How to engage manufacturing workers?

Photo via James Wu, Flickr

It’s no secret that it’s essential to engage workers if you want optimum company performance. And who doesn’t? In the next few weeks we’ll look at ways to engage workers across a variety of businesses. Here’s a closer look at how to engage manufacturing workers.

The power of workplace engagement

First, some overall information about employee engagement. Alison M. Konrad, a professor of organizational behavior and the Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management at Ivey Business School addresses engaging workers in “Engaging Employees Through High-involvement Work Practices”:

“Employee engagement can be critically important to competitiveness in the contemporary business environment. The Gallup Organization, which studied employee engagement in 7,939 business units in 36 companies, found that employee engagement was positively associated with performance in a variety of areas, including increased customer satisfaction, profitability and productivity, and reduced employee turnover.”

Recent research suggests that high-involvement work practices can develop the positive beliefs and attitudes associated with employee engagement, and that these practices can generate the kinds of discretionary behaviors that lead to enhanced performance. Simply put, employees who conceive, design and implement workplace and process changes are engaged employees.”

Employee engagement has three related components, she writes:

  • Cognitive—employees’ beliefs about the organization, its leaders, and working conditions
  • Emotional—how employees feel about each of those three factors and whether they have positive or negative attitudes toward the organization and its leaders
  • Behavioral—the discretionary effort engaged employees bring to their work in the form of extra time, brainpower and energy devoted to the task and the firm

She cites organizational effectiveness scholar Edward Lawler and his colleagues, who have identified four interlocking principles for building a high-involvement work system. Managers should provide employees with:

  • Power—to make workplace decisions
  • Knowledge—through training to build their skills and enable them to implement decisions effectively
  • Information—about how their actions affect business unit performance
  • Rewards—for their efforts to improve performance

Need For Customizing Employee Engagement

Designing and implementing a high-involvement system is not a trivial task, Konrad notes.

“Although the four principles of power, knowledge, information and rewards can be generalized to both manufacturing and service environments, their application to any particular workplace requires fitting these principles to specific and somewhat unique situations.”

Managers and employees must work together to virtually remake the entire organization through the process of self-design, she writes.

“Self-design can start with small pilot projects almost anywhere in the organization, and handing responsibility for a piece of an interdependent system over to employees can naturally result in the cascading of employee involvement throughout the work flow process. Hence, high involvement is a rigorous, long-term process, but the result can be a uniquely structured organization with highly engaged employees and a strategic advantage over competitors.”

How to Engage Manufacturing Workers

So how do Lawler’s four principles for employee engagement apply as manufacturing plant leaders strive to engage workers? IndustryWeek (IW) presents best practices in a slide show by Patricia Panchak, editor in chief, “How IW Best Plants Engage Employees”:

“Finalists and winners of the IndustryWeek Best Plants Award share many best practices, but it’s their workforce practices that seem, to me, the least likely to be replicated and, thus, more likely to create the greatest barrier to competition.

Put simply, the facilities that make the finals tend to get the most from their plant floor production workforce by engaging the employee in full—their hearts and minds, as well as their hands and backs. It sounds simple and, in a way it is. But it’s not easy.”

She lists workforce best practices recent IndustryWeek Best Plants finalists and winners use to engage manufacturing workers:

  1. Monetary awards recognize individual, team and company performance. They say money isn’t the best motivator, but it is one important way companies recognize employee achievements. The top four reasons plants deliver monetary awards are for individual and team performance, learning new skills, and profit sharing.
  2. Production employees take on managerial functions at successful plants. At the most successful plants, production employees are responsible for tasks that a manager would be in many factories, including Quality Assurance, Daily Job Assignments, Training, Materials Management, Inter-team Communications, Safety Review and Compliance, and Environmental Compliance.
  3. Production employees know the score at successful factories. Nearly all IW Best Plants finalist and winning factories share financial information with their employees.
  4. Successful plants implement employee suggestions. In lean thinking (as defined by the Lean Enterprise Institute), the story goes, problems get solved by those closest to where the work is done. Top manufacturers not only seek out continuous improvement suggestions from their production employees, they actually implement them.
  5. Successful plants help employees develop new skills. IW Best Plants finalist and winning companies offer a significant amount of both formal and on-the-job training and skill development opportunities.

If your company has plant workers, are you following these best practices? If not, maybe it’s time for some self-design to capture what your company can uniquely do to engage worker’s hearts and minds!

For a comprehensive guide to growing a sustained workplace culture of engagement and appreciation, download our FREE eBook: Transform Your Workplace with Gratitude.
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