Motivating Your Team
When I was a young supervisor, I sought out the ideal way to motivate people. I thought that there had to be a universal, optimal way to motivate the individuals on your team to perform at their best. I eventually learned that no such thing exists.
People are enormously complex. They are very different, from one person to the next. And any one person changes through time, both short-term and long term. So I started to think that a leader needed multiple motivational methods to cover every person at any given time. This immediately seemed impractical – far too many possibilities to keep in mind.
At this point, I gave up and stopped trying to motivate people. I just let them know what needed to be done and made sure that they had everything that they needed to get it done.
Over time I came to realize that most of the conventional methods of motivating people were manipulative and ineffective. At best, you might get a short term burst of productivity, but that was it. At worst, you get cynicism and mistrust.
I’ve come to believe that it’s actually human nature to be purposeful and productive. If you accept this, than a leader’s job is to create an environment in which his team can be productive and thrive.
All you need to do, as a leader, is point in the right direction, get out of the way and turn ‘em loose. In my experience, most people respond very well to this kind of treatment.

Posted January 4th, 2022

I once worked for a manufacturing company who’s owners were very quick to lay-off their employees. If there was no customer orders to work on, right now, then “Get out - Go home”. Very short term, unpaid, lay-offs. One week, one day, and, yes, they would even send people home in the middle of the day. The typical targets of these lay-offs were the factory workers, but sometimes, high skilled office workers would get hit too. While it never happened to me, I saw, first hand, the impact of getting laid off had on my coworkers. More about this later.

Now I understand the business case for laying people off. If the company doesn’t have orders and the worker is not making product, then that worker is not generating any revenue. Cash flow stops – actually reverses. If the company’s on the verge of bankruptcy and it’s very survival is at stake, then lay-offs are absolutely necessary. But what if the company has enough reserves and/or other sources of income to continue for a time?

An alternative to quick lay-offs would be to ask every worker and supervisor to create a list of projects that could be done during slow-downs. Projects to improve safety, quality and/or productivity. Continuous improvement projects. Kaizen projects. Then the cost of keeping people on the payroll becomes an investment for the future instead of an unrecoverable expense. Short term thinking versus long term thinking.

Typically, the victims of lay-offs are the lowest paid employees in the company. The ones who live pay cheque to pay cheque, the ones who can least afford to have their income interrupted. Getting laid off can be very traumatic for these workers. It feels like a betrayal. It permanently changes their attitude towards the company. Any loyalty they felt for the company is gone. They realize that the company considers them expendable. They feel disrespected. If they come back to work, they will never be the same, never work as hard, never care as much.

And they might not come back. Getting laid-off shakes a lot of people out of their complacency and motivates them to seek out a better job. The company risks losing the experience, skills and knowledge of their employees. The high cost of employee turnover is well documented. The attitude of the workers, who didn’t get laid-off is also adversely affected and may prompt departures.

Of course, some (most?) companies use slow-downs to weed out their less productive employees – the ones who are not bad enough to outright fire, but can be laid-off and never recalled. This strategy is more a reaction to labour laws then questionable business policy.
But, the impact on those not laid-off still needs to be considered.

Once again, it all comes down to respect. If you respect your employees, if you treat them as irreplaceable assets, not as expendable costs, you have a much better chance of implementing a culture of continuous improvement. And implementing a culture of continuous improvement unlocks enormous benefits.

Posted 5 days ago

Many manufacturing companies push hard to get their machine utilization rate up to 100% and why wouldn’t they? The machines are expensive and they have to pay for themselves. If a machine is sitting idle, it’s not making money. This is one very important reason to run shifts – to keep the machines running and producing around the clock.

But there is a caveat.

While having a machine utilization rate approaching 100% is a desirable goal, it should never be the primary goal. Very simply, the primary goal is to make a profit by satisfying your customers. Your customer doesn't care what your machine utilization rate is, they want your product or service "free, perfect and now" - or as close as possible to "free, perfect and now". Having one or more machines available for rush jobs or as backups for broken machines, can be crucial for customer satisfaction. Stand-by machines are, of course, a drag on machine utilization, but it may be a necessary one. To sum up, the danger lies in getting obsessed with machine utilization at the expense of higher priorities.

