Hall of Fame: Steinwall has molded workers to be better people

Comments Email Print
Jeremy Carroll Maureen Steinwell becomes only the second woman to enter the Plastics Hall of Fame.

COON RAPIDS, MINN. — Looking to build a more humanistic manufacturing operation, Maureen Steinwall has blended her intellectual prowess and curiosity to build Steinwall Inc.

Scholarly research meets injection molding at the custom injection molder in Coon Rapids, north of Minneapolis. What other plastics executive did a Ph.D. dissertation called “Multimedia Training of Optimism Competencies”?

In more than 30 years in the plastics industry — and 19 on the board of directors of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. — Maureen Steinwall has become a well-known advocate for training and motivating employees. She’s studied the subject extensively, and proven it out at the molding company she bought from her father in 1987.

The company pioneered the use of iPads mounted at each press, running PowerPoint presentations that show work instructions.

At NPE 2015, Steinwall becomes the second woman inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame. The first, Stephanie Kwolek, invented Kevlar. Kwolek died last year.

Steinwall said “it’s quite surreal” following Kwolek into the hall.

“The fact that you’re acknowledged by your peers — and I sincerely hope it isn’t because I’m a female that I got in, but I suspect there was an element of that, because I had different challenges to overcome to be where I am today,” she said. “That’s my hope as to why I’m in the Plastics Hall of Fame, because of my organizational innovations.”

Attracting skilled workers to the plastics industry is the biggest challenge these days. As older people retire, who will replace them? A hot topic. Steinwall has devoted years of study in the classroom and on the molding shop floor, on how to empower employees and reduce human error, which she said it a major cause of quality problems.

She has lot to say.

“I’ve been at this now for 30 years,” Steinwall said. “And I’ve watched my peers come and go. And issues come and go. But the one consistent message that has plagued our industry since day one is, we don’t attract enough people to do the work that’s in our industry. And it needed a strategy. If we had taken and embraced a strategy back in 1986, we would not be having this issue today.”

That year kept coming back as Steinwall, 60, recounted her career in an interview at the molding company. She joined SPI in 1986, just a year after her father, Carl Steinwall, made her president, and a year before he sold her the company.

Steinwall already was thinking about the people side.

“In ’86 is when I identified that there’s a workforce issue, so I joined SPI to see, how are my peers handling the workforce issue. That is why I got involved,” she said.

Steinwall was nominated for the Plastics Hall of Fame by SPI CEO Bill Carteaux and Daniele Fresca, vice president of marketing at Impexium, a provider of web-based software that helps trade associations develop business and administrative activities.

You can meet Maureen Steinwall in person this week during NPE 2015, since Steinwell Inc. is exhibiting in Booth S34047.

Steinwall thinks too many plastics executives view skilled employees the way they do a piece of machinery: Plug and play. They want colleges to put out enough graduates, so they can “buy” the ones that fit. “It’s not going to work,” she said.

Stepping into plastics

A woman owning a plastics plant — still fairly rare today — was very unusual in the 1980s. Maureen Steinwall was a brainy young woman who today would be steered toward engineering. In high school, she was a straight-A type who played flute in the marching band.

“I was very naturally good at chemistry, physics and math. I tested out of college math,” she said. And so the guidance counselor advised a career as a high school math teacher or bookkeeper. Good jobs for a woman.

She studied accounting at Iowa State University, but ended up switching to secondary education, graduating from the University of Minnesota. She taught ninth-grade algebra for six months as a long-term substitute, but hated it. (She now teaches doctorate- and MBA-level courses online for the University of Phoenix.)

Steinwall became a public accountant, and then started consulting companies, just in her early 20s. She earned an MBA in 1981 from UM. Her thesis: Total Quality Management. “Now that was long before anybody wrote any books about it, and my prof said to me — I think something’s coming down the pike on this. Why don’t you study this? So I went over to the engineering library and blew the dust off of Deming’s and Juran’s books.” She studied the quality gurus and their ideas of continuous improvement.

