Leadership + People: Episode 54 - Brian Bowers - Part 1 of 2
In this episode COO of Visible Supply Chain Management, Brian Bowers discusses the results of inclusion as a entry level employee. Bowers explains how continuous improvement lead one company to 100% increase in productivity but also decreased workload, increased outputs and provided employees with greater financial incentives.
- How inclusion got everyone focused on the desired outputs, and success followed [02:00]
- Collaboration and growing a team from below opens more opportunities above [04:20]
- The need for an approach and laser focus in continuous improvement. No mandates instead create a culture [07:32]
- Increase productivity by 100% while decreasing chaos and runaround [11:20]
- How through improvements, one company saved enough to raise wages by 20% and quadruple bonuses [18:20]
- Opportunity alone isn’t enough. Prepare and focus on your end goals today [19:53]
Continuous Improvement Methodologies:
This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: October 9th, 2018
Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, Senior Executives and Entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies. And what advice they wish they knew if they could do it all again.
JL: Today on the show we’ve got Brian Bowers.
BRIAN BOWERS “And that inclusion was really amazing to me. Because for one, it really endeared me to him and to the team. But also it showed me that there’s a way that you can be inclusive and you can involve people in getting to the best outcomes.”
00:47 JL: COO of Visible Supply Chain Management. Brian thanks for making time.
BRIAN BOWERS: Happy to be here Jess.
00:54 JL: So a thousand plus employees, 300 million a year company, for people who… What’s the thirty second elevator pitch for Visible?
BRIAN BOWERS: Okay. So Visible SUpply Chain Management is the largest shipping company you don’t know. So we like to think of ourselves as the backend Amazon type comprehensive supply chain services company. So we have four business units. One is fulfillment. Pick pack and ship type operations that we operate out of Salt Lake, Atlanta and Memphis. We have a logistics arm whis is LTL and truckload freight brokerage. We have a parcel company that supports 20,000 ecommerce shippers through various platforms including Shopify and Amazon and some of these other platforms. And then a packaging company that supports all of those pieces with coregate and films and tapes. Those kinds of things.
02:00 JL: That’s great. Well… And so you’ve got a background from continuous improvement, like Lean 6 Sigma, stuff at Raytheon, and work in private capital, Sorenson Capital and other folks. When you think about just, all these different leaders you’ve observed during your career, who do you feel like you’ve learned the most from? Or what’s a story of a mentor that really opened your eyes about something in leadership?
BRIAN BOWERS: I think one of my first experiences that was really significant was at Raytheon in my first job I was part of a team of engineers and management working on a program. I was working with the Vice President who’s name was Rick Nelson. He just served as a great mentor in the way that he managed his team. It’s the first place that I really saw an executive leader who collaborated really effectively. And Rick invited me, when I was just an entry level engineer, he invited me to participate in his staff meetings each week. That inclusion was really amazing to me. Because for one, it really endeared me to him and to the team. But also it showed me that there’s a way that you can be inclusive and you can involve people in getting to the best outcomes. And he did that across the board. So he would find ways to include people that were, that would have an influence and participate in the ultimate success he was shooting for. His staff meeting with me was just one way that he was reaching out and collaborating, involving and including people in the projects and the outcomes that he was working on. It was really just an amazing example. One that I didn’t forget mainly because of how much it meant to me at the time.
04:09 JL: Yeah. You know… So you’re a guy, you’ve got an MBA from MIT, a masters degree in civil engineering. Doesn’t it seem like it should be more complicated than something like that?
BRIAN BOWERS: [laugh]
04:20 JL: You know, the answer shouldn’t be so simple.
BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. You would think so. But I think in business it’s not uncommon for ego and position, and all of these other factors to get in the way. You know, personality clashes. I think it’s a pretty rare but amazing thing when people are able to set those things aside and just work toward the outcome. And that’s… I think you see lots of examples of that. I think maybe it is that simple in the end.
04:59 JL: So… Well you think about an organization like Raytheon, you know, large and a lot of success. But you know also that [laugh] it can grow a lot of beurorcuray.
BRIAN BOWERS: Right.
05:15 JL: So this guy that was able to do this kind of inclusion, this leader of yours. You know all those things that you just mentioned, ego and clashes and those kinds of things that most of us would like to avoid and spend that energy on the customer instead. In your mind what was it about that inclusion that he apparently got less of that? Or why do you think inclusion worked in limiting the ego and the clashes and the opposite?
