Frontline employees have a wealth of knowledge about your day-to-day operations. When it comes to manufacturing, they can easily pinpoint the source of a product defect or why customer returns have increased. Yet, this section of the workforce often feels ignored by upper management. Their input isn’t solicited for R&D purposes, supply chain planning, or any kind of decision making that happens in the boardroom. Unfortunately, companies that take this siloed approach are missing out on many valuable insights (and benefits to their bottom line).
Everyone Is A Knowledge Worker
The ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’ labels that we’ve used for generations are no longer accurate. They create an artificial divide between workers who ‘think’ versus those that ‘do’. But everyone has the capacity for innovation and creativity, so does it really make sense to categorize people in this way? The rise of mobile technology and tablet usage means that technology is no longer the remit of desk-based staff. Everyone can now be a knowledge worker.
The culture of continual innovation doesn’t have to be limited to office workers. We have an opportunity to democratize it and reap the benefits of our entire workforce’s collective intelligence. But how do we engage the manufacturing frontline and change our way of doing things? Here are three practical approaches that have worked for other companies.
1. Allocate Time For Innovation
Most people are too busy doing their everyday tasks to step back and see the bigger picture. But ringfencing time especially for this gives workers the space to think. It enables them to problem-solve, think up new ideas, and identify improvements to systems and processes. Allocating time for innovation allows people to separate the wood from the trees and add real value.
Google are renowned for allowing developers to spend 20% of their time pursuing innovative ideas. Other companies set aside a day each month or quarter for brainstorming ideas and solutions. Why not give your manufacturing staff the same opportunity? Encourage them to devise new ideas or improvement suggestions, then test them out in a small-scale way. This will drive more staff engagement, foster an improvement culture, and create beneficial changes to frontline operations.
2. Create A Follow-Up Process
Coming up with ideas and feedback is just one part of the puzzle. The implementation is equally important yet it’s something that trips up many businesses. Employees can feel frustrated when their ideas aren’t acknowledged or acted upon but having a follow-up process can avoid this. It also enables companies to benefit from the collective expertise of their frontline staff who are often well-equipped to propose solutions.
Companies can either create their own or replicate proven processes like Agile and Kaizen. Follow-up can happen at shift handover meetings, dedicated engagement days, or using the PDCA cycle. The best method for your organization will depend on your manufacturing set up. But what really matters is that you have a channel for collecting feedback and then acting upon it.
3. Leverage Digital Tools
Manufacturing has been slower to adopt digital tools than other sectors. While some companies have evolved already, many are hesitant to change the core elements of their factory processes. But we don’t need to replace an entire production line to engage our manufacturing employees - simply leverage the digital tools that can help.
Instead of a physical suggestion box, solicit feedback into a digital system. This way you can collect all the ideas in one place, filter them easily, and then follow a set process for following up the most viable ones. You can also use continuous improvement software to empower frontline staff to manage the follow-up themselves. This reduces bottlenecks, increases engagement, and allows for easy reporting at the touch of a button.
The average time to implement an new idea is 6-18 months in today's companies with a centralized innovation program. Decentralizing innovation, and empowering the frontline workers to create, experiment, and implement new ideas has created innovation that happens in 1-5 days for our customers. That's the power of frontline innovation
-Errette Dunn, CEO of Rever
Extending technology to everyone, making time for innovation, and creating a process for implementation will enable you to engage the manufacturing frontline and benefit from their extensive knowledge.