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Improve Employee Relations to Support Lean Operations

Manufacturers who adopt a lean operations manifesto for their business should also be willing to beef up their employee relations to attain their maximum potential. As feet on the ground, managers and supervisors must be able to place a lot of trust in their workforce to report problems and brainstorm strategies for continual improvement, or kaizen, which connects with several sets of tasks, all of which employees already perform on any given day.

But without a few considerations for their staff, a lean operations approach runs the risk of compromising their groundwork and any future endeavors. How can process industries both support their workforce while simultaneously ensuring lean business practices?

What do employees need from their employers?
To know where to start, companies will need to assess what it is exactly employees require to stay motivated and responsive. According to a study published in the International Journal of Production Research, keeping employees involved breaks down to four basic concepts:

  • Empowerment
  • Training
  • Contingent remuneration
  • Communication

Essentially, this demonstrates how a strong relationship between businesses and their staff includes both tangible, quantifiable human capital as well as small changes to managerial tone. For instance, in an examination of why employees leave businesses in the first place, the Harvard Business Review found a link between turnover and lack of training. Employers who don’t value their staff enough to devote a portion of their budgets to proper training may actually spend more money in the long run. When companies don’t put an end to the “revolving door” of employee turnover, they hemorrhage funds when they could be investing wisely in an intelligent workforce.

But sometimes, providing employees with an environment conducive to positive morale and lean operations resides more in a manager’s approach as opposed to dedicated resources. When supervisors understand the manner by which employees like to communicate – like through email versus face-to-face conversation – or simply tailor the rhetoric used when addressing employees, they can open lines of respect and create an atmosphere that is both professional, yet informal.

Lean OperationsPromoting communication and responsibility among manufacturing workers makes lean operations deployment more organized and concise.

How does this factor into lean operations?
So what can these core values do to help promote lean operations for process industries? It comes down to the exact reason why any employer hires employees in the first place: trust. Workers are paid a salary to perform duties an employer trusts they will perform admirably. In many process industries, one untapped, unwritten condition within the greater pantheon of employee duties is identifying problems. When properly managed, employees should be free-thinking, independent problem solvers who have legitimate expertise completing tasks, meeting deadlines and collaborating with other workers. Armed with these characteristics, employees can become watchdogs and whistle-blowers for areas of waste and extra sets of eyes on a performance issue that just won’t go away.

Alternately, revamping employee-employer relationships can also drastically affect how quickly manufacturers will be able to implement new processes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, kaizen hinges on a speedy turnaround once an area of inefficiency has been identified, typically a 72-hour window. Anything less runs the risk of acting as a temporary bandage to a chronic complexity, anything longer could jeopardize capabilities by having them succumb to unnecessary downtime. For truly lean operations, manufacturing employees must visualize the importance of the change, but to accomplish that, managers have to instill those principles in meaningful, resonant ways.

Lean manufacturing isn’t all about hedging costly inconsistencies, but developing the tools and resources necessary to project those values onto the people who keep the gears moving day-in and day-out. Manufacturing managers who can rise to meet this challenge stand to benefit greatly from their efforts.