Worker Retention – It’s Not Rocket Surgery
No matter what buzzword is being used to describe it—from the great resignation to the grey tsunami—the fact of the matter is that many industries are struggling to recruit and retain frontline workers.
Manufacturers are struggling to meet the demands of today with fewer resources than yesterday.
The focus of this episode is on what you can do about it.
Jim Parker, Corporate Director Quality & Operational Excellence at Inline Plastics, joins the show to talk about the employee engagement initiative he recently led and the employee retention tactics every manufacturer can take back to their factories.
Leading an initiative focused on employee engagement
Uncovering areas to improve in employee data
4 key areas to focus efforts
The impact of engagement efforts
Are you ready to start your digital transformation journey? Request a demo today.
Check out the full episode below:
[00:00:00] Jim Parker: That’s the journey of creating an environment where people think, and people know their opinion matters. That they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. That they’re included in the success of what they’re doing, and not just a cog in the wheel.
[00:00:22] Josh Santo: Welcome to Conquering Chaos, the show for manufacturing leaders. In each episode, we are connecting you to the manufacturing leaders of today who are driving the innovations needed to future-proof the operations of tomorrow. If you feel like your time is spent fighting fires and trying to control the everyday chaos, this show is the show for you. My name is Josh Santo, I’ll be your host.
[00:00:50] Josh: Hey, y’all, it’s Josh. Before we get into this episode, I wanted to put this into your ear. If you like the types of conversations we’re having, you’ll enjoy the content that we share through our mailing list. Go to parsable.com/podcast, scroll to the bottom of the page, and sign up to get more insightful content delivered directly to your inbox. Okay, onto the show.
[00:01:15] Josh: Welcome one, welcome all to this episode of Conquering Chaos. We’ve got a manufacturing leader joining us today to chat about his experience improving worker retention through employee engagement. This topic is near and dear to my heart, and I know it’s a topic everyone listening to this episode can benefit from, but first, our guest. He’s got 25 plus years of experience in the industry building highly effective high-performing teams. Throughout his career, he’s held roles across functions like quality, continuous improvement, and operational excellence at various levels. From entry-level to senior leadership.
He’s a Six Sigma Master Black Belt with a servant leader leadership style and high expectations for those working with him. Currently serving others as the corporate director of quality and operational excellence for Inline Plastics Corp, he’s got his hands full leading strategic initiatives to keep Inline on the cutting edge of quality systems and operations excellence. Please welcome, to our show, our guest, Jim Parker. Jim, thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:02:18] Jim: Josh, really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you, and to share some of the learnings that we’ve had in this challenging time that we’re in. Especially for manufacturers and industry.
[00:02:32] Josh: This is exactly what this show is about. It’s bringing real people who have encountered these problems, these shared problems, and what they’ve done about it, what that impact has been, what their struggle has been so that we can all learn what’s worked for others and see how that can apply to our own situations. Now, before we get into it, I do want to call out– I know that a podcast is a very audible thing. You’re listening to it, sometimes if it’s posted on YouTube, you may be watching it, but we don’t post on YouTube. So, you’re listening to it.
Jim has the best audio setup of any guest I’ve had so far. He’s in his closet right now, and he’s got audio dampening paraphernalia hanging everywhere, and he’s got a crystal clear microphone and a nice pair of headphones. This is somebody who does have a background in radio and broadcasting, and we just talked about this show. He was on the radio for a period of time, weren’t you, Jim?
[00:03:30] Jim: I was. There was a 20 some odd years of the– It was the life before manufacturing. So, it’s a tale of really two professions in my life. It’s a blessing and a curse, [laughs] but I love the time where I was in broadcasting. I had to get back into it a little bit, so I built a little studio, and I have some fun.
[00:03:54] Josh: He’s got the voice for it, he’s got the equipment for it, so if anyone finds that they prefer Jim and his style, maybe we’ll look at making this a recurring segment where Jim’s taking us through things. [laughs] We like to start each show off with the same question of our guests. That first question is, what’s a day look like in your role?
[00:04:17] Jim: Well, I think first and foremost, in manufacturing, it’s the operational definition of a day. Sometimes it is a nine to five, but most of the time, it’s not. You’re always on. Even two, three o’clock in the morning, stuff happens. When you’re in a leadership role, sometimes decision-making happens at weird times, and you just have to be flexible and ready to do that. I’m not naive enough to think that manufacturing is the only industry where that happens. I think that in this day and age, everybody’s always on.
For me, personally, what is a typical day in the life? It starts off in the morning just doing my inbox exercise, where I go through and I clean the inbox out, and I do a little prioritization. Microsoft helps me a little bit in keeping me honest with some of the things that I owe other people, and so I get that cleaned up in the morning. Then what I like to do before all my standard meetings occur, I like to take a walk on the shop floor. I walk around, I see things, it keeps me connected. I try to be on the shop floor without an agenda, so I can begin to learn names and learn about the people, and their families, and different things. It’s very difficult, first of all, to do that.
