Excellence is a quality that is highly valued and sought after in both personal and professional settings. In a company, excellence can lead to increased customer satisfaction, improved employee morale and productivity, and ultimately, increased profits. For individuals, striving for excellence can lead to personal growth and development, as well as increased satisfaction and fulfillment in life.

Listen in this week as Victoria Meyer and Sam Smolik, retired Senior Vice President of America’s Manufacturing for LyondellBasell, talk about the importance of operational excellence in detail as well as the value of Sam’s book to his readers. 

Here are the interesting topics discussed this week:

  • The origin story of Sam Smolik before he got involved in the chemical industry
  • The most powerful lessons Sam learned throughout his journey
  • Talking about Sam’s book “The Daily Pursuit of Excellence”
  • What is Sam’s formula for operational excellence? 
  • The importance of having an established and effective system in the business or company’s processes and procedures
  • Different approaches to business operations into operational excellence of some leading companies

These are just some of the interesting bits of information that you should know from this podcast episode. Tune in to learn more! 

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In Daily Pursuit of Excellence with Sam Smolik

This week, I have the opportunity of speaking with Sam Smolik, who is the retired Senior VP, of America’s Manufacturing for LyondellBasell industries. Sam has a long history in the chemical industry. In fact, you may know him from his time leading EHS at either LyondellBasell, Shell, or Dow. Today, he sits on the board of directors at Axalta Coating Systems, Evergreen Industries, and Ducks Unlimited Inc. Most importantly, and what we’re really here to talk about today is Sam has turned his 50 years of career success into several books, including The Daily Pursuit of Excellence. Sam, welcome to The Chemical Show.

Purchase your copy of Sam’s new book, The Daily Pursuit of Excellence, here.** 

Sam, tell us a bit more about you. What is your origin story? What brought you to the chemical industry?

I went to a small high school and I always enjoyed math and science. I was just a natural in math. But in English, that’s a different story. Counselors would say that I need to be an engineer. I didn’t know what that was. So I ended up getting a scholarship to the University of Texas in chemical engineering. That’s what I did. I went into chemical engineering. Some young people who grew up these days have all kinds of advisors. They know what lies ahead. I was pretty naive at the time. Although, I made good grades and enjoyed every minute of it. So it’s turned out okay.

That’s awesome. And then that took you into the chemical industry.

I graduated with a chemical engineering degree. I went to work for Dow Chemical, and then the organic process research department. So we were doing research on different chemicals and all of the intermediates that go into the foam for your beds, and car cushions. Things like that. I was fortunate to get one US Patent during my R&D days. That was a great start.

Then, it looks like you spent most of your career really in operations in one way, shape, or form.

Exactly! I was in research for seven years and progressed pretty fast. Then, I started supervising a lot of folks, but I felt that I really didn’t have the background to be rising like that. I think you can be promoted too fast. We were doing the process research. So we would determine ways to improve chemical processes. But then you had to convince the manufacturing people to do it. We always felt they were like cavemen. They didn’t want to take a chance. So finally I said, I’m gonna move into manufacturing where I can control these decisions and be a little more aggressive. I told my supervisors that I would like to do it, and they said, that’s great. 

That started off a string of manufacturing jobs at different plants. I developed a reputation for being able to go into a troubled plant. Not only improve the technology but motivate the people and build a winning team. After three or four years, my reward would be to get sent to another bad plant. In the end, it was a great learning experience. It’s because if you’re in a manufacturing plant that just runs well all the time, it’s not a challenge. But if you have troubles, I’m kind of optimistic by nature. Whenever I see a problem, it’s an opportunity to learn and get better. So it was a great career.

What are some of the most powerful lessons you learned along the way?

I learned that you can talk about a team, and improving performance, but a team is only as good as its weakest link. So you very quickly find out it’s all about people and being able to hire the right people, train them, motivate them, set very clear expectations, and hold them accountable. There’s a philosophy on behavior management that says for any behavior, there always is a consequence. And the most important consequences are positive. So when somebody does something good, you need to recognize them for it. Positive recognition is very important.

