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Top Tips For Plant Tours: “Every Factory Has Its Strengths And Its Opportunities. Own It.”

Manufacturing Meet Up podcast poster with "I smelll the wet paint!"

If you haven’t yet tuned into Manufacturing Meet Up, Augury’s new podcast with industry veterans Alvaro Cuba and Ed Ballina, now’s the time… In a recent episode, they dived deep into plant tours – describing what they’re looking for and what they don’t want to see. For this post, Ed summarizes the tips he and Alvaro offered. Be warned: there’s some restroom humor. 

My friend Alvaro Cuba and I host a podcast called Manufacturing Meet Up. In a recent episode, ‘The Rise Of “New-Collar” Jobs And Top Plant Tour Tips,’ we shared our advice about the often dreaded factory tours undertaken by C-Suite executives in search of real-world insights to help in their battle with the bottom line. The podcast also became an opportunity to vent about my aversion to the smell of wet paint – more on this later. 

These tours are also an opportunity for the same executives to celebrate wins, teach and get the temperature of the frontline as well as making themselves accessible. 

And like many, Alvaro and I started our manufacturing careers, on the factory floor, so we have lots of experience from both sides of the aisle. I remember how nerve-racking these tours can be as a plant manager. No matter how well-prepared we were, I’d still lose sleep the night before and show up feeling fuzzy – at a time when I needed to be at my best and quick on my feet to answer the myriad of questions.

Now, when I do these tours as a guest, I try to be respectful since I’ve walked in their shoes. For instance, I would not take a deep dive into their sewers (though I must admit I did do that once, but I will save that story for a future podcast). 

Meanwhile, here you have a round-up of our tips: 

1) The tour begins at the parking lot

I’ll spill the key takeaway at the beginning: be ready. That said, you should be ready every day, day-in-day-out. 

“It’s like those modern restaurants with the open kitchen: if you see it’s dirty, and the chef is running around like their hair is on fire, you probably won’t want to eat there.”

You also have to realize the tour starts in your parking lot. If your parking lot is messy with trash everywhere and esoteric items hanging off your trees, you will need to put a lot of future effort into overcoming that first impression. So just get it done. This is just too easy to deal with. The first things people see are incredibly important. Are your parking stripes fresh or faded and worn out?

Alvaro had a great story from early in his career when a regional president came by. Naturally, they had the tour all planned, but this guy insisted they first go through the restrooms, the locker rooms, the cafeteria… It’s like those modern restaurants with the open kitchen: if you see it’s dirty, and the chef is running around like their hair is on fire, you probably won’t want to eat there.  

2) We know the factory is at its best

When an executive walks into your facility, they know what they see is probably the best this place has looked in months – if not years, depending on when the last tour was. 

Most places will tell you that they are always tour-ready – and sometimes this is grossly overstated. I’d say this is true for about 20% of the plants. Why do I know this? Because I can smell wet paint on four out of five visits. (And if I smell that paint and things still look tired and need upkeep, I get concerned.)

But as Alvaro pointed out, no plant is perfect, and as long as it’s obvious you are on the journey, you recognize where you are on that journey, and you are open about it, it’s fine. The real reason we are visiting is to help. Maybe we will even send some funding your way. Think of us as investors. I have limited capital and expense dollars to spread across the facilities. I want to invest where I have confidence I will see a return. I also want to reward equipment stewardship.

“Conversely if they’re struggling and failing, you can also see that in their faces. It’s written all over them – like a billboard. Like Hotel California: ‘You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave!'”

3) The tour is about people, not machines

Alvaro said his focus is always on the people. As he put it, “I believe that people are what matters. People are the ones who make things happen. And if you go into a plant and you see people smiling, being agile and moving around with their equipment with a clear goal, this tells you everything you need to know without seeing any KPIs. The culture is working.”

I back this 100%. If you walk into a place, you can just tell if a place is winning. There’s an energy, a certain aura… Okay, maybe I’m getting a little soft here, but you can really feel it. And conversely if they’re struggling and failing, you can also see that in their faces. It’s written all over them – like a billboard. Like Hotel California: “You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave!”

4) Assume we know what we’re doing

You can safely bet we’ve looked at the numbers and that we will be curious about those areas where they don’t quite add up. Don’t try to pull the wool over our eyes. Keep in mind that the people taking the tour likely had the same job as you. They know all the tricks. In fact, they likely tried all the tricks back in their day – and also failed badly at it. I certainly did. 

“We all laughed. It was a great way to close the visit. And this brings up another key point: always leave a facility with hope

5) Bathrooms are dangerous

As a visitor, sometimes you can get your intel from the strangest places. I remember being in a washroom stall during a break near the end of one tour. A couple of the managers walked in talking about how pleased they were that I had not noticed their waste problem. I had actually flagged this in my pre-work and planned to bring it up during my summary review at the end. So, when we went back to the meeting room, I made them suffer just a little bit. I returned back to the waste problem they thought I had forgotten about. Then I gave them a few ideas on how to deal with this waste issue. Finally I gave them some career advice: “Always check the stalls!” The two managers knew instantly what I was talking about. 

We all laughed. It was a great way to close the visit. And this brings up another key point: always leave a facility with hope.

6) No really, take down those wet-paint signs

Okay, I am doubling back to the wet paint thing… I know you will clean, organize, and be on your best behavior. But just don’t paint anything the day before I show up. I can smell it. Everything’s bright and shiny. And whatever you do, take down the wet paint signs. They’re a dead giveaway. And if I do happen to get any of that yellow bollard paint on my shirt, you’re paying for the replacement. I’m serious.

Look, if it’s really not the right time for a visit, just say so. We can arrange a later date. And I get to wear my favorite shirt for another day. 

“It’s really about educating each other, establishing trust, building a relationship, and figuring out how to get things done. It’s a chance to get the help you need so your plant can reach its true potential.”

7) Be open – because we want you to win

Don’t try to step away from the tough story. It’s okay, we all have tough stories, and a good leader will recognize it as the first step to fixing the problem. In fact, a leader’s job is to help you fix that problem. 

It’s not about impressing, bragging, or – heaven forbid – painting. Don’t get me wrong, your facility and equipment should be in like new condition and this includes periodic painting.  If I smell fresh paint it tells me you painted for the tour, and you didn’t it plan it well enough to have the paint properly dry – not good on both fronts.

But the visit is really about educating each other, establishing trust, building a relationship, and figuring out how to get things done. It’s a chance to get the help you need so your plant can reach its true potential. As Alvaro put it, “Every plant visit is an opportunity”. I couldn’t have said it better.

Oh, and by the way, there’s one smell I do like: fresh coffee.

Tune into the Manufacturing Meet Up podcast: ‘The Rise Of “New-Collar” Jobs And Top Plant Tour Tips’.

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