Managing My Plant: A Millennial Manufacturer on Care, Culture, & Creativity w/ Sarah Dale
In this episode, we chat with Sarah Dale, Plant General Manager at International Paper, about how she landed in manufacturing, how she leads her team, and what organizations can do to recruit and retain the next generation of manufacturing.
- How to address common millennial misconceptions about the industry
- Ideas for retaining a millennial workforce
- Why care is at the center of Sarah’s leadership style
- How to tap into creativity at work
- Sarah’s new venture: Captive Clean
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Check out the full episode below:
[00:00:00] Sarah Dale: Bring in the tech and the data analytics that allow us to make better decisions, reduce variability within the process and allow for really a different representation within a manufacturing workforce than maybe historically we’ve seen.
[00:00:15] Josh Santo: Welcome to Conquering Chaos, the show for manufacturing leaders. In each episode, we’re connecting you to the manufacturing leaders of today who are driving the innovations needed to futureproof the operations of tomorrow. If you feel like your time is spent fighting fires and trying to control the everyday chaos, this show is the show for you. My name is Josh Santo. I’ll be your host.
Hey y’all, it’s Josh. Before we get into this episode, I wanted to put this into your ear. If you like the types of conversations we’re having, you’ll enjoy the content that we share through our mailing list. Go to parsable.com/podcast, scroll to the bottom of the page, and sign up to get more insightful content delivered directly to your inbox. Okay. On to the show.
Welcome, all you conquerors of chaos. Our next guest is a manufacturing professional who wasn’t exactly looking for a rewarding career in manufacturing, but guess what, she found one anyway. Now, she has always had an entry in understanding how things work and how they could be better, which actually led her to pursue a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in leadership.
Her outlook and curiosity for improvement have carried into her work in all aspects, including technical, strategic, or even qualitative challenges. She utilizes her skills in Lean Six Sigma and EI to drive four results across any discipline as she serves in roles including engineering, capital operations, facilitation, global strategic project management, leadership, and recently, founder of her own company focused on bringing solutions to improve lives and the planet.
Recently recognized by International Paper CEO, which by the way, is where she serves as the general manager at the International Paper Box Plant in Brunswick, New Jersey, for her work leading the global manufacturing system implementation, including the development of an enterprise audit team, supporting implementation across 47 facilities. Please welcome to the show, Sarah Dale. Sarah, thanks so much for being here today.
[00:02:33] Sarah: Hey, thanks, Josh. Thanks for having me.
[00:02:35] Josh: I like to start these conversations off with the same question we ask each guest which is, what’s a day in your life look like?
[00:02:44] Sarah: Good question. I try to always start my day with coffee. With that, I start up a side of gratitude and really meditation. I think we’ve talked about the chaos of operations and manufacturing, and to start my day in that space has really helped me make sure that I start the day with the right perspective and guidance as I lead and think about the big picture and the real purpose of what we do every day.
That’s a must every day, coffee and gratitude. Once I get to work, I really take time to do some benchmarking on our prior day, assess where we left the product on the table, where we hit our goals and achieved our objectives, and what we’ll need to do going into this next 24, 48 hours to ensure that we continue to drive down the path for success as defined by our objectives here in Brunswick at our box plant.
After that, a little measuring, I speak with my leaders. It’s important to get a pulse check for where we are for the morning, what type of exceptions we have for the day, and really get involved and connect with the team. Making around is something I’ve built into my day so I can connect with the teams, understand where our limitations are for not just the day, but the facility, and engage with them. Whether it’s a topic outside of work to connect on a familial level or something with regards to a machine, it’s important to build that rapport and I build it into my day.
The next piece is really around understanding our customer impact. That’s something that we do every day with our customer service and operations team. That really assesses where we are, where are our priorities, and what do we need to get done as one unit. After I check in with my leaders and my team out on the floor, we prepare for our morning meeting where we review customer issues, exceptions to the prior day’s plan, and look at what we need to prioritize in order to get done what has to be done for the day and make sure that aligns with the bigger picture and our goals for the facility.
Once this is done and everyone has their charge for the day, the rest of it really comes as it needs to. Here is a general manager, my role is to lead the organization, ensure we stay on the right path to success. Profitability is key. Engaging with my sales team, understanding what the data is telling us so that I’m able to help ensure that our team is focused on working the right things so that we can grow the profitability and size of the business is really how my day pans out.
Some days, there are people issues and recruiting and different HR functions that I find myself deeply embedded in with my HR team, and other days, I’m talking about pricing. We really set the tone and the trajectory at the beginning of the day, and then the remainder of the day really changes based on what is the priority and the need in order to move our business forward successfully.
[00:05:30] Josh: There’s a lot of great points that I thought you brought up that I want to call out. I’m not going to hit on everything, but you started the first thing, you take that time in the morning, you’re meditating, you’re reflecting on gratitude and what you’re thankful for. Believe it or not, we’ve had a couple of guests who’ve talked about just taking some time in the morning that’s completely their own to reflect on either what their state of mind is for that day, or what their intention is for the day, or gratitude is such a good way of just having that appreciation.
Because once you walk into work, which you described as like I’ve got a plan, I’m connecting, I’m doing my rounds, I’m connecting with the team, I’m understanding, well, what happened yesterday and what needs to get done today, and then I’m dealing with all of the chaos that comes with working within a plant, having that era of gratitude just throughout I think certainly adds to the patience that is needed in order to do everything that you’re describing. Because it can be very easy to get sucked into these things aren’t working, these problems are occurring, this morale is low here, and all of that. I love that you have a specific routine that you stick to and you have to prioritize it. You have to build it into the day, which was the phrase that you said.
