How To Create An Innovative Manufacturing Workforce

CEO of WCCO Belting weaves training and transparency, incentives and rewards into culture that pays off.
WCCO Belting’s Tom Shorma

Tom Shorma sold his company, WCCO Belting, to Continental’s conveying-solutions unit this summer. Then the president and CEO of the Wahpeton, North Dakota-based manufacturer of industrial rubber products kept right on making the company one of the best places to work in manufacturing in the entire country.

Shorma long has focused on workplace culture at the 68-year-old company’s two facilities, the main factory in rural North Dakota that employs about 300 people and one in Arlington, Texas, with about 75 employees. Chief Executive, for example, has recognized WCCO Belting for its diversity efforts that have yielded, among other things, a manufacturing workforce that’s about 50/50 male and female, and whose members speak a total of 10 languages.

Lately, Shorma has focused on encouraging internal innovation at WCCO Belting and was just recognized as a “100 Best Workplaces for Innovators” in a ranking co-developed by Accenture from a variety of industries.

“Innovation in particular in our plants isn’t isolated,” Shorma, who plans to retire at the end of the year, told Chief Executive. “People have ideas outside of product- development or machine-design departments. We’ve always embraced the idea that everyone can be an innovator. That could be in safety, quality or throughput.”

Here are four ways Shorma and WCCO Belting have encouraged the kind of internal-innovation culture that’s getting them recognized:

• Post it. “We’ve become really good at getting and listening to ideas that people on the floor come up with, and then we post them in the hallway that people can see when they walk to the lunchroom,” Shorma says. “They can see the idas that others are having. Then those ideas go to a cross-departmental team that reviews them and initiates action to make those improvements.”

• Renew it. Shorma said that WCCO Belting actually saw a decline in the implementation rate of employees’ ideas, to 57% of 3,500 ideas in 2021. But a renewed focus on the practice, he said, has pushed the implementation rate back up to 60% this year. “And it’s not like these are redundant ideas,” he said. “There’s fresh innovation taking place at all levels of the company. And one people realize their ideas are taken seriously, they come up with more.”

• Train it. In 2014, pressed at that point to find enough workers locally to keep up with its sales growth, WCCO Belting “went to our team members and said, ‘We have to increase our output by 20%, and we have to do it with 20% fewer people,’” Shorma recalled. “That didn’t mean we were releasing or terminating anyone, but over time there would be fewer people.

“They said, ‘We’re already working hard.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but we’re changing the parameters.’ We gave everyone a significant wage adjustment. And we implemented a comprehensive training program above anything we’d done in the past.”

Now, WCCO Belting offers more than 100 internal technical-training classes at five different levels, including leadership training once someone reaches the highest level. “This helps our people understand not just what to do, but things going on above and beyond their daily activities,” Shorma explained. “We want them to understand not just what to do, but why, so they have scope and perspective.”

• Diversify it. WCCO Belting’s vaunted diversity efforts continue to fuel innovation. “Twenty-one years ago” when he became chief of the family-owned company, Shorma said, “one of the first things I did is put a sign above the door to draw a line in the sand. It said, ‘We’re always looking for great people.’ It doesn’t say black-white, gay-straight, or Christian-Muslim. People in our region have come to understand that we look for talent.

“It sounds abrasive to a degree, but I really don’t care about diversity. It’s not part of our nature to look to compare. We accept talent wherever it comes from in our small rural community.”


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