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How To Fix A Factory

TJ Williams Headshot
Photo Courtesy of TJ Williams
Webasto Americas’ Tyrone “TJ” Williams leveraged culture-based strategy to rescue supplier’s crucial contract for removable roofs for Ford Bronco.

Editor’s Note: At our upcoming Manufacturing Leadership Summit in Detroit this May 7&8, we’ll meet with Williams at the plant and dive deep into his playbook for turning it around as part of an exciting, intimate, interactive agenda. Please join us >

Webasto Americas was in a huge jam: It had a new plant producing a major new product type for a very important customer, but its performance on the contract was falling flat.

Enter manufacturing turnaround artist Tyrone “TJ” Williams, who at 35 years old and without formal managerial education has performed what amounts to an industrial miracle as a plant director at Webasto. How he did it holds some great lessons for other factory chiefs.

As the popularizer of the panoramic sunroof that now has become nearly standard equipment on even reasonably priced automobiles, Germany-based Webasto has made its products integral to many new-car programs for original-equipment manufacturers around the world.

But three years ago, the Tier One supplier’s U.S. operations were struggling mightily to supply Ford with a removable roof that was a significant selling feature for the automaker’s important revival of the Bronco SUV. This wasn’t O.J. Simpson’s old Bronco; it was an all-new vehicle attached to an iconic nameplate that represented much of the future of Ford sales. Webasto’s problems were holding up Ford’s final assembly of what was then one of its hottest new models.

And while Webasto had achieved an important cultural overhaul in its U.S. manufacturing operations over the previous several years, and was making the Bronco roof in a new plant in Plymouth, Michigan, the operation was coming up woefully short. The challenges of engineering and making a first-of-its-kind removable roof, supply-chain difficulties, quality glitches, manpower shortages and other fundamental problems were keeping the company from fulfilling its crucial commitment to Ford. Webasto simply wasn’t turning out enough acceptable roofs. Ford had even found it necessary to put its own people into the Webasto plant to help figure out a solution.

“It was a brand-new design and technology, and we were kind of behind the curve in finalizing the final product,” Williams tells Chief Executive. “That was on top of Covid recovery. We also kind of underestimated how many people we needed. There were all those challenges in one. Also, because it was a new plant, we didn’t have an established team.”

All of these problems mainly predated Williams, who meanwhile had been working his way up through plant operations at another Tier One automotive supplier, Faurecia (now Forvia), after the Detroit native began his career in the industry as an hourly worker. In increasingly important supervisory responsibilities at one Faurecia plant after another, Williams reportedly led vast improvements in the factory-floor culture and, subsequently, in operating performance—with a similar approach at each stop.

Webasto recruited Williams three years ago to work the same sort of magic at its plant in Plymouth, and recently promoted him by putting him also in charge of a second plant producing the same products, in nearby New Hudson, Michigan.

What Williams did in Plymouth, basically, was come into the plant with the confidence and backing of top management, identify the biggest challenges as culture- and people-based, and set about with all deliberate speed pulling the right levers and making the right moves to correct plant processes so that the flow of roofs to Ford’s Bronco assembly plant in nearby Wayne, Michigan, was unimpeded. He isn’t a manufacturing engineer; he’s a leader of people, and that’s mainly what the plant needed. Bronco sales lately have been declining, but Ford has all the roofs it needs.

Here are the main principles involved in how he turned things around and elevated Webasto’s culture at the Plymouth plant beyond what already had been achieved at the corporate level:

Get—and keep—the authority. Williams’ performance at the Faurecia plants gave him the track record to attract Webasto’s attention. And then his new bosses gave him more or less unconditional backing so he could do his thing.

“With Webasto and customer people in the room, I stood up and said, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ And the customer said, basically, ‘OK, [Webasto] now has someone leading with a voice. The Webasto people, who basically had five of me before, said, ‘We’ve got the guy; he’s got the energy; he’s there’… They said, ‘You’ve got the keys to do the right thing.’”

Not too far along the path in the turnaround—as Williams was authorizing travel expenditures for Webasto engineers from Germany and food for gatherings of plant workers—“I’m yelling, and it was a lot, but the leaders of Webasto were here with me,” he says. “They weren’t just hearing about it; they were living it with me. They were telling me what they needed from me, and I got so much support from all the vice presidents. It was the No. 1 priority within the organization. I saw my CEO five times within the first three months.”

