Adrian Figueroa | A Foundation for Excellence

Adrian Figueroa says the human element is one thing too many people trying to implement lean principles don’t pay enough attention to. He shares the ‘soft skills’ he uses to get buy-in from everybody from the assembly line to the sales and marketing department.

As a Lean Facilitator at Cadence Aerospace, Adrian is no stranger to helping management bring efficiency and effectiveness “ and profits as a result“ to an organization.

Listen in to discover:

* The best ways to deal with the human variable

* Techniques for connecting authentically with your team

* How to use active listening during sales calls

* The 2 biggest motivators for any employee

* And more

Listen now…

Michael Webb:     Some people focus on making more sales calls, reaching higher-level decision-makers, and selling value propositions. Other people focus on finding data, understanding cause and effect, and conducting experiments. My name is Michael Webb. This is the Sales Process Excellence podcast, where we focus on both of those things in order to create wealth for everyone.

Today, I’m thrilled to have a guest, Adrian Figueroa, of Cadence Aerospace. Adrian has a background as an engineer leading manufacturing organizations, leading continuous improvement and lean initiatives in several different companies. From our little chat here before we got started on this podcast, I’m really excited about the kinds of things he’s going to be able to bring to us.

Adrian, welcome here.

Adrian Figueroa:   Hi Michael, thank you for having me on your show.

Michael Webb:     It’d be great, can you just give us a minute of background and tell us how you got to be where you are, and what you do at Cadence Aerospace?

Adrian Figueroa:   Yeah, so my first start was a Manufacturing Engineer in the aerospace industry, and there I was learning just the principles of achieving the numbers. All I cared about was doing my job well. From that point, I started getting a little bored with what I was doing, and I went back to school. I ended up finding a new job which gave me more opportunity to grow. That’s actually where actually I fell into Lean Manufacturing.

Lean ended up opening my world, up until this point in my life, where the expansion from being able to use those tools, methodologies in manufacturing, but then in other industries. It just became so at first overwhelming, but so exciting at the same time. From my first job going to my second, beginning to implement the Lean principles, I ended up…

Michael Webb:     This was in a roofing system, not the first company, but the second company was roofing products is that correct? DECRA Roofing Systems?

Adrian Figueroa:   Yeah, I should say I moved from the aerospace industry to the building and industrial building industry.

Michael Webb:     Okay.

Adrian Figueroa:   From there, that’s where I started, again, implementing Lean tools mainly, because I was excited about doing that. Just in general, I love working with people. Over time, it was very, I would say, easy for me to be implementing these tools and talking to the people on the floor. About four years later, after being a Lean leader, I was given the opportunity to move into the Manufacturing Manager role. At that point, I didn’t do a thing really within the first month of new large projects, doing all this data analysis, where can we go to next, you just saw a jump in the performance of efficiency and motivation, and I could say morale within that first month to a point where nobody really understood what was going on. They thought maybe I was tweaking the numbers.

Over time, it seemed like… Even I had to get some self-reflection, where I was looking at it and saying, “How did that happen?” The more I was looking into the second half of Lean, or it’s respect for people, I started reading more about that. Reading that, hey what I was doing by just listening to others, and working with them on their project teams no matter how big the issue was, I was there to be able to help where I could. Over time, that created a connection with all the individuals on the floor.

By the time I jumped into the role, I had supported everyone along the way that look like they’re mirroring that back to me. Now, in my new role they wanted to support me so the motivation was on two sides. The results just jumped, like I said, enormously. It was fun after that point.

Michael Webb:     That’s the sort of thing that people might call the Magic of Personality, is that right?

Adrian Figueroa:   Yeah, I mean that’s part of why I do what I do now. I’m mainly focusing on the people side, still within the continuous improvement realms of either Lean or Six Sigma. But, I’m more heavily concentrated on behaviors in people rather than tools.

Michael Webb:     That is the field of the sort of thing that people consider to be soft, unmeasurable, subjective. You can’t really replicate it. You don’t really have any way of knowing what’s going on. Do you agree with that position?