The other thing to consider is; how do you increase machine utilization to optimum levels? Imposing a top-down strategy is one possible path. In my experience, it is the least effective method.

Increasing machine utilization is a huge task that involves many overlapping processes, people, and details. The easiest and most effective way to get there is to get everyone helping through employee empowerment and continuous improvement. Cultivating a culture of continuous improvement is a major challenge in itself, but the benefits are enormous and extend beyond just machine utilization.

Posted 6 days ago

I recently observed a manufacturing company struggling to hire a replacement weekend shift supervisor – the long-time incumbent had left. The plant manager was limited to promoting from within due to the difficulties of finding a person with the right technical skills who was also willing to work at below market pay rates that the company typically offered.

A plausible, but less than ideal candidate was identified and asked to assume the responsibilities. It was at this point that the manager’s approach went off the rails. Imagine the following conversation;
Candidate: Yes, I am interested in becoming the weekend shift supervisor. How much will my pay increase?
Manager: There will be no increase at this time.
Candidate: When will I start?
Manager: Immediately.
Candidate: When will you announce the promotion?
Manager: We are not going to announce your promotion.

Now it’s pretty easy to read between the lines and extract the implicit message. The manager is implicitly telling the candidate; We have have no confidence in your ability to succeed at this new role so we are not going to commit to you – we will just try you out and see what happens.

What happened next was predictable. The candidate accepted the promotion for two weekends and then resigned from it. Over the two weekends, the candidate realized that the promotion, and the way it was offered, was an insult and the additional, unrewarded responsibilities were not worth the stress.
The consequences from all this are also pretty easy to see. The company still doesn’t have a weekend shift supervisor. The ex-candidate’s attitude towards the company and management is going to be much more negative. His co-workers, observing this or hearing about it, are also going to be far less trusting of the management. Nothing good came from this or can come from this.

A better approach when asking someone to take on a new challenge is to fully commit to their success. You give them the raise, you give them the title, you formally announce it to the company. You tell them that you will support them if they have any issues. In other words, your words and your actions express full confidence in their ability to succeed in their new role.

The timid, half-assed approach is self sabotage.
Great leaders make a decision and then fully commit to it. Great leaders bring out the best in people and make everyone around them better.

Posted 7 days ago

I’ve had the good fortune of learning how to be an excellent leader/manager from three bosses who knew what they were doing.
One attribute they all had in common was that they were all open, honest and realistic. By realistic, I mean that they all had a very firm and accurate grasp of reality. No self-delusion, or wishful thinking – they knew the score. And being open and honest implies respect.

Number three on the list was my father, a contractor. My father taught me to have deep respect for people who were good at their job – didn’t matter what that job was, as long as they were good at it. He also had a way of asking his employees to do things in a way that made you feel unreasonable if you said no. He would phrase it as a respectful request, rather than an order. He was the boss, so he could deliver it as an order, but chose to treat people respectfully instead.

Ranked a close second was Don M. at the robotics startup. He came into the company as VP, helped us go public, eventually left as president. He treated everybody with respect, was open and honest always. If you asked him a question that he did not know the answer to, he would reason it out, out loud, right in front of you. Or just admit that he didn’t know – never tried to bluff or weasel his way out of answering the question.

First on my list was Brian B., night shift supervisor at the bank card personalisation company. Brian was hired to start up the night shift and was promised the production manager position on days, when he was finished getting the night shift rolling. Brian used to have an end of shift administrative task at the computer every day. The computer was on a stand up desk in the middle of the production room. Everyday a crowd of women would form around him as he joked with them, gently teased them, even flirted with them. He, like the others mentioned here, was very open, honest and respectful. In return, everybody was very loyal to him and would deny him no favors – if Brian asked for overtime, you did your best to agree.

