culture is about the ripples. Just focus in on all the small, little things we can do every day. That’s why I love coming to these kind of things, because there’s all these little tiny things, in terms of behaviours, to learn that make the big difference. It’s not really about the big organisational change programmes. It’s about doing the right things every day that make things stick.

This is a mantra I keep in terms of our business, thinking about how we make a difference, how I get that commitment with people, making sure I’m always honest and transparent, extra value in personal development of people, authenticity, meaning and then the most important one to me is the simple rules and freedom. That’s one I’ve learnt from our association with Happy is about freedom within guidelines. It’s understanding that guidelines are needed within business because they give people security. My lesson in this is we, with positive intent, maybe went too far and then we’ve moved back to a more central position. We needed to go through that journey, but it’s been a very positive one.

Really enjoy the journey. It’s great that everybody’s here and has a positive intent to create positive working cultures to the benefit of the people within them, but enjoy the journey. Enjoy those little moments within it, because they’re really fun in our organisation and we have to make sure we keep reflecting on those.

ATS has grown from a 30-person workforce to a company that now operates in 185 locations – principally in the US, Mexico and the UK, but with business in most major territories. However, with 185 locations, operations can easily become fragmented.

The individual teams each have a reasonable amount of autonomy and have developed their own cultures. It’s been Derek’s task to figure out how to have a strong culture within the business, despite the fragmentation. It all revolves around the bedrock triad of people, process and technology. And while a lot of money goes into technological development and efforts to improve process, ATS’s primary focus is on how they make people feel about work.

Derek dives into the particulars of ATS’s people-focus. He refers to Dunbar’s number, which suggests that 150 is the maximum number of people with whom we’re able to maintain stable social relationships. Discovering this concept led him to wonder, “how do we maintain that small exciting environment, but within a bigger organisation?”

He also breaks down the three levels of values. At the top are explicit values, the sort of things displayed on the website and office walls. The next level is the implicit day-to-day behaviours, such as being courteous, hardworking and looking after each other. The third level is made up of the underlying assumptions about how things happen at ATS. This is the level that needs watching, says Derek, as “some of those can be very positive things and other things can be dysfunctional in their nature.”

Derek’s awareness of the existence of implicit values and underlying assumptions led to a change in the ATS induction procedure. Instead of the leadership simply telling new recruits everything, they now invite the recruits’ colleagues and teammates to share details about their true experiences at ATS.

Instead of being too firm on the explicit company values, Derek has become increasingly interested in what’s underneath and how authentic it is. The explicit values are still important, but he understands that the culture is in a state of flux. With the arrival of new people, things can change for the better. This has encouraged him to refrain from trying to brainwash people into some abstract idea of the ATS way of working.

“It’s about our evolution as a business,” says Derek, “and keeping sharing that as we go on and bringing each together with us.”

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About Derek Hill

Derek has been Managing Director of Advanced Technology Solutions UK Ltd for over 10 years.

Advanced Technology Services (ATS) improves productivity and profitability for many of the world's most respected companies through enhancing production equipment maintenance, industrial parts services and innovative IT solutions.

ATS has been on a journey over the last few years towards creating a truly great workplace.

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