Bob Wilson is managing director of Classic Foods in Tasmania. He has worked in the dairy industry all his life. He worked in Australia’s first UHT (ultra high temperature) plant, then went on to advise on the use of UHT technology all over the world. He is a Fellow of AIM.
AIM: What is your management history?
WILSON: I grew up in the rural industry, on a dairy farm in the Huon Valley. I trained at the Hawkesbury Agricultural College in New South Wales, then went back to Tassie. In the early days I worked with a company that had invested in ultra high temperature (UHT) technology that pasteurised milk and packaged it in sterile conditions. The Launceston factory was the first plant equipped with it outside Europe. When we started it was quite revolutionary.
AIM: What happened?
WILSON: It proved to be uneconomic, and the company, Bakers Milk, closed it. But I was keen on the technology and decided to stay with it. The best opportunities were international, so I took on jobs in Africa: Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. The projects were quite large. Those countries were decolonising and undertaking huge capital programs to bring them up to scratch in hospitals and roads. It was all go, go, go.
AIM: How long did that last?
WILS0N: I returned to Tassie in the 1970s to my old company, Gadsdens, a large manufacturer of cans. When there was a takeover I wasn’t a happy fellow, and went out as freelance troubleshooter: I don’t like the word consultant. It was mostly international – Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong. I did a lot of work in the US and a bit in Ireland.
AIM: What have you observed about the interaction of people and machines?
WILS0N: Usually you are invited to come in to help because of a supposedly technical issue: inefficiencies, or they can’t get the machine working. Inevitably you find, after you have worked through the problem, that it comes back to management. There may be a lack of technical understanding, but most of the time it gets back to a people problem.
AIM: How do problems typically arise?
WILSON: The technology has usually been produced in Scandinavia, Sweden in particular. When the Swedes and the Germans develop plant and equipment they are very thorough in the way they make things work. If you implant that equipment in Africa, China or the US, then you often get problems. If you don’t understand the mindset of Swedes, then you can’t run Swedish equipment.
AIM: Which countries have the greatest problems?
WILSON: The most problems are in the US and Australia. We are very “hail fellow, well met” – laid back. If you are running Swedish equipment you have to be absolutely precise in your preventive maintenance programs. If you see a problem and let the machine run for a week you get a malfunction, then imperfect packs, then the customer complains. The average user blames the equipment first rather than management. With this equipment it is a bit like flying an aircraft: you are either at 30,000 feet or you are in a screaming heap on the ground.
AIM: Is there an organisational shape that is best suited to good management?
WILSON: I like a flat organisation, not hierarchical. You must have a lot of involvement, and people in groups understanding their roles. You cannot do it with the American style of vertical divisions where everyone has a role within a certain box – if it is outside that box then they don’t worry about it. You have your little area and follow procedures to a tee but don’t worry about anything else. The US is going out of “compartmentalising”.
AIM: Many describe this as total quality management. Do you find TQM useful?
WILSON: You can document to the nth degree and still not solve the problem of people working together. If you document, you just have everyone checking the manual. And if you believe everyone is following that, then you are living in a fool’s paradise. Even if it happens, it doesn’t solve all the problems. You have to have people encouraged to communicate at the same time as they are referring to procedures; it is a hard thing to do.
AIM: What is your criticism of the ISO quality standards?
WILSON: You have to ask: “What role is it playing in the development of our business, and how are the customers gaining?” We encourage our customers to be part of an audit procedure to see what they expect from standards and quality. That contributes immensely.
AIM: Some would describe this as the difference between quality accreditation and true total quality management.
WILSON: TQM is a state of mind, not a manual. If I see someone in a factory with a white coat that says “quality manager” I know they haven’t got one.
AIM: How do Australian managers rate?
WILSON: In an area where they have a lot of pressure on them, on a factory floor, Australian managers are among the best in the world. But in large organisations where they can slip into complacency, they are the worst.