I’m nowhere near as good as I’d like to be, but that’s how I start my day, with a walk around. Then I have a series of standing meetings, just to get tuned in with the rest of what’s going on tactically with each of the manufacturing operations. Each plant that we have has morning meetings, and I drop in on those. At a leadership level, we have a daily huddle to talk about things a little bit of a higher level. At that point, we break the teams, and we go to work.
Typically, for me, because I’m the principal for continuous improvement at the company, a lot of time is spent leading small groups in problem-solving, or teaching problem-solving methodologies, or coming up with unique solutions, leading corporate projects, cross-functional teams, sourcing all sorts of different opportunities. Then I spend quite a bit of my day working on customer satisfaction initiatives. Looking at delivery issues, quality issues, and staying connected with that side of the operation.
It’s interesting. I love my role because I have one foot in the plant, and I have one foot in the commercial team. I get a very unique perspective from where I am, and I leverage that perspective every day. That’s a day in the life of what Jim does.
[00:07:17] Josh: It sounds like on any given day, well, there might be things that you’re trying to do. A lot of things can pop up during that time.
[00:07:24] Jim: There are varying degrees of success, for sure. Some days, there’s not a lot of lines through the list.
[00:07:33] Josh: One of the first things you said, you make it a priority to walk the floor, no agenda, and you meet people, but you also mentioned that that’s sometimes difficult to do. What’s difficult about it?
[00:07:44] Jim: First of all, being there. Just physically get off your butt, and getting out of the ivory tower, and head to the floor where the work gets done. The fact of the matter is, if the work doesn’t get done, I don’t have a job. It’s like, give some respect to the people that are putting the money in your pocket. That’s the way I see it. I owe it to be visible on the floor. Am I going to solve their problems today? Probably not. Every now and then we get lucky, and– Yes, I’m a suit, right? So, I make a couple of phone calls and the leak in the roof goes away.
Okay, how often does that happen? Once a year? I think that the walk around, and me listening to what’s going on, and seeing some of the common themes that I hear pop up in the tactical meetings at the plants, all of a sudden the words in the music start to jive and I really start to understand their pain and what they’re going through. Then I can begin to think a little bit more strategically, how are we going to get after that? How are we not going to micromanage it, but create a policy that can be effective, not only for this plant but the other plants as well?
[00:09:05] Josh: What I love about what you’re calling out is essentially you’re saying, “There’s sometimes I can help solve a problem, sometimes not,” but what you’re doing is you prioritize getting there and letting people know that you’re there for them, and you’re doing what you can to make their lives even just a little bit easier. I think that that’s the key theme of what we’re going to talk about today. I think that really demonstrates that idea of servant leadership. You’re there to serve those people, and in turn, they serve the overall operation.
Today, we’re talking about employee engagement. To set some of the contexts, look, there’s a lot of different terms going around. There’s the skills gap, there’s the labor shortage, there’s the great tsunami, there’s the great resignation. No matter which catchy name is being used to describe it, many industries are struggling to recruit and retain frontline workers. According to Deloitte, almost two and a half million jobs are expected to go unfilled by 2028, causing a potential economic impact of 2.5 trillion. Even though it’s only 2021, the shortage is clearly here. It is getting worse.
Manufacturers are challenged to meet the demand of today with fewer resources than yesterday. Really, what this conversation’s about is what manufacturers can do about it. What tools and strategies are that can be implemented starting today to help slow turnover and establish a reliable foundation from which they can bring in new talent. This is why we invited Jim to the show. Jim recently led an initiative focused on employee engagement.
What his team learned and the action they took, are the examples that we need to explore as a community to tackle this issue together. Jim, I’d love for you to talk to us about the Employee Engagement Initiative at Inline Plastics Corp. A little bit about the background of the project, and what was the goal?
[00:11:01] Jim: Right, Josh. The Employee Engagement Initiative was hatched by our owner and CEO, Tom Orkisz, and his executive team, clearly recognizing that a way in which we can attract, and especially retain talent, is to create an environment where people want to be at work. I think we can see outside pressures where sometimes, especially in the era of COVID, and subsidies, and whatnot, people aren’t necessarily incentivized to come to work. In fact, some would argue that they might have even been incentivized to stay home, or at least making the decision between one and the other could be great a little bit.
We knew that we had an attrition issue. We do a lot of Six Sigma types of analysis. We were able to really, with some good data, characterize demographic, time and service, and some other key metrics that gave us insight as to what we should do next. What we should do next is focus on the people, and create an environment where one would be proud to come and participate in this activity, to be a part of– Some of these are proven solutions, if you will. “I want to be part of something bigger than myself.” We hear that a lot. There’s a derivative of that, that’s probably more true than others. That really was the calling.
