Tag Archives: The Journey

Heather Small’s “Proud”


Following in the foot steps of the London 2012 Olympic bid, “Proud” was used to conclude some of the earlier Journey days. You could almost call it a signature tune for showman MD Phil Dryden which was supposed to send the message : what are you going to do from this day forward to help this business on its feet again ? If it had stopped there I would have thought “good tune, maybe just the type of thing you would expect on party conferences, but not annoying”.

That is, until the following happened. In 2006 the Journey activities were in full swing, as part of which some buildings (or at least, parts of them) were being spruced up in attempt to get rid of the steel industry’s dingy image. 2006 was also the year when I spent more and more time in Port Talbot’s hot mill building where I had acquired an office on the second floor just at the top of the stairs. As such I could witness how the entry lobby was being given a make-over, as well as the upstairs conference room and to a lesser degree the rest of the top floor.

As part of the make-over the entry lobby got a partitioning wall, so that visitors could be diverted to the manager’s office and the conference room without having to see the still dingy corridor behind the partitioning – sounds almost like “Upstairs, Downstairs”, doesn’t it ? There were also some nice chairs and a glass-topped table with a few Corus magazines where visitors could wait in comfort until they could be seen. And to top it all off, there was a large flat screen TV which for most of the time was used to show BBC News, but could also be used to announce production records, or any other event management wanted to highlight.

One such an event must have been one of the recent Journey days, because one day, the music of Heather Small’s “Proud” was being played on a never-ending continuous loop as the background to a video that repeated itself for what seemed like forever. Not so much fun for someone like me and my room mate who were sitting in our office almost on top of said television – even if you like the song, playing it incessantly becomes like Chinese water torture. In the end it can’t have been played for more than a day, but the event got stuck in my mind as if it lasted a lot longer.

Whatever the case, I’m over it now, and to prove there’s no hard feelings, here it is :

 

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Networking


At some point when I was discussing something with my boss in Operational Research, I mentioned in passing that I was good at networking. Which brought a momentary look of disbelief on his face, and I could clearly hear him think : “you’re not the networking type!”

To be fair I’m not, if you take the standard definition of networking into account :

Creating a group of acquaintances and associates and keeping it active through regular communication for mutual benefit.

or

to interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.

The idea being that you’re outgoing and extravert, going to conferences and business events handing out your business cards, chatting to people you don’t know yet but hope to know in the future, and that way building up a network of acquaintances that may come you in good stead in future dealings with other companies. I’m not that type of person, and my boss knew it.

However, when I was referring to networking, what I meant was something slightly different : over the years while in Llanwern and Port Talbot I had gradually spread my net wide, and had helped a variety of people out with databases and web sites which brought them the information they so dearly needed in their job. In essence, what it means is that a large number of people became aware of me as a useful person to have around, and I cultivated these relationships to the point that people knew they could rely on me to help them out even when I had officially moved on to a different area.

It made it so much easier then to call in a small favour here and there, and it definitely opened doors when I had to introduce my successor into the job. The thinking presumably being that if I trusted the guy sufficiently, then they would provisionally extend that trust to him as well.

One special case I have especially cultivated is my relationship with Process Control. In fact, when they created a new software group within the Journey framework, I was the only non-Process Control member. This had substantial benefits when Group Information Services (GIS) took over some functions from Process Control, and some people moved from Process Control to GIS. Despite the bureaucracy that came with the take-over by GIS, it was always easy to be able to sort things out on a personal level and loose the immediacy of direct contact when you’re forced to funnel everything through the IT helpdesk.

I think that my boss in the end started to see the usefulness of this alternative type of networking, because he often made use of my contacts, and in doing so started of with a feeling of goodwill obtained over the years through my earlier dealings with these people.

Admittedly, all these relationships were purely work-related, and not social. Now that I’m retired I’m no longer in contact with any of them. In fact I lost access to my works email on the first day of retirement, and have not been in contact with anyone on the other side since.

The Journey


As I’ve described in an earlier blog(“The Passion of the Steel Worker”), “The Journey” was started by Phil Dryden in his all too short stint as managing director of Strip Products UK. It was kicked off by the fatalities of Hywel Thomas and Bryan Robbins in quick succession shortly after he had taken up the reins (see blog Middle Age and Accidents), which made him sit up and take note of the fact that as a rule, we took poor standards for granted, and that this was at the root of our poor performance.

As an outsider he was well-placed to notice, whereas someone immersed in the culture might not have seen it so clearly. Journey days were held, first a selected few in the Millennium stadium, and subsequent for everyone in various locations. Images of broken stuff that were never mended, litter that was never moved, bad practice stemming from lack of care were displayed, and the message was believable coming from Phil Dryden : we should aspire to better standards, and only then were we likely to become a world-class steel works.

However, between theory and practice stood quite a large gap. People started spending on new equipment even if the old stuff was perfectly OK and refurbishment of selected offices had to be restrained in the end because it was eating up budgets. I’ve seen people throw everything out of offices and replace it with new stuff, even if some of the things they threw out had never been used.