Adrian Figueroa:   Oh yeah, I think soft skills are very hard to measure and see your gains from that. I think that’s why a lot of businesses struggle with actually giving any kind of trainings, or really focusing on that side of it because where are the results from it? That’s the type of thing that actually is probably the most time-consuming aspect for showing the results. That’s what I actually like, is I try and position myself in businesses that are in for the long run instead of a short term gains, because on the behavioral side, unfortunately, it does take a while to gain that connection with others, and to build that stability with those people and the processes they’re working. Because when you-

Michael Webb:     Go ahead.

Adrian Figueroa:   I was just going to say because you have your process that’s built for the employees, or created for the employees, and you can only do so much with them. They come in, they have a bad day, they come in… There’s so many variables from the human aspect that can make that process fail, that the more you can in a sense control, but not really, but you’re creating that set safe environment for them to work on and have more enjoyment at being at work, the easier flow it is for them to follow those process steps.

Michael Webb:     Okay, but would you agree, because I’m going to push back a little bit to one of the things that you said a moment ago. Would you agree that the principles of process excellence, operational excellence, this idea of respect for people and all the ramifications of it, doesn’t that provide a sort of repeatable or a framework… So, for being able to tell if you’re making progress in those relationships with people.

Adrian Figueroa:   Oh yeah, you definitely need both, from both sides. One can’t work without the other. From where I see it, it’s that too many businesses are just focused on the tools only, and then wonder why they can’t see these gains or they see it for a short period of time and then it goes back to normal. You’re definitely correct. I’d agree with the framework’s definitely there from operational excellence let’s just say you have to understand where you’re at in the business, assess it, measure it, and then implement for whatever journey the business decides to take, go through with those steps, learn from it and make your adjustments as you go. As long as everybody’s on the same path towards the same targets or goals.

Michael Webb:     Years ago I was a Sales Trainer with a company called IMPAX Corporation. That doesn’t matter. There’s lots of good sales training outfits out there. One of the things that we did that we focused on with the client, was to help the salespeople learn to conduct interviews, questions, conversations, to have a skill at active listening in conversations so that they could learn more about the debates, and arguments even, going on inside their aspect company, their client companies. Because, there is a debate that always goes on inside those companies, where people are trying to figure out what are the right decisions to make? What are the right priorities? What are the real causes of these problems?

Adrian Figueroa:   Right.

Michael Webb:     To me, what process excellence, any flavor, what it brings is- And I’ve said in another conversation recently, it brings like the bumper guards on the bowling alley. If your goal is to hit the pins, and that’s reality, you need a way to stay in the lane in contact with reality to be able to figure out what the right changes are that will create improvement. You can’t do that if you don’t respect people. You can’t do that if they think you’re trying to take advantage of something, or short circuit them, right? You have to have this participation in this rational discussion, and be open to all of the facts and the evidence, and as a leader, demonstrate how to do that effectively. Would you agree with that?

Adrian Figueroa:   Oh yeah, 100%. I mean, that’s all about where I stand right now with my own personal principles and what I try to bring every day to the workplace, where authenticity and connection are the two biggest things for me in what I try driving within myself and with other people. Because exactly what you’re saying, if you’re on the sales side and marketing side, you can’t just speak to people with, “I’m in it for number one,” because people can see right through it from the beginning, even the way you walk up to them and approach the other person. It doesn’t matter where you are. They’re going to see whether, for lack of a better term, you’re full of it, or whether you do want to make some sort of genuine connection and open up about who you are.

Over time, you’re going to end up building this relationship which then allows somebody to open up and give more information about their needs, their struggles, what’s going on, because everybody’s guarded in the beginning. They don’t know who you are. The biggest person within a group let’s say of two when speaking, is the one that can be the most vulnerable and begin opening up about themselves. From there is when people start to relax, and then again, more information comes out and it looks like you two are working in agreement with each other. Or, if it’s a group of people, work in agreement with other. That’s where you really get to the customers’ needs, and even your own self. It’s fun along the way.