[00:06:52] Sarah: Absolutely. It’s definitely been a game-changer for me.
[00:06:55] Josh: Oh, so this wasn’t something you always did?
[00:06:57] Sarah: I didn’t always do it, no. I was always focused on getting to work and starting my day. What I found is there were some times where, as you mentioned, patience and perspective got the best of me and I was pulled into the operation. Making the time to reflect and understand that our attitude and mindset really drive what we do was a pivot for me and how I started my day.
[00:07:22] Josh: Now was this something you recently discovered? How long have you been taking this approach?
[00:07:29] Sarah: I’d say over the last two years, understanding my impact as a leader and how your approach can really drive and engage or disengage a team and how you approach your work. It became visible to me in how I was working that I needed to take this time deliberately.
[00:07:49] Josh: Well, that’s great that you came to that conclusion. I certainly hope that our listeners who are listening who find themselves caught up in the moment and feeling the pains of frustration, taking anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes within your morning just to set that intention for the day will play an impact because to your point, leaders set the tone.
[00:08:14] Sarah: That’s right. Absolutely.
[00:08:18] Josh: It’s an important responsibility. Well, let’s talk about a couple of things. On our podcast, we’ve had a variety of great guests. One individual, a friend of the show, Jake Hall, the Manufacturing Millennial, talked with us about dispelling myths and making manufacturing appealing to millennial workers as well as Gen Z.
We’ve also had Allison Grealis who is the president of Women in Manufacturing on the show to discuss the urgency of recruiting more women to the manufacturing workforce. One of the best ways to do that is by highlighting to young women that manufacturing is a rewarding career for women by showing examples of women who have chosen to make a career out of the profession.
We’re combining some of those topics today. Sarah’s agreed to share her story about being a millennial woman in manufacturing who discovered that passion for the industry only after really getting into it. We’ll also cover some of the lessons that she’s learned along the way and get some key learnings that plant managers, as well as their teams, can benefit from.
Sarah, let’s start out from the beginning, well, the beginning of your career I should say. We don’t have to take it back to growing up or anything but talk to us about how you found it on your way into manufacturing.
[00:09:37] Sarah: Yes. As you mentioned during the bio, I went to school for chemical engineering, and as I was approaching graduation as all newly graduated engineers do, they look for a job, and that was really what initially pushed me into the space. What I knew was that I had a true passion and value for making a positive impact on the world, and that was my why, but my how was a bit unknown.
I was attending career fairs and I stumbled across a few different manufacturing companies, one of them being International Paper, and I was offered an opportunity to work on an environmental focused project at that facility. As you mentioned, I didn’t really anticipate going into manufacturing, nor did I have necessarily a strong pull into that space but I knew that my true value and impact that I wanted on the world were to be positive, either on the humanitarian space or in the environment, and this aligned with my values.
[00:10:37] Josh: That’s such a great point about values, because for Millennials and Gen Z, more so than any other workforce, there is the fact that they take into consideration that idea of the impact that they’re having on the world, work has to be tied to a greater meaning and a greater purpose. Now that there are a lot of negative perceptions that come to mind, especially among the younger generations when it comes to manufacturing, I’d love to hear from you if you had some perceptions or misconceptions about the industry before joining it, that you found out weren’t true or had evolved.
[00:11:13] Sarah: Absolutely. For me, it was more when I entered the space, I would talk to my colleagues or my college graduate friends. One of the things that I continued to hear was, there isn’t an innovative approach to the way that we work. The work-life balance is tough, it’s a lot of long hours, it’s not tech-forward and it doesn’t necessarily seem to be really growing or going anywhere and it certainly isn’t fashionable or attractive to some of the other industries such as tech or the financial investment space.
One thing that I learned through my experience was that this isn’t necessarily untrue with regards to the fashionable state, but a lot of the industries that are tech ford or financial services are supporting manufacturing companies. Although we may not have that label of sexy with regards to our industry, we are at the basis and foundation of a lot of these different companies as they earn their revenue based on manufacturing and these fundamental industries.
[00:12:25] Josh: Such a critical part of not just the supply chain but of our community, of our society and, and something that was absolutely spotlighted during the pandemic, the focus on frontline workers and those who show up and put their lives at risk to ensure that we can continue to live our life with the comforts that we demand. I completely agree with if we’ve seen that misperception about manufacturing and what people overlook is that manufacturing was at one point in time the driver of tech innovation, and to a degree today, it’s still closely tied.
In fact, I’ve got some experience working in the software side, there are so many principles of delivering software that is pulled from mean manufacturing, the principles created through manufacturing. It’s such a critical part of our society that gets overlooked. It’s also that idea and that message that needs to be out there and exposed to other people. That’s something I think could help with recruiting millennial and Gen Z workers. I’d love to hear from you, what are some misconceptions that you’ve encountered with fellow millennials or Gen Z workers that you think should be proactively addressed by the industry?
[00:13:44] Sarah: Absolutely. I mentioned a bit about the innovation and the forward-thinking, as well as the work-life balance. I can speak to a few different industries or companies within the manufacturing industry, and there’s a lot of on how do we do this understanding that there is a lot of on-site, hands-on required presence to create our product.
