How Women ‘Knowledge Workers’ Helped One Mid-Market Manufacturer Rise

Over the last several years, the Aurora, Ill.-based maker of electrical connectors for automotive, telecom, utility and other markets has been pursuing a deliberate strategy of helping its female employees move into this crucial role that blends the most intellectually demanding aspects of three different job descriptions that typically have been handled by men. This particular strategy has been a critical part of AskPower’s transition to digital manufacturing and automation.

“Over time, women have moved into many of the traditional manufacturing roles that men handled, especially as the definition of some of our most important jobs has changed.”

“Over time, women have moved into many of the traditional manufacturing roles that men handled, especially as the definition of some of our most important jobs has changed,” AskPower CEO Steven J. Kase told Mid-Market CEO Briefing. “And our output from those new roles has been three to four times what it was before we did this. It’s a very significant and major way in which we’ve improved our profitability.”

Kase conceded that elevating the role of women at the company wasn’t a strategy per se, but that AskPower embraced this change as the most effective way to modernize its approach to manufacturing over the last several years.

To boost margins and enter new markets, about a decade ago, the company embarked on a strategy to automate and digitize its operations as much as possible, including extensive use of robots. It worked with outfits such as a local community college to redesign job functions so that humans would most effectively work with robotic automation.

One significant change was to combine typical functions such as machine set-up and quality control into “one knowledge worker who understands how to keep the machine running and keep output and quality high. In addition, when there are problems, these employees understand what they can handle and when they need to go to another expert in the facility,” Kase said.

This important change highlighted the capabilities of women at AskPower whose traditional roles—mostly “self-selected” by female employees over time—largely had been “jobs that involved manual dexterity and inspection,” according to Kase. When it came time to overhaul job definitions to embrace AskPower’s digital-manufacturing goals, female employees demonstrated generally stronger skills in collaboration than their male counterparts and proved better at “knowing when to ask for help versus blindly going on through” as men tended to do.

 

As a result, AskPower hasn’t added employees in the setup department, which is comprised of men, and as setup needs have grown with sales volumes, they have been handled by the knowledge workers, not by setup-only employees. AskPower has treated the inspection function similarly.

“Our approach has been to grow with an individual who learns all the functions, and they also make more money [that way],” Kase said. “The idea is that you don’t have to add this costly overhead, because it will be built into the cost of the knowledge worker.”

Among AskPower’s all-female corps of knowledge workers, Kase said, retention is 100%, whereas turnover is 10%-15% a year in more traditional jobs.

In sum, by tapping into capabilities of its female workers that may have been latent and  under-utilized, AskPower has created a win-win-win outcome for the women knowledge workers, for the company—and even for the male employees, as a company that is on the rise.

 

 

Dale Buss :Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.