Not always seen as a critical area for the typical precast plant, the ties that bind managers, supervisors, and employees can directly impact a manufacturer’s bottom line – positive or negatively.
By Bridget McCrea
Creating strong ties between production personnel and managers is an ongoing challenge for most manufacturers. Traditionally, these two areas of responsibility attract two entirely different personalities, backgrounds and skill sets – yet they are expected to work in harmony for the overall good of the company. Bridging the gap between the two requires a deliberate, methodical strategy based on open lines of communication and understanding.
This is the first of a two-part human resources article that broaches a topic many manufacturers choose to avoid: establishing clear lines between the production floor and the management staff. In this segment, we’ll look at how to build strong, lasting bonds between management and production. In the next issue, we’ll show you how to successfully transition production workers into management positions. The goal is to help you establish strong principles around these two important human resources issues and ultimately create a stronger, more cohesive company.
The ties that bind
Armen Alajian understands the value of developing strong ties between his firm’s production and management personnel. As owner of ARTO Brick in Gardena, Calif., he also knows achieving that goal isn’t always easy. “It’s vital to have good relationships between the production laborers and the management teams,” says Alajian. “Without it, the company doesn’t run properly. That’s because people are assets – not tools.”
With 56 employees and a strong family-owned work ethic, he says the company’s leaders and managers “overtly engage those staff members who show up every day, ready to work.” Communication is important, Alajian adds, as is giving praise where it is due and keeping employees apprised of the company’s accomplishments, progress and challenges.
“We want our plant floor employees to know that we are all working hard,” says Alajian, “and that we’re showing it by giving out the highest level of respect possible combined with monetary rewards – both of which are very important to all employees.” He sees the fact that all of ARTO Brick’s managers worked on the production floor before moving up the ranks as a positive for the manufacturer and its employees.
“Just the fact that they are all trained on production mechanics and processes, and that they have performed and moved up the ranks,” says Alajian, “makes the communication lines that much easier to establish between management and production.”
The building blocks
In many cases, a lack of communication prevents strong ties from forming between production and management personnel, and ultimately leads to lower respect and trust levels between the two groups. In most cases, that lack of trust germinates on the plant floor, where production personnel are left out of the loop on major decisions that could impact them. Such sentiments can quickly lead to gridlock in the production cycle.
Greg Chase, president of Chase Consulting in West Harwich, Mass., says having good lines of communication between workers and their supervisors and/or managers can assuage the situation and keep the production needle closer to (if not right on) the 100% level.
Chase, who teaches a class that covers communication during The Precast Show, says asking questions – and then listening to the answers – are the first steps to achieving that 100% productivity level and the associated benefits that come with a solid production-management connection. Don’t expect that exercise to be easy, particularly for the managers. “The process takes time and patience,” says Chase, who points to the typical manager’s “Type A” personality (defined as: headstrong, assertive and in charge) as a stumbling block for precasters looking to create more harmony between departments.
“Managers have to be proactive and assertive as a part of their jobs, but in this scenario they have to take the time to develop their listening skills instead of telling others what to do,” says Chase. Next, encourage managers to “walk the four corners” of the company on a daily basis, along the way interacting with employees in all departments, asking questions and listening to concerns. “The key is to make yourself visible,” says Chase. “That’s really important to employees, and it goes a long way in creating bonds and relationships that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Plus, you learn more about people, which in turn supplies you with better input regarding their management potential.”
Connecting the dots
Precasters striving to connect the dots between production and management personnel should involve their production supervisors in the process, according to Chase, who sees these individuals playing an essential role in a smooth-running plant. “Production supervisors should also maintain good housekeeping safety and quality,” says Chase. Where many of them fall short, however, is in the management tactics and skills – something they didn’t necessarily learn while working on the plant floor (where many supervisors get their start). “They need training on how to interact with the employees (the ‘people skills’) that they’re overseeing and help understanding the difference between their past and current responsibilities,” says Chase.
