Leader of Nokian Tyres' Dayton Factory believes success comes from investing in people

Peter Chia is passionate about numbers.

As operations director at Nokian Tyres' new factory in Dayton, Tennessee, he has to be. When the facility starts producing tires in 2020, success will be defined by figures like production volume, cost per unit and yield percentage. 

But there's one number that means more to Chia than any other: the number seven. That's how many employees under his leadership have risen to plant management roles of their own.

"Building amazing products starts with investing in people," Chia said. "If we don't value relationships above everything else, we're missing valuable opportunities for personal and business growth."

A people-first approach is vital to Chia, even at one of the most advanced tire production facilities in the world.

Nokian Tyres Dayton Factory Operations Director Peter Chia speaks with a group of high school students at a local career fair

"Even the most magnificent machines don’t run without a power source, and each day is a new opportunity to empower every colleague we encounter," Chia said, "whether they’re cleaning the bathrooms or they invented the toilet."

In Peter's three-decade career, he's succeeded not only by treating people well, but also by challenging them to reach their potential. The key, according to him: Involving them in important decisions and processes.

"Access breeds understanding," Chia said. "I need access to my employees, and they need face time with me. When they participate in strategic decisions, they feel empowered. And I get to informally measure how their analytical skills are expanding."

Nokian Tyres plans to hire 400 people to build tires at its first North American production facility -- as many as 250 of them by the end of 2019. Chia wants each worker to feel valued and challenged.

"The minute we become secure in our success or afraid to adjust our approach, we’re vulnerable," Chia said. "And that’s true in our relationships, not just with our products and processes. Just as we can always make a better tire, we can always find better ways to relate to the people around us."

Chia recently spoke about his management philosophy at the awards banquet for Chattanooga Engineers Week. If you'd like to learn more about the culture he seeks to build at Nokian Tyres' Dayton Factory, his words paint a clear picture. 

Here are Peter's full remarks:

Thank you for inviting me to join you tonight. It’s an honor to meet so many talented people. I’m inspired by your accomplishments…and, I must admit, I’m a little intimidated by your collective brilliance.

As long as I’m confessing things, here’s another admission: I’m not an engineer. I’m the operations director at Nokian Tyres’ new production factory in Dayton, just up the road in Rhea County. We’re building one of the most advanced tire plants in the world, and we’ll start production next year.

Chia speaks to a group of Chattanooga engineers at the Engineers' Week awards banquet

I may not be an engineer, but I’ve worked with your kind for three decades at manufacturers around the country. My role is to manage the processes and people that make our manufacturing system successful. And in the process, I’ve learned two major things about engineers:

Number one: Don’t ask an engineer a question unless you’re prepared to hear every possible answer.

Number two: Don’t give an engineer an answer unless you’re prepared to hear every possible question.

Engineers are visionary: Where others see dead ends, you see new roads.

Engineers are enthusiastic: You’re passionate about pursuing your vision, even when the challenges are many and the supporters are few.

Engineers are persistent: Whether in a boardroom or on a work site, engineers won’t rest until their vision comes to life. And I know this as well as anyone, because I’ve been in hundreds of contract negotiations with them.

In all seriousness, it has been a privilege to work with so many talented engineers. After all, engineers shape society. Without you, the physical and metaphorical structures that hold us together would not exist. We would literally and figuratively fall apart.

But here’s the challenge: Those structures require significant, continuous investment. That means we can’t just invest in systems, processes or technology – we’ve got to invest in the people who build them…first, foremost and always.

At a surface level, most of you follow what I call the engineer’s order of operations. First, you design a process. Then, you measure its results. Finally, you adjust the process until it seamlessly achieves your desired results.

Process…measurement…adjustment. When I’m organizing our manufacturing operations, I shorten it to the acronym…P-M-A.

PMA. Those initials also stand for something else: PeopleMatter…Always. How do we truly invent amazing? By remembering that mantra every day when we come to work. We will only keep inventing amazing if we invest in the people behind our framework.

At the heart of every project is one great irony: While engineers are absolutely vital at the outset, your goal is to eventually be irrelevant.

You’re designing processes, products and systems that will last long after you’ve moved on to the next challenge. In some cases, your creations will last a century. And if you’ve done your job well, they won’t need you as badly once you’ve set them into motion.

Shoot…the more I hear myself talk, the more engineering sounds like parenting!

But whether we’re instilling life lessons in our children or breathing life into robots that will make millions of tires a year, once principle remains the same: When it comes down to it, success doesn’t really come from the processes or the rules by which we abide. Success starts with the people and the relationships that allow us to thrive.

Inventing amazing begins with investing in people. Even the most magnificent machines don’t run without a power source, and each day is a new opportunity to empower every colleague we encounter…whether they’re cleaning the bathrooms or they invented the toilet.

As I mentioned, I’ve managed engineers for about thirty years. But that’s a misnomer. In reality, I’ve never really managed an engineer.

Because engineers need to be set free – you cannot be handcuffed. You need to be exploring, developing, trying new things. You need to be given the opportunity to come up with great ideas we can use.

