Manufacturers, Prepare Your People For Growth

When growth is mentioned in the manufacturing industry, people gravitate toward its physical requirements: the groundbreaking of a facility expansion, shiny new equipment, perfectly organized aisles of raw materials, and trailblazing automation.

But if that’s the only place your business invests to prepare for growth, then “congratulations” on your state-of-the-art operation. Now, who’s going to want to work for you?

At WCCO Belting in Wahpeton, N.D., we manufacture custom rubber products for agricultural and light industrial equipment manufacturers and distributors in more than 20 countries. Our small family business has been operating in the town of 7,800 people for over 65 years. In a rural community, with an unemployment rate approaching zero, having a reputation as an unsupportive employer is the kiss of death.

In addition, businesses are being forced to adjust their employment strategies to meet the expectations of younger generations. Millennials and Gen-Z want to know exactly how they will be engaged through training, career development, and organizational culture before they deem you worthy of their skills and commitment.

That’s why our shareholders, board of directors and leadership prepare for growth equally among three platforms: equipment, processes and people.

Here are a few ideas for manufacturers and small businesses to engage employees and ensure they’re prepared—and motivated—to support your growth.

1. Presence and transparency, a leader’s best (and cheapest) tools.

When I started working for my father in 1980, he gave me an office and said, “Go market.” When I asked him to elaborate, his response was, “You’re the one with the college degree.” So, I put my head down, worked hard, paid my dues and was rewarded when the company profited. In the end, I knew if my dad wasn’t standing in the doorway of my office, I was doing something right.

My father’s leadership style, which wasn’t uncommon at the time, helped me recognize that I wanted to be a more visible and approachable CEO. To that end, I have been hosting a monthly all-company meeting since taking the job in 2001. What started as a simple tool to introduce myself to the workforce is now a vertebra in the backbone of our engagement strategy. In fact, 94% of our employees report feeling connected to the strategic direction of WCCO Belting. We hold three one-hour meetings throughout the day to reach our 200+ employees across all production shifts. I kick it off by learning who’s new and offering them a personal welcome. The agenda items include company and industry news, rewards and recognitions, a variety of educational topics, guest speakers and a Q&A discussion.

My effort to connect with employees as their leader, and our leadership team’s willingness to share information, boosts engagement and fosters loyalty.

2. Bring back the (metaphorical) suggestion box.

For manufacturers planning for and experiencing growth, space is monitored down to the inch. While some businesses can drive engagement with meditation rooms, gaming areas and coffee bars, it’s not feasible for us. That’s why a good number of manufacturers and small businesses have a long-forgotten suggestion box still hung somewhere in their facility. And yet, while people may laugh at the old-fashioned method, when implemented correctly, a simple program to gather and execute employee ideas can make big impact in a small business. It did for us.

At WCCO Belting, our leadership team knew we needed to do a better job of managing waste in all its forms, however, the people largely responsible for these resources were our production employees. We wouldn’t be able to successfully manage changes from the top down, so in 2014, we launched a nontraditional process improvement program. If an employee has an idea, instead of being analyzed by a small regime and sent through a lengthy cost-analysis investigation, it goes to a multi-level, cross-functional team of 20+ that meets weekly and makes immediate, discussion-based decisions. To encourage participation, each employee enters a drawing for rewards that have varied from free 10-minute break cards to cash, company swag and event tickets.

In less than five years, we have received more than 2,400 submissions and implemented more than 1,400 of them. To our bottom line, it’s meant 20% more output with 20% fewer employees. For our culture, the program gives every employee, experienced or beginner, a voice for change and the ability to control their own work environment.

3. Offer flexible schedule opportunities for all roles, including production.

In 2001, we had 30 employees. Some were family, and most felt like family as we’d grown up in my father’s businesses together. As their leader, I trusted them like family by default. If they had a medical appointment, parent-teacher conference, or a volunteer event, employees were encouraged to adjust their schedules to take care of personal matters during standard business hours. This simple courtesy would have a couple of big impacts on our business down the road.

First, managers and supervisors carried on the tradition and it continues to be a benefit to any employee at any level. As a result, our employer brand is recognized as having a family-first culture which has created a fierce loyalty to our company. We have employees that have dedicated 10, 20, 30 and 40 years of their professional careers to our efforts to grow.

Second, leniency towards an employee’s work-life balance has attracted more women to our manufacturing careers. In fact, almost half of our production roles are filled by women today.  Recognizing a big recruitment opportunity in a tight job market, we’ve continued to promote flexible schedules within our production team as well as our internship program. Students have praised the ability to choose how and when they will use their 40 hours each week to complete their projects, and it’s led to numerous job offer acceptances. Most recently, our survey data found 85% of WCCO Belting employees agree they are successfully balancing their work and personal lives.

Utilizing these strategies helps us prepare for growth equally among the three aforementioned platforms: equipment, processes and people. If you focus on equipment but not processes or people, your product quality will drop. If you focus on processes but not equipment or people, you’ll sacrifice margin. If you focus on people but don’t give them the tools or training to collaborate and work more effectively, frustration will lead to turnover. Implementing employee engagement strategies in preparation for growth doesn’t need to be complicated or costly.

After all, being present, transparent and willing to listen costs nothing at all.

Thomas D. Shorma: Thomas D. Shorma is the President and CEO of WCCO Belting, Inc.