Monday, February 15, 2010

Seven Years of Lessons Learned at PHH

Last week was my last week at Palm Harbor Homes, Inc.. I spent seven wonderful years with this company (the only place I've worked since graduating college in 2003). Before I turn my sights towards the future and my next great company (TBD), I think it's appropriate to reflect back on the time I spent at my first great company. In the Lean world, they might call this hansei; while in the Project Management world, they might call this "Lessons Learned." Either way, the idea is the same--learn from the past. Here are some of the things I've learned from my time at PHH...

Lesson Learned: Get your hands dirty, often.

When I was first hired as a Manager-in-Training in 2003, I thought I was going to be sitting at a desk, firing off e-mails, and filling out TPS reports. That's not what happened...not by a long shot! On my first day, I was sent out to the shopfloor to start welding steel I-beams together. Within about six months, I had worked hands-on in every department in our homebuilding factory. Blood, sweat, tears, and all. After that, I spent another six months supervising our crews and doing quality control inspections. Not exactly what I expected coming out of college.

But let me tell you, that was the most important year of my life. That was the year I first learned the importance of going to the place where the real work is being done, and seeing for myself how things are functioning. In the Lean world, they call this genchi genbutsu. At Palm Harbor, we just call it getting your hands dirty. Whatever you call it, just recognize that without it, you're limited in how deeply you can really understand the problems faced by your people everyday. This is no doubt one of the best lessons I ever learned at PHH.

Lesson Learned: Communicate, communicate, communicate.

After that year out on the shopfloor, I got promoted to our on-site construction division as a Personal Construction Manager. At first, I spent all my time putting together detailed construction schedules, examining blueprints, and analyzing cost estimates. Then, in no time at all, I began receiving all sorts of complaints from my customers, sub-contractors, employees, and just about everybody else. While I was paying so much attention to the technical aspects of my job, I had failed to pay attention to the communication needs of my project stakeholders.

The lesson I learned is that stakeholder communication is absolutely critical to project success. You can bring in a project on-time, on-budget, within scope, and with great quality; but if you fail to address the communication needs of your stakeholders, you can have a completely failed project on your hands. I learned that lesson the hard way, on more than one occasion.

Lesson Learned: It's the money, stupid.

For a couple years, I was one of PHH's most staunch supporters of the Lean Manufacturing methodology. For a while there, during my stint as the company's Corporate Lean Manager, I was responsible for spreading the Lean gospel to all our manufacturing divisions, and I did so with the fervor of a zealot. People started calling me Mr. Lean, and I felt good about that moniker. What I should have felt was the need to be a little more business savvy.

By that, I mean that I should have been doing a better job of framing Lean as an approach to achieving our business objectives. I was such a believer in Lean that I never felt the need to translate the benefits of Lean into dollars and cents. Unfortunately, many business managers only speak the language of accounting. I should have recognized that fact and adjusted my approach accordingly. That was an extremely hard lesson to swallow.

Lesson Learned: It's hard to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Following my time as Mr. Lean at PHH, I got deeply involved with the company's large-scale military construction projects. These projects were completely different from any work we had ever done before at PHH. Not only was the complexity of the buildings much greater than our normal product, but we also had a much larger scope of work being performed on-site (as opposed to in our controlled homebuilding factories). To top it all off, we had the pleasure of complying with the labyrinth of federal and military regulations pertaining to these types of projects. This was definitely not our bread & butter work.

But, it wasn't the complexity, or the huge scope of work, or the mother lode of bureaucratic red tape that caused us the most problems. It was actually our organizational structure that hurt us the most. Without going into great detail, PHH has always been organized around ongoing manufacturing operations, as opposed to temporary construction projects. As expected, PHH is quite experienced and competent at managing operations, but much less so at managing projects. Making the transition from our traditional type of work to large-scale construction projects was a huge challenge for us.

Fortunately, PHH has a great organizational culture to help mitigate the shortcomings of its organizational structure. The culture essentially smooths out the square peg so that it fits nicely into the round hole, albeit with a good deal more effort and stress involved. But that's Palm Harbor Homes in a nutshell--not a perfect company, but a company with a team full of people willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. This wonderful organizational culture really sets PHH apart from other companies I've dealt with in my career.

Final Thoughts (Jerry Springer style)

I learned a lot in my seven years at Palm Harbor. The four lessons learned mentioned above are just the ones that stick out to me at this transitional moment. They are the ones that have resonated the most with me, and that will help me the most in my career, but there are literally hundreds of other important lessons that I've learned over my seven years with PHH. My entire time with the company was one giant learning opportunity.

I suffered through many mistakes, and enjoyed many successes. The company allowed me to try a wide range of jobs, and gave me serious management responsibilities early and often. This is a great business best practice that I wish every company utilized. I just can't see how I could have had a better environment in which to mature professionally.

On top of it all, I made friends for life while at PHH. Some of the people I worked with are just incredible. I could not have asked for a better place to begin my career. While I'm anxious and excited about the future, I'm appreciative and respectful of the past seven years. Thank you to the entire Palm Harbor family.


Matt Stambaugh said...

I still can't believe you're no longer with the Palm. I've always admired your tenacious drive and rapid upward momentum in the company.

Great post by the way. Your blog "voice" gets better every time I read one of these. Interesting stuff and I agree that it is important to try to learn (or really, recognize what you learned) from both your good and bad professional experiences. Good luck with the search for what's next.

Sandra said...

Mike, this was very well written. It provided me with a laugh (Springer Style), but more importantly, I can take the lessons that you have learned and apply them to where I am going in my career. Thanks for such a thought provoking post!

Antoine said...

Mike, I share your sentiments regarding your lessons learned. It seems that you did a great job of taking advantage of the opportunities Palm Harbor gave you. You are now prepared for the next step of your carrer. Please continue your blog. I look forward to reading it again.

Antoine Scott

Michael Lombard said...

Thanks, guys, for the positive feedback. The more we can learn from each others' mistakes, the better managers we can be.