Understanding that balance and the need for the Gen Z and the millennial worker in contrast to this in innovation in tech, really there’s a line there, so how do we understand that the graduates of today that are deeply embedded in tech programming, as well as the fundamentals of let’s say, process engineering, chemical engineering, they, ‘re looking for that but then they’re also looking for a certain balance.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be confined within an eight out hour shift. I think that there is a misconception that a millennial or Gen Z worker is looking for a different boundary than maybe the industry worker of old has. It just has really changed. The definition of work-life balance has changed, and this innovation in tech, as it continues to find its way, the IoT, the SaaS within that space, it can allow for a new way that we work within the manufacturing industry.
Yes, we today have a lot of folks that we really need these frontline workers and the teams to support that, but there’s also so much space to bring in the tech and the data analytics that allow us to make better decisions, reduce variability within the process, and allow for really a different representation within a manufacturing workforce than maybe historically we’ve seen.
Understanding that there are a lot of frameworks and systems and data requirements in order to get to that space, I think it really aligns as long as that continues to progress within these manufacturing facilities to allow for the Gen Z and millennials of today to really get embedded into manufacturing in a different way than they may have historically framed the industry.
[00:15:59] Josh: There’s an underlying theme there which I’d want to call out, which is that there is a need to change, and part of that change is less about you working the way that we tell you to, and more so understanding that people are sizing their preferences for working a specific way. One of the parts that you called out, this idea of modernizing the experience, including what is the technology and the tools that you’re leveraging, because there’s a consistent preference of the younger generation to use tools that are more similar to what they grew up with for one part, but there’s also, how can you adapt the requirements of how you work here, for example, scheduling, that idea of scheduling came up.
I was talking with an individual in a previous episode, he’s the director of Quality and Operational Excellence at Inline Plastics. One of the things he talked about was their struggle to get people to work on the weekends. Absenteeism was going up on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Clearly, that was the time that people were like, “I don’t want to work in”. One of the things that they explored was how can we reach people who prefer to work on these days and offer them the opportunity to work, get to 35 to 40 hours within just those three days, and how do we adjust our schedules so that people can work in a way that allows them to live the life that they want to live, and that’s such an important idea.
Talk to us about your career path. You started at an entry-level position process engineer, and now you’re managing a plant. Let’s hear a little bit about that, some highlights and lowlights.
[00:17:42] Sarah: Absolutely. As you mentioned, I started as an engineer. I started in our paper mill system, working in our pulp mill, doing cost reduction in capital projects. As a new engineer, it was a wonderful experience to understand a little bit about our financial share, how capital is invested into a facility, and focus on how do we utilize these assets to really gain a return and increase our profitability for a facility. That was I think a highlight off the bat being placed into that type of really critical role for the facility and the company, but also allowed me to get engaged with operations and learned the process step as well as utilization of my education.
As time goes by, you communicate always the types of things that you have an interest in pursuing and developing in, and I was offered the position to move to one of our newly acquired facilities. This is really, to me, where the game changed with regards to being an individual contributor to a leader, and where I think one of the lowlights, as well as highlights of my career, happened.
I was pursuing my master’s and we had an opportunity to really turn around a facility with regards to performance. That turnaround required extensive work and hours. As a machine leader, responsibility for that machine was is a big responsibility. Through that process, not only was I able to acquire a master’s, but I also worked with an incredible team of talented people and we turned around the performance of the machine.
That was a huge highlight of my career. Oftentimes, I defined it as the crucible of leadership in that it was such a high-pressure situation, but coming out successful and with so many learnings allowed for just an exponential impact of understanding on how to drive results, how people work under extreme conditions, and also what I saw for my vision of leadership.
Fast forward, I moved into a corporate role, an absolutely incredible role working under our senior vice president of technology, supporting our enterprise of paper mills. We at the time had 47 mills with representation in Europe, Brazil, Russia as well as our domestic facilities. Under that opportunity, I was able to lead and support the vision of our senior vice presidents and other executives to really drive this execution within our facilities. To hear from our teams on the potential improvement opportunities within this ISO-related system and then help develop and improve the systems and the feedback loops so that we could make it a better, more streamlined system.
In addition to that, working with ASQ to develop an audit team with the core global systems team allowed us to do some really neat things with regards to systems auditing, trialing the system and the structure, and also working with my IT business partner. We developed an application to centralize data intake across all our facilities. It was a wonderful experience and a huge highlight.
From that moment I found that I wanted to lead and work in the business so customer-facing, and from then on, working as a plant manager now, I’ve learned that business, continue to learn every day, and understand how to leverage my technical skills to the customer and bring value-added services that help us obtain new customers and build loyalty through those customers to supply them the boxes they need.
[00:21:40] Josh: One of the things you can really appreciate is the underlying themes of the things that you highlighted still tie back to an impact. Whether it impacts at the facility, impact on the people who work there day in day out, impact on the customers that overall your product is there to serve. I could certainly pick up on how important it is to you and rewarding that you find it for those opportunities that tie to some sort of impact.
When you think about your career path, one of the things that I think is interesting particularly due to the fact that you’re a millennial is that you’re doing something that millennials don’t really do, which is you haven’t changed companies, you’ve job hopped but you haven’t changed companies. Typically, millennials go two to three, maybe pushing it, five years before they switch to a completely different company. You’ve been able to develop a very rewarding career and experience new career experiences with the same organization. I think that there’s something there with regard to retention.
