The Newcastle biscuit factory had long since been abandoned. A large multinational corporation (MNC) had taken ownership of it and was converting it into a refrigerated warehouse. Its location in an industrial area, close to shipping and rail services and the main highway, was ideal.
A local company was sought to convert the factory to a warehouse. The Hard Comack Company had won the contract and the conversion of the plant was nearing completion. Some employees had been laid off from the site and others moved on to other projects. As the completion date neared, MNC realised the interior of the warehouse needed painting.
To clean and paint the warehouse would take no more than three weeks, and Hard Comack would not hire more full-time staff for such a short job. MNC decided to subcontract temporary workers to do it, and 20 university students were hired. They did not become members of the construction union.
The students were under the direction of Peter Kinley, who had worked for Hard Comack since he left school more than 25 years ago. Kinley told the students about the tasks involved in this monotonous job. They were divided into groups of four so that they could work on different parts of the warehouse without interfering with the other workers.
The students were taken to the site every morning by the company bus. They gathered around Kinley’s truck to be assigned to other employees for the day. Kinley was only the roll-caller. He did not see them during the day, nor take any interest in the progress of the painting. He left the supervision up to the Hard Comack employees. He came back to make sure that all students were on the bus to be taken home at 5pm.
Conditions on the site were miserable. Dust blew in through the ventilation screens, making painting very difficult, and the construction in the warehouse created more dirt. The students had to clean a section and paint it before it got covered in dust again. The groups were not co-ordinated in cleaning the section directly above them. This led to some tension between the groups, and the unco-ordinated efforts resulted in some substandard work. The noise from construction meant that people had to shout at each other to be heard.
Throughout the job, the students were supervised by two employees of Hard Comack. When the students were painting the entrance and the unloading bay of the warehouse they were under the supervision of Ronald Corbette. He was a mild man in his early fifties who had worked for Hard Comack for more than 20 years as a supervisor on many construction projects.
Corbette always directed the students as to how jobs should follow on, and explained ways of trying to overcome the dust problem. They discussed problems with him at all stages, and he helped them to get buckets, cloths, paint brushes and other equipment. He divided his time evenly among the students and his other operations. He tried to keep the groups apart, but not spread all over the warehouse. The groups had a high level of cohesiveness and the morale was high. Corbette checked on the students to see how they were performing, giving praise in an objective manner where he thought it was deserved, especially when progress was good. Overall, the students attitudes to Corbette were favorable. Despite the conditions, the area under Corbette’s charge was eventually finished.
Next, the students were placed in the charge of Tom Monalott to paint the 26 refrigerated vaults. Monalott was a graduate from the Newcastle Institute of Engineering and Technology. He had supervised all aspects of installing the cooling systems on all the vaults. They were his pride and joy.
Time was running out and the job seemed to be taking longer than planned. Monalott took greater control of the students work to ensure that the task was done on time. He always came to the assembly point to collect the students each morning. Often he would have them marching off before the 7.30am starting siren sounded. Working on the refrigerated vaults needed greater care than in the loading bay. Students could not climb wherever they pleased to clean and paint the cooling system, as it was delicate and expensive equipment, designed and manufactured in Japan. Care had to be taken to avoid getting any water or cleansing agent on the electrical equipment.
Each group of students worked on their own vault. Monalott kept an eye on them all the time. Every student was given a direct order on how to proceed at each of the vaults. He would often stand over a student to make sure he or she paid attention to every detail when cleaning the vaults. Whenever students seemed to miss a bit of dirt on the pipe and cable-clad structure, or slacken their pace of work, Monalott would abuse them. He minimised talk by having each work at a different part of the vault. Anyone wanting to speak had to almost shout to be heard and, having Monalott watching them like a hawk, the students were hardly able to talk at all during working hours.
On the second day of working on the vaults matters worsened. Monalott was watching over one of the better working groups when one of the students, Dave McIlroy, who was working on one of the steel beams at the top of vault, had his ladder slip from under him. It was only his cool-headedness in holding on to the beam that saved him from a serious accident.