Honeywell Inc. hired her, and later offered her a promotion, to run the third shift of a plant in Las Cruces, N.M. She called her father, who had founded a mold-making business in 1965 that expanded into molding.

He advised her to take the job. Then their telephone conversation turned to his company. She remembers it in detail: “He said, ‘Oh by the way, tax accountant daughter, how do you sell a business?’ And I went ‘Oh, you sell it to your daughter.’ And he goes ‘huh?’ And I said ‘I’d love to run a manufacturing company.’ ‘What’s a girl want with a manufacturing company?’ I said ‘Same thing as a boy does. It’s fun!’ And he said, ‘Oh. Who’s gonna raise my grandchildren?’”

She was single at the time.

This was the very first time they talked about Maureen going into the business.

“I find that to be a really pivotal — here’s a man who loves me. Dearly loves me. And just in this five-second conversation you could see the bias that was in place at that time,” she said.

“I said, ‘Dad I’m single. I don’t have kids!’ And within seven seconds, he goes ‘Oh my gosh, you’d be perfect!’

“The whole conversation was just 10 seconds. But isn’t it a pivotal conversation? Because, if I was his son, I would have been an engineer, and I would already have been in the company,” she said.

Steinwall took a leave of absence from Honeywell to help her father. Then she became vice president of the molder in 1983. Two years later, she was president.

She can’t watch the TV show “Mad Men,” it hits too close to home. She said she was groped a few times at Honeywell in the early 1980s. Her male colleague executives drank at lunch.

“I remember a guy who said to me, had I slept with that engineer we would have gotten the order,” she said.

“I don’t know how much of that you want to put in the story,” she said. “But that’s why a woman who’s been at this for 30 years is perhaps a little unique. Because there were all of these reasons to bolt.”

In 1985, when she became president of Steinwall, she faced other challenges. Within two years, she said, all 23 employees left.

She shared an office with her father. They were both sitting there one day when a customer came in. “And he said — excuse the French — ‘No [expletive] way is a girl gonna mold plastic for me.’ My dad got up, went and got the mold, put in the guy’s car and didn’t say boo to him. And sent him on his way. My dad came back into the room visibly shaking. He said ‘I didn’t know there was some truth to this women’s lib stuff. But it’s real, isn’t it?’”

Maureen cleaned out her savings and put down $30,000 for the company. Then she made payments for 20 years.

Carl Steinwall died in 2009, at age 82.

“So when you ask me what it’s like to be the second woman in the Plastics Hall of Fame, it is very unique that I blew through all these hurdles. And I didn’t let them stop me. I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.

She said prejudice and sexism still exist, although it’s under the table now, no longer a widespread attitude in America:

“I would say that 98 percent of the people I meet, my gender is irrelevant. Completely, irrelevant. Those 2 percent — and I suspect it’s the same with race — it’s those 2 percent of the people that are causing 100 percent of the problem. And it’s 2 percent of the men that are causing 100 percent of the problem. And I believe it’s my way of handling the 2 percent, and the experience around that 2 percent that’s been part of my success,” she said.

She ran into the 2 percent at SPI when the custom molder joined as a member company. She’s served continuously on the SPI’s national board of directors since 1996.

“What I think I did, by getting involved in 1986 with SPI and my male peers — that was still the girly calendars, their dirty jokes — I was able to help my male counterparts with developing a more professional, sophisticated behavior,” she said. “And I know that they appreciate that. Because I would sit with them one on one, and just say, you know, maybe those jokes, are they really funny?”

Teaching optimism

She was firm but understanding, remembering those earlier words from her own beloved father. “Instead of being angry, I would coach them. … There was this insensitivity toward an environment that was more humanistically appropriate. More professionally appropriate. It’s ‘Mad Men’ brought into a world of professionalism. And I was very much an influential piece to that. And I hope that’s what I’m remembered for,” she said.

Maureen Steinwall speaks in measured tones. Soothing. The words you use are important, she said. “If you listen to how an optimistic person talks, well yesterday really wasn’t a very good day, but tomorrow’s gonna be an awesome day! Where a pessimist says, well yeah, yesterday was a crappy day but that’s the way it always will be, and it’s gonna be a crappy day tomorrow.”