Take one former employee of mine, for example. We’ll call him Joe. Joe was a fresh-faced recent college graduate when he nervously walked into my office to interview for a job. He may have been a little shy, but based on his interview, we knew Joe had potential. His ideas impressed us, so we hired him. Then, we worked with him to build a growth plan and set challenging-but-attainable goals for him to achieve at each stage of his tenure.

We invested in Joe. After all, what’s more costly than investing in workers and watching them leave? Refusing to invest in them and watching them stagnate under your roof.

A tire looks pretty simple – it’s round and made of rubber, right? But in fact, it’s a complex object with more than 100 separate components. If one of those pieces fails, you see it on the side of I-24 getting kicked by an angry driver.

People aren’t all that different. On the surface, we seem pretty straightforward. But we’re hard-wired with complexities that make us unique and help us perform optimally. My job is to understand my colleagues as well as I understand our tires. The joy of leading engineers is finding their underlying strengths and challenges…and helping them unlock opportunities to thrive.

But as any good engineer will tell you, a process is worthless unless we have a way to measure its success. Even if we love investing in people, we need to understand how we’re tracking.

It’s relatively simple to calculate the results of a mechanical process. But how do we measure our impact on an individual?

For me, access breeds understanding. I need access to my employees, and they need face time with me. When they participate in strategic decisions, they feel empowered. And I get to informally measure how their analytical skills are expanding…and I also get to understand how they’re feeling about things.

Seven engineers have successfully escaped my leadership to become plant managers themselves. What do they have in common? They were all given the opportunity to make decisions, come up with new processes, sit in meetings and travel to different locations to understand and learn. We cross-trained them in different functions.

These were people who were very motivated to be successful. They already had the desire…they just needed to be given the tools and the opportunity. And as they used those tools in collaboration with me and others, I was able to measure how they were using the opportunities we were providing them.

It’s a humbling process, because when we measure our employees, we also end up having to measure ourselves. I’m most thankful for the colleagues who threw up a red flag when they thought I was making a mistake. They were almost always right. And just like any good machine, they helped me calibrate my own efforts.

You know the phrase, “don’t sweat the small stuff?” How do you feel about it?

I’ll ask for a show of hands…who thinks it’s a wise saying?

Now, who thinks it’s one of the most dangerous things an engineer could ever say?

There are probably places where “don’t sweat the small stuff” is pretty good advice. But not in a lab or on a manufacturing floor.

At Nokian Tyres, we test every tire that comes off the line. Not every tire maker does that, but it’s critical to us. We’re looking for hundreds of non-comformities that could lead to a dangerous driving situation. We even test every batch of raw materials to make sure it meets our standards.

We have to sweat the small stuff. I’m sure you do, too. Heck, I’m willing to bet that the “small stuff” takes up a big part of your day. And when the “small stuff” doesn’t meet our standards, we have to adapt.

Once we’ve developed a process and meticulously measured its results, the real work begins: the adjustment process.

We’re a global company with plants in the U.S., Finland and Russia. Being a successful global engineer requires flexibility to adapt – to new processes, different cultures and evolving technology.

When I travel to our global headquarters in Scandinavia, I even have to adapt to eating reindeer.

Our technology and the rubber compounds we use make us a revered and respected tire around the globe. Now, we’re seeking to achieve the same level of excitement about our brand here in the Southeast that we already have in other places throughout North America.

Although we feel we have a great product, we keep working to improve and develop it. We don’t believe in perfection. We’re passionate about continuous improvement. How can we make a safer tire? How can we make the world more environmentally safe by using sustainable energy to make our products?

Our R&D department is constantly developing, testing and trying. When I was at our factory in Finland, I watched our engineers perform 15-20 tests simultaneously. There’s really no end to it.

The true beauty of an engineer is your ability to adapt and innovate amidst adversity. None of us is perfect, but we’re working toward perfection through continuous improvement. Engineers help us get there through your creative minds and vision.

The minute we become secure in our success or afraid to adjust our approach, we’re vulnerable. And that’s true in our relationships, not just with our products and processes.

We should never be so convinced of the strength of our relationships that we start taking them for granted. We can’t afford for confidence to become complacency.

Just as we can always make a better tire, we can always find better ways to relate to the people around us. We should always seek to better understand our colleagues…so we can combine our strengths and fuel each other for the challenging work ahead.

Remember Joe, the shy college grad I hired at a previous company? He worked with us for a long time and became an expert in artificial intelligence. Now, he owns his own company. His first client? Microsoft.

We built a process to invest in people like Joe. We regularly measured our progress. And time after time, we found imperfections and had to adjust our approach. My approach will never be perfect, but I’ll stay passionate about developing strong, confident engineers.

You’re passionate, too. The trophies on this stage aren’t made of sweat, because nobody would want to bring one home. But they might as well be.

Because glory consists entirely of grit. And wonderful moments like tonight…times when we stand up and celebrate greatness…they’re important, but they’re fleeting.

Tomorrow, it’s back to the desk. The lab. The factory. Back to painstakingly mapping out processes…tracking their success…and adapting based on what we learn.

When you head back to your grind, wherever it may be…I hope you feel our gratitude.

As an engineer, you are a tool of transformation. And the legacy you build is greater than the processes you set into motion or the products you painstakingly assemble. Your true impact…lies in the relationships you build.

Because people…matter…always.

Thank you.