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Critical Incident Case #4


Critical Incident: Coping with the New Manager

Phyo Thu Htet was a supervisory training facilitator at Blan’s automotive plant in Tennessee. The plant made composite plastic components for the automotive industry. Plastic components were more durable and resisted dents and scratches better than ones made with steel. The nonunionized plant employed about 450. Eight years ago, Phyo began as a second shift entry level worker in the molding department. After a series of advancements she was promoted to production supervisor and then to training facilitator, a position she has had the last 16 months.

New hires are assigned to her section for orientation and training which usually lasts two weeks. Depending on the company’s needs, employees are then reassigned to a specific production department. The unemployment rate in the area recently lowered to less than 6 percent. In recent months, 25 percent of new hires quit within six weeks of hire. Part of the problem is the company’s high expectations of its employees.

Three months ago, Don Patterson became the new operations manager. His predecessor had been Alan Seitz. Even though the Tennessee plant had missed delivery deadlines and labor costs were escalating, Seitz appeared to have been content with what was going on. He had the reputation of expecting departmental managers to correct problems when they occurred, and “crisis management” was the prevalent style.


Donald Patterson, a former colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division, was expected to turn the plant around. Under his direction, the culture of the plant changed overnight. He immediately announced to all supervisors that he was not willing to accept a high rate of product rejects. Patterson practiced management by wandering around (MBWA), and he met and talked with all supervisors, group leaders, and facilitators one-on-one. Further, he met with small groups of employees and listened to their concerns. Initially, Patterson was positively received, but that soon changed.

Shortly after assuming the operations manager position, Donald Patterson informed all managers and supervisors that they were being placed on a salary and bonus system. He told them that their hard work was appreciated and would be rewarded. Yet, because of costly work production delays and over time for hourly employees, the bonus system did not yield any tangible benefits. Among the supervisory complaints: “You told us that the new system would result in increased compensation, and it hasn’t. We’re making less than before the change. We would be better off financially if we were hourly production workers!”

Most supervisors were now working six days a week, 10 hours a day. Employees and equipment was being stretched to the limit. Some supervisors had quit within the last month and had taken less demanding factory jobs in the area. Phyo and her one remaining employee (five had been assigned to fill the vacant supervisory positions and another was placed in the quality department) were directed by Patterson to cut the normal two-week training time to one day.

The most recent customer quality audit was a disaster. There were rumors that some of the work would be transferred to other of the company’s plants or even to competitors. To Phyo Thu Htet, it was like someone had pulled the plug. Every supervisor that you spoke with said that Donald Patterson had “lost their respect.” Her blood pressure went up every time someone questioned her about what Patterson was doing. Most supervisors were afraid to say anything. To Phyo, supervisors appeared to be “mindless robots going through the motions.”

Later in the day, Phyo got a text message from Amy, Patterson’s assistant. Amy and Phyo were good friends and did things together outside the workplace. Amy said, “Patterson has been meeting and interviewing with several of the supervisors and some employees. He wants to get the scoop on everyone. I even heard him tell the plant manager Bill Arnold that he would get rid of all the malcontents.”

Phyo felt betrayed after all her years with the company and wondered what the future held for her.

After reading the case, submit your answers to the following questions:

1. Assess Donald Patterson’s leadership style. How might his past military experiences govern the way he tries to lead the Tennessee plant?

2. How would you evaluate Phyo’s situation in terms of job stress and conflict? What are her options?

3. Suggest ways in which a supervisor can prevent employees from becoming disgruntled.

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