What are your thoughts on how companies can improve retaining workers whose preference is to change it up, move to different companies, have different experiences? How can companies address that, keep people within the company but provide those unique working experiences?
[00:23:09] Sarah: I think listening and expectation setting are critical and having those developmental conversations. Providing that space where the employer hears from employees and employees explain and inquires about what the employer has available is critical. Through those conversations and having an understanding of the broad overall perspective and picture of the company can really facilitate, I think, additional and diverse assignments that may grow an individual and may allow them to broaden their perspective and potentially find themselves in a different division that better suits their skill set and their true interests and impact versus where they may have initially entered the company.
To me, I think having the conversations and then the utilization of structures to move that information through the proper channels so that those persons can be more agile in their experiences. The company can help support that really is where the impact happens. Obviously, the expectations and set that results are driven. There’s a plan, things don’t always go to plan but there is a feedback loop that ensures that the employer and employee know the status of the plan, and where we’re executing against is to me where we sometimes miss the mark.
[00:24:40] Josh: Well, think about your career experience and the fact that you have had multiple roles and had this opportunity. Was this something that you drove towards or did you have some figure or leader or mentor who helped unlock some of these opportunities?
[00:24:57] Sarah: I definitely have had a tribe that’s helped support me in understanding and revealing the different aspects of our company so that I could learn and grow and make those connections in order to better understand. A lot of it was also driven. I think about my master’s. I had a mentor that I spoke with and had expressed an interest in pursuing my master’s, and they helped could connect me with the right persons within these different industry spaces within the Georgia Tech RBI so that I could talk to what they had for offerings related to what I was looking for in a management leadership position.
Through that and connecting with others and continuing to meet results within my work, it allowed me the opportunity to really dive into some of these pursuits that I had and get involved in different areas. You have to inquire, can’t be afraid to really make those connections and ask. Ask what you’re missing but also be open to the timeliness of the process.
[00:26:04] Josh: I think some of what you described is counter to maybe current expectations, and what I mean by that is I know a lot of my peers and younger individuals they’re looking for someone to tell them this, go here and then this leads to this path which leads to this type of career.
That’s great from an idea perspective. I also see HR professionals and a lot of leadership approach in order to recruit and retain these younger workers, you have to provide that career path, that defined explanation like what we just described, but I think the truth is what you’re describing is that there needs to be a mutual investment on both sides where at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the employee to drive their career but it’s the responsibility of leadership to nurture and help people discover what are the opportunities that are going to provide a benefit to them as well as a benefit to the company.
I’m really happy to hear that you found that leadership that had that investment and that’s the message that I would ultimately harp on is just that idea of it takes investment from peers, from leaders, from leaders who aren’t even in your org, right? It is a tribe. You said tribe, that’s absolutely what it takes
[00:27:16] Sarah: Well said.
[00:27:20] Josh: Hey, we’re going to take a real quick break to hear from our sponsors, stay tuned for more Conquering Chaos.
[00:27:27] Rob: Hey, listeners. It’s Rob. I’m one of the producers on Conquering Chaos. I’m right here with you for every episode, working behind the scenes to make sure everything is just right for your listening experience. Whether you’re a new listener, binging content to help you conquer the everyday chaos, or a dedicated fan tuning in for each new episode, there’s one thing to always keep in mind: information is useless unless you use it. Obvious, right, but it’s so easy to learn, forget, and then miss out on the opportunity to make real improvements to day-to-day activities.
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[00:29:30] Josh: Let’s talk about life as a plant manager. You recently transitioned into the role. I say recent but it’s been seven months or so, is that right? Seven or eight months, so you’ve got a pretty good amount of time, and you took over an existing plant. Now, the role of a plant manager, and this is going to be obvious to everyone listening, presents plenty of challenges on its own and you factor in the fact that you’re taking over from a previous leader who may have had different experiences, a different leadership style, relationships with people up and down the organization. Ultimately there are just a lot of factors that come into play when leading and taking over from a previous leader. I would love to hear from you about your experience stepping into the role.
[00:30:19] Sarah: Absolutely. As you mentioned, seven months into the role, approximately five months on-site, so for me, really stepping into a new role. I like to set up a 30-60-90, and it’s an age-old tool but I think it has a lot of value as you start to assess the culture of the facility, the initial SWOT analysis if you will of the facility, the listening, and really just pulse of the team and the facility with which you’re leading.
For me, my 30 days really was to listen, observe, engage, watch, and a little bit of data analysis. That really has so much of it and it sets the tone with the team but it also allows you to really take the time to pull in. It’s not always that you can do that and there will be things to be addressed but that was the approach that I took and it seemed so far to be the right approach.
Beyond this, I really take time to reflect on what I see the key observations made, and as I step into the 60 days, it’s initial planning, so planning for myself and understanding within those plans, who do I need to engage? At what level of reception are those persons to take on the conversations around? What are our opportunities? What is to you the biggest opportunity of this facility and what do we do best? So that it’s not just a conversation that lends itself to criticality or negativity but it also allows for a bit of collaboration, an opportunity for the leader to listen and them to have that space so that we can document and then from that point start to prioritize.
Stepping from the 60 to 90, there are all the things that at a facility we’re required to do; ensuring our internal controls are completed, ensuring that we have an environmentally and safe workforce and that we are meeting our goals. It’s just a few but tying that list of must-do in with the prioritization of what the team has expressed always under a solutions approach is how I’ve stepped into the position and found that the team has been open to talking to me and bringing me in, and open to some of the ideas that I’ve had as I start to reveal our vision.
