Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on November 29, 2021.
We all learn lessons during our careers that make a significant difference in our subsequent success. One of these lessons is to break paradigms – our accepted ways of doing things.
I wrote an article in August 2019 about my paradigm-breaking experience. This is an update of that article.
As president of one of my company’s subsidiaries, I wanted to build a plant in a new geography to supply a growing market and protect that market from the entry of a competitor. We wanted to justify the plant not only on a strategic basis, but also an economic basis as well.
I told our CEO Paul Staley that due to low initial revenues in the early years of the plant’s operation, the internal rate of return of the project was insufficient to present to the board. Staley asked that I review with him every aspect of the plant’s design.
This type of plant would normally be staffed by three people on a one-shift operation, led by a plant manager. Staley asked if it would be possible to design the plant to operate with a two-shift self-managed crew – one individual on the first and one on the second shift. Staley wanted to eliminate the need for a plant manager – something that had never been done before.
My response was, “So, you want a more-efficient plant built at lower capital cost run by fewer people and with no management? These objectives are mutually exclusive!” Staley just smiled and said, “You need to break your paradigms. I know you and your team can do this.”
Working with our engineering and plant-operations team, we broke every paradigm we ever had about this type of plant. Through brainstorming, out-of-the-box thinking and open dialogue, we reoriented equipment and scaled down the capacity of the plant to lower the initial capital investment but left it expandable when the demand justified additional capacity. We raised the qualifications of the operators hired to run the plant, ensuring they had the capability to self-manage.
There was much skepticism within the company that the plant could run with a self-managing crew of only two people. For political reasons, I added the cost of a third person to the cash-flow projections. A third person was added a few years later after demand grew, requiring operation on the third shift.
After the plant design was revised and staffing reduced, the return on investment rose significantly, and we received board approval to build the plant. Because of its new design and operation, it was the lowest cost plant of its type in the industry and became our company’s model for future plants of this type. A competitor chose not to enter the geography because of our plant’s low-cost operation. They couldn’t match its low costs.
A few years later, we built a replica of the plant to serve another geographic market. We operated the plant at an even lower cost with one individual on the day shift and a local retiree who filled in when the individual took vacation or a sick day.
The adage, “don’t tell me it can’t be done, find a way to do it” describes the attitude needed to break paradigms. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish if you think out of the box and adopt new approaches.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.