We knew who we needed, to run these factories and to do the work. They weren’t coming, or they were wanting to leave. We wanted to figure out a way to create an environment where people want to be a part of this. That coming to work is going to sound weird, but coming to work was convenient. That’s something that was an aha moment for us as well. Throughout it, all, listening and taking the time to stop the presses, if you will, and gather everybody up and, what are we missing? What are you not seeing? Some of these influences come from the Google Microsoft work zone mentality.
People hear, “Oh, there’s free snacks all day.” Or, “I can bring my dog to work.” Or, “There are napping pods.” Some of the stuff is, first of all, true, and second of all, way out there for a manufacturer of single-use plastic food containers. We had to reconcile that. That was really the challenge that got us started. Then we began to figure out, what are the key focus areas that we should be looking at, to begin with? We were open to seeing where the data and where the voice of the customer, and in this case, the customer is our people. We have to listen to that, and then allow that to be our divining rod in where we’re going to go.
[00:15:00] Josh: There’s so much to break down in what you just said. I want to follow up on a couple of items that you’ve brought up. One of the key things that you talked about from something that you were able to observe as being the problem that you wanted to fix, attrition. Some of the data that you dug into– One of the things I’m curious about with regard to attrition was, were there any other data points or indicators, either aside from attrition, or something that comes before attrition, that you were also starting to notice?
[00:15:42] Jim: I don’t know if there were some very specific actions. Some of the actions were really overt. Finding earplugs, hairnets, and masks in the parking lot at lunchtime, and then people not returning. I think that was our first clue that Houston, we have a problem. [chuckles] From there, there was an aha moment that we had. We have automated systems. People badge in, they badge out. People have breaks and lunch and things, and they have to use the traditional time clock. One of the data points that we had, and it was disparate, in the beginning, it was disconnected. It was like a hanging chad. We didn’t know exactly what to do with it.
What we found out was that people were leaving on break to ride up the street, to use the restroom at the gas station, rather than having to, A, wait in line for our restroom, or– It’s a little embarrassing, but they weren’t as clean. Our restrooms were not as clean as they would like them. All we saw in our data were people that were coming back late from break. That’s what our data said. Until we stopped and listened, and asked why one more time, we would have missed it completely, and it would have been punitive. It’s a hard pill to swallow, to have that realization that that’s really what’s going on in the factory.
That began a tangent that we thought was going to bear fruit when we first scoped the employee engagement project, but we had no idea how much it meant to our folks. Whereas it was going to be third or fourth on our list, it got to the point where we went all the way up the chain with it and it became number one.
[00:18:26] Josh: I think that those are interesting things to call out. I really appreciate you sharing these stories because these are stories that actually happen, but they don’t get talked about because, as you said, some people could see it as embarrassing. Almost, “Shame on us. How could we?” The truth is, the importance is, do you listen to your people, and do you respond, and do you make a change? That’s a lesson that everyone can always talk about and benefit from. Now, you mentioned noticing things like masks and earplugs in the parking lot. It’s almost as if it’s like, you’re turning in, you’re done with your uniform. You’re just done. “I’m done, chief.”
I love that you specified that the data points were just showing you that people were coming back late from the breaks. If you see that, there’s an assumption that happens. We got people coming late from breaks. We need sure that they know that they can’t come back late from breaks, or maybe it needs to be more punitive. What you highlighted is that, you took a second to ask, why? The basic root cause analysis. The five why, so that you can issue the appropriate corrective action because if you’re just adding punishments, that’s not going to correct the issue.
By using the data point as an indicator, there’s smoke here, you need to find the fire. You were able to work with the people to understand what they were going through, what they wanted, the why behind it, and then serve them. I think that that’s such a great and powerful story because it ties back into that idea that you called out, that you’re seeking to create an environment that people could be proud of. You spend a minimum of 40 hours a week in this place, even longer, depending on the overtime requirements, especially if there are shortages and you need people to help fill in those gaps.
That idea of making it convenient to come to work, and understand that there are other companies and other industries that have created their own definition of convenience, whether it’s you can bring your dog, free lunches, or dinners. I used to work for a company that would host beer bashes, where you could go and enjoy a drink, and listens to some music. Now, obviously, you can’t encourage people to drink at a manufacturing facility because you’re operating equipment that if you’re not practicing safe behaviors, there could be a problem, and alcohol doesn’t help with safe behaviors.
I can appreciate you calling out that idea of creating an environment people could be proud of, and how that helps make work be more convenient, and understanding that there are different ways to make that, and searching for, how does that look at Inline Plastics, specifically? How do we make that welcoming environment here?
[00:21:19] Jim: Right. What we did, Josh is we knew that the environment was multifaceted, if you will. We began to break it down into digestible elements. We looked at both the interior of the factory, and the amenities, and what things are going on inside of the box, but we also looked, and we carved out the exterior as well. Many times, your building is not your own. You’re leasing a warehouse space that you’ve turned into manufacturing space, and don’t have the luxury of your own building. That is the case with at least a couple of our factories.
