A Story about Leaders, People and a Huge Win!

Regular Leadership Report readers know I’m more than a little obsessed with improving the numbers. I’m inherently an operations guy who likes to help people improve what they do–and make the improvements stick.

That said, I just got some of the best news I’ve received in more than 30 years of consulting. A senior leader at Owens Corning (OC), the building materials company, announced that their flagship plant just achieved one million hours injury free. The plant also set a record for consecutive days injury free.

Why is this a big deal?

This place was a mess in March 2003. I was helping the company’s Texas operation improve product changeover cycle-time when I got a call from the senior vice president of manufacturing asking me to drop what I was doing and head to Newark, Ohio, the site of the company’s largest plant. A plant employee there was killed a few months earlier.  Another man lost his right arm in a machine at the plant weeks prior to the call.

In the previous five years, the same plant had had 370 severe accidents and 1,200 OSHA recordables.  Workers’ compensation costs totaled $11 million.  My assignment was to work with a new plant leader and OC team to turn the operation around.

It took time to get the support of the union leaders and employees because of the way they’d been previously treated. But we demonstrated through walking our talk that our approach to leadership and people issues came from a different perspective. With some initial skepticism, they came aboard and then helped us launch an intense initiative to create a dramatic improvement in safety.

That kind of improvement requires a significant culture shift–what is valued– how people do their work. Results don’t change unless work changes. Changing work required new leadership practices, new skills, intense communication, high involvement and different measures, rewards and recognition.

David Rabuano, then 34, was named plant leader.   He’s one of the best natural leaders I’ve worked with.  Dave is at once hard-edged and soft. He’s firm, tells it like it is and holds people accountable. But he cares about his people, listens to them, encourages them and will do whatever he can to help them become the best they can be.

While my assignment was to advise young Dave on big-time change issues, I learned a lot from him about the power of authenticity and vulnerability–two classic characteristics of a great leader. We were harnessing the energy of 1,300 people spread over more than 200 acres and helping them go to places they never thought possible.

In less than two years, the Newark team cut OSHA recordables by 82% while dramatically improving sales (24%), productivity (11%), cost per pound (8%) and return on net assets (14%).

A huge part of leadership is selecting and grooming your successor. Dave picked Denny Rogers, who I’ve also had the joy of working with. Denny has kept the intense safety focus alive while continuing to improve the other operating and financial numbers.

In the recent announcement of the one million hour record, Denny said: “In the early 2000s, the plant averaged more than 10 recordable injuries per month. During that time, the plant team developed a Road to Zero plan and since then, we’ve shared a vision that zero is possible in Newark. This accomplishment is a great milestone on our safety journey and shows the tremendous progress we’re making.”

If there’s a lesson in this story, it’s that people with great leaders who have the ability to help their people get to places they never thought imaginable will make or beat most any number they believe they can hit. I’ve seen that time and time again.

Congratulations Dave, Denny and the people of the Newark, Ohio plant!


  1. Congratulations Jim and Owens Corning! I was thrilled to read about Owens Corning’s success, having heard such high praise from you through the past several years about Dave Rabuano and Denny Rogers, and the company’s commitment to changing the way they work. This particular highlight is just one amazing example of the tremendous influence you have had on this company’s business performance improvements, one of the reasons I was confident bringing you to my then employer – Abbott – in 2009, where they are still utilizing the program we put in place with continued success. We too benefitted from great leadership at the site we focused on, so important to change management success.

    1. Mary, thank you. You are kind. What we accomplished at Owens Corning was similar to what you and I encountered at the Santa Clara hematology operation. Thanks to your continued work there after I moved on to another project, that operation had huge successes in multiple performance areas–quality, safety, service and financial results that turned the facility around. Going in, there were a number of people who wondered whether the facility was salvageable. You proved it was.


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