Leadership Blog

“Top Gun” Practices of a Tire Plant Startup

Posted on July 27, 2013 | in Culture, Innovation, Quality | by

By request, following is a reissue of a July 2013 FrontLine Focus post.  This year Napanee celebrates 28 years as a global leader in the tire business.  Again, Congratulations!

This was not a traditional groundbreaking with gold shovels held by smiling suits, nor was the manufacturing facility to be a traditional industrial environment with boring jobs or bosses with plush offices.  Two hundred energetic kids broke ground for the world’s most modern tire manufacturing plant in Napanee, Ontario, 25 years ago this month, intensely digging for buried poker chips to win a blimp ride.  The kids were to represent the future of the community, and the plant was to become a high-tech high-touch operation leading the global tire industry.  Both would become a reality.  Congratulations to all the stakeholders for a job well done!

Backed by the board of directors, corporate executives guided the complex design and construction.  They were very clear about the mission yet they gave the plant leadership the flexibility to create and implement non-traditional practices.  Benchmarking the best social and technical systems around the world, the start up team amassed a collection of innovative practices.

Seventy-five “Top Gun” Managers and Engineers who knew the complexities of the tire business were brought in to make it all happen.  Plant Leadership certainly knew that the culture and management systems they established would last a generation and beyond.

Plant startups are a unique experience, and a greenfield startup is yet an entirely higher-order opportunity to learn and make a difference, let alone offer another level of stress.  The Napanee results certainly substantiate the startup success and upon reflection, several practices were critical to their success:

  • Define the mission, in Napanee’s case dubbed the Tribalance: “To consistently process and deliver globally superior products in a Total Quality Culture to meet the dynamic needs of the Customer, Team Members, and Business.”
  • Define the culture and behavior expected at all levels: openness, trust, teamwork, always doing the right thing, hard work, caring, Audit-Fix-Future, innovation.
  • Define the vision, objectives, roles, metrics, and plans, for all levels and positions.
  • The hiring and selection system:  Considering that an employee can stay over twenty years, each hiring decision is more than a one million dollar investment.  In Napanee, a sophisticated twenty-six hour selection system screened applicants for the best team fit, judgment, abilities, motivation, and education.  The education component delivered highly capable people who could comprehend, problem solve, make good decisions, and engage the world of high-tech manufacturing.  We wanted to find people who were open, would speak up, and who could relate to others.  In addition, family orientation to the plant culture and rotating shifts was made before the final job offer.
  • Operations training was intense, in the classroom and hands-on: 
    • High Tech Maintenance training at Napanee District Secondary School
    • Everyone spent three months at “Top Gun” school in the sister plant at Lawton, Oklahoma, whose team shared their expertise and wisdom.  Renting an apartment complex in Lawton, everyone worked the rotating 24 X 7 shifts system training to operate equipment while getting acclimated to the process, the work, and the culture.
    • Napanee Quality University, taught by internal team members, focused on the fundamentals of quality.
    • Father Shea, a Roman Catholic Priest, taught the “Brother’s Keeper” Safety Concept.
  • A Strategic Communications Process incorporated diverse tools from daily meetings to plant TV, all to ensure everyone understood Key Messages needed to support the business and that feedback channels back to management were open.  The open and multi-directional systems focused on information about the business, plant, customers, and people.
  • Developing a culture that was Tri-Balance focused and on a constant quest to work smarter, to innovate.
  • Follow Up, Follow Up, Follow Up, ensuring project progress and discipline to operating basics.

The startup experience spanned the scope of emotions from “the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat.”  Among countless experiences registered in my personal memory bank include:

  • Construction: dynamite blasting 400,000 cubic yards of rock, pouring acres of concrete, erecting tons of steel, the high-tech machine startups.
  • Safety – people demonstrating a safe work environment and behavior as well as demanding management do what they said they would do supporting Safety.
  • “The Passion for Quality,” achieving world record customer audit scores.
  • Spinning the Roulette Wheel for impromptu quality audits.
  • The “Drive for Five” thousand tires per day.
  • Indy Racing Driver Scott Goodyear’s inspirational team building visits.
  • Smiles, even with circles under their eyes.
  • Team Member Hockey leagues, Curling bonspiels, the Rubber Band music jams.

