Time On The Floor
by John Albion

Manufacturing programs that guarantee improved competitiveness come and go, yet we in America find ourselves still losing jobs to foreign competition and witnessing the erosion of our industrial base. With a highly educated work force and superior management skills, why is this happening? Didn't we embrace Deming's philosophy on quality? Haven't we implemented Just-In-Time inventory management? Aren't we all QS9000 certified? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES, but in the terms of Dr. Phil McGraw, we aren't getting real with who we are as a manufacturing entity.

Dr. Phil is best known for his "Get Real Challenge" on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where people are forced to confront the dysfunctional issues in their lives and then take control to change for the better. Manufacturing in this country suffers many of the same issues as we all do as individuals. Most prominent is the dysfunctional relationship between management and the work force. It's time we got "real."

Recently I was told I would spend a period of time as a supervisor on an assembly line start up, making tier one automotive products for a leading automotive company. Having over twenty years of manufacturing experience in management, a Bachelors Degree in Finance and a Masters Degree in Business Administration, this move was an ego-bruising announcement at first. After all, I had been a Controller, a Materials Manager, a Project Leader and a Facilitator for Lean Manufacturing, but now a supervisor?

Inadvertently, my employer, whose intentions (motivated by corporate down-sizing) were probably at best suspect, had offered me the opportunity of a lifetime; the chance to see the world from the other side. I had for some time felt that management was at fault for the poor performance in production and the myriad of bad decisions that resulted in lost business or reduced profitability. Now I would see it in the trenches, on the floor, unfiltered and for what it really was. The reality was worse than I had imagined.

While this experience was in only one organization, I believe this is a representation of a universal problem that continues to prevent us from being more successful in manufacturing in this country. I challenge managers in industry everywhere to spend some time on the floor to find out what it will take to get real.

If you won't accept that challenge, at least listen to my experiences. I reported to my assembly line and was paired with a seasoned supervisor. Together our objective was to get as much production from the line as possible with a crew of thirty some employees, all of whom had in excess of twenty-five years of experience. Let me first explain my experience from the perspective of a supervisor.

Supervision is at its finest an art form and at its worst an extension of upper management. Quickly I learned the physical side of the job as I walked continuously for eight hours. Seldom was there time to stop for a bathroom break, much less to eat lunch. When the needs of the equipment were silent, which was almost never, there were the constant needs of the employees. I need to see the nurse, I need to go to the bathroom, I need, I need, I need. And my job? Take care of their needs. I would eventually learn that the local safety shoe supplier had sized me 1 sizes smaller than I needed, resulting in severely blistered feet. In the interim I forged on, limping, but determined to succeed.

After one week I realized there was a core group of management I thought had the best interests of the company at heart who I never once saw on the production floor. Why had these experts forsaken me? The expectations of the Plant Manager were clear, especially when we failed to meet them. In one almost record day of production I was admonished for not achieving even more, rather like motivating your proud child who has improved from a C grade to a B by telling them, "Why didn't you get an A?" The signals sent to supervision serve only to reinforce negative images that we will never be good enough. Welcome to the dysfunctional manufacturing family!

Each day as a supervisor was fraught with the need to do well and seek approval while all the support groups I needed were being driven by a different objective. If the assembly line incurred down time, I was at the mercy of trained specialists with their own agenda who worked at their own pace to solve my problems. I dared not upset these gods, lest they work even slower. Their own private axes to grind became visible in the level of support I received. When the production results would be reviewed the following day, never once would there be mention of the lack of support, only the lack of success. It's easy to see why good supervisors can quickly develop attitudes that do not follow corporate strategy when they are left to fend for themselves unsupported.

Let's turn to the employees, those that make the products that produce income for the company. It would seem prudent that, as management, we should give this group whatever it needs to accomplish its mission, but we don't. We throw them into jobs with inadequate training and unrealistic expectations, hoping they will find their way through the problems. Unfortunately the equipment has become so computerized and the processes so complex that their need for support has become enormous.

Does this mean the work force doesn't know what they're doing? Absolutely not! Today's employee knows more about the process, is more willing to be involved, and wants to do the right thing more than ever. The fault is that as managers, we don't tap their collective brain power. Whether motivated by ego or pride, we don't choose to go to the source and admit we don't know or that the front line employee knows better than we do. Years of formal education couldn't be wrong. Who knows best what they need? How dare they try to tell me what I need to do.