[00:32:49] Josh: I love that you broke that down into 30-60-90. You’re right, the age-old tool that I think you hear people talk about but I don’t think it always gets implemented, especially depending on how chaotic the environment you’re stepping into is. Because you risk getting pulled this way and that way and this way and that way. I love that you broke it down.
First is about just getting awareness and learning and listening and setting the expectation that you’re going to be someone who wants to hear from everyone else. I think that that’s such an important trait, and then going from 30 to 60, tying that into. okay, I’ve done some hearing, let’s get to know the different players, let’s start thinking about what needs to happen, and then moving into the 90, it’s like, okay, let’s start getting some things done.
I think that’s such a reasonable expectation as well because anyone who comes in is like, in 30 days, I’m going to accomplish X, Y, and Z. Wow, you’ve got a process and we need to get you on the show to talk about it, right? That’s quite the experience, you’ve had some time to really live the day in these past seven to eight months, what did you not know about the role that you had to learn firsthand being in the role?
[00:34:09] Sarah: Oh, that’s a good question, Josh. I think I would say that moving through my career, so often, yes, I was a leader but I didn’t necessarily understand the true value of situational leadership. I am by no means an expert in this space but understanding the temperament and the perspective and really space that my team sits in with regards to X category, how I need to approach them and the energy and way that I approached them was something that I hadn’t thought about nor understood how important it was.
For me it’s something that I reflect on after these key conversations, meetings, spaces where I’m working with the team or with one individual, just to make sure it there’s a sense of they are averse to the topic, they have the information they need and they have an opinion on the topic because my approach then is different or is it just a directive, okay, we know and I need to direct you because you either don’t know the solution but you’re willing to do it, or you really it just needs to be done. There’s a little bit of CI, continuous improvement as well as situational leadership that I employ and deploy as part of this role that I didn’t initially anticipate, so yes, listening it’s critical but your approach.
I’m one to get in the middle and collaborate but I found that within this new position, I needed to step back and take a true assessment of the readiness of my team, the information they had at hand, and their sentiment around it before I really dove into a specific topic. Such as trailer storage and utilization for example. There were different sentiments across different functions of the team and I had to understand that and then bring the team together without diving in the middle. Because of my position, they needed to hear from me from a different lens.
[00:36:12] Josh: In that example, you’re not solving the problem that they’re focused on, you’re letting them solve that problem. You’re solving the problem of are they thinking about things the right way? Are they communicating? Are they hearing each other out? Are they going to be able to solve this problem, and that becomes the problem that you’re solving, right?
[00:36:35] Sarah: Correct.
[00:36:36] Josh: The difference in expectation you had, was there any perception that there was going to be– Because coming in and talking about this adaptive leadership style which I completely agree with, I think that is the way every leader should be, period, so we’ll cut that into a clip, Josh says every leader should be an adaptable and continuous improvement is one of those ways but did you expect it to be a little bit more like I say let’s do it this way and that’s the way it gets done, a little more directive as opposed to facilitating?
[00:37:10] Sarah: I came in thinking that I needed to have, it’s not professionalism but I needed to come in and be more rigid or stoic, I don’t know what really the right word is.
[00:37:23] Josh: Authoritative?
[00:37:24] Sarah: Authoritative, yes, that’s the word, and not necessarily in a directive way but in a less engaging way. I thought that that was what was going to be expected of me.
[00:37:36] Josh: Where do you think those expectations came from? Was that you expected the people who reported up to you to expect that or was it your higher-ups that led to that feeling of expectation?
[00:37:49] Sarah: I think maybe a combination. I have always had engaging leaders. When I look at highly accomplished leaders, oftentimes, there seems to be stoicism and brevity around those leaders. I wanted to be able to exercise that understanding that historically, I had been more of a collaborative let’s talk through it type of leader and that a position itself really lent to that need, and there is a space for that. It is something that I continue to check myself on and grow in that space but I don’t think that my authenticity has to be sacrificed.
I can still achieve the results, still maintain professionalism, care and we can get the end result while engaging the team. I don’t have to set myself into a certain framework and work by that to be a successful general manager.
[00:38:46] Josh: I think that’s a great point, that you can still be yourself and still deliver what needs to be delivered. Because ultimately, what we’re talking about, is leadership is a skill, facilitating collaboration is a skill, right? You don’t have to sacrifice your personality for the sake of skills. That’s not something anyone should have to do, so I appreciate your willingness to talk about just the fact that you had this perception and where it came from, and where these expectations come from because that’s how human beings operate, we think that there’s an expectation.
In some cases there is but for the most part, we play a story and tell ourselves a story in our heads that we believe to be true. When you take a moment to say, “This isn’t working, do I really have to do it this way?” sometimes you can break down that the answer is no, there are no rules, you just have to be you and deliver on what the role needs, and there’s a lot of different tools that your disposal to do that. I think that leads to a good question. We’ve heard some themes of it but I’d like to just ask you directly, how do you lead?
[00:39:58] Sarah: For me, it really starts with care. I think it was McGregor who talked about Theory X versus Theory Y leaders, and these theories on work and leadership. For me, I believe that with care and communication, you can truly empower and enable your team to execute beyond, sometimes, any expectation that you can set.
