By Rob Coolidge
While always important in the manufacturing industry, core leadership skills have become even more crucial in the wake of pandemic-related disruptions to the supply chain and the subsequent shortages of products. These skills take on even more importance when you consider that soft skills such as leadership are critical for ushering in the next phase of advanced manufacturing. Leaders will need interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to lead the manufacturing industry into a future marked by a skills gap and ever-changing technology.
Organizations with good communication practices outperform their competitors. Good communication helps build good teams, and building effective teams is another core leadership skill. It’s all too easy for manufacturing workers to become isolated and siloed while performing their jobs, leading to disengagement, poor productivity and low retention. Creating a product requires coordinated efforts between workers, and successful coordination can’t happen without communication that flows easily in each direction.
And that communication starts at the top. When team leaders communicate effectively, they inspire workers to reach for a common goal.
Communication and teamwork go hand in hand. You can’t successfully complete necessary tasks on a shop floor without teamwork.
Teamwork is also advantageous for individual members of the team. By taking on differing, specific responsibilities to fulfill their team’s objectives, team members effectively “own” the part of the product they’re creating — instilling a sense of individual pride within the camaraderie of a team. Another advantage is that it can minimize the number of workplace accidents.
Teamwork is obviously beneficial to a company. But how can you go about implementing and improving it?
- Set team targets.
- Create incentives.
- Review results regularly.
- Introduce friendly rivalry to make the process into a sport.
- Bestow recognition for a job well done.
Problem-solving is of utmost importance in a manufacturing environment — and critical thinking is fundamental to the process. It’s one thing to decide, but it’s another to make the right decision. Time pressures, social conditioning, overconfidence, distractions, closed-mindedness, and the fear of being wrong can lead anyone down the wrong path.
Effective leaders engage in critical thinking, which encourages the evaluation of different perspectives and examines issues in their complexity. Without critical thinking, leaders risk reducing the speed at which innovations occur and increases the financial risk of failures.
Critical thinking not only needs to take place at the top management level, but also within individual manufacturing facilities, where plant managers need to ensure that equipment technicians and operators know how to identify problems and develop solutions.
To be an effective leader, you need to know how to manage your time, and if most of your working hours aren’t focused on your team, you’re not managing your time very well.
You might assume your team can fully function on its own while focusing on day-to-day work demands, but that’s an incorrect assumption. Neglecting employees not only hurts team morale, but also negatively affects client experiences with the organization, as your team members’ resentment will ultimately affect their work.
It’s important to find the correct balance in time management — one that favors your team. One way to do this is to carve out time for weekly one-on-ones with your employees — sometimes to work with them on development and sometimes just to listen to their concerns. You can also schedule huddles where team members can provide you with quick updates on their projects and bring up any problems they need help with. Huddles take little of your time while providing huge value to you and your team — and they can also be a great place to reward and recognize team members.
The configuration of your organization depends on the nature of your business. Manufacturing organizations are either process- or product-focused, and by choosing the right focus, you can make your company’s operations more stable.
By focusing on products rather than processes, you essentially treat each product group as an independent small company — making it easier to react quickly to product development considerations and to introduce new products. A product focus is usually better suited to less complex process technologies.
A process-focused organization, on the other hand, typically dedicates individual plants to a variety of different products. Sometimes a single plant is entirely responsible for production of a product, but more often than not the plant is one of several involved in production of the product. Plant and management responsibilities are not defined by a product line, but by a segment of the manufacturing process.
Manufacturing companies must adapt to changing conditions. This has always been true, but became particularly evident when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains and resulted in product shortages worldwide.
Plus, technology is changing. As it continues to evolve, companies that continue to do things the way they’ve always done them may have difficulty competing.
For those reasons, adaptability is a requirement. In order to succeed, leaders must be flexible, motivated, resourceful, persistent, creative and open to change.
To be an effective leader, you must be self-aware. The better you know yourself — including your needs, habits, emotions, personality and values — the more you understand what you bring to your leadership role. Not only does this help motivate, inspire, and challenge your employees, it helps you make better decisions and better manage your stress.
Self-aware leaders inspire trust. And by inspiring trust in your employees, you give them a clearer direction and purpose, and raise their levels of performance. In the end, the amount of trustworthiness, wisdom and understanding that you possess will strengthen your own individual and organizational performance — and equip you with the critical skills that lead to success.
While workplace stress is universal, the manufacturing industry has job-specific stresses that include shift work and the threat of losing a job to technology. But studies have shown that the leading source of stress for manufacturing workers is leadership — either their immediate bosses or someone higher up the organizational ladder.
Solutions may include restructuring top-down systems and/or re-educating old-school authoritarian managers.
But in addition to managing their employees’ stress, leaders need to manage their own stress. By delegating some of their responsibilities to employees, they not only increase the employees’ sense of importance to the company, but give themselves time to look ahead and think strategically. By managing stress, leaders also help keep their own and their employees’ moods and outlooks positive, which improves communication, transparency and trust.
You can strengthen your leadership skills with a number of online Tooling U-SME classes, including: “Essentials of Leadership,” “Managing Performance: Best Practices,” “Basics of Manufacturing Costs,” “Conflict Resolution Principles,” “Team Leadership,” “Manufacturing Management,” “Managing the Diverse Workplace,” “Harassment and Discrimination,” “Performance Management and the Law,” and “Frontline Leadership.”
About Rob Coolidge
Rob Coolidge is the director of business development and sales at Tooling U-SME and leads the Corporate Small Business and Government and Education sales teams and the Business Development team. The teams he leads work with companies and organizations to create a plan to increase existing employee’s knowledge as well as new employees get up to speed as quickly and efficiently as possible.