Lessons in manufacturing workforce management from 'Thomas and Friends'

What anthropomorphic trains can teach industrial workplaces about the need to communicate

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

I have an almost 2-year-old son at home, and this sweet kid has a passion for trains unlike anything I could have imagined for a kid not old enough for preschool yet. We live a few blocks from a rail line, and he and I walk down the block, up the next street and down a big hill almost daily to watch the freight trains and the passenger trains go by. He said "Cars go bump over the railroad tracks!" before he ever said, "I love you!" to my husband or me, but we're trying not to take it too personally.

Cranky at the End of the Line

"Thomas and Friends," copyright 2017 Gullane (Thomas) Limited

Not surprisingly, he also is fairly obsessed with the long-beloved character known as Thomas the Tank Engine, and especially the latest iteration of books and TV episodes, "Thomas and Friends." For the uninitiated, Thomas is a cheeky – that's his official descriptor – blue steam engine who lives on the island of Sodor and works/gets into minor mishaps with his other vehicle friends/co-workers.  

What has struck me of late is the common ground between issues surfaced in the series and the plant-management challenges that the Plant Services team writes about regularly. Seriously: "Thomas and Friends" touches on the need for proactive rather than reactive maintenance (as well as the idea that pride goeth before the asset failure), the importance of adhering to a schedule, and the criticality of cross-functional collaboration, whether during normal operations or during unscheduled downtime.

I never anticipated finding parallels in a series about anthropomorphic trains to the issues I cover at work, but I suppose that's just a bonus as I watch my son's interests and imagination bloom. A pair of episodes in particular caught my attention recently, in the wake of a couple of related real-world news stories and after writing our June cover story on results of the 2018 Plant Services Workforce Survey.

Fenders and fireboxes! "Thomas" takes on ageism
Here's the setup: In "Cranky at the End of the Line," Cranky, the experienced construction crane, gets some ribbing for starting to creak and hears through the rumor mill that the affable railway boss has been talking about bringing on "big fancy new cranes," possibly to replace him. Fearing for his livelihood, Cranky works around the clock to try to prove that he's still, as all of the characters aspire to be, Really Useful.  

This of course eventually has negative consequences, as an overtired Cranky accidentally lifts a dock worker. (Hello, OSHA.) He finally literally pleads to the railway boss: "Don't get rid of me, sir! Please! I'm not so old and I really am a useful crane!" As it turns out, the rumors were half-true: The railway boss did indeed bring on a scrappy new crane, but the new hire was positioned as offering relief to help handle the railway's booming business.

The following episode, "New Crane on the Dock," finds Cranky and new crane Carly soon engaged in competition to demonstrate who could be the most effective and efficient worker. Cranky "was determined to show the newcomer how it was done," the narrator notes. Their refusal to collaborate results in a literal tangle, and it takes a dockside diesel engine named Salty to point out that their pulling in opposite directions had irritated co-workers and led operations to grind to a halt. Recognizing each other's strengths and using them collaboratively rather than competitively would help generate the productivity gains sought when Carly was brought on board, it was indicated. "Communication – it's a wonderful thing," pirate-accented Salty says.

Ain't that the truth. Better communication from railway management could have helped dispel rumors about the business's plans and intentions. The railway boss could have put forth a strategic effort to reassure existing team members that their contributions were valued and laid out a plan for how new investments would benefit the business and, in fact, the workers themselves. Cranky and Carly could have sought to collaborate rather than digging in their heels. (A more-formal onboarding process wouldn't have hurt, either.) Alas, as these did not come to pass, "confusion and delay," in Thomas parlance, was the result. 

Acceptance of newcomers and appreciation of different skills and abilities is well-tread ground for kids series, to be sure, but you have to wonder what the "Thomas and Friends" writers have witnessed to go at the issue from the ageism angle.

As Cranky the animated crane illustrates, just because concerns about perceived ageism in the workplace aren't being brought to the attention of supervisors or management doesn't mean they're not being felt or voiced among team members. IBM now is facing a lawsuit in the wake of a report suggesting that that company has sought to push out older workers. A recent Washington Post story shared the frustrations of experienced workers who have spent decades forging relationships and honing skills only to find themselves, for various reasons, now out of their longtime roles and struggling to find sufficient work and believing that their age is hurting their prospects.

U.S. manufacturers are grappling with a host of workforce challenges; looming large among these are the need to fill roles being vacated by retiring workers and the need to equip the existing workforce – younger and older team members alike – with skills the organization needs to remain competitive. Against this backdrop, enter a kids series about talking trains with a truly valid lesson: If you've got a story to tell about what you're doing and why you're doing it, tell it.

Communication – it's a wonderful thing.

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