Michael Webb:     You mentioned to me earlier that you were looking for a way to influence not just a given department or function, but all the different departments or functions in an organization along these lines with process improvement and these leadership and vulnerability skills, I guess, if you will. Tell us what your role at Cadence, and then if you could, I’m going to ask you to give us an example of a project or a conversation even that illustrates that point that you just made about authenticity and honesty, and getting cooperation when there might not have been some before.

Adrian Figueroa:   Okay. Right now at Cadence Aerospace, the Head of Continuous Improvement for our seven divisions… When I first got brought into our Anaheim facility, which is the corporate side, that was the biggest turnaround that was needed. It was by far the worst behind all the other divisions. We’re talking on-time delivery around 50%, just loss in profitability month after month, width was just way too much on the floor, and so our cash flow is all tied up. One of the first things we did, we got a new Senior Executive team on, and they are very, very pro-Lean. It was very easy to implement on this top-down driven as well.

Michael Webb:     Okay, so stop you there for just a second. What kind of experiences had they had in the past that led them to be very pro-Lean, as you put it?

Adrian Figueroa:   They’re mainly in the aerospace industry. A lot of years in a UTC group. From there, they took a lot of the principles from Lean and Shingijutsu trainings along with them, because they saw how powerful it was and how it worked.

Michael Webb:     So they had the opportunity to live it themselves?

Adrian Figueroa:   Oh yeah. Yeah, many, many years of doing that.

Michael Webb:     Okay, that makes sense. Okay, okay. Continue, please.

Adrian Figueroa:   They boarded on with us. Like I said, it was about the same time as I started. In getting that executive help on being top-driven, this is what we’re going to do, this is the journey, this is how we see the business growing, let’s begin. Like I said again, 50% on-time delivery, loss of profitability. Going along the way where we had to see, is understand where our business was. That was measuring everything that we could, from delivery, quality, just efficiencies on the ground, WIP. We wanted to see, okay where are we at? Now, how are we structured, second step. We need to put these into our Lean value streams. Okay, go through the whole principle using the tools, everything that there is out there about putting into the value streams that is best for the business.

Once we got that, and then it’s structurizing the people within those Lean value streams to evaluate everybody we have in the business: their strengths, their weaknesses, where we can utilize them, and unfortunately, you know you do have some casualties of war. I don’t think… It might be very rare, but a business to lose some people here and there for ones that just don’t really adjust well to the Lean initiatives. So, you have some casualties. But once you really have the right people in place, that’s what helps you drive to your goals.

When we had everybody there, third step was in, let’s start really implementing the processes of Lean tools along the way. Just, I would say, speed up the to results portion of it. In a matter of only eight months, you wouldn’t believe the turnaround. I mean, we dropped our WIP by 12 million dollars. The on-time delivery went from 50% to 95%. We became a profitable business at the same time. No one thought that that could actually happen. On top of that, that’s always speaking about operations, right, from the gains you’re there, but the business on the top-line growth, I mean initially again when I started, we were losing customers left and right. Nobody wanted to put their… Give us their parts to manufacture, and so they were pulling out business.

We probably lost anywhere from 15-20 million dollars in the course of just a year on business. Now, we have more customers coming to us, plus the ones that pulled out, and we’re looking at 35+ million dollars potentially over the next five years per year, because we actually along the way didn’t only implement the process within our own people and framework, we were bringing in the customers and they were living it with us. So, it was way more powerful to have them along the way and say, “Hey, we credit them what they were doing, and we’re going to back and tell our people.”

Michael Webb:     Okay, so can you give us an example of an improvement where a group of people were struggling, the numbers were bad, they didn’t know what change would create improvement, there was this debate and conflict internally as there always is because of lack of resources, the Blame Game, and not really understanding other people’s perspective. Can you give an example of a situation like that, and then where this authenticity, this disarming honesty and vulnerability enabled a breakthrough to happen?

