Tracy MacNeal found herself in an unusual predicament. In addition to her normal position as Chief Strategy Officer for ATW, a metals technology company based in Rhode Island, she also found herself taking on the role of Plant Manager — a hefty combination of new responsibilities and initiatives in what had become a messy situation in its East Coast plant. Then again, properly implementing the right tools that empowered a beleaguered workforce to turn around this loss-making plant meant she was not the only one on the floor trying new approaches to problem solving…

Recent History & Symptoms

In 2009, ATW acquired a small East Coast facility to match its very successful West Coast operation. They moved it to a greenfield plant and built it up with a new team and equipment, ultimately deciding to leave key technical support on the West Coast and de facto making the Rhode Island space solely a manufacturing hub. In short, the plant would be given products that had already been shaken out and ready for manufacturing.

Over the next 5 years the company proceeded to add more and more business,  but without a clear plan for fulfilling it effectively and without adding the right skills and the right talent. Scaling the systems in place left the team in scramble mode, constantly trying to shift more and more product and falling behind.

“It was a bad set up, a bad business plan.“ Tracy said, cutting right to the chase. “Things work on paper that don‘t really work in principle…The situation also gave rise to a hero culture with everyone trying to take one for the team, go beyond to change things – an amazing team of firefighters but never winning because they could not get ahead of it. Things were really starting to fall apart….“

More specifically, the plan to use key technical expertise and leadership from California to support the growth of the Rhode Island plant and thus not have two of everything posed problems. “We were leveraging synergies!“ Tracy said with laugh, playfully poking fun at the trendy business school jargon supporting what turned out to be a poor decision not to place a technical team in-house. “Rather than have so many engineers, we would just have them in California — it did NOT work…“ she confessed. “It is too complicated a technology, and you need a full complement of technical people on-site.“

The shortage of on-site technical leadership and know-how indeed proved detrimental to the work flow, profitability and overall team morale at the plant, which sank to a meager 30% on-time product delivery rate by mid-2013. “Everything was late and had to be expedited –  you’re paying expediting cost on your subcontractors, on freight and then your overhead is badly absorbed because it is very inefficient,“ she said. “Morale was low because all of their metrics were losing metrics – they were working so hard and not winning…“

After the plant manager moved on, the position sat empty for months – the right candidate simply never materializing. “Closing on p-e-o-p-l-e is really important, I can’t stress that enough“ said Tracy, looking back on lessons learned in the process. “The bottom line was it was too messy to attract the right candidate. The plant ultimately needed someone to get in there and fix it….“

Root Causes & Rallying Cry to Action

By November 2014, Tracy assumed the role of plant manager – her down-to-earth approach to problem solving at the micro-level on the floor ultimately guiding the shift in overall business plan moving forward. “I think the biggest thing that I did specifically and would not have happened without me in the position is I worked alongside them.“ Finding classroom training challenging for so many people, she concentrated more on kinesthetic learning before providing staff any abstract application — in short, a learning-through-doing philosophy.

To that end, she invoked certain lessons and methodologies learned from SBTI consultants Bob Jeske and Bill Zinkgraf, such as hands-on simulations using stickle bricks. “One great thing that SBTI did that helped me a lot was simulations to redesign a process and how you get people aligned to look at their own work,“ she said. The challenge partly lied with getting managers to pull their staff out of situations, so they could talk about how to redesign a process, not just managers coming in telling everyone what to do differently. Clearly, this was easier said than done, especially when staff are not exactly in the mood for a workshop when  running around with their hair on fire….

SBTI also helped Tracy navigate through the vast sea of Lean tools. “What I like about SBTI is that it is just not linear with them – actually that is what I love and hate! There are about a thousand Lean tools  and trying to find the right one for your team and your situation can be overwhelming. Having a team like SBTI there to help you apply that proved ideal,“ she said.

One thing that Tracy had done was bone up on applying such methodology. As Chief Strategic Officer part of her job was to be the uber project manager of any initiative coming through the company. She had taken part in benchmarking at other companies and saw how the process worked so that when it got down to her working with just a dozen of her own people, it was not that complicated. “The first thing I decided to do was to start working on a bottleneck and put a visual scheduling system in so that everyone could see where all of the product was,“ she said. “We’d forget all the rest (because) the rest did not matter.“ Other changes followed….

