Manufacturers around the world are faced with increasingly complex paths for driving performance in their operations. Lean and six-sigma have had considerable popularity among manufacturers for decades and the newest paths revolve around extreme automation, additive manufacturing, and the Internet of Things. All of these paths have serious potential and some are foregone conclusions but none will be practically successful in the near or medium term without one primary ingredient: people.
Until we have an ultimate technological convergence in manufacturing, people and the culture created by them will continue to have an overwhelming impact on performance. In fact, we have found almost universally that the highest performing manufacturers, regardless of their chosen path or strategy, know that engagement of their people at all levels is the key to delivering in highly competitive environments. When we speak about engagement to many other business leaders however, they hear it as a “soft” term. They file it away with “motherhood and apple pie” when they should file it away with “exceptional productivity and share-holder value.”
Why is it so difficult to recognize that total workforce engagement is the primary means to greater performance? Part of the challenge is historical in that traditional business hierarchy isn’t designed to get the best out of every single person but to reflect the will and thoughts from the top. The other, greater challenge falls to leadership capability. Leaders like the thought of engagement conceptually but practically it’s extremely difficult and requires real fundamental behavior changes. With that difficulty in mind, we have narrowed down some of the best behaviors we have seen for manufacturing leaders that aspire to deliver greater, sustainable performance:
They build a message of change based on a principled vision and repeat it…often. Creating a business-case for change helps the operational associates engage and understand the importance of performance. Equally important, the creation process forces the company’s leaders to align around a single message that resonates beyond the board-room.
They leverage a holistic system that is owned by everyone. How many managers do you know that survive by fire-fighting? It’s not their fault – they are busy solving every single problem because they can’t trust the organization below them. Building a system of operation is not easy. You have to teach the organization to become process thinkers in the deepest sense. Want repeatable success? You better have repeatable processes and monitor success through the lens of the process so you can avoid statistical blurbs. The best leaders build systems that have feedback loops; we call this a daily management system. They also teach the tools (think DMAIC, SPC, VSM, etc) of improvement as the means, not the end. This drives process and behaviors where skills can be learned and leaders can coach. Leaders having time to actually lead and coach is a novel concept in most places.
They embrace a shift in accountability and are obsessive about learning. How obsessed with improvement is your team? How obsessed with learning? Great manufacturing leaders create an organization obsessed with both. “Easier said than done” is an apt response. Learning, along with safety, is the foundation for trust between management and associates and vice versa. Improvement-obsessed organizations know how to push accountability downward which is to say, they trust the people who are taking the reins. Trusting the organization is a slow process and it is done by great leaders who not only teach but are willing to be taught. When this is done we see leaders maximize their time to think strategically and deliver results. Which brings us to the next behavior…
They deliver results. All of the engagement and systems in the world matter little if you don’t deliver quantifiable, financial results. This matters at every single layer of the organization. When great manufacturing leaders show up to work they know what they need to do to drive financial performance…and so do their employees. Everyone from the operator to the business leader should have a clear vision on their contribution to performance. Results should be tracked through the system and remain highly visible – even “touchable” where possible. We like it when everyone must go through the motion of tracking performance. It keeps us transparent, it keeps us accountable, and it keeps delivering to the bottom line.
The business world moves at an extraordinary pace and it is our experience that complexity creeps and occasionally explodes over time. The concept of leadership via engagement is simple though and the impact is enormous. Select the strategy that fits your manufacturing process; there are plenty to choose from. Just don’t forget that until the great technological convergence, it will be people that deliver the results. The manufacturers that know how to engage their people will not only perform better in the short term but they will also be the most prepared for the technologies and strategies of the future.