Working hard or hardly working

Posted on 8 Feb 2011 by The Manufacturer

No matter whether they are on the shop floor, in sales, logistics or sitting in the corner office, a manufacturer’s employees are not only the powerhouse of the business, but often also the biggest cost. Tim Brown talks to a number of experts and discovers some techniques for enhancing employee productivity.

At the Advanced Manufacturing Summit, last month, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stated that “the satisfaction of making things is hard to beat.” While the pronouncement may have been aimed more at encouraging the next generation of manufacturing workers and engineers, it surely rings true with the current generation of workers. Clegg isn’t, of course, speaking from personal experience — he is not an industrialist per se. He has, however, as Member of Parliament for the manufacturing-rich Sheffield Hallam constituency, undoubtedly witnessed the high level of fulfilment and pride that is found in his local manufacturing sector.

Ownership breeds continuity
While a good level of job satisfaction will do much for morale and staff productivity, it is the process of maintaining that level of employee interest that is often difficult. “The most significant thing we have found is that employee productivity correlates exactly with the amount of involvement employees have in maintaining the machinery they operate,” says Jennifer James, senior training consultant for MCP Consulting and Training. “This extends to providing training in those areas its. It’s about involving employees in asset care and management rather than doing it for them or telling them to do something but rather getting them involved.” According to James, developing ownership requires not simply the provision of responsibility but, to ensure success, operators need to be properly trained in how to perform operations, cleaning, inspecting and changeovers. “Only low level maintenance skills are required but they need to be trained to do it properly,” she says. “The problem with most areas that I’ve worked before is that operators have a go because they are being urged to keep the machines running. However, in the long term that leads to more downtime if employees are not performing the tasks correctly.” Andrew Pownall, engineering and manufacturing operating director of recruitment agency Michael Page, says it is just as important for workers to know why they are being trained. To do this, employees “need to understand the whole business and understand the impact that their own work performance actually has on the whole manufacturing process.” Doing this, he says, allows staff members to see the contribution their responsibilities make to the complete project — and thereby ensures training has a greater impact. In addition, if a staff member appreciates the reasons why things are done in a certain way and also the end result impact of a procedural failing, then the rules are more likely to be followed.

The importance of ownership is a sentiment echoed by Linda Rawson, learning and development manager at Sheffield-based Gripple. As the 2010 winner of The Manufacturer’s People and Skills Award, the construction and agricultural materials producer is well placed to comment on staffing measures to increase efficiency. “Everybody has ownership of their own area and staff that use equipment have empowerment in that area and have responsibilities to look after that equipment,” says Rawson. “We actually work on a very lean and continuous improvement ethos, which means that everybody gets involved in continuous improvement.

Improvements won’t be driven by management; it will be driven by a team of people that have a vested interest in that particular area.” Gripple has taken the idea of area ownership a step further by implementing a system under which every employee actually owns a portion of the company — having a vested interest in its productivity as a result. About 98% of its employees in the UK are now shareholders, and while at present they are non-voting shares, that is set to change. In April, the company will implement the ‘Glide Board’, which will represent the workers and allow them to have a say in the kind of place they work.

“Every employee has to hold a minimum of £1000 worth of shares because our chairman believes that if you are given something, you don’t value it, but if you buy it you do,” says Rawson. “Employees can buy more shares but have to hold a minimum of £1,000. There are low interest loans available to enable people to buy the shares. Employees must partake in the shareholding programme after they have been with the company for a year.”

Communication and community Providing easy mechanisms for communication is vital for individual and business productivity. Gripple operates an open office system where there are no barriers from one employee to another, so there is a direct line of communication throughout the hierarchy of staff. In addition, information is fed fluidly through the company via a range of meetings. “The management board of directors meets every week and team leaders and other managers meet either daily or weekly and information is cascaded down,” says Rawson. “Because we have a very open office and we are an open organisation, information is often communicated very naturally and easily.” This function is formalised when, at the end of each of Gripple’s eight accounting periods per annum, the company holds a communications meeting that includes the entire staff of about 175.

Keeping the staff informed of the direction of business operations is certainly important. Equally so, however, is the act of engaging for the purpose of actively seeking employee opinion. “You will often find that the staff are best placed to make improvement suggestions,” says Pownall of Michael Page. “It might only be one in twenty suggestions that you take forward, but it might be the one that saves you £50k or it might improve a process for you. Devising a method to allow that to happen such as a suggestion box and perhaps offering incentives will encourage it further.” This level of communication feeds back in to developing a sense of ownership and control for staff and promotes commitment.

In addition to a healthy level of communication, the actual physical layout of a work place is extremely important when it comes to maximising productivity.

While many managers and business owners choose to suffice with a certain minimum level of office facilities, they may be ignoring what can amount to a major obstacle on the path to increasing employee productivity. Improving work flow processes and reducing waste is important to prevent feelings of disillusionment amongst workers.

There are any number of tools and mechanisms that can assist in getting the most from employees, and the right combination will vary from business to business. What remains certain is that staff productivity is key to business continuity and success. Facilitating staff engagement and allowing them to ‘own’ their particular processes is, however, an excellent and highly recommended place to start.

Delegating responsibility is not enough, and in-depth training and communication will assist to ensure the nurturing of an industrious and dynamic team.