Adrian Figueroa:   Yeah, I’ll take the WIP example, the reduction of 12 million dollars. This business had been used to large batch systems. So, anybody that has been working with Lean knows what difficulty it is breaking people of batch, using batch mentalities. When you have the people on the floor saying, “No, we need to have this batch of this size,” and we’re saying, “Why?” and they’re coming back with, “Well, you know, that’s just the way we’ve been doing things,” it’s like well here’s some tools, let us train, let us show you what these tools are saying from a theoretic standpoint of view, and let’s see if we can make this actually happen.

So, we’re using the Lean tools again to figure out what is our actual SWIP numbers along each process.

Michael Webb:     What was that? Spell that out. SWIP? S-W-I-P?

Adrian Figueroa:   Yes. Standard Work In Progress.

Michael Webb:     Standard Work in Progress.

Adrian Figueroa:   Right.

Michael Webb:     You use a standard costing?

Adrian Figueroa:   No, it’s just there’s a calculation for how much WIP should you actually have in your process.

Michael Webb:     Okay.

Adrian Figueroa:   That way, you can start to see what makes sense as a batch or not when you’re trying to go for a single piece flow. We’re training on all the core principles for Lean, and along the way we’re challenging the people, with their help to, “Okay, here’s where it makes sense to possibly have batch sizes of this size,” and so, “Oh, okay.” They’re listening, so as they see that this what we need to do, yeah well at the same time it’s all because that’s what the data is telling us.

We still want to achieve single piece flow where it make sense, but we want to maximize to any level whether it’s batch system or it is single piece flow. Just by the interactions of working with them day on and day out, here’s the tools, here’s the data, here’s what we’re seeing. Do you guys agree, yes or no? Over time, we were actually starting to reduce WIP just because it was getting easier to work with people on the floor and get their buy-in.

Michael Webb:     Ah, okay. Out of curiosity, what type of product are manufacturing? Is it like a small part, or a bracket? Or these big pieces? Are they engineered pieces? What type of product are you making?

Adrian Figueroa:   Right now we like to call them, for lack of a better term, Stringers. We call them Long & Skinnies, and we have Short & Fat. So, we’re somewhere between six-foot long parts, to 30 foot long parts right now.

Michael Webb:     Made in a metal right?

Adrian Figueroa:   Right, aluminum and titanium.

Michael Webb:     Okay.

Adrian Figueroa:   Those right now, they’re made on the CNC machines, so five axis, or even three axis. That’s what we mainly feature.

Michael Webb:     Are they partly assembled? Do you have to also assemble, or are you just making the parts?

Adrian Figueroa:   Yeah, no we do have some assembly operations, but it’s very little.

Michael Webb:     So things start improving because working on the line with the people is starting to get easier. The reason it’s getting easier is because they’re understanding better what you’re trying to do?

Adrian Figueroa:   Right, yeah. Living that day in day out, they understand where we’re going whether they like it or not in a sense, because there’s always that changed battle between just the new benefits and ways of doing things on the floor. But over time, again, you get that buy-in, but you have to really be working with them daily. You can’t just force them down, or else you don’t have them on the lines being able to support you at the same time.

Michael Webb:     Mm-hmm (affirmative), right. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. What’s an example of showing up authentically, where there was some kind of conflict and some vulnerability help to break the ice and help to get to the truth of the matter?

Adrian Figueroa:   Yeah, so we have a Production Manager, been there for 15+ years. Very knowledgeable about all the parts. Very knowledgeable on how it’s run on all the machines. I mean daily, daily it was just a struggle, a battle about you explaining, you explain the tools, where we’re going and, “No, it’s not going to work. That’s not going to work. No, no, no, no, no.” Every day it’s like well here’s why it would work, or how it can work. You explain to them and then even after let’s say a few weeks, you start to try and change the way you speak to them and say, “Hey, I understand. I see what you see, but let’s work together. How can we make this work together?” You’ve got to change it from the no to how can we, and allow them to explore.

