The factory floor of many organisations is the wild west of the work place.
Much of the work is extremely repetitive and boring. The factory conditions and remuneration packages often leave much to be desired. The result is many staff that are actively disengaged doing as little as they can get away with.
It takes a special leader to make sustainable change in such work places. If a company truly wants to build a top to bottom organisation where everyone is aligned by a deeply felt sense of purpose then don’t forget to involve the little guys!
What does it mean to build an organisation in which everyone is aligned by a deeply felt sense of purpose…?
The problem is that many organisations cannot or will not get everyone involved.
Many organisational engagement initiatives are driven out of corporate levels and involve teams within view of these senior managers. These teams are often made up of educated staff and it is relatively easy to implement programmes that unleash imagination, initiative, and energy from every quarter, and sustain these initiatives.
Relative that is to the factory floor workforce. Those workshops and assembly lines where teams of staff are working shifts in often cramped, noisy conditions doing mostly repetitive work. This is a far more daunting place to roll out companywide aligned visions, purpose, improvement and engagement programmes.
These factory floor workshops are akin to the wild west of the work place, and are quite capable of sending unprepared managers back to the Ivory towers quaking in their boots or shaking their heads.
Why might this be?
1. Many of these factory floor roles are excruciatingly boring. And no amount of job rotation and enrichment work initiatives can cover up for this fact.
2. Many of these roles pay low or minimum allowable wages. For the analytical types, get your calculator out and spend a few minutes working out how these people can actually live with dignity on those wages in the modern world. For many there is no way out and little hope for the future.
3. The workplace is a subset of society. Society’s problems will be affecting your workplace.
Some of these people’s primary needs are not being met. Using Maslow’s (albeit dated) needs hierarchy for example, these roles scarcely satisfy the primary needs of physiological, safety and belongingness. For many if you cannot satisfy these basic needs, it will be difficult if not impossible to encourage staff to do more than survive.
Now it is time for some empathy and reflection on what it like to be in these factories day after day, year after year. Now consider what your reaction is likely to be when the next manager comes to the worksite touting yet another work place improvement or engagement programme.
I paint a dark picture here. There are indeed many workplaces where top to bottom engagement exists in companies that have factories and assembly lines. If you are in one of those companies then great. If you are not or don’t know, then some of your people are unlikely to be very interested in doing much more than they can get away with.
Well that depends on what the specific problems are occurring in the work place and perhaps in the wider society. There is a plethora of engagement, motivational and improvement material out there. Not one size fits all. We are talking people here after all. The selection and implementation of the programmes chosen should reflect the industry, culture, history, goals and maturity of the work place in question.
I do however have ideas on how to at least start to understand the problem.
1. Get out of your office and spend time on your lines doing the work. Listen to the people. Understand their work and non work lives and aspirations. Listen to the supervisors and factory management. Listen to the union representatives. Notice I say listen. This process cannot be accomplished in an afternoon and will involve a significant investment in time.
2. Reflect long and hard on what you have heard.
3. Talk with your colleagues and ensure that the understanding of what it is like to be in these factories is clear to the wider management team. The acknowledgement and understanding of the disenchanted factory staff’s plight is a fundamental hurdle to overcome if the future reforms are to have any sustainable effect in the work place.
Don’t be surprised if many of the issues you find have causes outside of the workplace.
Some of the problems found that affect your workplace may cause some anxiety as they can be perceived as being beyond the control of business.
The selected programme to engage your factory team will involve long term initiatives.
These work places value continuity of leadership over long periods of time. Respect and trust must be earned therefore any sustainable improvement will be a partnership between the company, management and the workers, and any perceived or real deceit will not be easily forgotten.
• Go visit your work place. Understand the culture and what your people endure both at work and at home.
• Reflect long and hard on what you see and hear.
• Then discuss widely to understand the real problems faced by the real people doing the real work.
• Customise the improvement processes to the work place.
• Don’t give up, your staff can not afford for you to.
Cangemi, J. (2009). Analysis of an adversarial Labor/Management situation in a Latin Americian industrial setting: A case study using Maslow's Hierachy of needs. Organisational Development Journal , 37-47.
Maslow, A. (1942). A Theory of human behaviour. Psychological review , 370-396.
McShane, O. T. (2010). Organisational behaviour on the Pacific rim. Australia.: McGraw Hill.
William H Shaw, V. B. (2009). Moral Issues in Business. Cengage.