Strive for training-driven innovation at your plant

One of my old superintendents used to hook his thumbs in his suspenders and say, “Son, in manufacturing, you’re going to have three disasters a day. If it’s 2:00PM and you haven’t had one yet, it’s not a good day. It’s a long day.”

Back then we were all impressed with what a wit he was, and how manly we all were to work in such a swashbuckling industry. Today most of us know that the super’s style of stopgap management and his chaotic world view caused many of the disasters that shaped our environment.

To be fair, my old boss didn’t invent chaos, but he did serve to perpetuate it. After all, as long as the chaos was deemed to be inevitable, it couldn’t be the result of his or anyone’s sloppy management. Back then, manufacturing guys were tough, and we proved it by working a whale of a lot of overtime to clean up the messes we made on straight time.

Factory change is accepted today as commonplace, but back then, trying to make sense of the plant environment was viewed as “unrealistic” by experienced hands. “Here in the real world,” their explanations would begin, “we know better than to think it will get better.” Who could argue with Murphy’s Law?

J. Stanton McGroarty, CMfgE, CMRP, is senior technical editor of Plant Services. He was formerly consulting manager for Strategic Asset Management International (SAMI), where he focused on project management and training for manufacturing, maintenance and reliability engineering. He has more than 30 years of manufacturing and maintenance experience in the automotive, defense, consumer products and process manufacturing industries. He holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in management from Central Michigan University. He can be reached at smcgroarty@putman.net or check out his .

In the new millennium, effective trainers and consultants are aware of the need to bring middle management up to speed with whatever change is being installed. Failure to do so even has a name – “rainbowing.” To build a rainbow, you sell a lovely new idea to top management, then leap over middle management and try to indoctrinate the front line workers without bringing supervision along first. Rainbowing is an almost sure prescription for failure. In fact, to avoid rainbows, the most effective programs not only bring middle management along, they secure help from middle managers to customize the program to fit their organization. These are, after all, the men and women who make their living implementing instructions in their plant. Of course they should also be the experts in making new ideas work as well.

Anyone, worker or manager, learns best when classroom instruction is mirrored in simultaneous workplace changes. When change agents are careful to obtain middle management help, this synergy of workplace facts and classroom ideas can be wonderfully effective. It can easily erase the whole set of arguments that begin “Here in the real world none of those newfangled ideas will work…”

Best of all, managers who are prepared to listen to workers about their successes can create a second wave of benefits. This is particularly true when new technology is involved. Managers need only ask one question – “Now that the new techniques or technologies are working, what other opportunities do you see to apply them to our business?”

If this question is asked in the right moment of excitement over the success of new tools, it can create what I like to call “training-driven innovation.” When people who understand both the factory and the new tools install their own ideas, the resulting changes will have 100 percent ownership by the team. Not only do the workers who conceived the improvements own them, but the managers who asked the question are life members of the innovation team. A solid bridge will have been built, with two-way traffic bringing innovation to the workplace and returning with even more innovative ideas.

Improvement is fun, and when it becomes a habit everybody wins – everybody, that is, except your competition.

Read Stanton McGroarty's monthly column, Strategic Maintenance.