Say, “Okay, what’s your barriers? What are your constraints?” “Oh, because of this, this,” “Okay, forget about all that. Clean slate. How can you make it happen? What do you need to make it happen?” The person who combated with it just say, “Hey, I need this, two, three, four and five.” Then the Management team looks at it, “Okay, you can have one, two and three.” He’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know-”

Michael Webb:     That’s a change.

Adrian Figueroa:   “That was even-“… Yeah, he’s like, “I didn’t know that that was possible.” It’s like well, so I’m saying you’ve got to bring everything to the table. “We will work with you, but we have to have it on both ends. Please listen to us. We’ll listen to you. This is how we operate. We want to show you that we’re here for you guys, as well as we’re to achieve the ultimate business goal at the same time.” Once they started seeing oh the business is actually willing to invest in us, willing to do things of what we need, then that’s what became easier over time. It’s really hard to explain on the soft skills side, like we were saying. If I’m speaking to somebody, it can be in the way I’m presenting it. I can’t be yelling it. I can’t be arms crossed, angry face. You have to be very welcoming and show that safe environment, let them vent, listen to them, and then just have a normal conversation with them but don’t get angry.

That’s one of the first things I learned when I was really excited about implementing the tools, “No, we gotta do it this way. We gotta do it this way guys, come on. Let’s go.” I had to learn over time too, it’s okay. Teach it to them and it’s going to take time, but make sure you don’t show too much frustration. It’s very hard to do, but you have to again listen to them, allow them to feel like they’ve been heard, and then work with them. I’m not going to lie, it’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of patience, but if you want that sustainable result over a long period of time, you have to put the effort in too.

Michael Webb:     That’s a great story, and a great example, and I totally agree with you. Human beings are the only creatures that can do the thinking required to create value.

Adrian Figueroa:   Right.

Michael Webb:     Each one has unique knowledge, unique orientation and skill, and they’re doing the best they can. They have unique potential, but they can only think for themselves. You have to find a way that there’s a common interest between what they want and what you want, and that requires a lot of thinking also. Arguably, it’s harder thinking as the Manager, because you have to think about them and their point of view, and holding the context is a tough thing. So, thank you. You fulfilled my request to get an example of that.

I mean look at this long chain of reasoning from the problem on the shop floor to how we manage the materials and the scheduling of the machines all the way to this Shop Floor Manager, or Machine Operator, thinking from a different perspective and then helping them to break through to some new idea that they don’t think will work, and then showing them that we do think it will work, and we will put that energy behind it. And then learning from it together, because it never turns out the way you would expect it to. But slowly, like you said, lots and lots of work over time, but ultimately rewarding work in the end with those kinds of results that you guys have shown.

You’ve done it several times over the years in your career, so good on you.

Adrian Figueroa:   Right, thank you.

Michael Webb:     Let’s turn, since this is a podcast about customer-facing operations and sales and marketing, can you give me one last story that is a sales and marketing example?

Adrian Figueroa:   Yeah, so actually back to my DECRA Roofing days, I was also given the opportunity to work with the Sales and Marketing team. There was no sales processes at all. We were losing business there, and again, I had again an opportunity to work with them just show them, “Okay, here’s Lean Manufacturing principles. Here’s how they could be utilized in the sales and marketing world.” That’s actually when I’m looking for new resources back at that time, that’s where I found your materials.

I was searching online, what’s some reference material out there that I can use for more and more examples that I want to give these guys? I found both of your books, the Lean Six Sigma for Sales and Marketing, and also the Sales Process Excellence. I snatched them right up. Bought those things, read through them I’d say within like a month. I did my own crash course from a lot of your examples just so I can initially get buy-in with the Sales team, because they were spread out all over the state. I was working with the VP of Sales there at that time, and he was a very, very open guy which made it very easy to work with because every day we were saying, “Okay, what’s the sales process going to look like?”