For me, one way to really get to the root of that and to support that and really drive that within my organization is to provide that care. That, to me, fosters an improvement culture. We have to have the care, we have to provide the security, and really that safe space for teams to come together and understand that there is care on the table and a safe space where they can communicate what it is that they think could make the facility or world better, depending on what we’re looking at.
Oftentimes someone solving a tech-related issue may pull in some insights that could solve a manufacturing-related issue. Allowing for that true collaborative outside-of-the-box thinking builds a culture that allows for care collaboration. Then that really feeds into the creativity because we are in manufacturing and sometimes there are going to be things that come up and quick decision-making is at the basis of so much of what we do and what gets done from day-to-day, and we don’t always have at our fingertips code to correct a bug.
We’re having to identify what we have in-house whom we can call and rely on in order to execute and fix whatever problem has is arisen, whatever we do need to do to communicate with the customer. That is the basis of creativity. I think they say invention is from necessity or whatever the quote is, with regards to creativity and manufacturing allows for that, and it requires it. For me, that is how I lead, building a culture of care.
It can look different to different people, but even for me, sarcasm and negative remarks are something that I do not support with the team and ask that are not brought into our communication and teamwork, team building, and our meetings. If there is something that’s real and factual that we need to state, always brings solutions to the end of it. We all have tough days and there is a space to let that out and to talk through it, but always ending with an understanding of, “We can control our controllable. We have the ability to be creative, even it’s with a broomstick, and we’re going to do everything with a focus on care, not just for our company and our people, but also for our community and their families.”
[00:42:48] Josh: On the topic of creativity. We had an author on the show. His name is Jamie Flinchbaugh. He wrote a book called People Solve Problems, and he put it pretty well that creativity requires constraints. Otherwise, this is something I think Van Gogh is credited with saying is, “The scariest thing is the blank canvas.” When you have infinite options– This is my problem– separate note, my problem with Netflix is I’ve got too many options. I never make a choice. I need some constraints.
That idea that you described of like, “Okay, let’s focus on what we can control. Who do we have here at the plant? What are the tools that we have? What are all the things that we have now? How do we take these constraints and focus that into solving the specific problem that we need to solve?” That’s such a critical– That idea of creativity, that’s so important with that idea of problem-solving, which, as you talked about at the beginning of the show is almost half your day. It’s, “This thing came up and now we have to address it.”
That’s how everyone is operating. That’s ultimately such an aspect that people are not in the industry, that’s what they miss is all the decisions, and the efforts, and the ingenuity that come together to make sure that you have that product right when you want to have that product. Thanks for taking us through that. Now we talked about that idea of care. That really gets into setting the culture. What is your perspective on how culture impacts day-to-day operations?
[00:44:22] Sarah: Absolutely. One thing that we talk about every second is the difference between working safe, working un-safe. It’s moving the needle forward or backward. We have to really look at what we’re spending our time doing. If we have the right mindset, the right expectations, and the proper goals and focus, that culture will be built. Culture isn’t built overnight and it’s not built by passing out a piece of paper or having one event where we discuss it.
It’s all of the little interactions and then tying those back into– We mentioned the feedback loop when you have the conversations with your teams and your employees and talk about what aligned with the culture we’re working to create, what did not align, and what we can do, or they feel that that can be done to better align with our culture. The thing that we have to do is how it happens.
With that, there has to be an understanding of the urgency around it. We have to build a shared need and a vision. During my Master’s program, I read a book called Leading Change by Cotter, and it really laid out well to me the steps in creating change, but so much of it really helps foster and support culture and what vision you’re trying to implement. They go hand in hand, really.
[00:45:53] Josh: There’s another theme that you brought up as well, which is, that culture is one of the ways that you ultimately are able to accomplish the vision. It’s something that has to be there to take people forward. What are we taking them forward to? That’s where that vision comes in. As someone stepping into the leadership role of a plant, how did you set the vision?
[00:46:15] Sarah: For me, there are multi inputs to the output, as defined as vision. Some of them are rolled down through our CEO as he gives us our priorities, and as we understand the direction of the company and what our shareholders are looking for, but so much of it is really fostered and grown in-house with regards to the culture. For us, when I stepped into the role and mentioned to you the listening, the observing where our data and our performance was on our financial statements, it helps me understand what we have the capability to do, what our team has the capability to take in and execute upon, and where we need to grow, where are our gaps?
That is the foundation of the vision statement or the vision goals. From there, understanding what we can do and the bandwidth that we have, and where we need to develop plans to really push us year-over-year forward to that larger goal, that vision for the growth of the facility was how I executed on that and how we developed the vision. Still, the team element is so deeply embedded into a vision, but you have to pull in the other inputs of the financials of the company and where the facility has the capacity and capability to truly grow.
[00:47:45] Josh: That’s a good point. The vision is defined by the ultimate direction. Understanding what is the part that you play in helping the company as a whole and helping international paper accomplish the goals that have been that forth. Well, okay. We talked about your career and your experience and the lessons you’ve learned as a plant manager. I’d like to flip the question a little bit and talk about, what are some things that you think other plant managers could benefit from learning?
[00:48:16] Sarah: Absolutely. We all have an interest stout side of work. Some of those have been prompted through our work. I think that there are common ties that we can find between our out-of-work and in-work activities.
Really looking back and down into your value system and understanding, “What is driving me every day to get up and out of bed and execute on my day?” These are the types of things, the more connections that can be made in that space, as opposed to, “I go to work, I move the needle as best I can, and I’d get up and do it tomorrow.” Tying those true base-level values and the impact that you want to make is what allows us to be more engaged catalyst leaders because there’s a true interest, and we can execute on that.
