Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Employee Engagement: Improving a Damaged Process

One company I worked for made flexible pouches for the medical device, food and military markets.

I'd just recently joined and was following my first order through the plant, so I was still getting to know the people in the production department as well as the processes they used to make our products.

When I came around to the line where my customer's product was being made, I noticed nearly all the operators had bandaids on their thumbs.  So I asked one of them why so many people were wearing bandaids.

This particular customer's product was formed and then diecut to shape in a second operation. To ensure the printing on the pouch was in register to the seals and the overall shape of the pouch, we used what is called a pin registration system. This means that, when the pouch is formed, a series of holes are simultaneously punched around the perimeter of the pouch. When the pouch is diecut, it is placed on a board with a steel ruled die and the holes punched in the pouch fit onto pins mounted in the die board to ensure the pouch is cut consistently and with print in register with the seals and the overall shape.

In this case, the operator explained they were puncturing their thumbs as they struggled to stretch the pouch over the die board to align pins with holes in the pouch. The pins being used were actually nails which, of course, had sharp points.  Moreover, the nails were aluminum roofing nails and were so soft the operators were constantly trying to straighten them out - the tension of the stretched pouch was causing the roofing nails to bend.

This particular product was new to me, but had been run before in our plant and the operator told me this was how the company had been doing this operation "for years."

I liked the ingenuity of using nails for registration pins, however, the type of nail being used was so soft they would only be truly in register the first time they were used.  As more pouches were cut, the nails became more and more distorted.

I went to the production manager and suggested they modify the design of the die to use steel nails, which were much stiffer and more resilient.  I explained the operators were getting injured from using the original die design and the aluminum nails were not helping us produce a consistent product.

The next day, I found the diecutting operation going a bit quicker, and the die boards now had steel nails instead of aluminum.  I asked the operators what they thought.  They told me the new "pins" lasted much longer and they didn't have to keep trying to bend the pins straight.  However, the pins were still nails and they still had sharp points.  People weren't getting hurt so easily, but they were still getting hurt.

Now I spoke with our plant engineer about the issue in our diecutting department.  Like me, he thought using nails as pins was resourceful, but still a long way from being a best-in-class die design.  He modified the pin system to incorporate spring-loaded steel pins with rounded tops.

When we introduced these to the diecutting department, the feedback from the operators was very positive and productivity improved.

I think the operators in this plant appreciated having someone come out to see how they were struggling with a poorly designed process.  Even though our first modification - from aluminum to steel nails - wasn't a complete success, it showed the operators someone was listening to them.  We reinforced that by getting more input from the operators, which led to our plant engineer's solution.

Another thing I found was that, when I went out into the production floor, the operators seemed much more helpful and friendly.  People opened up.  We talked about families, pets, hobbies - and about the processes we used to make our products.  One operator gave me a complete tour of her department - just because I asked "why do you do things this.....?"

Let there be no doubt about it, the people in the diecutting department knew they had a faulty process.  But management either wasn't listening or was just too cheap to do things the right way.  The employees were afraid to ask for improvements.  It just took someone from the front office going out to ask how things were going to get the feedback and drive some action to remedy the issue.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Employee Engagement: Building a Better Workplace

This week, I'm going to switch gears and, instead of relating an anecdote, I'd like to share some things I learned in a recent webinar given by the Canadian Management Centre.

In August, 2012, Ipsos Reid prepared a report on employee engagement in Canada.   They interviewed 1,200 employees at over 500 companies, as well as 484 human resources managers.  The report covered 25 industry sectors. 

As managers, we'd love to think that our employees absolutely enjoy working for our companies.  However, the Ipsos-Reid study indicated that only just over a quarter - 27% - of employees consider themselves engaged.  Disturbingly, 23% classed themselves as totally disengaged.

I think it's safe to say most employees would be quite content to stay with the same employer throughout their careers.  However the study suggested only 37% of employees think their employers are doing a good job of retaining good employees.

What are the economic effects of employee engagement?

One school of thought is that the cost of employee disengagement is the product of one year's average salary times the rate of voluntary turnover (i.e., employees who resign)

According to Ipsos-Reid, employees who are highly engaged in their jobs are 2-1/2 times more likely to consider themselves satisfied with their jobs - and 1-1/2 times more likely to excel in their jobs. To me, this suggests that companies who foster engagement among their employees will have a team that outperforms their competitors.

This correlates with popular wisdom among sales managers that sales people who strongly believe in the product (or service) they're selling are the ones most likely to succeed.  Their passion about the product is infectious and helps them persuade customers to buy.  Their passion - and success - make the job fun, and that makes it a lot easier to get out of the office and make calls on customers, which, in turn, generates even more sales.