“I also cancelled almost all on-time delivery meetings — actually I cancelled ALL meetings!“ she added with a hearty, good-natured laugh, “and replaced them with workshops where we were sitting down and looking at where the bottlenecks were and redesigning the way we were doing things.“  Much of this change in direction was in response to witnessing too many inefficient on-time delivery meetings with one poor soul holding a computer print-out and getting beat up three times a week. And with it a good deal of time being wasted. Moving forward, staff was simply informed that everything was late for the time being and they would be informed when it was not late anymore. Period. “I also cancelled a lot of work that was happening that was not on the bottleneck because until you fix the bottleneck, you can’t see all that other work anyway,“ she said.

Trial and Error

Tracy’s sense of humor kept her team loose and willing to try new things. This approach was reflected in her only requirement of the team — don’t get it right the first time. “Just make sure your first effort does not work. And it made people laugh,“ Tracy admits. recognizing the irony. “They later told me they thought I was crazy!“  With that requirement also came the end of using expensive, seemingly permanent white boards and the start of plotting all changes on paper with post-it notes scattered throughout, thus encouraging the team to see these plans as iterations. “I told them you could buy a white board when you loved it. And it still hasn’t happened,“ she said, establishing a culture of constant improvement which would endure.

The intense period of trial and error also resulted in a great deal of team building established through her powers of persuasion, her positive reinforcement and the workers‘ willingness to experiment. “I did not abdicate or delegate – I sat there with them because the reality of it was that I did not know the answers either…You have to be willing to say ‘just come with me, just try it.”

Further invoking SBTI, a color-coding system was added to allow workers to start tracking when time was being lost because of equipment failures, staffing problems or just because of flow. “And every time we were able to notice that it was flow, it was tagged and the team t-h-e-m-s-e-l-v-e-s were seeing it, doing the problem solving – I was not doing it.“

Always quick to first give her team credit for the work and positive changes, Tracy did insist that they use the above-mentioned system, never backing off. “Management has to be relentless not to accept excuses and not let them off the hook in terms of looking at reality and coming up with their own solutions…it takes some courage on the management’s part.“ And once the team understood it and bought in, things began to change quite quickly — by early 2014, on-time delivery had picked up two-fold to an impressive 60%. The train was moving in the right direction…

Skills, Capacity and Willingness

Key to the positive changes was recognizing the strengths and weaknesses not only in her team but also in herself. The team was constantly  throwing things up against the wall to see what would stick. Or as she called it: a personal shopping routine: “If you don‘t know what you want, then how about this outfit? Or how bout that one and on and on…“ Her team did not necessarily have the skills, but they had the capacity and the willingness to walk through things “so it was really about asking them about their process and asking them about what they saw was possible, ‘what if we tried it like this?‘“ At the same time, there was more to the process and having the right person with the right technical skills asking the questions was key. As an engineer, she was asking a lot of the questions, especially at the start as they put in the systems, because “otherwise, you are looking for a needle in a haystack.“

Tools for Improvement

Providing the right tools in the right way was essential to the overall changes at her plant. When looking for signs that the plant was improving, she looked for the following tools in action:

  1. Visual Scheduling – first and foremost
  2. Kanbans – another visual tool so that people can know what to work on next
  3. 5s – workplace organization, a place for everything and everything in its place


As far as numbers go, by spring 2015:

  • 3x improvement –  30% to 90% on-time delivery using just Lean tools – a truly remarkable Breakthrough change
  • Red to Black – the plant went from losing money to being profitable within five months without any lay-offs or downsizing of personnel.

As far as intangibles go:

Bottom line: Tracy put in the team that turned the plant around, and when the team was giving enough of the right tools in the right way with the right leadership to empower them — that’s when success happened.

Full Circle: By April 2015 Tracy had returned to her job as a corporate officer, and the team has successfully continued to use the tools implemented during her stint as Plant Manager till now. Within a year, the team of operators were able to host a Lean benchmarking tour of 60 people, and in March 2016 ATW was awarded “Best Lean Management“ by the Providence Business News.