Senior leadership, Williams says, was “approachable” as they saw him begin to have his way in the plant. “You could have a normal conversation with a VP or EVP; they weren’t snobby or arrogant. I felt like this would work because of the dialogue I could have with them. They weren’t dictating; it was more like, ‘What do you need my help with?’”

Bring the right people around the table. Williams recognized that he needed to get understanding and buy-in from a number of key constituencies to be able to redirect the plant and reform its culture.

“We got about 50 colleagues from various Webasto plants around the world, and 50 from the customer, and 50 of our salaried people and 50 consultants,” Williams ballparks. “Trying to get 200 people to see the end of the tunnel was the challenge. And I didn’t want to anger anybody from anywhere in particular, but to bring them all together on this challenge. We needed to build a core team moving forward.”

Williams also reached out to some former colleagues and brought them into the Webasto plant. He knew they’d done transformational work before.

Engage the plant floor. “My secret sauce is to go to the plant floor as soon as I get there first thing every morning, and say good morning to as many people as possible,” Williams says. “As I progressed through my career, I tried to remember what I disliked that my boss or the person above me did, and to remember that no one listened to me when I was trying to tell them what was wrong.

“And once you talk to 50 or 60 people on the floor, and you get the answers to what’s wrong, you can start addressing it. It’s process, communications, culture. Normally the floor doesn’t like change. But once people feel like you’re there for them, and listening to them, and supporting them, that changes.”

One gambit Williams likes is to visit second- and third-shift workers. “No one spends time with them at 10 at night,” he says, “so they appreciate it.” Another idea: “I get on the line and build for an hour, and that normally draws a big crowd. And I can say, ‘Now I’m better than you at your job, and now I know it only takes you a few seconds to do it, so let’s not fool around.’ Once you touch people, you get the change you’re looking for.”

Put workers’ skin in the game. Motivating cultural change can be as simple as explaining the end goals, or making it clear why people are working in the first place. “A lot of times they’re tying something, bolting something, or loading something, and they don’t know the end customers, they don’t know financials, or anything,” he says. “They just come to work for 12 hours. So we say, ‘We’re doing this because car sales are really good.’ Or if they’re only working eight hours, that’s because they aren’t selling well. Once you get that kind of communications, you can see a plant turn.

“Or you can tell them the quality sucks. They say, ‘No,’ and I say, ‘Yes, it’s really bad.’ And they get conscious of that. And they improve. And there’s acknowledgement of that, and pizza parties and employees of the month.”

Promote leapfroggers. Williams confronted roadblocks in lower-level management in part by finding regular workers and promoting them over their bosses, in some departments. “I looked at a department where there were a bunch of people with [college] degrees, and they couldn’t handle the job,” he says. “So I looked at a supervisor there and asked if he’d think about becoming the manager, and then I said, ‘You’re the new manager.’

“I’ve promoted people from the floor in lower-level positions and have told them, ‘This is what you need to work on.’ We also got some help from some of the people from Germany who came to work with us.”

Make a roadmap—and follow it. “We had to get going in a hurry to make the customer happy, so at the start it was as simple as getting out a whiteboard and writing down hours one through 10 on a shift,” Williams explains. “It was like, ‘OK, what do we do? Our target was some number on a shift, but we only did 25 percent of that. So, someone explain.’ Get people talking. You tighten things up, grab a person from each function, and they agree what they need to do.

“Then for the next hour, we do a certain percentage better. Now, people are like, ‘We’re going to get to 100 percent of that goal.’ And whichever shift gets there first, they get pizza. And you have an intracompany challenge, so you get friendly competition.

“We also had to go to the [engineers] and say, ‘We need this machine and to invest in this design change in a process’ to do even better. We had to cut waste. We had to work cross-functionally to get to the goal, and build from there.”

Williams recounts that progress was quick but that the striving continues. “You see the momentum going in the right direction, and you’re building on it. The customer doesn’t see the need to be in the plant anymore. We’ re not seeing our CEO as much.

“Within six months, we were able to build a winning team, but the challenge goes on to this day,” Williams says. “The original team got us to, say, ‘3’ on the way to ‘10.’ But we’ve had to make more changes to get to 10. We’re really close. We’ve been putting those last pieces together to get to where we need to be.”


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