Communication and the Art of Manufacturing Leadership

As manufacturing undergoes changes in technology, best practices and employee expectations, it’s important to have leadership in place that understands the present and, perhaps more importantly, the future. How management interacts with staff, how processes are evolved and fine-tuned, how the workforce is developed; all are changing on an ongoing basis. A firm understanding of production remains vital, but leadership qualities that include the ability to motivate and collaborate are also highly sought after. What skills and attributes should manufacturing leaders possess and where can these leaders be found? 

A Change of Attitude

Leaders of the past ruled with an iron fist, presiding over the workforce with an eagle-eye, ready to discipline those who deviated from protocol in the slightest manner. In today’s environment workers are often aware of their alternatives, including the flexibilities and work/life balance that are offered elsewhere. While ensuring buy-in from the entire team is still a critical part of the manufacturing process, modern managers have found that this can often be more effectively maintained through motivational measures, as opposed to rigid structure. 

“Times have changed,” says Stephen Gold, president and CEO of MAPI, the non-profit Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation. “Strong leaders for the coming decades see human growth as essential to business growth.”1

Effective leaders strive to find ways to engage employees in manufacturing positions that have historically been regarded as ‘boring’. 

“Being emotionally aware is often an overlooked yet critical skill toward becoming a better business leader,” writes Steven Brand for CMTC. “People always advise to keep emotions separate from business matters, yet business is about relationship development between people. Therefore, to maintain those relationships, you must be emotionally intelligent; which often means being sensitive to different backgrounds and points of view.”2

A Good Idea Can Come From Anywhere

One of the best ways to motivate the workforce is by including them in the innovation process. Constant measurement and improvement of repeatable processes are essential in manufacturing; the best operations combine process, measurement and inclusive culture, allowing employees at all levels to be involved. After all, who better to recognize potentially beneficial tweaks (or overhauls!) than those who are in the very centre of the manufacturing process, day in and day out. 

“Wherever possible, accept input from employees in decision-making processes,” advises Quickbooks contributor Ben Oliveri. “Allow employees to work in small teams across departments and assign them meaningful work in line with your company’s long-term business ambitions.”3

Laura Putre, in a recent article for Industry Week, agrees. “It’s not 1933, when a college education was out of reach and production demanded millions of workers perform repetitive tasks. It’s 2019, when shop-floor employees at Cambridge Engineering in Missouri make and share videos of their continuous improvement ideas.”1

Steven Blue, CEO of rail parts manufacturer Miller Ingenuity, invested in a smart room he called the ‘Creation Station’, encouraging employees to utilize the space for generating ideas. Many ideas resulted, including a high-tech safety product called Zone Guard that alerts railroad work crews on their personal devices to the presence of incoming vehicles on the track. “Most manufacturing CEOs wouldn’t bat an eyelash spending a half million dollars to buy a CNC machine,” says Blue. “I do that, too, but the difference is a CNC machine depreciates and has to be replaced. My Creation Station and the culture of creativity never depreciates and arguably is an income-producing asset.”1

Employee Development in Manufacturing

Along with engaging employee ideas, successful manufacturing operations invest in the development of their workforce. This investment not only increases their commitment to the company, but helps ensure that the staff remains on the forefront of rapidly advancing technology. With artificial intelligence, blockchain, automation and the internet of things at the core of the manufacturing process, STEM skills (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are front and centre. Mentorship programs, ongoing education and careful recruiting are among the ways that companies can facilitate employee development and retention, both key pillars of a good succession planning process.

Finding Effective Manufacturing Leadership

So, where can these motivational, forward-thinking leaders be found? All too often manufacturers take a narrow view, insisting on hiring candidates from within their specific industry. While there are arguments for hiring those with direct experience, many believe that function experience is as important as subject experience.

“At a time when “diversity” is the most over-used word on the HR front, recruiters are looking at anything but diversity when it comes to their candidates’ prior manufacturing experience,” writes Forbes contributor Jim Vinoski. “It’s tempting for recruiters to take the easy way out in being extremely selective about past experiences, but then missing out on very qualified candidates from a different industry.” 4

Determining the best candidate for your particular operation involves assessing your short- and long-term priorities, while evaluating the available candidates. Every situation is different, which necessitates a customized recruiting process that is well considered and executed. 

Cited Sources
1 StackPath. Accessed March 3, 2020.
2 Brand, Steven. “8 Practical and Effective Manufacturing Leadership Tips.” 8 Practical and Effective Manufacturing Leadership Tips. Accessed March 3, 2020.
3 Oliveri, Ben. “How to Recruit Manufacturing Employees and Train Them for the Future.” QuickBooks, April 29, 2019.
4 Vinoski, Jim. “One Reason Manufacturing Jobs Stay Unfilled: Recruiters Limit The Pool Of Candidates Considered.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, November 7, 2018.