My first job after graduating from college was with American Can Company, in the consumer products division. I chose American Can over a number of other offers because American Can had a management training program that sounded like the type of entry into the business world that I needed. It was called the Associate Program, and it was designed to provide a broad orientation of major business functions to newly hired college graduates, with an assignment to a permanent position within 12 to 18 months. It was a terrific program, and it helped launch me into a successful career. I often reflect on my years at American Can as helping me form a number of strong principles that I took forward into my career. This post is about the first of those principles.
After accepting the offer from American Can, I was told that my initial assignment would be at a large pulp and paper mill in Naheola, Alabama. Associates were, not only supposed to gain an understanding of departments to which they were assigned, but also supposed to complete projects that were given to them by those departments. After completing a small project for the Human Resources department, dealing with labor negotiations, I was told that my second project would be for the Industrial Engineering department. I was supposed to flowchart all information, including forms and timing, through all operations of the mill. I was told that they expected that the project could take up to 3 to 4 months, and that the Accounting department would be a co-sponsor of the project.
The project actually took about 2 and a half months, and I produced reams of flowcharts, all labeled and cross-indexed. While I was doing the work, I also found some opportunities to make the flow of information more efficient, eliminating some forms and the time needed to complete them. The head of the Industrial Engineering department was pleased with the work, and very pleased that I had identified some cost reduction opportunities. He helped me quantify the estimated savings at about $50,000 per year. That wasn’t a lot considering the size of the mill. However, it sounded like a lot to me at the time.
He said that I should present my findings to the mill management group at the next meeting. However, he also warned me that the Assistant Mill Manager was a very detailed oriented guy and knew the details about just about everything that moved in the mill. He said that I would get questions about my recommendations, and if I couldn’t answer them, I could lose credibility with the management group. He encouraged me to be aggressive with my recommendations, but just be sure to have my facts straight.
That caused me to think more deeply about what I had found. Were these changes so brilliant that no one had ever thought of them before? I thought not. Therefore, why were they not already doing things the way I was suggesting? As I began to think through my recommendations in this manner, I began to uncover the critical “whys”, and not just the “whats”, of the current processes, and more importantly, I began to understand what would need to change if my recommendations were to be implemented.
At the next meeting of the mill management group, I presented my findings and recommendations, with the assistance of the head of the Industrial Engineering department. The Assistant Mill Manager immediately asked three very detailed questions about how certain functions would be handled if the changes were made. Because I had worked hard at thinking through the implications of the changes, I was able to answer each of his questions satisfactorily. Surprisingly, at the end of the meeting, the Assistant Mill Manager said he would take responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the recommendations.
Although the members of the mill management group were complimentary of my work, I left the meeting feeling that the recommendations were never actually going to be made. However, about 3 weeks later, the Assistant Mill Manager found me in another department working on another project, and told me that all the changes had been implemented and everything was working great. He said, “You did a good job on this assignment. Welcome to the company.”
I learned an extremely valuable lesson during this assignment. Get the facts straight. Know the details. Question why it is not already done that way. Think through the implications of implementation. I went on to spend most of my career in management consulting, and there was hardly a day that went by that I didn’t feel grateful for having learned this lesson at such an early stage in my career.