A team of truly committed workers: It's the ingredient that puts the force in workforce. And few things matter more in the manufacturing game, because a workforce that is actively engaged invariably drives productivity and profits upward.
Creating a team of engaged workers isn't easy. The process of taking a group of decent, reliable employees and molding them into a unit that pulses with energy and drive: If there were a paint-by-numbers kit that bosses could use to learn how to do this, then we wouldn't get barraged with studies trumpeting shockingly low employee-engagement figures -- studies like Gallup's "State of the Global Workplace" issued last October, which reported these stark facts:
• Thirteen percent of employees worldwide are "engaged" in their work -- meaning they are psychologically committed to their jobs and therefore likely to go out of their way to make positive contributions to their organizations.
• Sixty-three percent of employees worldwide are "not engaged" -- meaning they lack motivation and are unlikely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes.
• Twenty-four percent are "actively disengaged" -- meaning they are unhappy and unproductive at work and likely to spread negativity to co-workers.
But let's focus on the other side of that coin. There are examples of manufacturing companies that have lit self-sustaining fires under their workforces -- companies regularly recognized as good places to work and build a career, companies whose worker-engagement statistics look like a photographic negative compared to the Gallup figures cited above.
We sought out a handful of these companies and asked their leaders how they do it.
Dignity & Safety
"We have a saying at Alcoa," CEO Klaus Kleinfeld says. "'People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.' It starts with respect, treating employees with dignity, ensuring that their ideas count, and including them as part of the team."
In the metal manufacturing sector -- and Alcoa (IW 500/53), which employs 60,000 people in 30 countries, is among the world's top aluminum makers -- the most meaningful way to build trust and ensure that employees understand they're valued is to keep them healthy and out of harm's way.
"That's the best way to show we care -- safety," Kleinfeld says. "It's a core value, and we're proud to be known for our focus on, and success in, employee safety."
That theme is seconded by ArcelorMittal (IW 1000/43), the world's biggest steelmaker, which employs 232,000 people worldwide. Like Alcoa, ArcelorMittal has focused on safety as a primary means of engaging its production workers and getting them to buy in to the company's goals.
Andy Harshaw, ArcelorMittal USA's executive vice president of operations, oversees the company's workforce development initiatives. He has been a driving force in ArcelorMittal's safety push.
"When I came here in '08, one of the things that we were the furthest behind on and that we needed to improve -- and this had a lot to do with the fact that we were a company building ourselves from a number of predecessor companies -- was health and safety," Harshaw says. "We needed to drive to a better place, and there was a huge amount of work to do [to accomplish] that. We could not have done it without first engaging our employees, and getting them to understand the sincerity of our purpose."
Clear communication and, again, sincerity -- a word Harshaw uses emphatically and often -- were the keys to the initiative.
"When you want people to change, they need to understand why, and it needs to be fundamental," Harshaw says. "They need to believe you, right? That is the essence of an engaged workforce: They need to believe in what you're trying to accomplish, and that you're sincere about it -- and then they'll get aligned with the aspects of their task that contribute to that better purpose."
The Higher Calling
That better purpose: It's a concept that manufacturing executives refer to often when asked about successes they've had transforming semi-engaged workforces into committed, driven ones.
Ask Sam Allen -- CEO of Deere & Co. (IW 500/37), the farm-equipment maker with 67,000 employees worldwide -- about workforces he has observed that were built around a higher purpose, and he'll tell you that the key characteristic he has seen in those groups is selflessness: a disregard for individual accolades coupled with a tenacious focus on the success of the team.
"When you see a highly engaged workforce, it's about we, not about I," Allen says. "What you really can see in a highly engaged workforce is the level of energy and alignment about accomplishing the mission or objective or goal. Everyone is in the boat together, working together. "
Allen cites a project he helped lead before he became CEO, when he was a manager of Deere's engine manufacturing operations: the establishment of a diesel engine manufacturing plant in Torreon, Mexico, in the late 1990s. It was the first new engine factory Deere had built in 20 years. The start-up project was executed by a group of workers that was half as large as the company's most recent engine-plant start-up, and it was carried out by a disparate group that included workers from several countries.
"We did it with 50% as many people as the previous time we'd built an engine factory," Allen says. "We had a combination of Mexicans, people from our U.S. operations, and we have an engine plant in France, so we had some of our French people there as well. It was quite a diverse group of individuals that we pulled together to put this plant into production."
Because it was a work-intensive project and because the group executing it was comparatively small, there were long, intense work hours involved. Allen and his leadership team rallied the group around the difficulty of the circumstances and the importance of the project to Deere's long-term goals and growth.
"What ended up happening is our group became very close," Allen says. "We talked about the fact that in most people's careers you'll get one opportunity, if you're lucky, to be able to build a plant like this. And this plant was going to be here long after we ended our careers. This was an opportunity to have a lasting imprint on the company. We got everybody aligned from that standpoint. And people became highly engaged. We were very successful in implementing the project. We did it with half the people and we brought it in on time, on budget."
Challenge = Opportunity
That's another recurring theme manufacturing executives circle back to when they talk about engaging their troops: challenges as opportunities. Difficult circumstances create perfect openings to light fires that can transform average employees into permanent, committed top achievers.
At Intel (IW 500/26) -- the world's leading manufacturer of semiconductor chips with 107,000 employees worldwide -- unexpected technical challenges crop up regularly. Intel addresses these challenges by forming task forces: a new task force for each challenge identified. These groups' duty is to root out the cause and solve the problem as quickly as possible.
"It's a protocol we use: We form a task force that kicks into action immediately," explains Patricia McDonald, Intel's vice president of human resources. "The group rapidly aligns, and this is where we see the commitment come in. They often have to put in extra hours, but they're putting it in in order to solve the problem faster. And we often see a deep camaraderie form among those task force members. They look out for each other, they cover for each other, and they design schedules so they can still have work-life balance during these times of intense technical challenge."
The successes and the breakthroughs that result feed that camaraderie and create workers who are emotionally committed to each other and to the company.
"I've seen this scenario put into action over and over again in my 26-plus years at Intel," McDonald says. "When you solve a problem, especially in an engineering company, you get tremendous satisfaction from it. You create a sense of pride. And I always tell people that this is when you really ramp things up. Not only your knowledge ramps up when you're part of a task force, but also your connections and your relationship-building."
Ultimately, it's the company leader's job to explain the context: to make sure workers understand the meaningfulness of what they do and to help them connect the importance of their tasks to the company's big-picture goals and strategies, which is one of the key factors that creates deep employee commitment.
"You have to be able to connect your organization's goals and priorities to a higher purpose that will transcend the organizational boundaries," McDonald says. "In the busy day-to-day running of a factory, it's easy to forget to put the work into this bigger context."
"When employees are clear about the contribution they are personally making to the big goals -- and when leaders and managers spend time with employees and help them see that connection between their daily work and the bigger strategies -- that's when you get motivated, engaged, jazzed employees," McDonald says. "That's when the collaboration speeds up; that's when the innovation speeds up, and people start seeing things from many different angles. And that's when the wonder happens."