You think that it limits your ability, or even potentially creativity, to do something on the outside. What we found is, there’s some basics that on the outside our people wanted. It’s kind of a food, shelter, water thing. We’re off the beaten path a little bit. People wanted some lighting. When they came to the factory, especially at night, this is a 24/7 operation. They want to feel safe when they park their car and walk into the building. Well, that makes sense. Let’s make sure we have good lighting. Signage, directional signage. Funny story.
We share, we’re two-thirds of an occupant in a building, and the other third, but we share the same address. That creates, obviously, a lot of unique challenges. Especially when it comes to free pizza Friday, where the pizza delivery always seems to deliver to the other guy. I don’t know what he does with $1,200 worth of pizzas, but my hat’s off to them. I hope they enjoy it a lot. Kidding aside, that is a true story by the way. It also happens with critical spares. That’s not a fun story. I will tell you that we have a lot of truck driver traffic coming in and out now. There’s a driver shortage, especially going on at this given time.
That means that there’s a chance it’s an inexperienced driver. We had drivers coming to us that needed to be at the other place behind us. What that did is it clogged, it created congestion in our docks and down the road. Then, it’s their time, and their frustration, because when they came to the shipping window, they found out they’re in the wrong place. Something simple as very clearly defined directional signage for, and taking care of the drivers. Nobody– Not many companies, I don’t think, think of the drivers coming in and out of their plant as a part of the manufacturing machine that makes the plant go.
That’s one of the aha moments that we had, was drivers are people too, and we need good amenities for the drivers as well. We actually brought drivers their voices into the employee engagement conversation, and it helped us to understand, what sort of sign do you need? Where does it need to be? What helps you so that you don’t have to get out of your truck and find out that you’re in the wrong place, and ask the wrong questions? That’s not efficient for them either. That was a part of some of the discoveries that we made for the exterior of the facility.
[00:25:07] Josh: Just to clarify, the drivers, they’re not directly employed by Inline Plastics. Correct?
[00:25:14] Jim: No, not at all.
[00:25:16] Josh: What I love about that is how you’re still like, “Even though they may not be directly employed by our organization, we still rely on them. They’re still a group that we need to make sure is able to do their job, and do their job well, because that also helps us do our job, and do our job well.” It was like you talked about the problem was this congestion here, and especially, like you called out if you’re newer and you’re not as familiar, not only can things be confusing, but it can be frustrating. You can feel a lot of pressure to make sure you’re doing things right.
To have someone say, “We’re going to help you out with that. Even though you’re our direct responsibility, you’re part of our team, getting this done, and we’re going to take care of that.” I think that’s such a powerful idea. It started with, like you said, it’s exploring, what can we control? We don’t own the building, we don’t own the land, but there are some things that, within these constraints, that we can solve the problem for. We can come up with a solution for. I think that that’s– It’s great that you brought them into it to be a part of that conversation. Just goes back to demonstrating that, “How do we serve the people that mindset?” You tied it to really, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right?
[00:26:39] Jim: That’s right. There are basic needs in the organization, and the signs are all around us. Just to tie a bow on the driver thing, again, just like the data that said people were coming back late from breaks, we had data from our shipping associates that said, “Jim, we just can’t be efficient with these drivers always coming up to the window and us having to tell them, ‘No, the other guy is on the other side of the building.’ Then they have to go back to work with the constant–” That data point was there. In fact, it was kind of a joke it had been going on for so long.
I think one of the big takeaways for us was that the sign was there all the time. The data that indicated what we needed to be working on, were there the whole time. We just didn’t put it all together to see it. Now we have to see things a little bit differently. We have to ask why one more time. We just hope that our data is good enough to indicate where we need to go ask the next question, why?
[00:28:01] Josh: I like how constantly, in your examples, the data is just something that helps point you in the right direction. It’s not the end all be all. It’s really just guiding your investigation. As you reveal more information and get new data points that further points you into the next direction. I think what you said, it became a joke, and we see that a lot. That’s part of the reason for the title of the show being, Conquering Chaos. It’s about tackling those little things that are always there, and we just justify it with, “Well, this is how we do things,” or, “This is how it’s always been.”
There’s over a time when things clearly aren’t going to change, and you have to just adapt to that. You end up with, “Well, it’s a running joke that this is the situation, and this is the way it’s going to be.” It takes someone seeing it with fresh eyes and saying, “What if it wasn’t like that?”
[00:28:59] Jim: The other key, I think, for us, is to take a more end-to-end value stream, look at what’s going on. Don’t just take a look at what’s happening inside the box, but take a look at the entire supply chain. Look at end-to-end. If you’re a lean zealot and a Six Sigma practitioner, and I’m a student of both. There is, with strategic initiatives, you have to have that kind of oversight and visibility, and understanding of all the moving parts. Then you begin to put the little pieces of data, and you plug them into that big value stream. That’s when you begin to get indicators. Right? “Hey, we need to go look in this area. There’s something that doesn’t look right here.”