She studied this subject for her doctorate degree, from Capella University in 2006. And she ran an experiment at the molder to prove her theory that you can teach employees how to be optimistic.

“Is it something you teach somebody? Or are they just born with it? Is it a personality thing? And raising children, I never met a pessimistic infant in my life. So my take on life was, that we’re born optimistic. And there’s a lot of psychology literature on learned helplessness. If somebody keeps getting beat up, and beat up and beat up, pretty soon they just kind of shut down. And then that shut down can lead to depression,” Steinwall said.

“So I flipped it all and I said, instead of going down that spiral of everybody always hitting their head against the wall, what if every time they try to do something they’ve never done before, they found success? And what can I do as a manager to encourage that?”

As part of her dissertation, she created a training program to teach people optimism skills. She divided 96 volunteer Steinwall Inc. employees into two groups. Everyone took a pre-test and a post-test, to get a baseline. One group went through multimedia training on computers, in their spare time. The other group did not.

“The group that got the training improved their optimistic scores, off the charts. So it was like, yeah, you can teach people how to speak optimism-speak. ‘Don’t say it that way, say it this way.’”

The company has developed 700 short programs on issues like bullying or yelling at somebody. One episode is called “Verbal Vomit.”

The sessions are part of Steinwall’s Orient Me! program for new employees. “So I’m setting people up on how to behave properly within our culture. When you’re in a team, you have to all have one set of rules. You can’t just all go off on your merry way,” she said.

She gave Orient Me! to the plastics industry in the 1990s, through SPI.

Today the company has 157 iPads, equal to one per employee. An iPad is mounted on all 50 injection presses. Others are in the lunchroom. Technicians each get one for their setup sheets. “We have all of our training on it, we have all of our emails on it,” Steinwall said.

Unique instruction

And every single part the company molds — about 1,500 of them — has its own instruction video on an iPad.

Five employees are dedicated to creating the instructional videos, and the orientation program. It’s a major investment. Steinwall explains: “But it’s like saying, wow, you change the oil in your presses all the time? It’s part of the process management around running a plastics company.”

Her understanding of how adults learn led to those press-side videos. Employees can stop the show at any point and review a specific area, like how to check for a good part, or how to place molded parts in a box correctly.

“That was to give people the opportunity to get the knowledge they needed in a very private way, at the moment they needed it,” she said. “People will ask a question once and not fear too much. They maybe will ask it twice. But what we know about how the human brain works, sometimes it might take seven times [for you to remember something]. And nobody is going to ask the question seven times. So what we have to do is provide it in an environment where that information is readily retrievable in a very safe way.”

Bullying is not allowed.

An employee makes an average of one mistake a day.

“We don’t fear that if we make a mistake, we’re gonna get smacked. Or we’re gonna get fired. When you hide the mistakes, or bury them, then you can’t do continuous improvement,” she said.

No verbal vomit. “It’s about how we talk to each other as our peers.”

Steinwall and her company have won many awards. She was named an industry leader for women in business by the state of Minnesota in 2012. Steinwall Inc. won Plastics News’ Processor of the Year Award for 2011.

And shortly after the announcement that Maureen Steinwall made the Plastics Hall of Fame, she was named to the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame.

She is most proud of her impact on people. Not a trophy. Not a dissertation. Not a management textbook. Human beings.

“What happens is, then you’ll program the way you look at life. And you start seeing life as being something where you can laugh at the tragedy and be hopeful for the future. Rather than get brought into the yuck of life,” she said.

“The Verbal Vomit one was incredibly impactful on people. They use it in their own home life too. Which if I have to say there’s one real contribution I’ve given to my community, the people I’ve touched in my world, is that I’ve helped them with some of their mental-health kinds of things, given them a higher quality of life.”

To obtain reprints or copyright permissions:

E-mail: pnreprints@crain.com
Visit: Reprints