Monalott went into a rage. As soon as McIlroy had reached the floor, the supervisor scolded the students for not taking more care while on the ladders. He told them that the right position for the ladder was to have it out a quarter of the height from the wall and he proceeded to show them the correct way. Also he told them to use their common sense and tie the ladder to a wall support whenever possible. Other groups had witnessed the event and were chatting among themselves. As soon as he saw them standing around he turned to them, waved his arm in the air and shouted at them: “Get back to your jobs.”
McIlroy was a senior engineering student at the university and a member of the student council, quite well known and liked by most of the students. He was annoyed by what happened, not so much because of Monalott’s scolding but because the accident had occurred in the first place. At a tea break McIlroy made sure the rest of the students knew his feelings about the event. He said: “There he was, watching over us all the time, waiting, waiting for any little mistake, so he could blast us. And yet when he sees a potentially hazardous situation, what does he do about it? Nothing. Hope some accident does happen so he can really go berserk.
“I think I am going to be a bit longer working on those vaults. I’ll tie up my ladder, test it for safety and so on, and generally take more care. Then let’s see what Monalott thinks of our our progress. I’ll just be following orders, won’t I?”
The others agreed and thought it was a good idea – work to rule, in other words go slow. Another student said: “We’ll go for walkabouts when getting buckets of water, just to take a little longer.”
Things were going badly for Monalott. The students were cleaning and painting every nook and cranny, but it was taking so long and there never seemed to be a group of four actually working on a vault. Someone was always missing. When Monalott noticed how long it took individuals to get water he started to fume. At first he sent other students to look for the “lost sheep”, but in such a large warehouse this lead to more lost sheep. Finally, Monalott found himself playing the role of truant officer, chasing up those on walkabouts.
To make matters worse, other construction workers resented non-union labor on the site, as it had been through union negotiations that the site allowance had been raised to compensate for conditions. The union members had a special meeting that day. They felt it was unjust that the students not be paying union fees yet getting all the benefits. Their hostility to the students deepened, aroused by union representative George Skinner.
With only three days to go, fewer than half the vaults had been finished. The top management of MNC sent a memo to Hard Comack, wanting to know why the job was taking so long and when it would be finished.
When Monalott got a note from the company inquiring about the lack of progress he was worried. He had only been working for Hard Comack for nine months and, being an ambitious young man, he wanted to make a good impression. He took a stroll around the area that evening, before quitting time. He wondered why it was taking so long when he was keeping a careful eye on the students. He realised that, at the present rate, the job would take at least another two weeks.
Comment on how the painting project could have been handled and offer advice to senior management on what action it should now take.
Thanks to Stanley Petzall of the school of management at Deakin University for permission to use this material, which comes from his publication on management case studies
Proposed solution #1
Ricky Burges is the chief executive officer of Perth Zoo and has been involved in management for more
than 15 years. She is completing her masters in leadership and management and in 1997 was the recipient of the AIM (WA) Excellence in Management Award for women
Report to the chief executive:
Students provide a keen, readily available and cheap workforce, but perhaps the subcontract workers could have been hired through an agency rather than picking up untrained and inexperienced students. An agency would ensure that all employees are experienced and qualified, and would replace them if they did not do what they were hired to do.
There is a question of quality control, and Peter Kinley, who has overall responsibility, seems to have performed badly. I suggest that he have a performance appraisal session and undertake a coaching and mentoring role. However, I would leave no doubt in Kinley’s mind of the standards and quality of performance required of him.
I would also ensure that he is aware of the “duty of care” provisions and the organisation’s OHSW responsibilities and that as the chief executive officer you will not tolerate these requirements being overlooked.
Corbette seems to be on the right track, and should be acknowledged and encouraged.
Monalott, however, is proud and misguided. My suggestion is that he be provided with feedback, counselling and support to change his inappropriate management style. However, given his entrenched behavior, it seems unlikely that he will change. I would be ensuring that he receives clear and unambiguous feedback on the proper management of employees.
We are often wiser after the event, and I believe that this is an excellent incident to provide you with a learning opportunity.
One way of doing this would be gather together all those people who have been involved in this exercise and tell them that you have decided to undertake a “management development” program to study and reflect on what might have been done differently.
I suggest you use one of many techniques available to tease out all of the issues involved. For instance, something like “mind mapping” the process could be appropriate and would help those involved to see the connections, the issues, the needs and the gaps.
