By Bridget McCrea
When employees fall into bad habits, cut corners or chose to ignore company policies and procedures, a few things can happen. For one, productivity drops as workers focus on activities that don’t align with the company’s overall goals. Safety issues also come into play – particularly at precast concrete plants, where working with heavy machinery is part of the job. Finally, multiple employees – or even the entire staff – can follow suit by taking part in the corner-cutting.
At ARTO Brick and California Pavers in Gardena, Calif., Armen Alajian, president of the 70-employee company, knows the dangers of giving employees a little too much slack. To make sure everyone is working from the same playbook every day, the company’s managers hold morning prep meetings, ask questions of team members throughout the day and then close out the work day with another meeting.
“Asking questions and holding employees accountable helps keep them on their toes,” said Alajian.
Alajian said the additional growth in the attention paid to worker productivity and processes has correlated to company growth. In 2008, for example, the company employed just 28 workers.
“During the economic collapse, we knew we had to grow or die,” said Alajian, whose managers have added workers slowly over the last seven years. “We went from having 100 customers to having 500 national customers. To manage that growth, we had to ramp up our human resources.”
With that ramp up came more responsibility for ARTO Brick’s managers.
“When we were a team of 28, we all knew one another and were accountable as a team,” said Alajian, who sees the daily managerial oversight as a good way to help cultivate happier, more engaged employees who feel like they belong to the team.
“The employees who are happy and engaged will be less likely to fall into bad habits in the workplace,” he said. “They also make better products.”
Ongoing training and enrichment
The fact that employee engagement and productivity are top of mind for precasters like Alajian is refreshing news for Lori Bruhns, a productivity trainer and mentor in Hillsborough, N.C.
“Too many companies just let their employees sink or swim, never training them on the fine points of how to operate safely and effectively in the workplace,” said Bruhns. “That not only hinders new employees’ progress, but it also hurts existing employees who need regular reinforcement on rules, policies and procedures.”
By combining new employees’ training with regular, ongoing enrichment for existing workers, Bruhns said companies will be better able to retain workers and ensure consistently good work habits on the plant floor, in the administrative offices and out in the field. For example, a brown bag lunch meeting once a month to discuss any new regulations, policies, challenges or customer issues can be a simple way to get the team together and work toward common goals. During such meetings, managers can easily bring up problem areas to the group to avoid singling out employees and to ensure that the entire team understands the situation and is ready to do something about it.
For new employees, Bruhns tells precasters to start talking about good work habits on day one.
“Don’t wait until a problem comes up and don’t rely on someone’s preconceived notions about good work habits to align with yours,” she advises.
Hand out an up-to-date company policy and procedures manual during orientation, she suggests, and take the time to go over it page by page to ensure that there are no questions or concerns on the employee’s part. Use the same materials for ongoing company training, particularly if any changes are made to the manual.
“Veteran employees can easily get into a rut and start doing things how they think they should be doing them, instead of by the book,” said Bruhns. “Use your manual and the associated training to aid them in keeping a fresh perspective on the company’s ideals. This not only helps ensure longevity with great employees, but it also helps retain new ones.”
Don’t wait for a problem to happen
Bruhns said companies that take the time to train new and existing employees on the value of good work habits are hard to find.
“They generally don’t want to spend the money or the time to do the correct training on a continual basis,” said Bruhns. “They would rather wait until there was a real problem on their hands and then address it on a case-by-case basis.”
This approach can be particularly dangerous in the industrial manufacturing environment, due to the types of activities taking place on the plant floor and the associated safety issues.
Greg Roache, president at Gainey’s Concrete Products in Holden, La., is well aware of the dangers of letting employees cut corners and fall into poor work habits. With 74 employees, Roache focuses strategically on the safety-related issues associated with his facilities, which at one point boasted a five-year record with no lost time or work accidents.
After the five-year streak of no lost time or work accidents ended, Roache and his team immediately started holding Monday morning meetings focused entirely on safety – both administrative/Occupational Safety and Health Association safety and practical safety such as habits, approaches, activities of employees, etc.
“We went so far as to define the attitudes of prospective employees,” said Roache, “knowing that the person who got a speeding ticket for going 70 mph in a 30 mph zone could be a sign of a potential safety problem.”
Monday meetings often focused on simple safety topics and demonstrations such as how to effectively prevent cement burns by using gloves and barrier creams. Managers also use handouts to reinforce the meeting topics and field questions. In addition, the nine managers at Gainey’s get together once a week to discuss all of the current issues that are impacting the company, including employee disciplinary write-ups, safety issues and other important topics.
Gainey’s also uses departmental Job Safety Analysis reports that are submitted to the company’s safety manager each day. In post-production, for example, the company would use a JSA to introduce a new process that incorporates cold-tar epoxy. The document, signed by employees, would detail safety procedures. The frontline manager would go over the JSA and then workers sign off on it at the end of the day if no safety issues or injuries occurred.
“If they sign off on the JSA and said there were no injuries that day then someone can’t go home, hurt themselves, and come back and say that it happened in post-production the day before,” Roache said. “It’s just an added layer of protection for us and for our employees.”
Addressing the labor issue
As quality labor becomes more and more difficult to find in today’s recovering economic climate, Roache said precasters will have to find ways to keep their new and veteran workers engaged, on task and doing the right thing.
“We have a quality of labor problem in this country, and sometimes I feel like we shoot ourselves in the foot with our strict attendance policies,” said Roache. “Not only are we expecting people to work in hot and dirty environments, but we also want them to be drug-free and able to operate safely in our workplace. The pool of people who qualify for that is getting pretty small.”
To offset some of those challenges, Roache said having a full-time safety officer on board, instituting a regular meeting schedule and holding employees accountable to the company’s policies, procedures and guidelines through the use of tools like JSAs are all good strategies.
“Keeping your safety record where it needs to be is far less expensive than paying for your worker’s comp when your safety rating isn’t where it should be,” said Roache, who advises companies to reach out to fellow NPCA members for help and support in this area. “Use your network.”
Ready, set, go!
Along with training, employee accountability measures and JSAs, Teresa Lensch, CEO at BusinessTrainingKits.com in Dallas, said simply setting expectations with frontline leaders can go a long way in helping to ensure good habits go far in today’s workplace.
“Individuals who are managing others must understand the company’s expectations, story, culture and mission,” Lensch points out. “This may seem like an obvious thing, but having a sheet available that outlines all of the firm’s key values and expectations as far as behaviors go can really help in this area.”
When it comes to correcting bad habits, Lensch said that sometimes these are tolerated based on a worker’s tenure with the company, relationship to its ownership/leadership (particularly in a family-owned firm) or other situation that may not be easily reversed.
“If this is happening in your company, you’ll want to address it right away,” Lensch advises, “because new employees may pick up those bad habits if they see that those activities are being tolerated by managers and leaders.”
Ultimately, Lensch said company owners, leaders and managers shouldn’t be afraid to intervene when they see certain behaviors that go against the grain or that clearly violate company policies and procedures.
“Address it right away and in a very positive and reinforcing way,” said Lensch. “Don’t wait six months. Embed it in your daily conversations with employees and you’ll have a much better chance of making the desired habits the ‘norm.’”
Practice makes perfect
Management is hard work and requires consistent efforts to improve not only the performance of the employees but also the manager. Implementing policies and procedures that are strictly adhered to will help managers and employees consistently perform better. These, in combination with a company culture that strives for improvement and regular face-to-face interaction, will go a long way in ensuring a safe, productive and enjoyable workplace.
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.