On the other hand, if they don’t, do things the right way. You can’t ignore it. I just learned very early on that you need to have the right people. Make sure they have the right skills. Most people will rise to the expectations. They just had poor leadership in the past and they just needed somebody to really set them forward. You see that in football, or sports. You’ll have a group of people that have a mediocre team, and you got a new coach who comes in. With the same people, they excel. That’s the way I always felt about it. Bring out the best people’s talents, and I write about that in my new book.

Daily Pursuit of Excellence: I learned that you can talk about a team, 
and improving performance, but a team is only as good as its weakest link. 
So you very quickly find out it's all about people and being able to hire 
the right people, train them, motivate them, set very clear 
expectations, and hold them accountable.

 

Let’s talk about the book. What prompted you to write The Daily Pursuit of Excellence and what’s it all about?

Let me finish my career story. So after 20 – 25 years of manufacturing, then Dow Chemical called me and my supervisors one day, and they said that they would like to promote me to global vice president for environment, health and safety and security, and sustainable development. At the time, I didn’t want that functional job. I want line management. I worked in Europe for a few years. So they wanted somebody with global experience and somebody that could drive improvement. 

So for the first time in my career, instead of having line management, my job was all about influencing others. We had 400 locations around the world. Very simply, I had to drive improvement across all those locations. You can imagine that’s a big challenge. It really emphasizes the importance of influencing others. So how do you influence those locations? How do you influence the hearts and minds of the individuals at those various locations? So I did that for four years, and then Shell came along, and recruited me to do the same thing for them. I ran all their global environment, health, and safety for the downstream business for Shell.

Shell is an enormous company, We had 30 refineries. We had 55,000 gas stations. That continued to refine my processes and approach to making that happen. Then, I ended up in LyondellBasell. That company went bankrupt at the beginning of 2009. We got a new CEO. He put together the management team, which I joined to bring the company back out of bankruptcy, and we turned it into one of the best and safest plants in the industry or companies in the industry. So going back to your question, I was just so fortunate. For many years of working with great people, influencing others, and driving performance improvement and all companies, our performance accelerated.

The focus was on safety. But it takes the same things for safety, as it does for reliability, quality, and for business success. So it’s all about people, systems, and culture in the company. So what led me to write the book after I retired, I do some consulting, but not a lot. But every time I’d go to somebody that’s got a problem, I think to myself, well, we’ve solved that already. We’ve already solved it.

So when COVID came, I thought, if I’m going to ever write a book, now’s my time when travel stopped. That’s what I did. I just decided to take things that we learned through the years and put them in a simple form. My book was written with a lot of small sections of maybe 100 different things that we found to be effective in influencing others and driving performance improvement. So that’s what my book is about The Daily Pursuit of Excellence.

Follow this link to get Sam’s book, The Daily Pursuit of Excellence**

One of the fundamentals in the book, Sam, is operational excellence. That seems to be the theme that kind of maybe rolls through your career but also flows through this book. What’s your formula for operational excellence? What does it mean to you?

I had a boss of a boss one time. He came in and talked to a group of folks. He said that you can either work every day and have mediocre results, or you can work trying to be the best. That just stayed with me. Why not work to be the best? So when you want to be the best, you want to win. That means everything you need is to strive for perfection. And realize that nothing’s perfect, but you’ll hit excellence along the way. We can use the phrase operational excellence. A lot of companies will use different terminology. I have a story I like to tell about restaurants. You’ve been to a lot of good restaurants.

If they’re good, not great, but good, you might go back, or you might go somewhere else. It’s okay. You remember the bad ones, and you’ll never go back. You’ll probably tell others about it. If someone says that he’d like to go to this restaurant, and you say no! Stay away from there. I had a terrible experience. So nobody wants to be bad. Then, there are some that are excellent. I mean, they’re the cream of the crop restaurants. That’s the kind you will make reservations in advance. You might even pay more. When you go in there, it looks good. The food is great, and the service is great. You tell other people about it.