If you don’t look at it from an end-to-end value stream perspective, you’re going to miss that. You’re going to miss all the players. We would have missed the whole driver thing if we hadn’t had that E2E kind of a look to it.
[00:30:08] Josh: Hey, we’re going to take a real quick break to hear from our sponsors. Stay tuned for more Conquering Chaos.
[00:30:14] Rob: Hey, listeners, it’s Rob. I’m one of the producers on Conquering Chaos. I’m right here with you for every episode, working behind the scenes, to make sure everything is just right for your listening experience. Whether you’re a new listener, binging content to help you conquer the everyday chaos, or a dedicated fan tuning in for each new episode, there’s one thing to always keep in mind. Information is useless unless you use it. Obvious, right? It’s so easy to learn, forget, and then miss out on the opportunity to make real improvements to day-to-day activities.
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[00:32:24] Josh: This started with a focus on, how do we do something about attrition, and in the examples, you’re providing, you’re going through to understand what’s happening today and why it’s happening. That had to be a lot for just one person. I imagine that it was a team that you were working with. Can you talk to us about how a plan came together, how a team came together, and how y’all worked together to uncover these data points and these indicators with the value stream mapping?
[00:32:57] Jim: Like a lot of the strategic initiatives that I’ve had the privilege to be a part of, I was asked to lead a group of high potential folks from our business with a direction and oversight from our executive team and the owner and CEO. Tom and the executives handpicked some high potentials cross-functionally and then asked me to be the band leader. I wish I could take credit, but really, I’m a great facilitator. My job is to know who’s good at what and put those teams together.
That’s where I get a lot of my joy. The joy that I had with this team is putting together highly competent people in HR, in human resources, in marketing, in facilities management, and in manufacturing operations with the help and oversight of one particular plant manager. It absolutely was a high-performing group that was put together, and I had the privilege of just being the ring leader.
I see myself a little bit like the flippers on a pinball machine. My job is to gently nudge the ball enough that the ball continues to score, and my team, that’s the ball. Every now and then I got to touch it, and get it back in line, but they score their own points. They sure hit high scores when it came to this initiative. I can’t be prouder of my team.
[00:34:48] Josh: That’s so great. You mentioned identifying those high potential folks cross-functionally. These people are coming from diverse groups, coming together to solve a variety of different problems. When you say high potential, is there any specific definition that you had with that? How does one identify someone as high potential?
[00:35:09] Jim: Well, I think in probably a lot of different organizations, but certainly in manufacturing, it’s two things. One is, people that get things done. We’re results-oriented. Who are the people that are going to get it done? The other piece, there’s initiative. The other piece is attitude. These are the people that are positive, that are mostly glass half full kind of folks. They’re optimistic, and they drive. They drive for success, they have initiative, they have a good attitude, and they’re not satisfied. There’s a satiation thing going on. Where I need to ask why one more time. People that aren’t afraid to experiment.
That’s one of the things that are near and dear to me is, you don’t know what you don’t know, so let’s not be afraid. Are you going to kill somebody? No. Are you going to maim somebody? No. Well, then let’s go try it. Let’s do a limited pilot, and let’s see if we get the response that we thought we were going to get. Guess what, if you do, well, then bonus. The fact to the matter is, most of the time when we experiment, we don’t get the result that we had anticipated.
The good news with that is that we learn something, and it helps us, again, I sound like a broken record at this point. It helps us to ask the next best question. It sends us in a direction. Now, the data and the experience, that’s what sets the course.
[00:36:56] Josh: Those ideas of looking for people with initiative, with the right attitude. It’s one thing to find those people, and then you still have to create the environment in which they are empowered to try those things, test those things, because when you have that hypothesis and you think, “By taking this action, we’ll accomplish this result.” You find that that just wasn’t true. Your hypothesis was proven invalid. As you said, you learn from it, and that’s valuable, but many people would see that as a failure. You failed to solve the problem. How do you see it?
[00:37:33] Jim: First of all, if you’re going to fail, fail early, fail fast, and move on. Chalk it up to experience. We’ve had a lot of failures, and a lot of false starts. If we allowed those to inhibit us, we wouldn’t be in business. We keep trying. The more that we can empower each other, and push each other, “Hey, let’s go try this.” When I say each other, I start with the leadership teams or middle management. Where we really get traction, is something that we’re all trying to, I think in manufacturing, trying to do, and that is pushing the ownership all the way down to the lowest denominator. The lowest common denominator in our factories.
That’s the people that come to work every day, and that are in the grind. We have to do a really good job as leaders, to make sure that our people understand that they weren’t hired from the neck down. We hire the whole person for a reason. We need people that challenge us, and challenge the status quo, with the right attitude. Then want to be a part of making tomorrow better than today. I think that when you get there, and everybody is on board with that kind of a mantra, you really have done something. Between where we are now and that, that’s the journey.