Let's stop right there. This is the trap we've fallen into in this country, the notion that because we have a degree from a prestigious university we automatically know more than the guy on the floor doing the work, day after day. The reality is that we need to share data. The expertise of education and the knowledge of observation have to be coupled to form a solution that advances the process, rather than inhibiting it.

Okay, so I've got your attention, pulled you from that three hour planning meeting, forced you to set your paradigms aside for just a moment. How do I change, you ask? Well, after several weeks of limping the floor from problem to problem I have learned a few simple things that could turn an organization around, provided everyone is willing to be aware. The process has to be at all levels and needs to be led from the top. The change that needs to occur isn't highly technical, organizational behavior theory driven kind of stuff. It's basic human relationship skills.

First is listening. Listen to what people tell you on the production front lines. They work with the equipment and the problems more than anyone in your organization. Contrary to management beliefs, they are not just willing, they are eager to tell you what they see each day in a process that is wrong. When I say listen I don't mean just standing there. Listening is an active process. You have to evaluate, question, repeat what you heard for clarity. It's a first step and to do it, you have to be on the floor, talking to everyone.

Next you have to act. It does no good to listen to employees, then walk away and do nothing. It only further frustrates the employee and widens the communication gap we're trying to bridge. My experiences were that people weren't asking for the moon. They wanted fatigue mats because their feet hurt. They wanted information so they could plan their lives. Simple things. Things we, as management, would expect for ourselves. Why do we think employees wouldn't want the same things? Satisfy their simple needs and they will satisfy your needs for production.

Don't assume you are talking to an uneducated individual who couldn't possibly understand the complexity of your function. Many of these people who stare blindly at repetitive processes everyday have educated themselves in history, computers, philosophy, and topics you yourself may not have explored. Take the time to get to know them.

Knowing the people who work for you leads us to the next point, caring. If you don't care about the people who work for you, how can you expect to achieve any goal? Each employee has their own value system and their own unique set of beliefs. It's incumbent on the supervisor to operate within the bounds of that person's internal needs. You can't lead them if you don't know them. As a manager you must also be sensitive to this. You may be driven by bottom line profits, but your employees have a different incentive. Know what it is and accept that it can be different than yours. The relationship is very much like that between parent and child, except they aren't children. Don't treat them that way by withholding information, manipulating them or by negatively motivating them. It's a tired expression, only because it doesn't happen often enough, but try dignity and respect. It works.

Before I get off this soapbox, one more word to add to your 'To Do' list. Honesty. Never lie to employees about what you can or will do for them. If you can't do it, say so. It may not be what they want to hear, but at least you have established your credibility for honest answers. And stop hoarding that precious information that has your pride stamped all over it. Information is indeed power, but the lack of information can be crippling to an organization. If you have written plans to do things that impact the work area or the equipment in it, share it with everyone. You just might find that someone will come forward with a more cost effective or more timely alternative. Isn't that what we're there for in the first place; to solve problems quickly and inexpensively?

To the men and women of the production floor I say, "Thank You!" You've taught me a valuable lesson and opened my eyes a little further as to the damage some of us do as managers. All the new programs, new theories, and new methods we read about that are designed to make us more efficient or more profitable will never succeed beyond the lip service level unless we wake up and say "I get it! I have met the problem and it is me." Success will be defined by our ability as managers to put our pride and ego away, and begin to work openly with those that do the work. We have to change to survive.

Manufacturing should be a global weapon of competitiveness for this country, not the weak, aging business it has been allowed to deteriorate to. Get out of that office, get out on the shop floor, and learn to get real with the people who create profitability. The single greatest improvement to be made is to "get real" with how we deal with each other in the manufacturing environment and truly begin to function as a team.

John Albion is a middle manager in Supply Chain Management and a Lean Manufacturing Implementer at an upper Midwest automotive industry supplier, with over twenty years experience in manufacturing and assembly. He holds an MBA degree from Northern Illinois University and has achieved the CIRM certification from APICS. John can be reached via email at zenbion@aol.com .

Many more articles on Creative Leadership, Authenticity & Ethics, Executive Performance and The Leadership Imperative in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by John Albion. All rights reserved.

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