Having been out of the tire business almost 12 years, I frequently encounter reminders of the profound level of respect for the Napanee plant in the tire industry.  On one occasion, I met an executive who had formerly led benchmarking activities for a major competitor.  Searching me out at a meeting, he asked, “How in the world did you produce all those high quality tires with so few people?”  I asked how he knew they had “so few people?”  He responded, “Because I sat in a car outside the gate counting them.  I have to know how you did that!”

A distinct blessing in my professional life was to serve as Napanee Plant Manager.  While fortunate to find another rewarding career in another great company, I routinely rely on my Napanee experiences to make a difference in new places and in new ways.  A bonus is that my five years in Ontario rewarded my family and me with cherished lifelong friends and memories.

This FrontLine Focus blog is extraordinarily long, but my experience in Napanee was extraordinary, loaded with best practices and experiences I felt compelled to share.  So, thanks for permitting me to indulge.  I am forever indebted to those:

  • Who worked hard during the Napanee startup, for enduring, and for doing it right.
  • Exceptional Corporate Leaders and Engineers, who designed and deployed the manufacturing technology and people systems, and then gave us the freedom to push beyond the limits.
  • Customers, for their recurring business.
  • Of the Local Community, for a remarkable education system, for taking a risk with a global company, and then embracing us.  The plant success would not have happened without you.
  • In Lawton, Napanee’s “Top Gun” School and partners in the industry.
  • The Napanee Team Members who have sustained the performance and innovation culture for 25 additional years.

I remember July 13, 1988, fondly.  Little did those two hundred kids, or I know the profound influence the plant would have on their futures, directly or indirectly.  And to those in the Napanee plant now, know that the global competition remains in relentless pursuit of your performance.  Make sure you are a moving target.  Good smart teamwork and innovation will always be the order of the day.  Customers will always want more for less.  Teams bridging the right corporate strategy with great execution make it happen.

Congratulations to the Napanee team and community on celebrating 25 years! May God’s richest blessings go with you in your never-ending quest to lead the industry!

… And Pass It On!

KB Kleckner


© 2014 FrontLine Focus

NP Kids '88   NQU   NP TriBal


7 Responses to ““Top Gun” Practices of a Tire Plant Startup”

  1. Phil Shelton says:

    I remember those five years well and would not take anything for the experience. It was definitely the highlight and most interesting part of my Goodyear career and I thank you for the opportunity.

  2. Paul Craig says:

    This is a solid post. I especially like how you focus upon Definition as a primary and first key to success. I also like the focus on mechanics… the proverbial nuts and bolts of execution. I think there is a dimension of success that I would personally like to hear more about from you. After all, you have been very successful in leadership. Your post seems to me to focus on metrics… which is management by result… which isn’t a bad thing. But how have you, as a leader, gotten people to commit, with their heart and souls, to an objective where they are willing to go above and beyond? I’m suspecting they did. I’m suspecting all leaders would like to know how.

    • KB Kleckner says:

      You’ve said it all, Paul! … define strategy, plan, metrics, execute, results. To get commitment in the hearts and souls requires conviction and rigor from the leader, assuming the strategy and plans are the right ones and that they are logical. Then caring about the people, treating them right, doing it right, working with them, building trust, and more … all roll up to make it happen. I will write on these. Thanks for your insightful comments! KB

  3. Grant McKinnon says:

    KB. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. This is where I learned the concept that “if the student has not learned, then the teacher has not taught”.
    I especially remember those team building exercises and celebration breakfasts.
    All the best.

  4. Grant McKinnon says:

    Email address corrected.

  5. Jim Davis says:

    KB, well said, yet is hard to accept that it has been 25 years since the groundbreaking ceremony. My six years of being a part of that organization was most assuredly a highlight of my career at Goodyear.

    Congratulations to the Napanee Team and all the best to you and your family.


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