Posts about workplace improvement

Manufacturing Skills Gap or Management Skills Gap?

I stumble across articles discussing the problem of manufacturers having difficulty finding workers with the skills they need (in the USA largely, but elsewhere too) somewhat regularly. While it is true that companies have this problem, I think looking at the problem in that way might not be the most insightful view. Is the problem just that potential workers don’t having the right skills or the result of a long term management skills gap?

To me, the current manufacturing skills gap results directly from short term thinking and disrespect for workers practiced by those with management skills shortages over the last few decades. Those leading the manufacturing firms have shown they will flee the USA with the latest change in the wind, chasing short term bonuses and faulty spreadsheet thinking. Expecting people to spend lots of time and money to develop skills that would be valuable for the long term at manufacturing firms given this management skills shortage feels like putting the blame in the wrong place to me.

Why should workers tie their futures to short term thinking managers practicing disrespect for people? Especially when those managers seem to just find ways to blame everyone else for their problems. As once again they do in blaming potential workers for their hiring problem. The actions taken based on the collective management skill shortage in the manufacturing industry over the last few decades has contributed greatly to the current state.

If managers had all been managing like Toyota managers for the last 30 years I don’t think the manufacturing skill gap would be significant. The management skill gap is more important than the manufacturing skill gap in my opinion. To some extent the manufacturing skill gap could still exist, market are in a constant state of flux, so gaps appear. But if their wasn’t such a large management skill gap it would be a minor issue, I believe.

That still leaves companies today having to deal with the current marketplace to try and find skilled workers. But I think instead of seeing the problem as solely a supplier issue (our suppliers can’t provide us what we need) manufacturing firms would be better served to look at their past, and current, management skills gap and fix that problem. They have control over that problem. And fixing that will provide a much more solid long term management base to cope and prosper in the marketplace.

Another management issue may well be the hiring process itself. As I have written about many times, the recruitment process is highly inefficient and ineffective. When you see workers as long term partners the exact skills they have today are much less significant than their ability to meet the organizations needs over the long term. In general, information technology recruiting has the worst case of focusing on silly skills that are really not important to hiring the right people, but this also can affect manufacturing hiring.

Related: IT Talent Shortage, or Management Failure?Dee Hock on HiringManufacturing Jobs Increasing for First Time Since 1998 in the USA (Sept 2010)Building a Great Workforcemanufacturing jobs have been declining globally (including China) for 2 decadesImproving the Recruitment Process

Engage in Improving the Management System

To actually improve management you need to engage in continual improvement of your management systems. This requires doing the hard work of challenging complacency. The job of those improving the practice of management is not to make everyone happy and just ignore that the words about improvement are not actually carrying through to changes in behavior.

Do Executives “Get It?”

So many times executives spout the importance of new initiatives like wellness programs, safety programs, or improvement projects like Lean, Six Sigma, etc. They talk about how great they are and how everyone should embrace them so the company can improve, but when push comes to shove, their actions indicate they really don’t believe in them.

If you are trying to bring about change you need in-process indications of actual success at improving the management system. Instead it seems to me, most of the time, the focus is on spinning what is being done to convince others that what is being done is good. This is not helpful and not useful.

Without in-process indications of how the movement to a better management system is performing the pattern is all too common. People want to show they are doing a good job (which often includes not being too negative – because if they criticize results they can be branded as negative). So instead we end up with actions that would be used if one assumed that while we had problems with the last 4 management fads we implemented, now we have this wonderful new idea it will avoid all the problems.

So we start our new process, and write up reports and presentations for meetings talking about our successes. We are careful to ignore any warning signs. Then, after 1, 2… years (in a good economy this can last quite a bit longer), the boss says the results are not improving, this isn’t working. Everyone quickly agrees and the improvement effort is dropped. Usually there will be a period of time taken until and a new fad is found that everyone agrees is wonderful for 2-5 years until they then all agree was a failure. Repeat for the rest of your career.

To break this cycle and actually continually improve we can’t go along with the in-process indications that the management improvement system is not really working. We need to seek out indications that it is not working and address those issues and build a strong continually improving management system.

Related: Management Advice Failuresflavors of management improvement effortsmanage what you can’t measureFederal Government Chief Performance Officer (a specific example of the repeated failure to improve), just pretending the failures in the past didn’t exist doesn’t help the current effort

Jason Fried: Why work doesn’t happen at work

In this TED talk, Jason Fried, founder of 37 signals, discusses how people get work done. When asked where do you go when you really need to get something done, almost no-one says: the office (unless it is early in the morning or late at night)? This is especially for creative people and knowledge workers. They need long stretches of uninterrupted time to concentrate. “The real problems in the office are the managers and the meetings.”

The main theme is that interruptions can severely damage performance, especially for what Peter Drucker called knowledge workers.

He offers 3 suggestions to make the office a place people can get work done. No talk Thursdays. And if that is too much how starting with 1/2 a day Thursday once a month. Second, replace active distraction (meeting, going and talking to a person) with passive distraction (email and IM) that a person can turn off when they need to focus. I have found this very useful myself. And third, cancel meetings. He closes with: I hope I have given managers reasons “to think about about laying off a little bit and giving people some time to get work done.”

Related: Understanding How to Manage GeeksBetter MeetingsWorkers Allowed Recreational Use of the Internet are More ProductiveManagement By IT Crowd Bosses

Systemic Workplace Experiments

Workplace Experiments

At our company-wide get together last December we decided that 2008 was going to be a year of workplace experiments. Among other things, we discussed how we could make 37signals one of the best places in the world to work, learn, and generally be happy.

Last summer we experimented with 4-day work weeks. People should enjoy the weather in the summer. We found that just about the same amount of work gets done in four days vs. five days.

So recently we’ve instituted a four-day work week as standard. We take Fridays off. We’re around for emergencies, and we still do customer service/support on Fridays, and but other than that work is not required on Fridays.

We decided that 37signals would help people pay for their passions, interests, or other curiosities. We want our people to experience new things, discover new hobbies, and generally be interesting people. For example, Mark has recently taken up flight lessons. 37signals is helping him pay for those. If someone wants to take cooking lessons, we’ll help pay for those. If someone wants to take a woodworking class, we’ll help pay for that.

Part of the deal is that if 37signals helps you pay, you have to share what you’ve learned with everyone. Not just everyone at 37signals, but everyone who reads our blog. So expect to see some blog posts about these experiences.

We just ask people to be reasonable with their spending. If there’s a problem, we’ll let the person know. We’d rather trust people to make reasonable spending decisions than assume people will abuse the privilege by default.

Dr. Deming proposed supporting education of any type for employees (point 13 in the 14 points). That is not often done, but 37 signals is not alone in doing this. Great stuff. Create a great environment for people to work in and you can get great things done. Also good old PDSA at work – try things on a small scale and then institute those experiments that succeed on a wider scale.

Related: Google Experiments Quickly and OftenVacation: Systems ThinkingGetting and Keeping Great EmployeesJoy in WorkComplicating SimplicityWorkplace Management

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