BRIAN BOWERS: I think it doesn’t leave people with any where to retreat. So if you say ‘Hey let’s work together on this. Lets collaborate.’ The person who says ‘No. I’m not going to.’ They’re clearly exposed. They’re left out on their own. And once its couched in those terms it becomes very obvious, if you don’t, if you’re not willing to participate, if you are not willing to collaborate, you’ll be left out on your own. And then that starts… I don’t know. I think that’s so obvious to people that they don’t opt for the other path once that path’s presented to them. I think that really worked for him and his organization and the results that he was able to achieve because of that. The other option is just so much less attractive even to the people it’s being offered to. It reminds me of this other piece of advice that people give frequently in business which is; you know, if you’re trying to protect your job, most likely you’re going to be out of a job. It’s those people who actually try to train and work on creating a replacement that’s just as capable as themselves as they go down that process they grow people who are underneath them, make them more capable. Able to take their job but also opens up opportunity above you as you take on that philosophy and approach. They’re similar. They are connected concepts.
Continuous Improvement Strategies
07:32 JL: Yeah. You know, I’d be interested in your thoughts. I mean I know that you did a lot of continuous improvement, Lean, this kind of stuff at Raytheon and after going over to Mity Lite, you guys won entire manufacturing awards there. I’m interested, you know, there are so many leaders who are interested in continuous improvement. They mandate, everybody should be doing this and then you know, 75% of them that don’t seem to actually be able to build a culture of it. And actually deliver on the promise. I’m interested in what you learned at Raytheon and kind of what you’ve just been talking about. Just your observation of continuous improvement and corporate programs, how it applies in your experience?
BRIAN BOWERS: Sure. I think… Lets see. It’s a really good question. I think what really works in the continuous improvement environment is to create a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish first and foremost. And then as you try to help people, usually there’s a methodology to support that. Right? So in Lean you have a methodology that might step you from visualizing the results and then committing the resources, kind of championing and then sponsoring what’s going on. And then actually stepping into the kaizen events. Making the improvements. Recognizing the achievements. And then going forward with some sort of sustaining activities. Or identifying the next types of improvement. So regardless of whatever the approach is; DMAIC, Lean, 6 Sigma, whatever. You have an approach. You can help people understand the approach. And in some ways that gives them license to start to come forward with their ideas. But leaders who don’t listen to those ideas or who aren’t earnest in that commitment, then they disenfranchise employees. They lose the hearts and minds of the people. And then that initiative really stalls. And it’s lost. Another thing that happens in continuous improvement is companies might over complicated it. So another great mentor of mine, Don Blome, he really spoke to this by taking down all the banners. And getting rid of all the signage and all the things that really were platitudes but they weren’t results focused and they weren’t helping the people. And then he really focused things on just the few simple things. He called them the key drivers. And it’s the same for all of us. It’s the paraido of items that, the few items that get the results. And just maintaining a laser focus on those key drivers. Again those few items that get the intended outcomes and getting really good at those thing. So I think it really is partly engaging and maintaining the hearts and the minds of the people, but then also making the initiative simple enough that you can keep focus on just a few things that get the results. And you stay focused long enough to actually let people gain mastery, gain the capability to deliver on those things. And you get really great outcomes from that. You avoid the flavor of the month kind of programs. You avoid the 31 flavors of continuous improvement, kind of problems that we see.
11:20 JL: [laugh] Sure. Can you tell us a story? Is there… Whether at Mity Lite or any of the businesses of one of those programs that you saw go through and produce, you know, outsized results as a result of that type of an approach?
The Mity Lite Story: Simplify and Improve
BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. Sure. At Mity Lite, our focus was really on taking, resuring, taking manufacturing back from China. In order to do that we had to get pretty incredible results in our labor efficiency, in our designs, our manufacturability of products. And so the initiative really started with; here are the key drivers of labor efficiency and quality and delivering on time. And from that then they rolled out multiple projects. Some of it around putting some capital equipment in that was more capable, creating systems and techniques for doing… Making the products that we were making in a much more efficient way. Some of that automation, some of that process improvement. So focusing on those three key drivers helped us to reduce our labor costs by 4-5% of sales. Which was a massive, actually a massive improvement. Productivity improved by 100%. And it was just… Then from there it was a refinement. How do we get to where the people… How do we create labor plans that change and fluctuate as our volume of orders change and as our products change over time. And again it became a truly continuous improvement approach where we were refining on the smaller and smaller things that affected our labor output. So first it was the big things and as those big items started to produce results we refined and focused. But we stayed focused on those same key drivers for several years. By the end of two years we had probably achieved, I would say 75% of the results. And the over the next two years after that was a refinement further. So it’s not…
13:57JL: Can you give an example of what one of those drivers would be?
BRIAN BOWERS: Of the key drivers?
14:01 JL: Yeah.