That’s the journey of continuous improvement. That’s the journey of creating an environment where people think and people know their opinion matters. That they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. That they’re included in the success of what they’re doing, and not just a cog in the wheel. Easier said than done. It’s going to turn out to be my life’s work, actually, as I reflect, on just managing the journey through that. That’s my life’s work.
[00:39:45] Josh: Creating an environment where the people matter. Like I said at the start of the show, this was going to be a consistent theme throughout. I love that you keep coming back to that because that’s the important part. It starts with setting that ideal, setting that destination, and then prioritizing the things that have to be in place to make that happen. Now, in this group of high-potential folks that we’re helping look into all the different factors, how did your team engage with the people that you were seeking to serve?
[00:40:20] Jim: It started off with a little bit of what I call peanut buttering. You start off with shutting the plant down and having town hall meetings. The first thing you do, and I wouldn’t call it a full man culpa, but you get the plant leadership up in front and you share the facts and so we shared the data that helped to be the burning platform, if you will, for this initiative and we said, “Folks, this is what we’re facing and we’re facing it all together and so we’re going to do some stuff and we want you to be a part of it.” It started with these big meetings. Did we do it at every site? No, we chose the site that had the largest population and not necessarily the highest turnover rate, but we decided to go with that.
We took a really short-term production hit, but all of the shifts got a chance to be sat down and it was explained and so we opened the kimono. This is what we’re facing. I think first and foremost, that level of sharing, of that type of detail, may not be happening in the business. I think I’m going to guess that probably smaller businesses are more apt to do that because it’s more controllable. I’ve also been a part of very large organizations where those kinds of town hall meetings can be very impactful but sometimes they’re a little bit more theatrics than anything else and it has to be genuine and so that in my mind that the data is packaged correctly, that was a genuine share.
It was a leadership share to the factory to set the stage and then it was, we need help and you watch the eyes open and the bells go off and they’re like, “Excuse me. I thought you guys were.” I’m in the audience and you can hear it and feel it was the tactile response. It was, “Wait, you guys have the suits, you have all the answers, I’m just here for the paycheck.” There’s going to be some people like that but the fact of the matter is we had people wanting to sign up to. “You know what, I’m a shade tree mechanic. I want to be a part of what’s going on with the facility inside and out, sign me up.”
It started with, this is what’s going on and we need your help. It was an ask. Then it was getting these subgroups together. We had an HR subgroup that we’re talking about do we need to be more present in the community? do we need to do be doing something different? as far as the bathrooms and the break rooms and should we have more drinking fountains? That kind of stuff. Then there was a group about crew scheduling. Do we need different crews schedules? Do we need to have a different supervisor ratio to the rank and file? All of these, we were able to break it up into these subsystems with these leaders. That’s where it really began the listening sessions.
We call them sessions from the grassroots and it’s now a part of how the plant does business, is to have these pretty steady grassroots meetings where select individuals get a chance to do what in essence turns out to be weekly focus groups and we built from there. What do we need to work on? It was in one of these sessions that the whole coming back late from the break and going up to the gas station, that’s where this came out in and one of these focus groups. That’s how it began and that’s how we began to learn about opportunities for experimenting.
[00:44:50] Josh: In that idea that you brought up with transparency is critical for collaboration, Again, you’ve mentioned if we want to create an environment where the people know that they matter the best way to serve them is to engage them and that’s exactly what you did, but you can’t engage successfully if you’re not sharing everything. That ability to be transparent, to be vulnerable is critical in solving the problem that you’re trying to solve. I think to your point, that is difficult for people to do, to prioritize, shutting down production, to have these types of discussions, to get people involved. It’s a short-term sacrifice for a long-term impact. Sometimes it’s very much focused on here now. Today we have to fix these problems. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.
I love these ideas of sessions from the grassroots. I love that you’re finding different ways of getting people involved. You came to some key areas of focus. Could you talk us through what those key areas of focus are and what they refer to?
[00:45:57] Jim: I think we’re going to talk about some of these. We just talked about sessions from the grassroots. That really is about inclusion. Everybody plays and through that, you find out people have special skills and they want to bring those to bear. Somebody has a house painting business on the side or knows tips and tricks on how to do this. Somebody is a concrete guy and guess what? We have some flatwork that needs to get done and so they’re going to help us spec it out properly. People want to be a part of the solution. They want to see, I don’t know if the concrete guy. The family wants to put their handprint in the concrete before it dries.
Everybody wants to be a part of that and it’s really important. That transparency and then the inclusion is really important. Then, I’ll skip over to the physical plant. This has to be a place that you want to come to. It doesn’t have to be the Taj Mahal, but it’s got to be clean and it’s got to be bright. You have to be watching for the signs. If you don’t allow cell phones on the shop floor and you find that people are breaking those rules because they’re using the quality tablets to steal the chords and charge their phones while they’re on the floor, before there’s something punitive there, again, ask the next question, why? That goes into the design of the new break room, which has charging stations all over it.