If you want to achieve excellence, everybody knows it begins with leadership. Share on X

That’s the way I used to tell our people. We want to be the best. We want to be the cream of the crop because we want people to brag about our company or our plant, and tell others about it. Once you get that philosophy, it’s like the Super Bowl that we just had. You have two themes that are cream of the crop. And they didn’t get there by being good. They got there by being excellent. They got there by each person on the team doing their job in an excellent manner, avoiding mistakes, and driving top performance at all times.

That’s what a coach does, and that’s what a leader does. They influence others to be better and to do their best. So the formula that I came up with is there are really four components I like to simplify. If you want to achieve excellence, everybody knows it begins with leadership. And we can talk about leadership all day long. But people do the work. So you have to have the right people, doing the right thing at all times. Always give your best effort. If you went to a hotel, you can tell where the people come up to you and take care of every detail.

They’re sitting over there and they don’t care. It’s obvious. But with systems, you have winning teams, winning companies, and a good management system. Not just one that’s on the books, and nobody looks at that. But one that is usable. The standards and the processes are simple. People follow it because it eliminates variation. So you get your system right. Then finally, culture is when the people follow the system. People live it. They meet your expectations every day. So good management technique, if you get your system right, which is how work is supposed to be done. And to get your culture right, which is how work is actually done. Then you can focus on leadership and people. A lot of companies blow past the basics. They have an aspiration, and they want to be a certain way, but they don’t have the capability to get it and they wonder, why don’t they deliver the right kind of results? They haven’t eliminated variation in their process and created a system that says how you do it. 

Nick Saban is an Alabama football coach. I give a lot of football examples.

That’s all right. I like football.

I played football in high school. So I love football. As part of my job, as I have worked on how to influence others and drive results, I would study leadership in the companies but also in sports because it’s the same philosophy. Nick Saban is the only coach that I heard of for many years, we’ll talk about his system. We have a system for how we recruit. We have a system for how we develop people, we have a system for how we prepare for a game, and we have a system for how we do the game. If I hire a new assistant coach, I don’t want that coach to come in and coach his way. I want him to learn our system. 

Then, if he’s got improvements, let’s talk about it because if you allow every person to do it their own way, you never will achieve excellence. That’s a problem that companies have if they are leaders who are people-centric. So they allow every plant manager, department manager, hotel manager, or whatever, to do things their own way, then they’re only as good as that person. It might be great, or it might be bad. But if you have a system for how you do things, and then let people use their talents on top of that, you have a chance to be outstanding.

I agree. I think having a system is so critical. I see the same thing. A lot of times it’s surprising the businesses that don’t have systems. I think sometimes people get confused because they’ll say, oh, well, you’re being too process-centric. And there’s a difference between being process-heavy and being system true. The whole aspect of repeatability and consistency is critical. When you think about it in the chemical industry, we know it because we want our products to be consistent every time but we want our business practices and our business processes and systems to be consistent and make it easier, to fewer decisions, you just know what happens, etc.

Absolutely! Well, another philosophy throughout the book is simplicity.  I’m a very strong believer in that. If you’ve talked about the word system, people interpret it in many different ways. Some people might think: that’s bureaucracy, everybody has to do everything the same way. That is totally not my message. I believe in the 80-20 rule to standardize the critical things that are important. But leave 80% to 90% for people to use their flexibility. 

When I talk about a system, I’ll give an example of Shell. When I got to Shell, we had 22,000 trucks on the road every day, delivering jet fuel, and gasoline to all our stations and airports and all that 22,000. You can imagine when I joined, there were a lot of traffic incidents. There were a lot of injuries and a lot of fatalities. It was incredible. Even personal cars or salespeople would have accidents. I asked if we have a safe driving standard. Well, we didn’t. I commissioned a few people to go develop a safe driving standard, well, they brought it back to me. It was 56 pages. 