BRIAN BOWERS: So. So the particular key driver metric that we used was just a labor productivity metric, which was how many units did you produce per labor hour or man hour that went into the product. And so again that’s the high level metric. And then the specifics around that, you know, we were making commercial tables and chairs in the tabling manufacturing that involved putting in equipment that was more capable that could achieve faster cycle times. And then individuals who were working those pieces of equipment learning better processes. Actually doing lean manufacturing where we are eliminating steps, simplifying processes until their job was much easier to do. So one story around that is as we came out of the recession which was really horrible for Mity Lite in terms of reduced sales, you know we made a lot of adjustments in that time period. But one thing that we did through that period was all this continuous improvement effort. One of the employees, one of the team leaders after all that I guess all those changes. I was standing out there with him and said you know; ‘Moses, what do you think about what’s happened here?’ And he said; ‘I can’t believe it. It’s absolutely amazing. We are doing almost twice as many tables per day with the same employees and we’re not running. It’s not crazy.’ So we took a scenario and a setting that was pretty chaotic when we started and people were running around. Disorganized and really at the end of that effort, really were able to get the output that we needed to get with considerably much less work. And it was actually phenomenal.
16:23 JL: So I think, you know, 100% productivity growth is something that perks up the ears of every leader who is listening to this right? Now not everybody is in manufacturing, so I’m interested as you think about principles that could be applied to the rest of our businesses from that.
BRIAN BOWERS: Okay.
16:45 JL: You know… Maybe let’s start with inclusion. Anybody, any leader can say I demand you guys produce more. And they may or may not get it. Right? But it sounds like Moses was obviously involved in those decisions. And it sounds like there was inclusion and everybody got to bring their brain to work. It wasn’t just the boss saying and here’s how you’re going to do it. Is that a fair assumption there?
BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. I think that’s true. And I think if I was to generalize some of those things, I think there’s a proper level of activity to be involved in by each of the levels in the organization. So I think about a company were they want to see improvement. They demand improvement. But the method that they generally employ I would say most companies employ, is work harder stay longer, do more, get more output by grinding harder. And that’s the beauty of a true improvement process. Is that you are eliminating steps that don’t matter. You’re actually helping align the organization to things that are of value. And you know, you’re really focusing on the value added pieces an employee can deliver and you’re getting rid of everything else. And so again the real impact there is that an employee like Moses can say; ‘Hey I’m not having to sprint. And we’re not having to work 70 hour weeks. To get the output out like we were before.’
18:20 JL: Yeah. He wants those kind of improvements right?
Continuous Improvement Benefits for Employees Beyond the Surface
BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. Absolutely right? And at the same time because of the savings the company was able to provide more in terms of bonuses and compensation that way. So their wages went up by about 20% in that period. And their bonus basically quadrupled from what they were receiving before. So there was a financial reward for the employees to be involved that was contingent on the results. So it wasn’t; ‘hey if you participate in this change, you’ll get more money.’ It was literally as we make these improvements the company has more to offer. And it’s a tribute to leadership at Mity Lite, at the time that they made those decisions to actually create programs that, and incentives that really helped the individuals. So definitely there were ideas flowing at all levels, but I think that’s less of the story. I think it’s more a story about management creating focus. Management really helping everyone in the organization really understanding what was valuable what was important. Really focusing in and achieving those results.
19:53 JL: Love it. Well, we’re about out of time for the first episode here. I want to hear a lot more about how these skills translated in the next company since then. Maybe to close, what’s a piece of advice you wish you could go back and give a younger version of yourself?
Prepare for End Goal
BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. I think actually while it’s kind of specific… So I think a piece of advice I would give myself; something that I heard when I was younger, even when I was a youth there were lots of people who would say ‘You will be a leader when you grow up.’ ‘You will..’ It seemed like everyone in the “Older Generation” looks to the younger generations and tells them; ‘Hey, you will take our place some day.’ ‘You will be the ones doing this job or this work or making things happen in our companies and in our communities.’ And I think going back it’s one thing to hear those words. It’s another to prepare yourself in a way were you actually believe them. And you prepare yourself accordingly. So I feel a little bit like that. I think good advice to myself would have been to take that more seriously and to approach something specifically speaking approach something like MBA school as an actual platform for doing what you want to do. I saw a couple examples of that when I was at MIT. Of people who were very clear about their objectives of coming out of MBA school and doing exactly the things that they wanted to do. Or making the contributions that they wanted to make. But that happened because they went into MBA school with a clear view of what they were trying to accomplish. And it was a recognition that they were going to be leaders in the businesses that they were going to be a part of and in the fields that they were seeking to be apart of. And there is one in particular example of a classmate who said ‘I want to be a product manager at Microsoft. And I want to be a Vice President of Microsoft down the road.’ And everything he did at MBA school was focused around that objective. Everything he did. Every class paper that he did. Every research that he did was focused around achieving that goal and becoming that leader that ultimately he has become. It’s awesome. It’s magic when you put preparation together with opportunity. And that’s exactly the kinds of things I think I partially did when I was younger. But I’ve seen lots of examples of people who have done that well. And I wish I would have done that better.
23:02 JL: Love it. Well everybody. Please tune back in for our next episode. We’re going to keep asking Brian for some more wisdom here. Thanks Brian.
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