Career Development / Leadership Skills / Changing Workforce

Manufacturing excellence through pizza and continuous improvement

In this Big Picture Interview, learn how to hire for – and apply – the soft skills that support continuous improvement.

Colin Cosgrove is president of Laystrom Manufacturing Co., a Chicago-based provider of sheet metal fabrications and component parts and a specialist in prototype production and value-added assemblies. After immigrating to the U.S. from Ireland in 1994, Cosgrove began his career in Chicago as a press brake operator. He then moved on to roles in engineering and sales (adding a psychology degree from Northwestern University along the way) before becoming president of Laystrom in 2016. Cosgrove spoke with Plant Services about meeting today’s manufacturing hiring challenges.

PS: Your trajectory demonstrates that a career in manufacturing doesn’t have to mean staying in the same role – or even the same type of work – for 20 or 30 years. Do you think there’s a lack of awareness about the variety of opportunities in manufacturing?

CC: There’s certainly a stigma of manufacturing being a dirty and greasy type of position and the corollary to that is that a dirty and greasy position isn’t a good way to make a living. I think both of those are false.

Not everybody's meant to go to college. There's a lot of good people in the world who would really be best served to their capabilities by doing something that involves physical work. There's a certain part of manufacturing that still is that. And there's the other side of manufacturing that is extraordinarily innovative and extraordinarily creative and extraordinarily high-tech. It has been I think very much undersold.

The idea is that you can go into a manufacturing company and start in one position and then by your creativity and innovation and grit and hard work and energy can improve your position and your opportunity for success.

PS: What about the stereotype of younger workers as having unrealistic expectations about advancing quickly or receiving recognition and rewards they haven’t really earned?

CC: A stereotype may have some truth to it, but it’s tremendously incomplete. We have a number of younger people here, and I’m certainly trying to create opportunities for them to have a diverse set of opportunities. I’ve got a guy who was a press brake operator who now is working in engineering as well as working on the shop floor. I’ve got another guy who’s 24 years old who’s an assembly operator – he’s getting a degree in business at night, and so we brought him upstairs and we’ve got him into the purchasing function and some marketing functions and sales functions.

We want to cultivate that younger population. If I’m going to expect them to stay doing an assembly job for 20 years or even five years, (that’s) probably not realistic. If I can create an opportunity for them to have a broader perspective, that gives them an opportunity to deliver more value to us and to our customers and their fellow employees and figure out a path that is not their course in life but is their course for a few years, and that’s to their benefit and to our benefit.

PS: You’ve said that you won’t hire somebody who doesn’t buy into respect and teamwork. How do you hire for soft skills?

CC: When I came back to Laystrom two years ago, I said, “Here are four things that to my mind are not negotiable: safety, respect, collaboration, and continuous improvement.”

I think the first and last of those are pretty obvious. In manufacturing, continuous improvement has to be a way of doing things, and safety is obvious. The other two are a little bit more nuanced. You figure out very quickly whether somebody is going to be mindful of others when it comes to safety, that kind of stuff. The middle two, you have to articulate that to everyone in the building and say, "These are a set of expectations." When we rolled out a strategic training initiative, we called them core values. That was a way of articulating that these are core values for our organization. We did that for everyone internally.

When somebody’s coming in, you need to say up front, these are the expectations – that you will be collaborative, you will work with others, you will be respectful of other people. And you also frame it as to why – why is this important? When you start talking in those terms and you start asking intelligent questions, you will find out fairly quickly (whether) the person is going to roll their eyes or tell you a story from their past of whether they have violated those kinds of concepts. You can, through the storytelling, figure out whether somebody’s going to be a team player or not. I don't think it's that hard to do. And you don't need a massive data set to do it. I think you have a responsibility as a manager to direct your organization by the person you're going to go hire.

PS: On a day-to-day basis, how does Laystrom foster collaboration and teamwork?

CC: Well, I tell everyone what to do and they do it. Kidding!

All kidding aside, though, part of it has to come from the top, from me saying, “This is how we’re going to do things.”

One of the things I did when I came back in was I opened up the management team was five people and I brought that team to eight people. I brought more people in to an inclusive group and shared more information than they had ever seen, including financial information. In one of the first meetings, I laid out the reasons why I was doing it, and said, "Here are the financials." And for half the group, that was the first time they had seen an income statement. So there's a lot of education that has to get wrapped up in what an income statement is and so on, what a strategic plan is, and what is its value, and what are we trying to achieve by doing this, and what are the expectations are for the people in the room.

We do that with one group, and then we go on to the next group of all the employees, and we share more information with them. Not as much data, but some. And we put a strategic plan in place that has sort of a five-year goal, and we took that back to sort of a one-year goal with five major points to it. And we took a couple of projects that were associated with each of those five points, and we take those projects – one of which for example was a 6S program on the shop floor – now everybody can see where these things connect together to the multiyear plan.

(As part of a pilot program) we took four teams of two people each, met with all of them, told them the expectations, said, “Here’s the score of this area before” and then set a goal for improvement and a time frame. And I said, “What do you guys need from me to do this?” They were the ones who did all the work, and guess what? They beat the goal. I gave them a four-week goal, and they beat it in three weeks. I had said, if you beat that goal in four weeks, I’ll buy you pizza. If you maintain that goal for another four weeks, I’ll buy the entire company pizza.

They kept it moving forward. There’s lots of self-initiative. They’ve all seen the impact collaboratively together. That’s where we’re fostering cooperation and collaboration and transparency in understanding of the business.