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The power of the shop floor: how to engage employees in improvements

Factory solution

In many companies, the value of the shop floor is insufficiently exploited. As a result, improvement projects fail, major investments do not yield sufficient returns and sub-optimal processes remain in place. The solution is simple: listen to operations, involve them in projects, facilitate their input. How do you organize that involvement and what does that support yield? Robert Bouwman, co-founder and owner of EZ Factory, based in hub Beta, talks about it in this interview with Philippe Hameleers, project manager at Kwattaas.  

EZ factory develops apps that allow operators to easily perform and manage autonomous maintenance. With this tool, operators can work more effectively and efficiently and continuously improve operational processes themselves. Philippe Hameleers carries out improvement projects in industry from Kwattaas and was previously production manager at Tata Steel. His approach focuses on involving all levels of the organization. In this article, Robert and Philippe share their experiences and give tips.

The value of the workplace

When we talk about the shop floor, what do we really mean? Philippe Hameleers is very clear: "The shop floor is where the most value is added in a company. This is where something is actually made. People are honest and respond primarily with emotion and feeling to things that matter to them: their own daily work. It is the most important place in the whole company.' And yet, when it comes to big decisions or improvements, this important group seems to be lost sight of. Robert sees it happen regularly in practice: 'Then a technical team develops a wonderful tool for production, without involving the operators. That way, that tool is not going to deliver what you expect. On the one hand because you probably missed crucial information in the development and on the other hand because there is no support for it.' Philippe: 'That's because the knowledge and experience of the shop floor is still often underestimated.'

Intrinsic motivation

'Underestimating that costs an awful lot of time and money,' Robert continues. 'It is often forgotten that operators also come with a mountain of experience, knowledge and insight. After all, you need the people who know all the practical aspects of the various business processes through and through to achieve good improvements. Otherwise, it can lead to plans and investments that theoretically seem logical, but leave out the practical side too much.' Philippe sums it up dryly, "Someone who has been on the line for 30 years knows more about his own work than someone with a smart study who has been in the office for two years. It's a mortal sin, the men want to say. Robert: 'Also because in doing so you leave a huge source of energy untapped: intrinsic motivation. Most operators want to do their job as well as possible; nobody likes batches that are rejected or machines that jam. If you use that motivation, you can get a lot done.'

Someone with thirty years on the line knows more about their own work than someone with a smart study who spends two years in the office

Why doesn't it happen?

It sounds very logical, and most management books also state that "involving the shop floor" is important. Yet this appears to happen very little at many companies in practice - why really? 'Some managers and engineers think they have all the necessary knowledge and information,' says Robert. 'But you can't know what you don't know. I made that mistake myself. As a chemical technologist, I started my career at AkzoNobel. I enthusiastically went to work on an issue, came up with a fantastic solution, and then proceeded to tell the men in the measuring room how they could better regulate the process, without having taken into account their practice. They laughed heartily at me, and rightly so. As a manager or support staff member, you can learn a lot by listening to the shop floor. You help people the most by facilitating them, not by telling them in detail how to do their work.' Philippe sees another reason: "Managers sometimes find it difficult to connect. They are busy and sometimes miss the round on the shop floor. Then they don't visit production for a while and suddenly they need people because there is a problem. Involving the shop floor does not start when there is a problem, it starts before that. A good personal relationship with employees is the basis of every good working relationship.'

Engaging the shop floor does not start when there is a problem, it starts right before that. A good personal relationship with employees is the basis of any good working relationship.

How do you tackle it?

This doesn't mean having coffee with all production workers every day or calling the whole company together on every purchase, but how should it be done? Together, Philippe and Robert arrive at some clear principles.

  1. Start before there is a problem

'Walk that round the shop floor regularly, make sure there is enough informal contact, at least with the team leaders. That way you know what's going on, and people feel involved. You see any problems sooner and people feel taken seriously when you start working on them. This applies both to day-to-day operations and to the use of digital tools.

