listening

Why leaders need to listen to their teams

Aug. 31, 2022
Tom Moriarty says those closest to the work have the most experience with problems and often the best solutions.

My wife, my son, and I were sitting in my kitchen one evening. The conversation was about my son’s house, which he had purchased as a fixer-upper two years ago. My wife, being a person that likes to get things done, was providing ‘suggestions’ about how our son should proceed. My son was managing his budget and working on the house at his pace.

My son, being a respectful person, listened quietly but at multiple points expressed his opinion about what he was going to do for each aspect of his home improvement. Each time my wife continued on as though he hadn’t expressed his thoughts. Eventually, my son said, “Well I guess you have it all figured out and you don’t need my input.” To which I tried not to laugh, but it was impossible not to. Fortunately, we have a comfortable couch. 

This scenario reminded me of a young technician explaining what it was like working in his company. The senior leaders in the company said they wanted to hear solutions to safety issues. 

This technician knew there were a number of incidents involving people being injured on ladders. Being a technician that used ladders frequently in his job assignments, he thought he knew the solution. Many of the ladders being used were not commercial grade ladders. They were worn and rickety. People were injuring themselves because the ladders were not stable. 

The technician had told his supervisor multiple times that the ladders needed to be replaced, both before and after injuries. After the latest injury, the technician submitted an improvement idea that included inspecting the ladders and discarding those that were unstable and buying new replacements. 

Five weeks after the technician’s safety improvement was submitted, the plant manager announced that the solution to the ladder safety issue was to hold all-hands training. The facility employed about 500 employees. The all-hands training took about 30 minutes including the time to stop work, assemble, listen to the training, and then transit back to worksites to resume work. 

At an average fully burdened rate of $54 per hour, the training cost was equal to $13,500. There was another $20,000 to $30,000 in lost production. Not to mention the morale effect on 470 disgruntled employees that don’t ever use ladders in their work. The previous injuries in medical cost and lost time added another $3,000. 

About the Author: Tom Moriarty

A good commercial grade ladder of size used in this plant cost about $500 each. There are only twelve such ladders in the plant. Replacing all twelve ladders would have cost $6,000. Had the supervisor or manager actually listened to the technician, it is highly likely that several lost time injuries could have been avoided. The all-hands safety training could have been avoided and more than $40,000 in costs could have been avoided. 

I know times in manufacturing are tough. It’s hard to find and keep good people. But one of the skills of a good leader is listening. If your team members are telling you something listen to them. This technician had the answer. His supervisor didn’t listen. The health and safety manager didn’t listen. In the end it cost the company more than $40,000 to solve a $6,000 problem. Worse, they ticked off the majority of the workforce. How many more all-hands events or other examples of poor management will people endure? 

Just like when a helpful mom is fixated on a path she wants to see, supervisors and managers need to listen to their team members, even if it is not what they want to hear. The people closest to the problem tend to have solutions.

If you’re the supervisor or manager you can ask people for suggestions. But if you don’t actually listen to what you are being told it’s unlikely that you’ll act on it. Productive leaders are attentive. They actively listen. They help people to analyze and to come up with solutions.

In my virtual and on-site workshops we talk about communication —how to consider the other person’s encoding and decoding of messages and the noise that derails clear communication. We also talk about productive leader attributes. CARMA is being consistent, attentive, respectful, motivating, and assertive. Be consistent so people know how you’ll handle things. Be attentive to situations and ideas. Be respectful by actually listening to ideas. Be motiving by encouraging feedback. Be assertive by acting on good ideas.

I encourage you to train yourself and your team on actively listening. Go forth and do great things.

This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

Human Capital

This article is part of our monthly Human Capital column. Read more from Tom Moriarty.

About the Author

Tom Moriarty | P.E., CMRP, President of Alidade MER, Inc.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in asset management, reliability engineering, and leadership improvement. He is a member of SMRP (Florida Chapter Board Member and CED Director), a past Chair of ASME’s Canaveral Florida Section, and author of the book “The Productive Leadership System; Maximizing Organizational Reliability”. He has a BSME, an MBA (organizational development), is a licensed professional engineer (PE) in Florida, and a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional (CMRP). Contact him at [email protected], (321) 773-3356, or via LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/alidade-mer.

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