These three illustrated to me how important it is to treat people with respect. And also that it can’t be faked. Respect shows through in all the tiny, daily interactions that you have with people, especially bosses. Bad bosses also give themselves away when they’re talking to you about other people in a disrespectful manner. If they talk disrespectfully about people who are not in the room, it’s safe to assume that they’re not respectful, in general.

The power of treating people with respect is apparent when you realize that none of these three used any of the conventional motivational techniques, but all of them got the best out of people.

There is an undeniable advantage to working at many different companies and having many different bosses along the way. Some of your bosses will demonstrate the best ways and some will show you how not to do things. Always something to learn.

Posted 8 days ago

Paul Akers (2 second lean guy, that I previously mentioned) has posted a new video on YouTube where he talks about leadership.

It's a good talk, typical for him, in that it doesn't get very abstract or philosophical, but has good practical advice and interesting stories in support of his points.
One thing that Paul doesn't talk about here is leading by example. I want my team to treat each other in a professional, business-like manner, i.e., to be polite and respectful to each other. So I deliberately and explicitly model that behaviour. I treat everybody with respect and dignity in pretty much every situation. I typically never have to talk about it - the behaviour catches on.
Another thing that I do at work is joke around a lot. I like to keep things light-hearted. We all have to put in our 8 plus hours a day, 5 plus days a week, so let's inject a little humour and fun into our day.
Related to this, I also try to make everything easier - work shouldn't be a constant, frustrating struggle. An example of this is set-up reduction - if I and/or my guys can reduce the time-consuming obstacles and waste in the machine set-up process, it means less frustration and more efficiency and productivity. Which typically leads higher quality work and greater job satisfaction.
And, of course, this is why I love Paul Akers 2-second lean - it greatly accelerates the making of work easier and more efficient.

Posted 5 months ago

I've developed a system for training new CNC machine operators, over time, that's proven to be fairly effective. Executive summary: It's about getting some repetitions in while increasing participation. This training has to be effective because if the new operator makes a mistake anywhere along the process, it can lead to a catastrophic crash of the machine.
First, I show the sequence of steps required, while explaining the reasons for those steps.
Then, I have the new operator perform the same sequence, with me telling them what to do each step along the way, I will also repeat, or elaborate on, the reasons for each step.
Keep in mind that the opportunity to train the second and third times might not come up for days.
Lastly, I have the new operator perform the operation themself under my supervision. I will intervene if they make a mistake or get stalled. I may repeat this last training, if I judge it to be necessary.

Posted 5 months ago

Lately, I've been watching videos about Lean Manufacturing by Paul Ackers of Fast Cap. I love his approach to it. He makes it mostly about eliminating waste and continuous improvement, with some 5S thrown in (3S actually) and keeps it simple and fun. And he pushed hard to thoroughly integrate into his company's culture. He's here on LinkedIn and has lots of videos on YouTube and free ebooks on his websites.

Posted 6 months ago

Leadership Principle 2:
I find it useful to think of the other departments in my company as internal customers and suppliers. In my current role, I oversee a department that makes parts for a number of other departments that perform assembly tasks. I look at those assembly departments as my customers and that it is my job to keep them happy. In other words, to give them what they need in order for them to do their job, just like Principle 1. I can also be a demanding customer to my internal suppliers - I insist that they provide me with what I need in order to do my job. If this metaphor is embraced across the company, it helps keep everyone focused on the essential - which is, of course, to keep the end customer happy.

Posted 2 years ago

After many years in a variety of leadership roles, I have developed a set of leadership principles to guide me in my day to day activities in my current position as a supervisor. Of course, I also observed carefully the best of the leaders that I followed during my younger years. My number one principle, the most fundamental, most essential principle is simply, make sure that your team has everything they need to do their job(s). This can include the obvious, concrete-level items like raw materials and tools, to more abstract-level things like time, organization and training. If I'm in a mid-level position, I also expect my immediate supervisor to provide me with everything that I need to do my job - even if I have to ask for it.
To repeat, this is my most important leadership principle - more principles to follow.

Posted 2 years ago