  1. Name the problem from a common perspective

'You want everyone to co-own the problem, then they also become co-owners of the solution. So briefly explain the situation and ask how they perceive it. What are they suffering from? Supplement that with your own analysis: the numbers, the charts, the circumstances. Also invite the employees to supplement that. What information do they have that you are still missing? In this way, also test what their feelings are about this situation and how they see their own role.'

  1. Look for root causes together

'Often a problem is just a symptom and the cause lies deeper. So start a conversation: have you experienced this before, what was the cause then? Do you have your own ideas about the machines, the materials, the working methods? When a solution is thought up, test it together with one or more operators.'

  1. Lay down an objective

'Every improvement project includes a desired outcome. Make that outcome concrete and quantify it. For example, reducing production interruptions translates into: reducing the number of breakdowns of a particular machine in steps from five to no more than once a day. Make sure you agree together on an achievable but sufficiently ambitious goal.'

  1. Facilitate: give the time and tools to do it

'Ask the people involved what they need to achieve that objective. Perhaps some of their regular duties need to be temporarily taken over by someone else, or they need certain materials. Many projects break down because an employee is expected to do it in addition to their regular job. So estimate together how much time is needed to get to the solution - and make sure you create the conditions for that.'

  1. Structure with steps and a timeline

'The most important task of a manager in improvement processes is to structure. Make a plan, divide tasks, be clear about responsibilities. Divide the project into clear steps with a clear timeline. Steer accordingly, schedule the necessary consultation moments. Not to call people to account, but to check whether things are going as expected, whether other things are necessary. Don't shy away from personal contact either. Often operators in such project situations are out of their comfort zone. Ask if things are going well, if they still like it, if there are things you can help them with.'

  1. Celebrate the achievement of intermediate goals

'Everyone likes results. By setting interim goals, you also have something to celebrate regularly. Do that. Name the progress, show how it brings you closer to the final goal. If it takes too long to see concrete results, you can be sure that other priorities will take over.'

  1. Evaluate and secure at the appropriate level

'Of course you also celebrate the achievement of the final goal. Acknowledge the efforts of those involved, don't be too frugal in that. But also don't forget to safeguard. Once the system has been implemented, or the process has been modified, or inventories have been reduced, how do you keep it at the right level? Is the system indeed being used properly, are the processes now working flawlessly or are other bottlenecks becoming apparent, are those inventories staying so low and working optimally? Therefore, create evaluation moments even after the project. You don't always have to be in the middle of this yourself. After some time, move this to the regular organization, make it part of the team meeting, for example.'

  1. Step away

'An interim manager, or a line manager leading an improvement project, has to get out after a while. Then the activities become "business as usual. Just make sure the roles and responsibilities are well divided. Small improvements are an excellent topic for team consultation. If larger adjustments are needed after an improvement project, that fits better at the MT level. And for major structural issues, a new improvement project can be started.'


Philippe and Robert acknowledge that there are also exceptions to this practice. Philippe:

'In times of acute crisis, there is no time to go through such a very democratic process. When things go wrong, it is best to impose measures quickly as a decisive manager, even if they are unpopular. Yet, especially in those cases, there are a few things you must not forget. First, don't do it too often and establish that there really is no other way. Otherwise you will get decision inflation and such decisions will soon no longer be taken seriously. Second, even in the case of hasty measures, you have to evaluate afterwards, when the storm has subsided. Then you explain why it was done this way and what it achieved. This is also a good time to get more people involved. Together you can discuss what is needed to prevent such a situation in the future.'

The project runs easier and produces better results if you have people from the operation at the table as early as possible.

Leverage that capital!

Robert still sees that people find this difficult, despite all the benefits. 'In industry, organizations want to move forward and are sometimes afraid that a process that involves too many people will lead to disagreement and delays. That would end up costing money. Yet the opposite is often true. On the contrary, we see that the project runs easier and produces a better result if you have people from the operation at the table as early as possible. Philippe concludes: 'We as Kwattaas often come in when a project does not seem to be getting off to a good start, or when there are problems. Then you pull it off best by talking to people at all levels, by making them part of the solution, by structuring and facilitating. Then an enormous amount of knowledge, experience and energy is released. That is the most important key to any improvement project.'