Also, the mentality behind the Journey was sometimes misunderstood as it trickled down to lower levels. Such as managers who had heard the dictum “Show me a good manager, and I’ll show you a manager with a good safety record”, and thought that, if they only concentrated on having a perfect safety record, they would be “good” managers. Never mind that the sign of a good managers is someone who can juggle the requirements of safety, production volume and production quality in such a way that not one is sacrificed for the other.

The worrying thing though was the fact that the Journey stopped at the glass floor : as I’ve said before, to the shop floor personnel, this was just another initiative like so many they’ve seen come through the door, and if they waited this one out, it would go the way of other initiatives. Hence when someone in the pickle line was asked the question “How could this process go wrong” or “How could you get hurt in this process”, the answer was given “You can’t”. Proof enough that the message hadn’t sunk in.

Then Phil Dryden moved on to Long Products to spread his message there, and was replaced by Uday Chattervedi. Although Uday was a good MD (unlike some later ones that followed him), he didn’t live and breathe the Journey, and you started to get the feeling that apart from a bi-weekly Journey paper, this initiative had run its course. There was still the occasional Journey day, but you started to get the feeling that nothing fundamental was being addressed, and those organising the days were gong through the motions without any real belief in the underlying principles.

In fact, for quite some time I had been rather cynical of the whole Journey circus which everyone agreed was impressive to behold, but which outsiders pointed out that it hadn’t added anything to the bottom line. Surely that must have been a sign that the main reason why the Journey was started did not make the company more profitable, and might even have diverted precious efforts from where it might make a difference to the financial situation.

To show that we had come full circle, the front page of one Journey paper displayed an area full of broken stuff and rubbish that was not being cleared, because no-one could be bothered to do so. Sounds familiar ? Wasn’t this one of the reasons why the Journey was started ? In the end I stopped reading the Journey paper because it didn’t contain any information worth taking note of, just empty propaganda.

No wonder a lot of people who’ve been in Port Talbot or Llanwern for a long time become wary of initiatives : they come and go, and in the end nothing changes. Rather despiriting.

“The Passion of the Steel Worker”


It’s a phrase that’s been banded around in the last few years whenever steel is in the news, or when top management wants to broadcast an image to the outside world. It’s also one I want to take issue with, since I haven’t seen all that much of this “passion” from first-hand experience. For starters though I have to confess that passion on its own, even if it really is there, doesn’t count for everything, not if you’re not properly organised and doing things the clever way. It’s not much good to be passionate but totally wrong in your approach.

However, one experience in particular stands out that makes me doubt whether this passion that everyone talks so much about is really there. It was in the early days of Phil Dryden’s reign as Managing Director for Strip Products UK when he launched the “Journey”. This came from his observation as an outsider that we in South Wales had let our standards slip, and that from now we should do things properly by not accepting a so-so performance as good enough.

I went to two Journey days in which the project was being launched, the first one for the Technical team in the Liberty Stadium, and the second one in the Hilton hotel near the Coldra for the Cold Rolling & Coating part of Llanwern. The difference in atmosphere between the two was like day and night. Whereas in the first one everyone was fired up, in the second one many people were sitting with their arms crossed, as if to rebuff the latest management initiative.

Especially in the break-out sessions, one of the shift people, looking like he was (officially or unofficially) the ring leader, made as his first statement “well, if they think we’re going to go along with that, they’ve got another thing coming”. The thinking behind the Journey was that 90% of the population would go along with it, and that the 10% bad eggs would either have to adapt or get thrown out. My impression was that amongst the crew members there was a far larger proportion of people who resisted the change to the status quo, and it was not just a few people on the fringes, but a substantial number of influential ring leaders who did the resisting.

Since then I’ve seen it many times in different guises. Some businesses are accused of having a glass ceiling, but in my view we are dealing with a glass floor here. Management initiatives are being carried through with the help of a dedicated set of middle managers, but somehow it never changes what really happens at shop floor level. That’s why the machinery that kicks in to bamboozle visitors and customers during presentations and plant visits has to do all the running, and in a way they create Potemkin villages along the royal route which may be good to keep customers and the top brass happy, but which gives a totally false impression of where the passion really lies.

Nowhere was this attitude more engrained than in Port Talbot. Other parts of the South Wales business like Ebbw Vale, Tredegar, Pontardulais or Llanwern could be shut or cut back in size, but surely Port Talbot as the lynch pin of it all would be the last one standing ? Even a year before Tata Steel announced its plans to divest itself of the UK side of the business there were still people on shift who maintained that we were making a profit (we hadn’t since 2008), that our steel quality was second to none (not so, and definitely not consistent enough) and that the messages of doom coming from above were only scaremongering tactics to squeeze concessions out of the workforce.

Well, the house of cards has finally come tumbling down, but it’s never the fault of all those good and honest workers, is it ? After all, weren’t they “passionate” ?