The opposite scenario can also pose challenges, according to Gustavo Gonzalez, president of Safe-T At Work LLC in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Some managers have never been involved in the production process and don’t understand the basic fundamentals behind it,” he points out. Or they limit their presence on the floor to a short walk in the morning to reassure themselves that everything is running. “Some are good at reading reports and figures, but lack the basic concept of how to mix concrete. Others rely on the plant superintendent or manager to keep them informed.”
Gonzalez says bridging the gap between production and management is not an issue that is unique to precasters. It impacts every business enterprise that wants to find continuity in its operations. “If we as precasters do not produce a consistent product – with built-in quality, in an efficient manner, and delivered on time – the organization plainly ceases to exist,” says Gonzalez. “Management and production are in place to complement each other in their respective functions, and this is a relationship that should be based on trust and effective communication.”
Karen Gureghian, a Minneapolis-based HR consultant, says the key to building these relationships is communication. For example, she’s seen manufacturing companies set up television monitors in the production break area and then use the displays to disseminate regular updates on new accounts, business developments, company performance and company news.
Setting up regular employee meetings – either formal or informal – where current and relevant information can be shared between departments is another step in the right direction. “You want constant communication back and forth between employees and the management team,” says Gureghian. “This really helps to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Overcoming the hurdles
If building relationships between management and production is on your company’s “to do” list for 2013, expect the effort to be met with skepticism – at least initially. “That skepticism will be the first hurdle as management works to convince production that this isn’t some new fad or experiment,” says Gonzalez. As mentioned earlier, building trust should be the first step, as it will allow managers to “walk the walk” and serve as proper role models, he adds.
Next, figure out if your company actually has a problem in this area, and whether top and supervisory managers recognize the issue – or not. If they don’t, getting them to cooperate and become engaged with any new initiative will be difficult at best. “If management doesn’t think it has a relationship problem, then any other step or strategy will be useless,” Gonzalez warns. “The first questions to ask are, ‘Do I really know what is going on at my plant? Can I step into the plant and recognize if we have a problem or not?’ If the answer to these questions is no, then it is time to take a Concrete Production 101 course,” he adds.
When and if management recognizes that there is a relationship problem, Gonzalez says the next step is for those personnel to educate themselves in the production process and understand the issues that may or may not affect the bottom line of the business. “They need to participate, get involved, listen to the production personnel, and try to find solutions together,” he advises.
Establishing two-way lines of communication will be another key step for most manufacturers, and in particular those that haven’t historically cultivated such conduits. “One-way communication may be effective between kings and servants, but it has outlived its purpose,” says Gonzalez. “To be most effective, management must listen to the feedback from production and react accordingly. Money is not made behind a desk in a fancy office, but it is made pouring concrete in the forms.”
Reaping the rewards
Precasters who take the time to assess, cultivate and/or fix the bonds between their production and management personnel can expect big rewards in return. Not only will the workplace itself be more harmonious, but plant floor personnel will be more productive, safer and loyal. Managers will be able to allocate their time and efforts more effectively as well.
“Almost immediately you’ll see higher morale among employees and a greater sense of purpose across the workforce,” says Gonzalez. Other key benefits include lower absenteeism rates, more teamwork, better return on investment (in human resources) and – ultimately – higher profits and a healthier bottom line for the company as a whole.
Having worked with a number of manufacturers that have successfully improved their management-production bonds, Chase says putting the time and effort into this exercise also yields better trust and respect levels within the employee, supervisor and management ranks. “When these measures increase, you wind up with better results across the board,” says Chase, who adds that housekeeping, safety, production efficiency and quality levels also benefit from these efforts.
“All four areas – safety in particular – need attention and must achieve certain levels of success in a precast concrete plant,” Chase says. “So as you improve the relationships and communication between management, supervisors and employees, you can also expect improvements in these other areas as well.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.