How to Improve Manufacturing Employee Productivity

In process industries, where production is dependent upon equipment, a company’s greatest assets — frontline associates — are often underutilized and their abilities to enhance operations left severely untapped.

Approximately half of a process plant’s workforce is made up of frontline associates — according to the PSbyM Process Industries Performance Study — many in those positions haven’t assumed roles that could enhance productivity.[1] In fact, less than half of these plants have frontline associates who are “completely capable” of performing common tasks:

  • Analyze production data — only 33 percent of plants
  • Performance routine maintenance — 34 percent of plants
  • Audit operations (e.g., for safety, quality control) — 35 percent of plants
  • Problem-solve operations issues — 37 percent of plants
  • Communicate with plant or corporate leadership, customers, or suppliers — 41 percent of plants
  • Start up machines/production line — 43 percent of plants
  • Train other frontline employees — 44 percent of plants

Performance Solutions’ improvement regimen is designed to help process plants remove all wastes or losses that prevent a plant from achieving perfection — via zero-loss thinking. That same perspective applies to the human resources. One of the eight waste categories identified by lean manufacturing is unutilized or underutilized talent — in this case, the skills of frontline associates.

These employees often know more about their work, machines, and processes than anyone else in the plant (including management). They also understand how daily actions impact performance (safety, quality, speed, costs, etc.). Yet too often managers mistakenly assume that frontline workers are disinterested or incapable.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

That’s why Performance Solutions Practitioners work to change management perceptions and guide plant leaders in engaging, educating, and empowering frontline associates. They work to create a culture of trust and respect among managers and frontline associates, which leads to expanded roles for production employees as they find and fix problems, improving processes without management involvement.

This cultural transformation starts by giving plant associates tools to be successful, such as standardized processes and well-documented best practices based on the pillars of the Milliken Performance System, including daily team maintenance, 5S, and focused improvement. Unfortunately, this type of standardization is lacking at many process plants: the PSbyM Process Industries Performance Study found that only 70 percent (average) of frontline-employee roles are documented with skills requirements and job instructions — leaving many employees without direction.

Yet even where skills and instructions are documented, training is often insufficient or ineffective. For example, 30 percent of process plants formally train frontline associates 20 hours or fewer annually; only 41 percent train more than 40 hours annually. (The U.S. average hours of training per employee in 2018 was 46.7 hours.)[2] You can’t expect employees to perform daily maintenance on machines or find root causes of quality problems without training and development.

That’s why Performance Solutions Practitioners train frontline employees to take responsibility for their workplaces and how to identify problems. They educate them on how to conduct root-cause analysis, ask the Five Whys to dig deeper into problems, and to implement countermeasures that prevent problem recurrences.

Once frontline staff have the skills to improve performance, management then needs to give them the authority and autonomy to do so. Performance Solutions Practitioners help leaders organize frontline workers into teams focused on best practices, such as a safety committee that monitors operations, audits work practices, and reports near-misses. Similar frontline teams are formed to address daily maintenance and startup of equipment, 5S workplace organization, production control, and other day-to-day activities.

Eventually, continuous improvement becomes an integral part of every associate’s work (not an occasional project that interrupts work), and they become involved in the plant’s decision-making (and not merely subject to it).

The PSbyM Process Industries Performance Study highlights how process-industry executives could get more — much more — from their frontline associates. How engaged is your staff? Do they have the tools and skills to improve operations? If not, sign up to receive more news and analysis, and to learn how Performance Solutions by Milliken can create a culture that drives operational improvement.


[1] PSbyM Process Industries Performance Study, Performance Solutions by Milliken, June 2019; 153 U.S. process plants.

[2] 2018 Training Industry Report, Training, November/December 2018; weighted data by company size for U.S.-based corporations and educational institutions with 100 or more employees.

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