Flow Charting

The Change

With so little time to spend working on improving their business, most business owners I have spoken with, cringe at the gallery of rogues who present themselves as management consultants. Since I am neither a gallery or a rogue and sell no particular brand other than myself, I thought I would share a case study of a medium-sized business, perhaps a lot like yours, as an example of what can be done, if listening and careful observation lead the way.

Maquiladora

Note: A maquiladora, if ya don’t know, and why should you, is a company under Mexican law with Mexican and foreign partners, set up to manufacture in Mexico, but administrated through the foreign partners. It allows the foreign company to avoid taxes while ensuring the Mexicans a profit.

A personnel director kvetched to me how the people working in her company weren’t “rocket scientists.” It was a grocery store, so I am not sure what she was thinking. Rocket scientists would make lousy checkout clerks. But the attitude that workers are lazy, irresponsible, or stupid is quite common, sadly.

My experience is the opposite, as was the experience of W. Edwards Deming, who described all workers “willing workers,” including those trapped working where the people running things don’t value workmanship. People want and need leaders.

My experience is that if you treat people like they are dumb they will never disappoint you, but if you treat them like human beings with untapped potential, you will be pleasantly surprised!

Edco Food Products, Inc. of Green Bay, a food brokerage, was purchasing fermented peppers and pickles in Mexico. But as markets tend to do, the big companies bought out smaller ones, and the number of suppliers fell. Edco was struggling to find good product to keep their customers happy. Finally, in 1993, the owner, James Manning, joined with two shareholders from Mexico to form RES Food Products International, Inc., a “materials owner and importer of goods and services provided by a maquiladora operation,” (Ain’t that a mouthful)  and RES Internacional SA, the actual maquiladora set up to first to provide fresh produce, but evolving into a  producer and packager of fermented peppers and pickles (see table 1). 

table of RES sales

What began, as most do, as a bootstrapped entrepreneurial operation, Edco and the RES organization continued to run as they had in the beginning, despite growing to over 150 employees and this led to unexpected and unwanted things. Eventually operational losses led to mounting debt, and trying to find out what was happening was nary on impossible due to questionable data, suspicious mistakes, in-fighting at all levels, conflicting managerial agendas, and fundamental differences between American and Mexican accounting law, not to mention a lack of a clear idea of why they were in business, other than to make money. 

Frustrated, the owner who had semiretirement in his sights, was not sure his son was ready to, or wanted to take over the business. To remedy the situation, he hired a quality-improvement consultant, me, to assess his company’s people and operations.

New Thinking

Not seeing the importance in pretending I already “know” and realizing that cultural context is important, I looked into the history and culture of Chihuahua. (Yes, the dog does come from there.) The after-effects of colonialism still linger in Mexico, where Spanish colonization was particularly cruel, and relations with the United States have been checkered. Being on the border doesn’t help. According to the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano (1997), until very recently, Latin America existed “at the service of others’ needs, as a source of reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them.” 

The plant is in Saucillo in the state of Chihuahua, which borders the United States and is the largest state in Mexico. Deeply religious, the people of Chihuahua are also proud and tenacious, as symbolized by their best-known citizen, Jose ́Doroteo Arango Arambula, also known as Pancho Villa, hero of the Mexican Revolution. (just ask the Wikipedia!) 

Leading Mexico in the production of nuts, cattle, and apples, Chihuahua has workable roads and seven border crossings. It is also notorious for its drug wars. In 2009 in the city of Juarez alone, 2,400 people were murdered, many of them beheaded. (yes, lopping people’s heads off) Saucillo is more than 245 miles from Juarez, but the life of people living there has been whacked. Once a place full of life, for a number of years, people stayed at home at night and kep their children in on weekends. Kidnappings, while not common, occurred a bit too often for my taste. We had to travel in an old Buick convertible with the gringoes like me in the back seat the first few years I visited there. But then, I live in Rio, so what am I complaining about? (both are better now.)

How do you inspire pride in workmanship, the cornerstone of quality from the workfloor up? One thing for sure, the “I know more than you,” attitude may come in handy in competitive Corporate America, but not with the “uncorporate” folk I work with: the more creative founders and hard-working folks who work for them. Instead –lots of observation and listening, deep respect and faith in the untapped abilities of all human beings: the Willing Workers.  Compared to Americans, Latinos have more of a group ethic, which made it easier for me, though they have the nagging habit of not wanting to deliver bad news. They are proud people so while language had to be plain and clear, it could not be condescending; ideas had to be presented fully –not dumbed down.

Blaming the people working in an imperfect system is foolhardy. Until the parts of an organization work toward what Simon Sinek calls a shared “Why,” there really isn’t even a closed system. And that vision/aim/why is best built on serving other people, particularly thems that buy from you.. the much discussed, but still mostly maligned customer. 

Getting Down to Business Where the Action Is

One of the 390 maquiladoras that employ more than 165,000 people in Mexico, RES Internacional manufactures fermented peppers and other related products for export to RES, Inc. in the United States and for domestic sales. (Confused? Don’t feel bad, the RES/RES name bit confused me for a couple of years.

RES

Between March 2008 and June 2010, I visited the plant nine times. Upper management was trained in supervisory skills first, as they would then have to train the supervisors, using the outline of a 20-class training program based on one developed in the late 1940s by Homer Sarasohn at the Training Within Industry branch of the U.S. War Office as part of the postwar rebuilding of Japan. 

So the table is set, in the next installment we’ll get to the meat and potatoes…

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About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.