Win Trust of Your Associates If You Want to Make Technology Changes

I recently read a story on that has elements that should be familiar to anyone in manufacturing management.

Years ago in Detroit, the author, John Sobel, and his company installed a system that used AI and machine vision to examine the tailgates for any quality problems. To spot defects, the tailgates had to be left down. During the first tests, the tailgates were all being left up because many of the workers thought the system was there to monitor their performance and track behavior.

Sobel said they realized they had not included the plant workers in the decision to use the system in the first place. So they took a few days to agree on goals and ground rules, and the system went from being a point of hostility to “a strong point of pride.”

As he wrote, “Trust had to be established before technology could work.”

Photo of a handshake. You need to build trust with your associates if you want to make technology changes, whether in the back office or on the factory floor.Having overseen an entire rebuild of a factory system, I can tell you that this is important whenever you’re adding something new to an existing system. But there are times you’re going to be in a greenfield operation, such as if you knock down an entire factory and rebuild it with an automated system. We were able to create brand new habits, rather than break down old ones in that situation.

However, that is rarely the situation for most manufacturing plants: You don’t just get to tear it all down and start all over. For the most part, you’re only going to be bringing in new machines or replacing old ones.

If we were going to replace a piece of capital equipment, we always made sure to involve the operators, supervisors, and necessary maintenance people in the planning and execution of the capital project.

In other words, the operator could tell you how many times he had to spit on a screw to keep it operating so we would ask the vendor to design out the necessity to spit on the screw. (Not really, that’s just a colorful analogy.) After all, they were the ones using the machines, so who better to tell you how it should work?

This also meant the associates were involved in the factory acceptance tests and site acceptance tests.

Factory acceptance tests are where you go out to the vendor and the vendor cycles the equipment for you. You create a factory acceptance plan — e.g. I want 200 of each size widget cycled off the machine so you can prove the equipment will meet the cycle times you’ve committed to. The operators and managers go on site to see the machine work and to operate it.

A site acceptance test is when the equipment is put in its permanent place in your plant and then the same type of cycle plan is run through. In essence, the operators actually get two types of training and two chances to prove out the equipment before it gets the final approval.

When designing your new equipment, you also design two specific criteria: 1) The number of pieces per hour off the new machine; and, 2) that the maintenance people can actually learn about the equipment as it’s being built.

For example, let’s say you’re getting a new 1,000-ton press. That’s a huge piece of equipment with a lot of moving parts, and it’s very dangerous unless you’ve got all the safety features in place. To make sure you can meet both criteria, you’ll send the operators and maintenance people to your vendor’s plant, so they can be onsite for training as much as a couple of weeks.

They won’t be involved in the actual building of the equipment, but they’ll be there for the final assembly of the equipment and then the prove-out, or the factory acceptance test. This way, you can create the acceptance test where your people run the equipment, not the vendor.

Participation in Technology Changes Can Have a Positive Effect on Loyalty

It’s human nature to want to be wanted, to be heard, to know that we’re valued. A lot of employees who are disgruntled with their employers are usually unhappy because they don’t feel appreciated. Management makes all the decisions without any input because they feel they know best when in actuality, it’s the actual associates on the floor who can probably make smarter decisions. That’s because they use the equipment every day, and they know how the work flows.

By involving your associates in things like major technology changes and equipment upgrades or purchases, you’re sending the message to your associates, “This is important to the company. Your input on this makes you important.”

I remember when I was leaving Robroy and I went to one of the facilities to say my goodbyes. As I told everyone what my plans were, one guy at the back of the room — Pat, who had been there since Methuselah was the plant manager — shouted, “I want you to know that we wouldn’t be in existence if it wasn’t for you.”

Now, Pat and I had butted heads more than a few times over the years, and trial by fire often creates a deep-seated loyalty and mutual trust. He was someone I had trusted to do what was right for the company. He may have been hard-headed, but he always had a good point. The fact that I had that kind of loyalty and buy-in from him meant a lot to me.

We had that trust as a company because we valued our associates’ input and involved them in the decision-making process. By doing so, we not only made the best possible decisions and created the best possible practices, but we earned their loyalty and trust over the long haul. And it made a world of difference to the quality of work we all did.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including making technology changes. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: viganhajdari (Needpix, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.