You might expect to see certain issues fall out of an exercise like this, such as: the need for appropriate policies and procedures, adequate supervision, appropriate induction programs for staff, attention to safety and care, quality control and the need to establish a “team leader”.
Finally, you still need to finish the job, so I suggest that you bring the students together and address them. Acknowledge that things seem to have gone off the rails and that you are sorry that they have been let down. You could advise them that you will personally see to it that things improve. Remind them that there is a responsibility to your client to complete this job quickly and efficiently. Advise them that for the remainder of this job they will be supervised only by Corbette. You might also tell them that they will be paid a bonus if the work is completed on time, providing that all safety precautions are taken and there are no accidents. You may also need to be willing to renegotiate deadlines.
Finally, as chief executive officer of Hard Comack Company, you could get a lot closer to your staff, have a good look at the management styles in your group and lead by example. This could include training and development for those who want to take part in a continuous improvement program. Those who find this untenable will find another organisation to work with.
Proposed solution #2
Stan McCartney is an associate fellow of AIM and is a risk management specialist. He is qualified in accounting, human resources and industrial psychology and is the Coles Myer Group state occupational health and safety manager for South Australia and the Northern Territory
The new owners of the abandoned biscuit factory, MNC, could use this project as a case-study for future management development.
MNC provided the labor, although the appointed subcontractors, Hard Comack Company, provided the actual project supervision. The hiring of inexperienced science students was an error of judgment. The site was potentially hazardous, the new labor was inexperienced in construction-site work and was poorly inducted. This overlooked statutory requirements to provide information about site hazards and safe practices. It was an oversight to lay off competent labor, which MNC already had on its books.
The industrial relations consequences were predictable. The threat of the union members planned special meeting may well provide a vehicle for further conflict in relation to downsizing activities that were being managed to date without disruption.
The provision of adequate supervision was only partially met, principally by the effectiveness and work ethic of supervisor Corbette. On the other hand, supervisors Kinley, and particularly Monalott, were unsatisfactory in the execution of their duties.
MNC was also less than diligent in its overseeing of the Hard Comack project management. Had it called for progress reports or maintained regular site meetings the lack of competence would have been highlighted and vulnerability to project failure would have been minimised, if not avoided.
Corbette was the only supervisor who exhibited strengths in people-management skills, producing harmony and teamwork despite poor working conditions and a less-than-experienced work group. given the constant exposure to dust and noise (the latter resulting in ineffective communications). Monalott, by contrast, experienced conflict and frustration due to his supervisory and project-management failings.
MNC would do well to revisit the project plans in total to ensure that they clearly deal with some fundamental project management processes. There need to be: project goals stated and clarified, objectives developed, a matrix assigning responsibility, establishment of resource requirements and not compromised, project managers appointed and authorised, project plans developed, project costs and schedules completed, continuing assessment and evaluation tools agreed on to ensure progress, and monitoring and re-evaluation strategies developed when potential or unforeseen problems arise. Other requirements are: provision for remedies and contingencies to combat threats, and pinpointing potential opportunities that may improve progress or outcomes.
MNC and its subcontractor should have understood the three principal phases of project management – the definition phase, the planning phase and the implementation phase – which are non-negotiable ingredients and fundamental to project management.
Where to Now?
Options available to MNC and Hard Comack Company rest on their ability to reach agreement. The time frame of three weeks has now been diminished to three days with 50% of the vault area incomplete. Damage to the vaults will incur a financial exposure and operational downtime. Both are unacceptable outcomes, as this plant is expensive, delicate and imported.
Supervisor Corbette should be re-appointed to oversee and manage the labor force. He has the site experience, strong interpersonal skills, trust and respect, and a record of delivering results on time. The MNC staff should be redeployed on to the project and the temporary labor arrangements terminated.
One option is to immediately introduce a three-shift roster over 24 hours for the remaining three days left in the project estimate, increasing the productive time from three to nine shifts. Penalties for the labor costs will be experienced, but this should not be a deterrent. The task is to move out of damage control, and costs are inevitable.
A second option is renegotiation of the time frame. Either option will meet the project needs and will defuse the potential contract breach caused by a likely time over-run.