Adding levels of leadership helps Sussex IM handle sustained growth

Team leaders and OurSIM team members now wear red hairnets to help improve communication at Sussex IM.
Team leaders and OurSIM team members now wear red hairnets to help improve communication at Sussex IM.

Growing businesses often run into a problem. The culture, practices and structure that help it reach a certain level are no guarantee of continued success and future growth as a company becomes a larger operation.

Sussex IM ran into just that challenge in recent years. The company had grown its headcount, customer base, number of products and square footage.

“It became too big for the infrastructure that was in place,” said Kyle Kopp, vice president of manufacturing at Sussex IM, a plastic injection molding company based in Sussex.

Part of the problem was that when Sussex IM was a smaller company, the people at the highest levels of the business were very involved in the day-to-day operations.

“A lot of the people on the floor didn’t really make a lot of decisions,” said Megan Tzanoukakis, vice president of supply chain. “They just went right to the top.”

The company previously had a plant manager and one supervisor on each of its three shifts. Kopp and Tzanoukakis said that structure led to a lot of people reporting to the plant manager, inconsistent training and communication and a tendency to not utilize skillsets effectively.

“There wasn’t that consistent message that was given to them so we had a high turnover,” Tzanoukakis said.

To counteract those problems, Sussex IM added layers of leadership, creating a shift manager position on each shift, adding administrative and technical supervisors below them, along with the jobs of lead tech and administrative assistant. The previous positions of team leaders, operators and associates remained below the new jobs.

“There was a focus of let’s get our technical people working on the technical work and our admin people working on the admin work,” Kopp said.

The organizational changes are part of a multi-year effort to enhance and evolve the company’s culture called OurSIM. In addition to driving decision making deeper in the organization, the program also sought to improve communication, reduce employee turnover, increase training to prepare for looming retirements of long-tenured employees and ultimately improve performance.

It does not take long to see the improved communication on the production floor at Sussex IM. There is plenty of activity as employees work to address issues. There is also a clear indication of the new program as team leaders and OurSIM team members now wear red hairnets, giving employees an easy way to find someone to help solve problems.

Along with increased training, Sussex IM emphasized providing clear job descriptions and simplified work instructions with pictures and videos and more information at the point of work to reinforce proper procedures.

Kopp said the company has found that breaking training down into simplified pieces makes it easier to comprehend and gives employees the confidence that they’re doing the right thing.

A little more than a year into the program, Kopp said the company is seeing results, regularly coming in under targets for scrap and returns, and stabilizing variances in scrap, overhead and labor.

“What we’re seeing is people are more focused on what matters and are using data to make good decisions,” he said, noting that the overwhelming number of participants in a voluntary training on reading variance reports was a sign of the buy-in Sussex IM has seen.

But buy-in did not come overnight. The company started its planning for the organizational change in August 2017 and launched it the following summer. The first six months focused on developing Kopp’s position and he rejoined the company after several years away.

The company then had to staff all of the new leadership positions it was creating. Kopp said the original expectation was Sussex IM would need to look to external hires to fill those roles but most of the jobs ended up going to internal candidates.

“(It is) a testament to the people we have here that they had the skillsets we need to do the job, they just didn’t have the role,” Kopp said.

In several cases, the company opted to put relatively newer employees into leadership positions while those with more experience were asked to take on mentorship roles.

“We were very fortunate to have a strong family culture,” Kopp said. “There was no animosity or ill will. Everyone wants the other people to succeed.”

Kopp said even though the new leaders were well positioned to take on their new jobs, the company could have planned more training to help them transition into effective leaders.

Tzanoukakis said it was also important to realize the program would not generate results right away.

“It takes a while,” she said. “People have to get in a groove and they have to learn their new roles before you can see results in the data.”

The delayed results do create a challenge for keeping the buy-in Sussex IM worked to build.

“You just build upon the small wins and work towards a goal and over communicate and make sure that expectations are clear for where they’re at,” Kopp said.

The company’s success has created new problems. Adding to leadership created more need for office space so the company is expanding its office and adding a training center.

Repeatedly hitting targets has created another problem.

“We have a complaint on the floor that they’re sick of hitting the goals every month and getting pizza,” Kopp said.

While the repetitiveness of the reward for employees might be a lighthearted issue, it is one Kopp and his team are taking seriously and working to resolve.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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