Well, I said, who’s gonna read this? Nobody will read this. This is ineffective. I told them to make it shorter. So they brought it back and they had about 30 pages. I said it just needs to have some things that people remember. There was one guy who said, Sam, you want the 10 commandments, not the Bible. And I said you got it. So they brought it back. And I think we had 12 or 13 mandatory items if you’re driving a vehicle. Those are simple things like you must have a driver’s license. You pre-plan your trip. Don’t take off and then be looking at a map or snap the iPhone while you’re driving, 

Then we worked with all of our companies that did the driving for us to reinforce those simple items. And our performance improved dramatically. So your system needs to be practical. It needs to be something people want because it helps them. If you feel that people say it’s too bureaucratic, reduce it. There are some sections in my book that give specific examples about how to simplify a system, how to simplify a standard, or work process, and even how you write it. There’s something called the flesh factor that simplifies reading material. So we taught all of our standard writers and process writers to write in a very clear and simple manner.

The Daily Pursuit of Excellence: Things don't always go great. So when things are bad, 
you learn from them, and you get better. You need to strive for excellence. 
That's why I call it The Daily Pursuit of Excellence. It takes every day 
and every small detail has to be right if you're going to achieve excellence. 
Buy Sam's book here.**

 

You and I overlapped at Shell. For a period of time, although we didn’t work together and didn’t know each other at that time, I do recall, even just being able to distill something down to one page, a simple picture, and simple words makes it easy to understand. It makes it easy to share. So there’s a lot to be said about that. 

So I’m going to turn a little bit, you’ve worked at several leading companies in the industry: Shell, Dow, LyondellBasell. They’re all leaders, and yet they all seem to have really different approaches to business operations into operational excellence, as you frame this system. How do you differentiate or distinguish their approaches? How do you characterize this in terms of similarities and differences and what makes them who they are?

That’s an interesting question. At least Dow and Shell are 100+ years old companies. You establish a culture over the years of who you are. When I joined Dow, they had a very strong process-safety culture to eliminate incidents, and I learned a whole lot working at Dow. I would put it from a manufacturing point of view. I put Dow up against anybody. When I went to Shell, Shell had a different history. It was a joint venture until 2005. They had a committee of managing directors. They didn’t have a CEO. So they did just the opposite of what I’m talking about. They had what was called The Royal Dutch Shell Group of Companies. They were like 2000 subsidiaries. 

So they would hire good people to go run these different subsidiaries. It gets back to what I was saying, you’re only as good as the people you put in place. I think that system served Shell very well for the first 80 or 90 years. But in the 90s, and early 2000s, by the time the Internet came around, communication was much easier. Shell got left behind because these companies that were standardizing on a global basis were starting to take the lead. Shell got in big trouble in 2003 by not classifying reserves consistently. 

The SEC came after him. The CEO got fired. The stock took a big hit. I was really sad for the people in Shell. So I got hired in 2004. What they were doing was hiring people like myself to come in and build a global function to drive consistency. So that was a different experience for me. And then LyondellBasell had just become a company. They had two companies merge just before they went bankrupt. We didn’t really have a historical culture. There were two cultures that hadn’t come together yet. And so it’s perfect because I could come in, together with our leadership, and we created a culture that was in our own image. It was fantastic.

When you talk about companies being leader-led versus system-led, I think for many years LyondellBasell, it was really leader-led. Its behaviors were in many ways influenced by the leaders in charge at the time which may have evolved. I guess to be determined as they’ve got a new CEO recently here in the past year.

It’s a great company. The reliability is best in class.

So you want to keep it doing well? 

Yes!

So how do you see individuals applying these concepts that you talked about in your book, when I think about The Daily Pursuit, how do we do this on a daily basis?

The first book that I wrote was called The Power of Goal Zero. And Goal Zero was the fundamental philosophy behind a culture of excellence. A couple of us came together and developed Gold Zero at Shell back in 2007. I think it was. Then, I just carried on to LyondellBasell, the first day I was there, so we’re going to be a Gold Zero company, which means zero incidents, zero defects, and zero people getting hurt. That philosophy really just simplifies things that people can understand. I wrote this book, The Power of Gold Zero. A lot of companies started using it in training. Some universities picked it up for training. 

