Building a manufacturing culture from the bottom up

Monday, September 12, 2016

President MBX Systems

Any discussion of process improvement on the assembly line inevitably turns to the Toyota Production System, and for good reason. According to some reports, Toyota receives more than one million operational improvement ideas from employees every year and implements 90 percent of them. It’s a critical component of The Toyota Way. 

The impact that this approach can have on a company’s production environment and lean manufacturing initiatives is clear, but the benefits also extend beyond the factory floor. Giving front-line employees a voice in the improvement process can help build a manufacturing culture that excels at problem-solving, encourages innovation, and fosters job satisfaction. That in turn can have a positive effect on business performance, worker retention and organizational strength.

Consider our experience at MBX Systems, we build custom computer servers used to deliver business software to end customers for turnkey, application-optimized deployment.

Improvements initiated by our employees over the last few years have ranged from a proprietary shop floor system that strengthened scheduling, workload distribution and quality procedures, to a complex ‘Super Cell’ project enabling a single operator to concurrently manage software imaging, testing and final configuration of more than 600 hardware systems.

Suggestions like these have played a pivotal role in attracting larger customers, prompting a move to a larger facility that octupled the size of the manufacturing floor, and achieving 94 percent employee retention at a time when many companies are struggling with a sizeable talent drain.

The key is to establish an environment where workers on the front line are not only on the lookout for potential improvements but also have confidence that their ideas will reach receptive ears. Here are a few strategies for setting the stage. 

1 – Stress continuous improvement.

Even if your company has not implemented a formal continuous improvement program like Lean, Six Sigma or Total Quality Management, you can encourage employees to share their ideas to work better and faster in a variety of ways. Start by stressing the value you place on grassroots recommendations. Use every communication channel at your disposal to get the message across. Be sure to get your managers on board so they send the same message.

You can also be proactive rather than simply waiting for ideas to roll in. Challenge teams with a specific issue, then break out into small cross-functional groups to brainstorm a list of possible solutions, and then let them test their suggestions until they find one that works. Another option is to lead teams through a ‘7 Wastes in Manufacturing’ activity to challenge them to find new efficiencies within the current production flow.  Or set strategic improvement targets with deadlines for suggestions for achieving them. Approaches like these will also help keep the campaign alive.

2 – Keep beating the drum.

Too many efforts at creating a collaborative culture die on the vine because they aren’t sustained properly. Repetition is key. In addition to seeking contributions through focused activities, as just discussed, adopt a clever theme or slogan that can be instantly associated with the campaign. (One company used E2B2 – “Everyone, every day, getting better and better.”) Then use it to solicit ideas in daily, weekly, bi-weekly and/or monthly meetings with your manufacturing teams. Bring the topic up in standup meetings on the plant floor, company newsletters, all-company meetings, and other forums. Include reminders on company bulletin boards or in paychecks.

3 - Create mechanisms for idea collection & approval. 

When front-line workers at Toyota identify a work problem as well as a potential solution, they refer their idea to a quality circle of peer workers. If it passes muster, it is shared with their manager. Suggestions approved at that level are forwarded to upper-level managers, who can then give a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Whether you adopt a similar approval chain for vetting employee improvement ideas, set up another manual method for capturing employee brainstorms, or adopt continuous improvement software, be sure to implement some kind of idea collection and approval system. Otherwise valuable employee suggestions for improving productivity, cutting costs or otherwise boosting the bottom line may get lost in the shuffle.

4 – Foster a team mentality.

Nowhere does the principle that two heads (or 20) are better than one apply more than in a manufacturing environment. That’s why teamwork is a cornerstone of the culture at companies like Toyota, which nurtures camaraderie through regular group bonding activities. These kinds of team-building exercises can help foster cohesiveness, increase motivation, promote communication among people in different groups who don’t know each other well, and build problem-solving skills that carry over to the real-life manufacturing environment.

They can be fun, too. At one manufacturer, exercises have ranged from constructing the tallest standing skyscraper out of spaghetti and tape to a group game about shop floor procedures facilitated by an app on employees’ cell phones. But forget paint ball and obstacle courses; focus instead on activities that require group communication and cooperation.

5 - Recognize your successes and the people behind them.

Showcasing positive results from employee improvement ideas not only boosts morale but also keeps the company’s interest in worker input in the spotlight. Recognition methods range from newsletter kudos and Employee Appreciation Week programs to meetings where department heads share major individual or group contributions that had measurable results.

Camcraft, a maker of precision automotive and hydraulic controls components, uses quarterly meetings to recognize all of the people who made an improvement in the plant in the previous three months. And at healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, the CEO writes a letter to all 180,000 employees every Friday afternoon celebrating a performance improvement, some great research, or a new award of that week. It’s not a manufacturing company, but the principle is the same.

6 – Keep it fresh.

Even the best ad campaigns need to change periodically to grab attention; the same is true with continuous improvement communications. To stimulate new cost-cutting ideas a few years ago, for example, my company rolled out a “Net Driver” program complete with a logo, a race car-shaped tins of mints, a NASCAR-inspired hat, and “Net Driver” mugs presented to each employee whose suggestion gets used. The program yielded a 23 percent increase in net profits over the first 12 months and continues to generate new savings.

That’s proof-positive of the value of a bottom-up manufacturing culture. Employees on the front lines see improvement opportunities that managers won’t, simply because there are several degrees of separation between them and the hands-on production work. They develop a sense of pride when their ideas are implemented. That in turn can enhance job satisfaction, stem the turnover tide that afflicts many firms today, and even increase the appeal to younger jobseekers looking for a more dynamic work environment.

Finally, of course, employee-inspired improvements can increase competitiveness and strengthen the corporate balance sheet. Those are universal business goals. Employee engagement is a proven path to get there.

Jill Bellak is President of MBX Systems (, a designer and manufacturer of custom server appliances and hardware solutions for independent software vendors and service providers worldwide.