What Manufacturing CEOs Can Learn on the Factory Floor

While CEOs often are encouraged to foster a connection with their front-line workers and processes, this especially important in the manufacturing sector. Executives can learn a lot on the factory floor, not only about production and the inner workings of the products they produce, but also about their workforce.

Stepping out onto the factory floor once in awhile can offer a whole new perspective. Tesla CEO Elon Musk doesn’t just walk his production line to show face, being there and understanding it is an integral part of his job. Musk said he has slept in a conference room by the manufacturing area to ensure the company hits its production goals. He said he has spent “an enormous amount of time” on the production line and that “I have a sleeping bag in a conference room adjacent to the production line, which I use quite frequently.”

Not every CEO has to go that far, but spending a little time learning first-hand about production can bring new insight as to front line challenges and how processes can be improved. Makerbot former-CEO Jonathan Jaglom said in a post at the company’s website that he spent a day on the production line building motors and threaded rods for Replicator 2X to better understand the product and process. “Any workers on the line can recommend and improvement to the workflow…the worker shapes a process he or she understands best, the line becomes more productive. Everybody wins,” said Jaglom.

“Those who don’t stay in touch with the factory floor can quickly forget what’s happening further down the ladder.

Bonnie Spencer Swayze, CEO of Alliance Rubber agrees that being on the floor for years at her father’s factory has given her “insider knowledge” about manufacturing. Swayze says learning is an ongoing process in the age of technology and that manufacturing CEOs need to learn more about developments on the front line. They should explore new methods in development, learn about new technological advancements in machinery, and consider how to improve processes.

“In manufacturing, we have the unique advantage of seeing the product in its rawest form, especially if you’ve been able to work your way up from the factory floor. Use that insider knowledge as a story to inform your audience and potential buyer,” said Swayze.

Some manufacturers are in such need of more front-line knowledge in the C-suite that they’re tapping the factor floor for leaders. After five decades on the production line, Mitsuru Kawai was pulled to a new role as senior managing officer to help the company oversee factories and transfer his skills to a growing number of young employees. Kawai is now tasked with building a manual line of factories at Toyota so workers can learn to make vehicle parts with their own hands. The company said knowing this process will allow workers to increase quality by better understanding defects and how to resolve them. Financial Times called him the first “blue collar executive” and said his knowledge was needed at the executive level.

Executive coach Jan Shirkani feels it’s “all too easy” to become disconnected from the workforce as a senior executive. She said while the surroundings are different, so too is the nature and complexity of the work between the C-suite and the front line. Those who don’t stay in touch with the factory floor can quickly forget what’s happening further down the ladder.

Shirkani said leaders who become too distant from the front line can miss out on valuable information about how the company can improve and increase its competitive advantage. They also lose the perspective to anticipation the ripple effects of their decisions, and they can lose credibility with their workforce when they believe leaders don’t have a clue what’s going on in the company. “By stepping out of the executive suite often enough to ensure you understand what’s happening on the front-line, you can keep your finger on the pulse of what employees need to be successful,” said Shirkani.

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Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.

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