Get on top of a world-class plant

In this article, Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley provides four steps for increasing the productivity of a company's most citical asset: its workforce.

By R. Keith Mobley

The dominant trend in corporate America during the past 10 years has been cost cutting through headcount reduction, curtailed maintenance activities and a variety of other arbitrary means. This trend is viewed as the only means of achieving a competitive position that can permit our industries to survive in the ever-increasing competitiveness of the world market. Unfortunately, no company can save its way to prosperity.

If cutting cost isn’t the answer, the only real option remaining is to increase the productivity of our single critical asset: our workforce. Research has clearly shown that a 1% increase in workforce productivity has more than 10 times the financial impact than a 1% reduction in operating costs. However, old habits are slow to die, a fact clearly evident in the manner in which corporate America approaches workforce productivity.

Instead of focusing on improving productivity universally across the workforce, we continue to rely on a core group of superstars who somehow get us through the myriad crisis situations that characterize our day-to-day activities. The challenges that evolving worldwide competition generate are much too broad and deep for this tired old approach to succeed. Instead, our survival as a manufacturing economy depends on an ability to elicit maximum productivity from the entire workforce, not just a cadre of overachievers.

Obtaining maximum effort from the whole crew won’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible. Four essential steps can achieve sustained improvements in workforce performance levels.

Team culture
The first step is to integrate your superstars into a cohesive, focused team. In addition to increasing the overachievers’ performance levels, integration multiplies their contribution, as well as providing the mentoring and training needed to raise the skills and performance levels of the rest of the workforce. Most people learn best through imitation. Lacking good role models, there’s little chance that overall workforce performance will change. Integrating the superstars into the organizational team raises the bar for everyone.

Align roles
In too many cases, the organizational structure and staffing don’t coincide. Instead of an objective structure based on functional needs, effective planning, good management and the execution that accomplishes the company’s mission cost-effectively, the structure is customized around the cadre of superstars. While this approach may work in the short-term, it can’t sustain the performance levels essential to long-term survival.

The key to workforce productivity is ensuring that workers are in roles for which they are competent -- or can become competent -- to perform effectively and efficiently. In addition to technical skills, employees must want to perform the assigned function. In short, they must have a passion to excel.

Clear performance goals
Employees function at any level the corporation expects of them. If mediocrity is tolerated, that’s exactly the performance level the workforce produces. Because most employees will respond to a realistic challenge, management must establish performance goals that stretch individual and group performance.

Universal accountability
Management must hold members of the workforce uniformly accountable. This doesn’t mean punishing employees for mistakes or reverting to the ill-serving concept of fixing blame whenever things go wrong. Instead, the workforce must understand that management is serious about achieving particular performance levels and that it won’t tolerate non-supportive or contrary behavior.

Relying on superstars or cost reductions only for long-term survival has not and cannot work. Organization decision-makers must find a way to raise the performance level for every worker, from the boardroom to the shipping dock. This requires holistic and systematic thinking about the structure and processes that affect the ability to compete in the marketplace. It requires eliminating restrictions and impediments that prevent world-class performance. Do that first, then let your workforce do its job. They might surprise you.

Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley is principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering in Charleston, S.C. Contact him at

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