As I would go out and promote the book and talk to people whom I wrote about improving a company. And I thought people want to know what’s in it for me. And so I wasn’t satisfied with it. I decided to rewrite the book. I named it The Daily Pursuit of Excellence. I changed the whole approach in the book, not about how to improve a company, but how you, as an individual can improve your performance, and then influence others to improve their performance. 

So I’ll still talk about the same concepts of a Goal Zero culture, the importance of a simple system, and all that, but it’s all aimed at individuals and how you can influence others, no matter what your job is. I tell one story in there about how most of the plants that I ran in my early days had a lot of trouble and the morale was not good. And you had to fix all that. I went to one plant. And immediately, I was amazed by the technicians on the frontline. They had four or five guys that were leaders. They influenced others. They said that they were going to do things the right way. I said this is fantastic. So I didn’t really have to work on them. 

But it showed the power of leadership at any level, any person, if you’re a subject matter expert, or whatever, you can drive excellence and influence others around you to make the whole team be good. I think to answer your question, I wrote the book so that anybody who reads it, it’s about you as an individual. The first chapter is all about ethics and integrity. Do what you say you’re going to do and things that I learned that I think will help people to become better. Then, get into leadership and influencing others and how you can make the workplace fun. Talk about life balance, as opposed to work-life balance. I get into a lot of things like that.

If you want to achieve excellence, you need to have the right people, doing the right thing. Share on X

Explain more about life balance, instead of work-life balance, what does that mean?

It’s just one section in the book. I gave a keynote speech a couple of weeks ago, and several people read my book, and one person said, Sam, everybody is talking about work-life balance. And instead, he talked about life balance. And I said, well, I think it’s a mental thing. I found a formula a long time ago. There are seven F’s. Life is about a balance of faith, family, friends, finance, fitness, future, focus, and fun. The philosophy is to not neglect any of those seven items for very long. We’ll get consumed by work for a while. 

But if you neglect your family, that’s a bad deal. If you don’t eat right and sleep and exercise, fitness is going to impact your performance and your health. What I don’t like about work-life balance is work is such a big part of your life. You can either approach work as a job. I’m going to do my job and I’m going home. Or, you can approach it as a career and part of your life and try to achieve excellence in your life all the time, whether you’re at work or not. 

I talked a lot about that because I think if you talk about work-life balance to people, they try to draw a barrier between it. If you think about work, think about the seven Fs. You have a lot of friends at work. Your friends aren’t just in your life. They’re also in your work. You have fun at work. You’re not born rich. You have to work. So that’s where work comes in to provide finance, so you can do other things. It’s just integrated. I believe in a philosophy of life balance. Throughout my career, I was working in tough plants, so when my son was five years old, I’d always planned on coaching my son. Yet, I was at work late every day. I thought, how can I do this? I really fretted over it and said, well, what’s life all about, if you can’t do the things that you really want to do? So I finally went to my boss, and I said, I want to coach my son’s baseball team. And I’ll have to leave at 3:30 or so for practice and games. I’ll come back out afterward, or at nights, weekends, whatever I need to do. He said, go for it. 

And I coached nine years of baseball while running plants and high-demanding jobs. I’ve told that story to many young people because I always ask them about their families. What are your kids doing? And are you involved in this? I just don’t have time for that. And I said, no. That’s a bad excuse. If they’ll say, “I don’t have time for it”, they’re actually saying, “Everything else is a higher priority because you choose the things that you do. A lot of people have told me later on that they appreciated that advice. So, to me, it’s life balance. 

In terms of the whole-life balance thing, I think one of the challenges is being bold enough to ask for it and to create that to happen because I think some people don’t necessarily feel comfortable doing that. That gets back to culture. It’s a culture, a work environment, and your prioritizations that allow that to happen because at the end of the day, with virtual working and hybrid working and being connected 24/7, whether we want to be or not, it is life. Work and life are commingled. So we have to figure out how to create priorities and carve out time to do things at different times. You did that. You figured out ways to balance it. Frankly, it sometimes says, hey, I’ve got to get home. And  I’m gonna be back online at eight o’clock at night when the kids are in bed, but I’ve got to be present when they’re present.