I mentioned the care and the creativity. To me, I think those are pillars in leadership. Without having the team’s buy-in and engagement through this authentic care, whatever that looks like for leaders, it is critical to building and growing a team, and also gaining their trust, and giving them full vulnerability through the care that you show. It’s a vulnerable place to give care to a team oftentimes, but with that, it’s a transaction, but it also builds the culture that we, as leaders, aspire to do in order to obtain our results and execute visions. Those are a few things.
Then just engaging the team, there may be an employee that aspires to do different things. If you listen between the lines into some of the things that they say and facilitate the conversation, helping them explore things outside of what is our traditional track, it allows you to grow and develop those employees and leaders in non-traditional ways, but it also is going to help you support growing the business and being profitable because you’ve got the engagement, and growth of a leader, and an employee.
One of the best things that I always rely on is, if I pour into a leader and develop a leader outside of what may be their traditional waste improvement project, maybe they go on sales calls with a team member to understand business acumen and market insights because they find themselves looking at the stock market during the day, and they find themselves a sales rep six months down the road, yes, I may have lost bench strength in the manufacturing space, but they are more versatile and a better supporter of the company’s goals and for themselves. If they move on, I’m happy to have been part of their growth.
[00:51:13] Josh: I think that’s such a healthy perspective to have on that last point, which is, your job as a leader is not just making sure that goals get accomplished. It’s that development. Good leaders create good leaders or great leaders create great leaders, however, you want to phrase that. I’m sure Simon Sinek has a great way of putting that, but I love that you called that out, which is, in their own individual journey, they might better serve the company’s purpose and find a more fulfilling work experience for their own personal lives in a totally different role, and that’s okay. It needs to be embraced.
You may hurt for a moment because you’re down a very talented and critically skilled individual but, ultimately, you got to think of the long-term. What’s best for the people that you’re seeking to serve? What’s best for the company? I love that perspective.
I love that you called creativity out, and that’s actually the next topic that I want to get into with you is creativity, inspiration, and how the impact of outside work activities can actually make an impact on work. I’ve talked with some people. There are some debates. Are there seven wastes for lean, are there eight wastes for lean? You’ve got some traditionalists on one side and some new wave adopters on another, and I’m sure there are people who’ve complicated with 9 wastes and 10 wastes. Continuous improvement managers know what I’m talking about.
Talent can mean a lot of different things with that eighth waste being, not using talents and the people who make the day to day possible. It could be that talent is what the individual excels at. The talent could be their unique perspective. It could be their distinct background. It could be outside work activities and hobbies that have led to an understanding that others don’t have. Talk to us a little bit about tapping into people’s creativity.
[00:53:08] Sarah: Absolutely. I have to tell you, Josh, Tim Wood was what I was always taught. Maybe it’s T-squared, Tim Wood of talent. It’s the last one here. Absolutely. We touched on it earlier around manufacturing and all of the creativity and innovation that really happens in, sometimes, a blink of an eye. That really is creativity at work. To me, there are often podcasts and articles written about emotional intelligence and technical savvy, and different types of skills that we as leaders need.
There seems to be an emerging theme around the skill or talent of creativity. In the manufacturing industry, I think it is a true grindstone that a knife can be sharpened on. It really, if untapped or not sharpened, can really limit an organization. With creativity comes a sense of autonomy. We talked earlier about providing the framework, the expectations that structure so that teams really feel psychologically safe to be able to collaborate and to communicate around topics that may be outside of the traditional space but, with that, helping promote and ask the right questions so that we can really foster and grow creativity, it’s everything.
It has to be deliberate at times. There are so many systems and processes in place that have been developed and refined to really meet the needs of our day-to-day business. But once you step outside of that traditional framework, you find that there are many studies and opportunities to utilize creativity. How do you do that? I think it gets back to what we were discussing on having a team together, assessing where they are, and then helping them grow, and open their minds to working creatively.
Creativity for one person looks different than another. You may have a customer service person that has an idea for a non-price initiative to reuse pallets. To one person, it’s just a statement that is put out there and it’s not given any weight, but for that individual, they are expressing creativity. I think having a keen ear to listen for creativity, it’s never as– Sometimes it’s groundbreaking and it hits you in the face as a creative statement or idea, but there are micro creativities, and these ideas that are coming up all the time and you have to listen for them. Then that’s what you foster, understanding what the end goal is and grow.
You can’t do everything. All the ideas that are put forth cannot be executed on but really finding the creative space of each individual. It sounds different, and it is conveyed and communicated differently, but finding the ones where you can really pour into and foster that allows for creativity to grow within different disciplines.
[00:56:29] Josh: I appreciate that breakdown. Some of the things that stood out in my mind is, one, not only has this have to be set from a cultural perspective that, “This is something that we support and encourage, and maybe even expect,” but two, is prioritizing it. Letting people not only have that time to be creative but protecting that time to be creative and think creatively about whatever– To your point. I love how you said micro creativities because it doesn’t have to be a big bang elaborate production-shattering– Well, I guess we would want production shattering. I’m trying to be dramatic here, but this new idea, that’s just, wow, these it’s really, individual time need little changes to current processes or workflows or modifications that we can quickly implement that ultimately build up and have a compounding effect on production.
