Today is Sir Tony’s Birthday! Engr Tony Attah is ‘transformational leadership personified’. It’s such a blessing to have him and a host of many other amazing leaders grace our world. Nigeria is not short of abundant talents in every spheres of life. The country is endowed with ‘best-in-class’ corporate leaders. Still on our transformational journey series, I have the privilege of spot-lighting the leader who passed the baton to Sir T in his current role to underpin my point on aspiring to leave a place better than you met it. Sir Babs Omotowa recently penned down his early stint at business transformation and I have his graceful permission to ‘re-echo’ it on my blog. Please enjoy “Making a difference in whatever role” in his words.
“Abel walks into my cubicle on a Monday morning, looking dejected and telling me, ‘There has been a break-in and theft.’ I ask him, ‘What is missing?’ ‘The stainless-steel valves we received into stock last week”, he replied. I am sad.
This follows a pattern of break-ins at the weekends when staffs are away. I wince as I think of having to report on theft again at the supervisors’ meeting later in the day. This is not what I expect to be grappling with, in this role.
‘Abel, let us go and have a look,’ I say. I do not want to look demoralized to my team as I am just getting familiar with the job’s responsibilities of receipt, storage, and issuance of materials; maintaining inventory; keeping record and reconciling, and ensuring the effectiveness of the warehousing activities and staff performance. But these repeated thefts were making things difficult and it feels like a heavy, weight on my shoulders.
‘This cannot continue and we must bring it to a stop,’ I say to my team members who had gathered in the store. They look at me with doubt written on their faces. This is a low moment, but it invigorates me with determination to drive the needed improvements and make a difference.
This was my first assignment in Shell as a supervisor in the ‘lowly’ storeroom, tucked away in the company’s industrial area in Warri. Here materials were stored to be retrieved and used to operate, maintain, repair, and replace production equipment in the company’s oil and gas fields.
I spent the first few months making efforts to understand the activities, processes, culture, and norms. I took time to assess the physical structures, layout, quality of staff, store record systems, processes for receipt, and issuance of materials. I studied warehousing, read reports, and visited other warehouses to learn. I spoke with staff, supervisors, and customers to understand the issues, challenges, and opportunities.
The storeroom, which housed hundreds of millions of dollars of items, was poorly organized. Materials were strewn all over and as such it was a herculean task to find items when customers requested them. The stores were an open space with a roof, bare floor but without walls. The chaotic situation was an opportunity for theft as intruders could easily access the open space. I was disappointed that the company had invested money to procure materials, yet failed to secure them properly. From police investigations of the reported thefts, we discovered the stolen items were sold on the black market, to unscrupulous contractors, who sold them to other oil companies or to manufacturing industries.
I contextualized all these against how a good storeroom should operate and started to think of making a difference. I had learned from working on my father’s farms during my early years, the need for planning, preparation, hard work, and perseverance to make a difference. For example, sequences of clearing, ridging, planting, nurturing and harvesting, had to be planned and timed to coincide with the appropriate seasons. All farming phases required hard work and the phase of nurturing required perseverance.
I discussed my observations with the management, customers, and staff, and everyone was concerned with the negative image the storeroom had as a ‘junkyard’. I secured alignment on the urgent need for the turnaround to a place staff would want to work and customers will speak highly of. The staff had always felt the need for change, but they had assumed that the company was not interested, since they had hardly ever been visited by management.
The vision I developed was for our stores to look like and be run similarly as world-class supermarkets (Sainsbury, Walmart) which I had seen in pictures in magazines, where stores are well secured, materials properly arranged on shelves, and customer-friendly processes.
I identified three areas to focus on – safety, customer satisfaction, and integrity. I had learned from my school years that it was better to focus on a few things and do them exceptionally well than to do many things and perform poorly. One cannot boil an ocean or solve world hunger.
With management support, we worked with other functions to actualize the vision. With engineering, we designed required work and determined costs, and with Finance, we secured budgets. Walls were built, a cold room built and carousel machines, synthetic racks, and pallets procured, all of which we had seen in those world-class supermarkets. It was not all smooth sail as we had to adapt during the process like changing from procuring new materials to utilizing in-house materials to construct heavy-duty racks. We arranged materials and labeled them in racks and in carousel units. We entered the locations into the company’s enterprise system to make retrievals easier. My team was unrelenting, with weekly review meetings, and working overtime to achieve the objective of reducing theft to zero.
We also focused on customers, who had to physically come to the store with a requisition, for our staff to search and retrieve the items from our ‘junkyard’. This meant that field staff had to spend time away from production work, to collect materials. Working with IT, we enabled customers to send their requisitions electronically and not need to come to the warehouse. We secured vans and trucks to deliver items (milk-runs) to customers at their worksites.
With customers no longer coming to collect items, the storeroom was far less crowded, and this increased safety in the store as well as staff productivity. Safety risks were also reduced as drivers of customers no longer needed to drive from their various locations to the warehouse to collect materials. We were consolidating their orders which significantly reduced driving safety exposures. All these changed the perception and satisfaction level of customers.
At the end of two years, the warehouse was completely transformed. Customers shared the stories and we started to receive visits from the company’s management. They were proud to showcase the storeroom to their visitors, as for example, our carousel units, were industry-leading.
I was no longer going to the supervisors’ daily meetings to report theft. I was proud of the team’s achievement and we celebrated, with their spouses, as family support is crucial for periods of high-intensity work. I owe a lot of gratitude to the staff for the result achieved – they are the heroes.
To achieve a goal, one must know the goal, focus, and enlist key stakeholders. It is not possible to hit a target with eyes closed. Positive impact enables one to gain confidence and the recognition of bosses.
I learned that no matter how lowly the work one is assigned, one should embrace it, work diligently, do it well and transform. It is important to leave a role in an improved state from when one started. Hurdles are to be overcome; when one meets a hurdle, one should embrace it, as beyond lies a prize. How one does any work (unfanciful or not), can determine one’s next job. If one keeps complaining about a role and does it sloppily, it affects one’s reputation, and can negatively affect the chances of getting bigger roles.
As Martin Luther King said “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.””