(Samuel Gould, business growth consultant, Enterprise Minnesota)
When manufacturers hire business consultant Samuel Gould, they don’t usually get what they are expecting. His resume is chock full of advanced degrees and engineering experience. So when he launches lean initiatives, the staff gear up for an academic lecture complete with professorial theories and statistics.
Then Gould opens his mouth. In a folksy way that reflects more than 20 years of living in Missouri and Tennessee, Gould regales clients with stories. They cover his stints as an engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he helped developed lean business practices, and as director of manufacturing, engineering, and general plant manager for many companies.
He also goes against the grain by being the epitome of direct, even if his bluntness ruffles some feathers. And he’s not shy about speaking truth to power, says Mary Connor, a fellow business growth consultant who has worked with Gould for 10 years. Gould quickly wins over clients at all levels with his hands-on knowledge from decades in the field. Before long, he has once-skeptical team members eager to hear his advice. “I describe him as being like Barbra Streisand,” Connor says. “You either like him, or you’ll eventually grow to like him. That’s Sam.”
Gould clearly has a method to his madness, because he’s one of the most sought-after consultants at Enterprise Minnesota. His reputation precedes him. He’s known for taking a company with thorny issues—whether on the factory floor or among personnel—and delving deep until he finds process improvement solutions. Minnesota businesses that saw excellent results with Gould have paid for him to visit other locations in the United States and Mexico to bring his lean prowess.
DCI, Inc., a St. Cloud manufacturer and servicer of stainless steel storage and processing tanks, retained Gould in 2011 as it was emerging from the recession. He’s been involved with the company ever since. Plant superintendent Tom Evens says Gould has played an integral role in improving company culture.
“Sam has the knack of being able to communicate with operators and front-line supervisors all the way up to directors and vice presidents,” says Evens. “For an engineer, he really does have pretty good soft skills. But he addresses it upfront and says, ‘I don’t have soft skills.’ Quite honestly it’s that openness that brings employees in. He might be rough around the edges once in a while, but it’s his way of getting us on board.”
With a strong belief in the effectiveness of continuous improvement—and the knowledge and experience to back it up—Gould is a wizard at uniting often-reluctant teams to tackle the systemic problems holding them back. When he finishes, he’s got a cadre of Sam Gould fans that use his stories and sayings to work more effectively and efficiently together.
An Engineer at Heart
When Gould joined Enterprise Minnesota in 2003 as a business growth consultant, he came with three decades of experience in engineering and manufacturing. Right after college, Gould spent 15 years at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest science and energy lab. Gould helped modernize its nuclear weapons complex.
Ultimately he led a team of 28 scientists and engineers in Six Sigma and lean improvements before that term really existed. Yet Gould’s experience with lean actually goes back much farther to his childhood in Bemidji. His father went blind in his mid-30s, and he did all the cooking for the family. Their pantry needed to be perfectly organized so that his dad knew he was opening a can of tomatoes, not peaches.
“There were 14 kids, so lean principles had to be instituted for him to function in a family atmosphere of that nature,” says Gould, who now lives near his hometown. That experience generated one of his favorite rules and sayings: “There has to be a place for everything and everything should be in its place. From a blind man’s perspective if it’s not in its place, how will he ever find it?”
His childhood generated one of Gould’s core teachings. If manufacturing operators put something in the wrong spot, it does no good just to return it to its proper place. The problem is fixed only temporarily. It’s more important to investigate the root cause and figure out a process that fixes the problem. Otherwise, the same mistake will endure, wasting time and money for the duration.
“There is a propensity for people to blame others for failures. It’s my experience that 95 percent of the time, it’s the process not the people,” Gould says. “When somebody is trying to fix something, they are frustrated and want to be frustrated at someone. They don’t go to the next level and say, ‘Why does that person do that?’ They believe they just don’t care. When you do discovery, you find out that they care very much. Most often the process is not clear.”
Gould’s diverse experiences, including serving as a general plant manager, supply him with the stories and metaphors he uses when working with other manufacturers. It also makes him accessible, and it shows clients’ employees that he talks the talk with knowledge and first-hand familiarity with any challenge they face, says Glenn Pence, an Enterprise Minnesota business development consultant who has worked with Gould for a decade.
Pence has great respect for Gould’s work, especially the way he interacts with clients in pursuit of continuous improvement. “He’s very hands on. Some consultants are more academic. He’s right in there getting dirty with the employees, and he doesn’t ask them to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself,” says Pence. “He has the ability to speak and share real life experiences that the clients’ employees relate to. Over a short period of time, they see that Sam is a real guy who knows what he’s talking about.”
Secrets to his Success
When Gould works with clients, one of the most effective things he does is read the room and sort out the various personalities, Connor says. Often the strongest and most contentious personality is what Gould calls the caveman, who comprises about 10 percent of the population. Cavemen are skeptical of lean, leaders of other grumblers, and often are beaten down because they don’t feel heard. Instead of going to battle with cavemen, Gould puts his efforts into winning them over.
“A lot of lean leaders won’t allow a caveman to be on a team. But I love them because they ask the hard questions, and they are looking for tangible answers,” Gould says. “I have found in my 40 years of experience that if you can get a caveman converted, they can do 10 times what an early adopter can do.”
Being self-deprecating in front of the group also works well for Gould, Pence notes. “Part of it is that Sam will communicate to the group that he’s a caveman, and he understands that thinking, and then they start to relate to him,” he says. “He works with the team, and he’s direct. He throws humor into it, and over time he converts them.”
Connor says that Gould’s many memorable phrases are effective with clients. When he advocates that companies set a schedule for various jobs, he often says, “‘I see your folks over there rifling through those work orders like a dog through the tulips. They are picking their favorite job and screwing up the schedule.’ That really sticks with people and leaves an impression,” Connor says.
She also appreciates Gould’s ability to quickly size up a company’s issues and have the courage to inform management without mincing words. He challenges clients to make changes while encouraging employees to challenge each other, ask questions, and raise the bar for their operations.
The bottom line for Gould—and why he invests so much time and effort into continuous improvement—is grounded in his diehard belief in safety and a commitment to relieving frustration for employees.
“When you do continuous improvement at a company, employees have more energy at the end of the day to come home to their families because they have fewer frustrating moments. And when they aren’t as stressed, they are empowered to fix those issues,” Gould adds. “Stress is a good thing if it has an outlet, but if it has no outlet, it actually destroys from within.”
That message really resonated at DCI. After going through downsizing and other cutbacks during the recession, the company still had lingering conflict and miscommunication between management and union employees, Evens says. For four years, Gould has worked with DCI on improving its culture through seven lean principles courses and 21 rapid improvement events.
Gould typically spends as much time as it takes letting small, cross-functional groups vent about nagging issues, eventually forging a sense of teamwork to tackle a shared problem. Weaving in his stories, Gould puts the group at ease and helps them open up. “Sam is a good listener, and it’s a cathartic experience,” Evens says.
Thanks to Gould, DCI has seen walls broken down between management and union employees. Plus, all staff are more willing to share their feedback because they understand they will be heard, Evens says. In turn, lean projects have eliminated waste and made DCI’s operations more efficient.
“Culturally we needed to improve, and I believe we have improved dramatically. We were at a fairly low point in our organization’s history,” Evens says. “It’s been about building ownership with all employees. With all the dollars we saved with efficiencies and better procedures, we’ve developed a better culture with people enjoying work more.”
And that’s what Sam Gould is all about. “I’m trying to work myself out of a job,” he says. “You want clients to be capable and see that lean tools have the power to transform a company and its culture.”