How to Improve Your Workers’ Skills in the Digital Manufacturing Era

A friend once told me a story: He worked for a software company as their sales and marketing director. This was a small company serving a small niche audience. The owner of the company insisted that my friend enhance his skills to cover different roles at the company.

So he wanted my friend to learn how to do tech support for their software. Rather than focusing on selling and marketing the software, which made the company money, he wanted him to do tech support, which did not.

The company already had four full-time tech support people who were more than able to manage the number of calls that came in. My friend was supposed to spend five hours a week on tech support, helping customers, instead of calling on potential customers, like government agencies, to get them to switch.

(Conversely, none of the tech support people were ever asked to do any sales or marketing.)

This work didn’t make the friend any better at his marketing job, and his skills were wasted on tech support. But the owner insisted he developed those skills so he could be as good as the rest of the tech support people.

When it comes to helping your people develop new skills, unless it’s critical to their job, you should just let them focus on the things that they do well. If you have a good graphic designer, there’s no reason to make her learn how to do bookkeeping. If you have a good bookkeeper, there’s no reason to make him learn how to do maintenance.

Instead, you should help your people develop their top skills to get better. If you have a B player, help them become an A player. If you have an A player, help them become an all-star.

This is also true of the people on your factory floor. If they have a certain set of skills, help them improve. But help them also develop related skills. For example, if you’re going to adopt some digital manufacturing processes, find the people already on staff who want to learn how to use it. Find people who are open to learning these skills and help them grow.

When you find someone who says they’re eager to learn and they’re good at it, take them up on it. Send them for specialist training and move them up in the organization. Give them new opportunities, and don’t let them stagnate. These are people who will build a wealth of institutional knowledge and help grow your organization as they grow.

You Have to Communicate With Your Staff to Find Out What They Want

To find out which of your associates wants to undertake this new digital manufacturing training and new responsibility, communicate with them. You have to ask them, and you have to listen. They may give you some new ideas or options to consider.

I used to have a monthly coffee and donut meeting with different associates in the company. Each month, I would meet with about 12 people from different roles and levels. I would ask them questions about their work and themselves, find out the problems they were having, and see if we could solve them. I would also ask them about what they wanted to do in their work, and if they had any goals they wanted to achieve.

If it was within my power, I would help them achieve them. Someone might say they wanted to be a foreperson, they wanted to be trained on a new machine, or they wanted to move to another position. And if we could make it happen, we would do that.

Because I found if people were invested in their own careers, they worked harder and they were more loyal to the organization. But more importantly, I could put people in the jobs they were good at and could specialize in. Rather than helping them become mediocre at a thing they hated, I helped them become amazing at a thing they loved.

This is How You Find New Digital Manufacturing Leaders

Photo of a man measuring a piece of equipment. You need high skilled workers in digital manufacturing.For example, you can usually identify someone on the floor who should become a shift leader. They’ve got the skills and the leadership ability to supervise a number of people and accomplish their objectives. But they’re not always the most senior person or the most skilled; they’ve got the leadership potential, even if they don’t have the same experiences as other people in the same role.

And if they needed some help and additional training, we would give it to them. If it helped them do their job better and be more productive, we were willing to make that investment in them.

Of course, this also applies to your not-ready-for-the-show leaders. You’ll find there are some people who just aren’t leadership material, or they’re not cut out for the role they want to be in.

You have to look long and hard at what you’re going to accomplish with those moves. Do you have a diamond in the rough who just needs experience and training to get better? Or do you have someone who is going to be mediocre at that job?

I have found over the years that there are people who just aren’t cut out to be leaders. These are people who just aren’t cutting the mustard. They’re not making it and they’re actually dragging everyone else backward.

How do you deal with that person? How do you tell the person who had dreams of being the foreman that he or she just can’t make it?

You could always suck it up and tell them it’s not going to happen. You can crush their dreams and they’ll undoubtedly leave the company, or their morale will be so low that it will affect everyone around them. But they won’t believe you. They’ll think you don’t see their true potential, and they’ll show you, by God! And they’ll leave the company with a bad taste in their mouth, and you’ll have to replace them anyway.

Or, you could give them the promotion and tell them it’s their job to lose. That they have to work hard to meet the company standards. They have to work with a mentor, read the right books, watch the right videos, and take the right training. And if they don’t, they’ll be removed from the position. But then they’ll know that they tried and it didn’t work out. They may not like it, but they’ll know that it was them.

Who knows? They may even surprise you and turn out to be an amazing manager. It’s happened before. I once hired a marketing assistant right out of college at a lighting company I ran many years ago. She was an unknown quantity, having just graduated and didn’t have any work experience. We didn’t know what she was capable of, but I took a chance. It was her job to lose. She was driven, she worked hard, and she did everything to grow in the position.

She just retired this past January as the marketing director for the entire conglomerate.

So it can happen. You’ll find someone who will excel despite your predictions and expectations, and you’ll look like a genius for spotting raw potential.

Or, the person will realize they bit off more than they could chew, and they’ll self-select themselves right out of the role. They’ll either ask to go back to their old job, or they’ll leave the company, which is probably what would have happened if you told them no in the first place.

This is also true for people who want to move up the executive ranks, not just associates from the floor moving up to a floor manager. This is also true for the manager who wants to be a director, or a director who wants to be a VP.

Give them a shot. If you tell them no, you’re going to lose them and gain a lot of ill will, and you’ll have to replace them anyway. Or you can give them a shot, they’ll fail, and you’ll still have to replace them. Just tell them that it’s their job to lose and give them every measure of support, including training, mentoring, and learning resources. They really could surprise you.

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 doing more digital manufacturing. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

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.