You recur but– I’m going to mix metaphors. It’s not rocket surgery. You have to see the signs. From that aspect, it’s really important.
Job breakdown, what we found with a lot of our data and I think other manufacturers probably are facing this as well, is a predominance with temporary employees or very unseasoned, semi unskilled people that are in the factory but it’s more than just a warm body that we need. What we ended up doing, and this was genius. One of my team actually this was their brainchild, is take our elementary off the street positions, in our company, it’s called a packer. Somebody who takes the product and in essence puts it in a box and then there’s some inspection and some other things.
When we began and the packer role, one of the roles that we saw that had the highest turnover as well. There was a method of the madness of looking at that particular role. When the deep dive began, when the grassroots meetings began, what we began to really understand is that whether we knew it or not, we rolled a lot of responsibility into that function, into that job that was way more and way faster, if you will, the pace of the job and the elements of the job were just too much for somebody who had just come off the street with three or four days training. Through job breakdown analysis, this one team leader on my team said, “We got to break this thing up,” so she broke it up into pieces.
All of a sudden people were staying longer. Why? Because the scope of their work was so narrow but so well-defined that they could be successful quickly. We found that that was really important to employee retention. If we brought in people and they’re drinking from a fire hose with all the elements of this job and they’re trying to get it right. Genuinely trying to get it right and failing over and over and over again for weeks, then no wonder you’re going to walk off the job. You break the job down into bite-size pieces so they can be successful, and then you incrementally add those next best chunks until you get a whole packer, if you will. It’s so elementary but it makes absolutely perfect sense and it was a brilliant move from one of my teammates. That’s what we mean when we talk about job breakdown.
[00:51:03] Josh: Got it. It’s not necessarily that the scope or the responsibility’s changed, it was just introduced a little more gradually back to that idea of starting a bit slower so that in the long term, they are able to feel like they are contributing and making an impact and not failing and thus sticking around longer and able to own those responsibilities and contribute. I think that’s such a powerful story of what you’re highlighting is, yes it’s obvious when you break it down like that, that makes total sense but far too often we’re caught up in, this is how we do things, or we don’t have the time to take care of blank. By pausing and challenging, the status quo, does it have to be this way? What if it was another way? That can lead to some big changes. It might be a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain.
[00:51:56] Jim: I was going to add there was one other piece that we learned with that, and that was on our crew scheduling. We have a four-on-three off 24/7 schedule. Four shifts. What we’ve found in our data is that most of our call-offs were happening Friday, Saturday, not necessarily Sundays but Friday predominantly. Our manufacturing leader said, “Hey, you know what, let’s do this. Let’s create an optional shift, a fifth shift if you will. Let’s just open it up. Let’s market it with our temporary agency and let’s market it with our people internally and just say, ‘Here’s the deal. We’re offering a Friday, Saturday, Sunday shift.” Who else is doing that around? No one.
What we found is there is an untapped labor pool of people that only wanted to work either the weekend or a part of the weekend. All of a sudden our productivity went up over the weekends because now we’ve tapped into this group of people that we’ve excluded with our regularly scheduled programming. That was an aha moment for us. There are other strategies with temp to hire, having the leader of the temporary agency be present in your facility so that the temps had a liaison, best practice really is. I’ve seen it in other lives where I’ve been.
If it’s big enough, if you got 100 temps in your factory, probably not a bad idea to be going down that road. Trust me when I tell you, it’s lucrative enough that they’re going to want to have somebody onsite for what we’re paying for temps.
[00:54:01] Josh: Talk about how to make work convenient because that’s such a big part of it is the scheduling side. People have lives outside of work. Is it surprising that you had a lot of call-offs on Friday and Saturday? Well, probably not because that’s the weekend, that’s the time societally speaking, that you let loose, that you have a good time but to your point, there are people who prefer to have a longer stint in which other people don’t have that time off. They see that as a sort of freedom. How can you meet people and deliver them like the way that they want to work, how they want to work, the way they want to work, when they want to work.
These are all concepts that are especially being explored now, not just in manufacturing but just working in general post-COVID. How, where, who, what, when, all of these factors that come together. I think it’s so great to see that you’re saying, “What if we tried blank? What if it was like this?” Then selling that idea, getting it out there, socializing it. Well, I know we spent a lot of time talking about a lot of things and I think, Jim, we could talk all day because this is such a critical experience. One final question for you, which is what has been the impact that you’ve seen as a result of these efforts?
[00:55:19] Jim: Well, I think the first and foremost is there’s a palpable, positive feeling in the building. People are beginning to recognize that we’re listening and they’re a part of the solution. I think moreover, now that some of the tangible things, the brand new signs in the outside of the building and the lighting and the concrete and they can see the construction happening, those tangible items are causing a palpable, positive response. People are talking about it, “Hey, they listen to us, they’re doing stuff. They got to pick the colors of the new break room and bathroom, and they got to help design it.” All of those things create buzz in the factory.