I had great reference material from yours. This is what I’m seeing. How could we utilize this? Is it something that makes sense for us? It actually was. The VP of Sales, he had actually been working with a system like that in his prior roles that was pretty close. So, we started mirroring the two together, okay what’s the best of both worlds? We then created a sales process, again very similar to what yours states in the books. We were rolling that out to the Sales team, and having more direct contact with them, either flying them back in for meetings, and then just having more connections with them throughout the week on updates on how well they’re doing with the new material, and what they’re seeing out there on the field, and gaining the information back.

It was, for the first three months we had a lot of good progress. Back then, I think it was… We were probably averaging between $200,000.00-$300,000.00 a month. Within those first three months, we were actually able to gain about another $100,000.00 of revenue. Just the more interactions that we were teaching along the sales process path, and giving them those tools to be able to use, I really felt helped just because it provided that structure for them. I think everybody gets lost. In sales and marketing, there can be really no structure. It’s too abstract. No, there’s still that structure behind it, and you can measure that. As long as you’re learning from it and giving it back to each other, then you’ll be able to hit a goal, but along a structured path.

Michael Webb:     Excellent. Did you have resistance in the sales force? Or, did they all just jump right in the boat?

Adrian Figueroa:   Oh no, the resistance is always there. The main resistance is back to the abstract thinking like Matt. You had a couple of guys that, “You know, it’s too much work for me to fill out this document, or fill this out, and talk about things like this, and give a small status update here and there. I just want to go out and do my thing.” We definitely, over those few months, still had people that were still doing that. You can tell. They were playing the game, but what their underlying mission was, was to still be resistant for a while.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay there longer past that time to give you more information, but from what I saw, just the overall approach from everybody and the feedback we were getting, they really enjoyed it because the majority would go out to see the customers and they were kind of just kind of stuck. “What am I going to talk to them about this time?” “I’m not sure.” “Well, now that we’ve given you the tools and methods of recording your work, asking these types of questions, getting this information, now you have follow up questions. Now you have what’s their business needs? And coming back to the BTSLs and the other Marketing team, how do we give them what they’re asking for? A lot of them really enjoyed that. They really liked being able to go back to the customer and now have, for lack of a better term, things to talk about to them.

Michael Webb:     Yes. You’re building value into the company rather than relying on the special genius of a few salespeople to invent something on the fly.

Adrian Figueroa:   Right, yeah.

Michael Webb:     Cool, very good. Well, we’ve talked for over a half an hour here. This has been absolutely great. Thank you for volunteering to speak with me and share some of the stories of the successes that you’ve had both at DECRA and at Cadence Aerospace. If someone wants to reach out and learn more about Cadence or about you, and the work that you’re doing there, how would they find you?

Adrian Figueroa:   I am on LinkedIn, Adrian Figueroa. I can send you my LinkedIn information.

Michael Webb:     Mm-hmm (affirmative), we’ll put that in, yeah.

Adrian Figueroa:   Or an email, Again, I’ll send that to you because I know the spelling sometimes messes up some people here and there. Also, with the other businesses that I have, along with my wife called, it’s That’s

Michael Webb:     Okay. That is a consultancy about using the principles of improvisation, right?

Adrian Figueroa:   Right, yeah.

Michael Webb:     For business? For business purposes?

Adrian Figueroa:   Business and even in education for students. Yeah, we use improv as a therapeutic tool, even though we’re not therapists. But we use it as a therapeutic tool just for people to discover their potential and their authentic selves, and just to have fun doing that process along the way.

Michael Webb:     Well, we should consider perhaps if there were examples in sales and marketing, maybe we could do a podcast with your wife and yourself on that topic. Do you think that would work?

Adrian Figueroa:   Oh yeah. Yeah, we do have a great example of some salesmen that were in one of our workshops too, and the transformation that they saw just in a few weeks of work.

Michael Webb:     Cool.

Adrian Figueroa:   We can definitely get back together again.

Michael Webb:     Cool, well that’s great. Adrian, thank you very much, and we appreciate that. We’ll talk to you again. For everybody listening, goodbye for now. We’ll be back again soon. Take care. Bye-bye.


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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