Improve Your Team's Work Ethic With A Culture Change

Improve your team's work ethic with a culture change

April 19, 2023
Joe Kuhn says a properly functioning team needs a system, driven by a strong maintenance culture.

As a maintenance manager, engineering leader, or plant manager, the success of your organization always comes down to the expertise, work ethic, and passion of others within your organization. In my early career, I’m now embarrassed to say that frequently I whined about the commitment of the technicians in my plant. I had a lot of first-hand evidence to support this belief:

I observed the following current state:

  1. Work at the start of the shift was always slow to get going.
  2. Breaks started early and ended late.
  3. The norm was to see two people doing a one-person job.
  4. Technicians could always be seen just riding around on scooters/trucks.
  5. Attitudes were commonly surly and unfriendly.
  6. Improvement and change efforts were always resisted or at best apathetic.

Did we hire all bad people or did our culture just ruin them over the years and decades? As a leader if you believe you have a work ethic problem with a majority of your team members, you tend to take a defined path in your management decisions to drive change. Examples:

  1. Set clear expectations with discipline consequences for late starts, extended breaks, and early quits. Supervisors are thus rewarded for their command-and-control performance.
  2. Discipline technicians for poor performance for work not completed and lack of precision.
  3. Aggressively seek to contract out work to external third parties, and in the process, let internal resources dwindle due to attrition and reduced overtime.
  4. Limit communication with work crews since they will never see the big picture and will never change.

Does this sound familiar? Are you disappointed with the results of these actions? I would like you to join me in a thought experiment. For the next 10 minutes, let us imagine that you are 100% confident that every employee came to work every day wanting to do a great job—not just a good job, a great one.  You are also extremely confident in their work ethic and craft skills. Given the six realities of current state detailed above, what actions do you propose should be taken to progress to a high-performance work team? Here are a few to consider:

  1. “Go and see” the system in which you ask technicians to work. This is to be a minimum of a full shift with multiple shifts being better. Tell the crew you are looking for problems with work planning, coordination, parts, tools, and equipment. Expect a hard “crust” on these individuals because of the culture in which they have adapted. You will be shocked with this new view of reality.
  2. Remove frustrations from their world, not yours. Not having the right parts, tools, and equipment at the right place in time is often a great place to start.
  3. Follow-up on work performed and notes on work tickets that are documented by technicians. If a part needs replacement, lubrication, or adjustment, get it done. Also, close the loop and tell them the status of your actions as well as thanking them for their commitment.
  4. Create a “Touch Plan.” Mob mentality is present in most maintenance organizations. I have found that people are motivated and encouraged one person at a time. Draft a plan to have the leadership team engage each technician every month one-on-one. Meet them in their environment on the shop floor. Listen, listen, listen, but also connect the dots for them on change success stories. Do not assume they hear good news about progress.
  5. Catch technicians doing something right. Create standard work to audit routine preventative maintenance and planned work tasks being executed. Ask them if they found anything unusual or how they could improve the job. Go and see failures in the field and again ask for their perspective. In meetings, find four positive stories for every one failure or shortcoming. Lastly, consider sending a handwritten thank you note to a technician’s home for recognition. In the letter, connect the work they performed with the bigger picture. Call them out. Make it personal.
  6. Reward supervisors for abilities to motivate individuals and crews. Help them develop skills to anticipate problems, problem solve, and collaborate with other stakeholders.
  7. Look for opportunities to celebrate. For example: you completed 90% of PMs this month for the first time in decades; an outage comes back early and under budget; equipment uptime has trended up the last three months. Celebration meals are my favorite; they bring the community of maintenance and engineering together as a team for recognition.         

As you may have realized, this is not just a thought experiment, but rather my professional documentary.  On the surface, culture change appears to be insurmountable. I have found empowering the fact that cultures are changed “one experience at a time.” All you need to do as a leader is craft the experience and “connect the dots” of that experience with the culture you are trying to create. Repeat this every day, week, month, and year and you will be shocked at the culture created.

How to turn the culture corner

Circling back to the culture as it exists today, why do you think technicians are starting late, taking long breaks, and quitting early? What I have discovered is 99% of the time it is due to poor work planning and poor work expectations by supervisor. They are waiting for production to release the equipment, they are waiting for parts, or waiting for a mobile crane. Worse, supervisors have such low expectations from crews that they only assign 2-3 hours’ worth of work to each technician. Since they are expected to fix things with duct tape and bailing wire for a rapid return to production, they frequently complete tasks early – so what is the rush? Why are technicians commonly observed riding around on scooters?  Excellent chance they are looking for parts on a poorly planned job. You hired great people and put them in a poor system. The system is the opportunity.

In summary, your perception of reality just might be the problem. Change your beliefs and you change your actions and results. Congratulations, you are now leading.    

About the Author

Joe Kuhn | CMRP

Joe Kuhn, CMRP, former plant manager, engineer, and global reliability consultant, is now president of Lean Driven Reliability LLC. He is the author of the book “Zero to Hero: How to Jumpstart Your Reliability Journey Given Today’s Business Challenges” and the creator of the Joe Kuhn YouTube Channel, which offers content on creating a reliability culture as well as financial independence to help you retire early. Contact Joe Kuhn at [email protected].

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