That’s perfect, Victoria. It starts with setting your priorities. What’s important to you? What do you want to achieve? That’s why the seven Fs are so helpful because you can go back to them all the time and say,  am I shortchanging any of these? It’s because we control our behaviors. As you said, you need to have the confidence to do the right things. 

One other thing I learned in a time management class years ago, they said, how many of you don’t have enough time to call your mother as often as you should? And most people raise their hand and say, well, life is a matter of priorities. What you need to do is don’t tell your mother: “Mama. I never have time to call.” What you need to say is: “Everything else I do, mom, is more important than calling you.” And I said I’m never gonna say that. So I always made a point to call my mother. It’s as simple as that. 

What are your priorities? I don’t think any company expects you to work 16 hours a day. There are other times when your family is demanding a lot of time. So short times it’s fine. But on a long sustained basis, it’s not healthy. I find that people that are that enjoy life in a more balanced, they’re better contributors at work. It’s just amazing. When I coached baseball, when I did a lot of things outside, I found I was more efficient with my time. You’re fresh. Your mind gets away. I’ll know that they come back and you’re ready to get it. 

You sit on the board of several companies. How do you bring your experience and some in this focus of excellence into being an effective board member into influencing what these companies do? Are you able to do that?

It’s more difficult to be a board member because you don’t run the company. You provide oversight governance, maybe you spend 30 – 40 days a year on a board role. But you can definitely convey at the board level your expectations. In my job on boards, I’m an operations guy. So all the boards typically have a lot of finance people, or commercial people or whatever. I don’t pretend to be the subject matter expert there. But I can go head to head with anybody when it comes to safety and operations and operational excellence. What I do is put out an expectation of excellence in how we manage the company. 

I like to begin with safety because if everybody understands the importance of safety, and if you get safety right, then other things start to be right. It’s because if someone is working hard to prevent injury or prevent an incident from happening, then they’re more likely to not make errors on other things that affect the reliability or quality of the product. So I expect our safety statistics to be the best in class. It’s because leaders set the tone. The tone at the top is so important. So that’s the role the board can have. You have a lot of influence over the CEO and top management and companies. Hopefully, they get the message and you’re aligned. And when you’re aligned. It’s a beautiful thing.

Sam, this has been really good. I’m going to close with one question for you. If there was just one key takeaway, and if somebody did just one thing based on after reading your book, what would it be?

When I read a book, if I take away one or two good tips, I feel that it was worthwhile. I guarantee that anybody who reads my book, The Daily Pursuit of Excellence, doesn’t come away with a bunch of tips, you need to contact me now. I give them their money back. Because there’s so much in there that either you didn’t know or you forgot. Anything that you do, you should try to be the best in class. It makes no sense to just be good. Be excellent. Be the best. Housekeeping is critically important. 

You have a chance of winning, and everybody likes to be on a winning team. Try to be a winner, try to be cream of the crop, and that’s motivating for your people. It helps in recruiting others. I mean, there are just so many good things associated with it. And things don’t always go great. So, when things are bad, you learn from them, and you get better. That’s why I call it The Daily Pursuit of Excellence. It takes every day and every small detail has to be right if you’re going to achieve excellence.

Sam, thank you so much. Thanks for sharing the book and your insights with us. Thanks for being part of the podcast. We will make sure there is a link for people to buy the book. They can read that. Thank you for joining us, Sam. Thanks, everyone for listening.

 

Important Links:

 

About Sam Smolik:

Sam Smolik retired as Senior Vice President, of Americas Manufacturing for LyondellBasell Industries in 2017. He previously served as Global Vice President for Environment, Health, and Safety for LyondellBasell, Shell, and The Dow Chemical Company. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of Axalta Coating Systems, Evergreen Industries, and Ducks Unlimited Inc. 

Sam authored The Daily Pursuit of Excellence to share the many proven performance improvement concepts that he and his colleagues developed and perfected throughout a 50-year global career. His focus is on leadership, people development, culture, operational excellence, management systems, ESG, sustainable development, and achieving superior performance in organizations. 

Sam Smolik graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. He and his wife, Stephanie, live in Houston, Texas.

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