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Many years ago, when I was working with my first ever coaching client, I saw in real life the power of sensible vs. audacious goal setting.   The client was the plant manager in a manufacturing concern, part of a global conglomerate.  He was thrilled at his recent promotion – a skilled and experienced engineer, now working on his business and people skills.   He was ambitious as anything.

Strategic goal setting and ‘stretch’

The multinational parent company followed a liberal strategic planning process: it expected local management around the globe to do a realistic assessment of their market; their resources and capabilities, and then to commit to certain targets pertaining to quality, volume, reliability in delivery, growth in sales. Of course ‘stretch’ was part of the equation – when you say you can deliver x, then we want (x+5).

It was the era of World Class Manufacturing; bench-marking; Best Operating Practices.  By sharing performance results across the business competition was created – the Slovakians wanted to beat the Swiss, the Swiss the Brits, and so on.  My client, the plant manager, wanted to be in that competition. He therefore based his production goals on the ‘best in class’.  His staff complained to HR that he was too hard on them – demanding endless hours from them, being angry and shouting all the time.  I was invited in to coach him on his leadership style.

His plant is in Tanzania, in East Africa.

The goals are impossible and the boss is rude

I asked his management team about their goals and targets. They knew what the numbers were but they were astonishingly dismissive about them.  “We have never even come within 40% of those numbers. We never will. We just can’t do it. Why bother?”  “But you must train our boss not to be so rude – he shouts at us all the time and there’s nothing we can do.”

Comparative data

I asked his CEO for data on how his plant was tracking against the other plants. He told me that the parent company actually doesn’t track this plant – its performance is SO poor that it’s not worth the bother. They’re in that market because there IS money to be made there, but their expectations are a reasonable ROI*; not establishing any world records. And they’re also not exactly spending money on upgrading it, because the plant doesn’t generate sufficient income to be able to pay for it and the rest of the business isn’t going to subsidize it.  The CEO showed me the numbers and I understood.  Imagine you had to map all the plants on a graph.  There wouldn’t be enough space on the graph to do justice to the size of the gap between my guy’s plant and the cluster of the others.

Old equipment and lazy workers

The CEO knew my client had it in him to turn the plant around, but there were things that needed to change – that’s why I was brought in to coach/mentor the Plant Manager.

I asked the CEO how fixed the annual targets were – was there room to shift some of them down, considering the big hairy audaciously unachievability of them. “Sure – they can all be shifted down. It won’t make a difference though.  The equipment is old, constantly breaking; electrical supply is unreliable; and the workforce is lazy. You can pick any number for the target. It won’t happen.”

Plotting a graph

In the next conversation I had with the Plant Manager I asked him for the production figures of the past 5 years.  We plotted those on a graph.  It was close to a straight line, with a distinct right-hand slope. Performance was gradually getting worse.  He was frustrated beyond what was bearable. We had a coaching conversation.

I asked questions and he did the thinking.

He concluded that he would set new targets. He would look for but a 6% improvement on each dimension. He also concluded that he had to explain to his team that his focus has shifted. It was no longer to try and compete with the Europeans but rather, it was to compete with their own history.   He picked a theme for the year “Hatua ndogo” (Small steps).

He invited me to sit in on his talk with his team – he wanted feedback on his communication style. Of course I would do that. I also wanted to see how his new approach in goal setting was going to go over. He explained that he understood the difficulties.

Understand your resources

It was an old plant. Spare parts were hard to come by and when they could be found, sometimes took up to 6 months to clear customs. The country’s electrical grid was even older. The most consistent aspect of the electricity supply was its unreliability.

Sudden and prolonged power outages resulted in half-processed product in the pipeline that then had to be reworked when the power came back on – close to double the manufacturing process expense right there. It meant that they all had to work long hours, often 7 days a week. You worked when there was electricity, even if it was your wife’s birthday or your kids’ school concert.

Stock-outs were par for the course. They’d had to expand the parking area for the queues of trucks waiting  to be loaded, with the truck drivers often sleeping in their trucks for days before they could load up and head back to their delivery areas.

“Kuboresha utendaji kazi?”

He told them about the 6%.  “Hatua ndogo.”  I tried a phrase I’d learnt at another company in that country.  “This is about ‘kuboresha utendaji kazi’, isn’t it?” (Improving the way we work?) He said “I can’t do this alone – will you be willing to work as a team to work out ways in which we can reduce the impact of the terrible constraints we face on a daily basis?”  “You come to me when you need help, otherwise you work it out.” “Hakuna matata, bwana,” (no worries, sir) some muttered.


The company flew me back to Tanzania for the party to celebrate the year-end results.   They had improved their performance by an average of 10% on the standard parameters that get measured in that production environment. They’d exceeded their goals.  He had a great team of engineers and technicians. He’d given them realistic and yet difficult goals and he’d granted them the authority to be creative in resolving their greatest problems.  When they needed help they came to him. He had showed intense and ongoing interest in their work, while pulling back and letting them get on with it. He had taken some weekends off. It was a great party.

The improvements continued.

Employer of the Year

The last time I visited – 4 years later, they were entertaining visitors from other plants. They had become a benchmark. They appeared on the same graph as the European plants. They’ve installed new equipment; they’ve expanded.  The Hatua Ndogo approach – incremental improvement in small achievable steps – with a bit of stretch – just enough to make it challenging, along with courageous delegation, had paid off for them – and for me.

And the Plant Manager:   His company has won “employer of the year” more than once and he regularly spends his weekends with his family now.

Eye witness to what happens when goals are stimulating rather than daunting

I witnessed in real life; in practical terms, what happens when goals are stimulating rather than daunting. I also witnessed the culture change throughout the organization as empowered managers’ manner towards each other and their subordinates became more respectful and trusting: As a culture of shared responsibility and co-operation evolved.

So if you wonder why I love my work – this is why.



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