Coming back to that idea that creativity is a skill and skills have to be practiced and creativity is going to look different from a variety of different perspectives. It’s a little bit about understanding the strengths of those individuals. We talked a little bit as well about how to promote that creative work culture. Let’s talk about outside work activities and how pursuits of outside work activities can benefit operations. I’d love to hear about your experience there too.
[00:58:01] Sarah: Absolutely. I think I mentioned to you that I didn’t initially intend on getting into manufacturing and I find myself wanting to learn about these different spaces, whether it’s the tech space, the financial space, getting my masters and learning business fundamentals, interest me, and this financial technology space and then the environmental pull. I love to learn, and manufacturing, as much as it is my key driver, why I get up in the morning, it’s my job, it’s my career, it’s what I enjoy doing. I also love learning about other things.
The more you can learn, I found for myself, the more I can draw connections and insights and build a broader picture of how all these different pieces play together and how the world works. Oftentimes I pull myself into the processes and the what-ifs versus these high-level insights. But as knowledge continues to be pulled and obtained, utilizing these insights to make a true impact and difference, not just for and within my company, but outside of my company is a true passion, and driver for me, and what I do.
Manufacturing supplies a lot of my extracurricular activities, whether it’s building capital for Captive Clean so that I can invest and manufacture my products. I haven’t gone to venture capitalists because I’ve been able to support some of that, trying to understand and learn how to grow and start a business. With regards to tech, I had an interest in coding and learning how to do these types of activities. I was able to support myself and learn how to code web design, HTML, and CSS.
For me, manufacturing is this foundation, and there are so many parallels between what I do within manufacturing, understanding how things work, because at the end, end of the day, there’s an idea, there’s an execution on that idea, and then there’s an end product, whatever it is. There are a lot of different resources and smart people that have to be involved in these things, different steps in order to satisfy whatever the problem or need within the market or society is. For me, my extracurricular and my creativity outside of work has been better supported because of my time in manufacturing and opportunities within the industry.
[01:00:26] Josh: Oh, I love how that’s a two-way street. Manufacturing’s helping you find and identify areas of interest and supporting you there. Those areas of interest and exploration, you’re taking it back, and it’s such a beneficial way of approaching it. You mentioned this and we haven’t talked about it yet. Talk to us about Captive Clean.
[01:00:46] Sarah: Yes. Captive Clean was an idea that started as COVID hit. Understanding that business travel hadn’t been completely stopped at the time, I was looking for a solution to cover pillows so that there wasn’t any transfer of potential germs or bacteria. I’m no microbiologist or claim to understand bacteria and the transference of it through the air, but understanding that I felt there needed to be a sealed surface between pillow and person. I worked on some prototyping and material trials in order to create this product.
As I’m learning design, thinking, and these different theories and principles through interviews and interactions with different highly regarded and serial entrepreneurs, I’m understanding the design thinking process which is helping me evolve, not just my product, but pivot quickly. It’s all about pivoting quickly and understanding the market, what’s needed. I knew at the base level that I wanted to make a positive impact on people’s lives and on the environment.
What started as a pillow cover is now growing into multiple product offerings which we’re in the process of getting manufactured now, focusing on these products to help support people’s time management, their health, and most importantly, the environment. Reducing wash cycles and the need for washing of pillows and different types of your home goods as well as reduction of plastics. We’re looking to see if there’s a business case for building a product line for reducing our plastic consumption. A lot of exciting things happening, all driving back to the value system, but really also interacts and requires manufacturing. It’s all working out well.
[01:02:45] Josh: Yes, it’s really developing a complete picture-
[01:02:48] Sarah: Most definitely.
[01:02:48] Josh: -of just what it takes to understand a need in the market and go from idea to solving that problem in a way that’s aligned with your values and vision. Throughout what you talked about with Captive Clean, I’m hearing, “Back to impact. What is the impact we’re making? How do we make this safer? How do we make it more sustainable in time to those particular goals?” I know we’ve kept you pretty long in this conversation which I think has been so great. How can our listeners continue the conversation with you?
[01:03:22] Sarah: Absolutely. I am present on LinkedIn. I would offer anyone who wants to reach out and connect. They can connect with me via LinkedIn. That is where my presence is on a social media platform and happy to connect, continue the conversation.
[01:03:41] Josh: Great. Sarah, thanks so much for taking us through your story, your experience, getting into manufacturing, becoming a plant manager, and your unique perspective that you bring to the role. I have no doubt that there’s a lot of people who can appreciate hearing the perspectives that you’ve shared.
[01:03:58] Sarah: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been fun.
[01:04:03] Walt: Hey, y’all. It’s Walt here. I’m another producer for Conquering Chaos. Before you go, if you’re not ready to try Parsable to help you get rid of paper, why not watch a quick video instead? Check the show notes for a link to a demonstration Josh put together to show frontline workers what it’s like to use a dynamic digital experience to get work done. In it, Josh shows you how using a modern-day app enables you to connect to people, information, systems, and machines just like the apps you use in your personal lives. Take a look and let us know what you think.
[01:04:38] Josh: That’s the show. Thank you so, so much for joining us today. Conquering Chaos is brought to you by Parsable. If you’re a fan of these conversations, subscribe to the show and leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts. Just tap the number of stars you think the show deserves. As always, feel free to share what’s the top of mind for you and who you think we should talk to next. Until then, talk soon. Take care. Stay safe, and bye.
Listen to hear the perspective of a millennial manufacturer on managing a plant.