A key factor in building employee engagement is for managers to actively get out of their offices and spend time getting to know the people on the front lines.  Really, this is a matter of communication, and the Ipsos-Reid study dealt also with how communication impacts engagement.

Interestingly, another payoff for developing engagement is that, by moving an employee from actively disengaged to highly engaged reduces the likelihood of them leaving the organization by 92%.  If your best and brightest aren't engaged, cultivating positive relationships with them could be your best way to avoid losing them.

According to the study, overall, 68% of Canadian workers are at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs.  When workplace issues (such as working conditions, business cycles, potential layoffs etc.) are seen by employees as being communicated in a timely manner, job satisfaction increased to 88%.

The interaction of "management by walking around" probably is one of the best ways of building engagement because it promotes regular flow of information back and forth between manager and employee.  It permits some key company initiatives to be conveyed informally (which may also be perceived as more sincere) and allows employees to express concerns before they build up to a crisis.

The webinar is posted on YouTube.  Here's a link to take you there:


Another CMC webinar from December 2012 presents highlights of the study.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Employee Engagement: "It's Not in My Job Description"

For me, the sentence, "It's not in my job description", is a huge red flag.

It's a sure sign someone is not a team player.  It's a sign someone is a taker, not a giver. It's a sign someone is self-centered, putting their importance ahead of others.

I think I've said before how influential summer jobs can be, and today I'd like to share with you why I feel so strongly about the phrase in the title of this post.

Between my second and third years in university, I worked in the drill squad of the world famous Fort Henry Guard, based in Kingston, Ontario.

One of the unofficial mottoes of the Guard was "Remain Flexible".  The meaning of this was that, at any time, you could be asked to be a sentry, on gun drill, tour guide or cleaning up. Duties for sentry duty or gun drills were assigned each day, but sometimes we had more visitors than expected, which meant you had to be prepared to take on some new assignments.

While this may have been just a summer job, I think these principles hold true in any well-run organization.

In larger organizations, we tend to be slotted into narrowly defined roles and responsibilities that make it hard to be as flexible as we were at Old Fort Henry.  In smaller organizations, the ability to be functional in job roles outside your core responsibilities is vital.

At one company, our purchasing manager lost both parents within weeks of each other.  She was overwhelmed not only with the loss, but also the responsibilities of attending to both their estates.  As a result, she found it difficult to keep up with her job responsibilities, and purchasing was an area in which we were extremely thin on manpower.

While this was happening, we were also having quality issues with a company that supplied a critical laminated material for one of our products.  They were unable to identify for us whether the issues was the result of a fault in the lamination process or a defective batch of material. We knew we needed to find an alternate supplier for this lamination, and the process for finding one was normally managed by purchasing.

Because of the quality issue, we were prevented from manufacturing a product for one of our key customers, who were anxious to know when we would be able to re-commence supply.  They needed answers, not excuses.

I offered to take the lead on finding alternative suppliers because, in the end, it was a customer-driven issue: we had a customer who could not market their product because we were unable to supply a critical component.  So, while my job role was sales, handling a purchasing issue was also a way of solving a supply chain issue for a customer.

The more I researched companies who made one of the materials in the lamination we purchased, the more I came to realize there were literally only a handful of companies in the world who had the capabilities of making the material used, let alone being able to meet our specifications.  (Our customer thought there would be hundreds of companies who made this material and changing suppliers could be done in a couple of weeks). We were fortunate that two of those suppliers were located within a half-day's drive of our plant, so I visited them both to get a better understanding of the challenges in making the material we needed.

One of these suppliers analyzed samples of the lamination we used - both past and current - and determined that the incumbent had, despite protests otherwise, switched recipes and companies they purchased their materials from.  We now had scientific evidence to support our allegations there had been material substitutions.

A few weeks later, when our purchasing manager returned from bereavement leave, I took her to meet the company we felt represented the best opportunity to supply the lamination we needed.  This gave her a chance to see the plant as well as meet the executive team and allowed me an opportunity to transition the supplier search back to her so she could begin qualification trials.

Taking on a task normally done by purchasing gave me some insights into the challenge purchasing people face in searching for and selecting suppliers.  Given the circumstances, it helped forge a stronger relationship between sales and purchasing While helping the company respond to a customer in need.

When I left this company, the purchasing manager was the first person to come into my office and give me a hug and tell me how much they'd miss me.  I was really touched by this and it is a moment I will never forget.

I hope you can see that, in this situation, the roles of sales and purchasing were very strongly interdependent. Had we stuck to our job roles, we might still have solved the supply chain issue for our customer, but at the cost of several weeks being unable to supply them. Blurring the lines between sales and purchasing in this case demonstrated that our company really required a team effort to survive - and thrive.