It doesn’t take long for word to go through a factory. You can start a rumor at one end of the building and by the time you walk to the other, it’s taken on a life of its own. You can’t outrun the radio. That’s one of the things that we’ve seen but we’re also looking at our data and the turnover is exponentially down. People are staying longer and our curves are shifting. We’re manufacturing, we’re talking about productivity. That really is the bottom line. When productivity goes up 5%, 10% now, all of a sudden productivity’s up 18, 20%.
Now you’re going to sit back and you’re going to say, “Holy cow, I think we’re onto something here.”
That’s where we’re sitting right now is we’re looking at nearly or depending upon the day of the week, double-digit productivity improvements, not solely because of this initiative. I would not take credit for that but I will tell you that the concerted effort of thinking about transparency, about listening, and initiative, and experimentation, this philosophy and making it real is causing that shift to happen.
[00:57:33] Josh: I appreciate you calling out that it’s not solely these efforts but obviously efforts like these, getting people to feel heard, engaged, inspiring them, to take ownership and be a part of it, certainly makes an impact. 18% to 20%, those are huge gains but there’s not a manufacturer that I’ve met that would say, “Well, we don’t really need that.” Just the focus on that idea of engaging employees.
[00:58:02] Jim: Well, there’s a lot to be said for a lot of the peripheral functions as well. The machines are running better, so reliability is up. When you have the uptime and you have the people, you’re going to get the product. It’s simple math. All of those systems have to be functioning optimally in order for you to be able to entertain double-digit gains. It’s quite an effort. It’s not just one thing. It’s a bunch of these pieces working together and keeping a good attitude and keeping good initiative and pushing each other for something more.
[00:58:45] Josh: I love it. There’s no doubt in my mind that everyone listening can benefit from the lessons that you just shared with us today. Some of my key takeaways are there are definitely opportunities to change. You and your leadership must practice extreme ownership, which is an idea popularized by a guy named Jocko Wilink, check out his podcast, the Jocko Podcast. Great. The book as well, ‘Extreme Ownership.’ Servant leadership is a must. If you expect your employees to serve you, you must serve them and you have to make your place of work, a place where people want to work. I love those concepts. Jim, how can our listeners learn more or maybe even continue the conversations with you?
[00:59:29] Jim: Well, it would be an honor. I don’t think I’m a subject matter expert but if people want to engage me, I’m certainly available at Jim Parker at LinkedIn. My phone number and all my contact information is posted up there. I’d be more than willing to engage. I think moreover, I’d be more willing to learn. If there’s something that you don’t agree with, and I appreciate the challenge What we talked about today, isn’t the end all be all. There’s a lot of books and things written on this topic. I think one of the biggest disservices that we can do is follow those books. I’m sorry to all the authors, but line by line. I think it’s important to learn what those books are all about in their content. It’s important to digest it all, but then you have to really understand where are you, who are you working with? Where are you working? What are the dynamics that are at play? Then how can I take what I’ve read? What have I digested? How do I turn that into something that is custom meaningful to where I am right now in my situation? That I think is the difference.
[01:00:53] Josh: I think that’s absolutely true which is there are great ideas and concepts and frameworks and tools out there. We just had a guest named Jamie flinch bot. He has a book called People Solve Problems and he argues that tools are great, but at the end of the day it requires people to understand what are we really trying to solve? What are these different frameworks and tools that people have come up with? When’s the best time to use those and then apply them in a way that fits our organization in the situation, which also includes where are we working? There are so many different factors that it’s not a cookie-cutter. Even in this conversation that you and I are having, the steps that you took are great for inspiration and those are great ideas and starting points, but you have to figure out what’s going to work for yourself and your organization. I think that that’s such a great point to leave on. Jim this has been such a great conversation. Really appreciate your time. Thanks so much for joining us.
[01:01:50] Jim: Josh, really appreciate the opportunity to be heard. It’s cool to be the mouthpiece for a really great team that I had a chance to be a part of all the credit is there.
[01:02:09] Walter: Hey, all this is Walter. I’m another producer for Conquering Chaos. Before you go, if you’re not ready to try parcel to help you get rid of paper, why not watch a quick video instead. Check the show notes for a link to a demonstration. Josh put it together to show frontline workers. What is it like to use a dynamic digital experience to get work done? In it, Josh shows you how using a modern-day app enables you to connect to people, information systems, and machines, just like the apps you’re using in your personal lives. Take a look and let us know what you think.
[01:02:44] Josh: That’s the show. Thank you so so much for joining us today. Conquering Chaos is brought to you by possible. If you’re a fan of these conversations, subscribe to the show and leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts. Just tap the number of stars you think the show deserves. As always feel free to share what’s top of mind for you and who you think we should talk to next. Until then talk soon, take care, stay safe and bye-bye.
[01:03:Listen to find out how you can improve on your worker retention.