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UPDATED: Eager to Lead: Tips for the Up-and-Coming Manufacturing Manager

July 19, 2022
IndustryWeek Lean Leadership columnist Larry Fast shares six tactics to help you grow as a manufacturing leader and master each new role.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Columnist Larry Fast was reviewing recent columns he had written and determined that this one warranted an update. "As I think back on it, we were in the early stages of COVID-19 when I wrote it, and little did we know how devastating this virus would be in every corner of the earth,” he says. Reflecting on the experiences of the past two years, Larry has revisited the words he wrote and offers some updated thinking. What you see below is the original article, dated June 2020, with the updates presented in blue.

Question: I am a college graduate and just getting started as a management trainee. Presently, I am learning about scheduling and machine operations. What tips do you have for accelerating my learning curve and helping me to reach my goal of becoming a plant manager and beyond within 10 years?

Answer: Great question and one I can relate to personally. After college and serving three years in the Air Force, I was fortunate enough to have several outstanding mentors when I went to work in a factory. I was looking for an opportunity to continue to grow as a leader as well as to master each role I was asked to play. Here are examples of some of the best inputs I had along the way.

1. Learn by reading. Be a voracious reader of the best books you can find on manufacturing related topics. It’s a great way to stay current as well as to benefit from books that have been breakthrough classics for decades by authors such as W. Edwards Deming, Eli Goldratt, Joseph Juran, John Kotter, Wickham Skinner, Robert Hayes and Steven Wheelwright, and Richard Schonberger, among others.

Of course, there is a long list of newer books that have been written since Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones in 1996. One need only Google “Lean and Six Sigma books” to be overwhelmed with choices. There is certainly no lack of information out there to enhance your career. In addition, trade publications and newspapers can add value. Stay on top of evolving technologies as well.

UPDATE: Be a voracious reader of the best books on manufacturing excellence you can find. But don’t overdo it. There are countless lean and Six Sigma books in addition to the classic books from Deming to Womack and Jones. At the end of the day there is lots of redundancy so you can be more selective by targeting readings that significantly enhance your understanding of continuous improvement. Critical to growth is to stay up on evolving technologies!

2. Learn by listening. Give your full attention to what your employees, peers, superiors and customers have to say. Also, don’t forget suppliers who have a wealth of knowledge about your industry and often contribute useful suggestions to improve the supply chain and customer service. Be open to feedback and ideas from all these groups. If you’re made aware of issues, follow up until they’re resolved and close the loop with those who surfaced the issue. Remember that people are almost always willing to share their knowledge with others. All you have to do is ask.

UPDATE: No change here. We cannot learn while we’re talking.

3. Don’t be impatient. The learning process takes time. Demonstrate insatiable curiosity and ask lots of questions of company leaders. Also, ask questions of the office manager, engineers, supervisors and functional managers, machine operators, mechanics, etc. Everyone will add some level of insight to broaden your knowledge base. Over time you’ll learn how to grow and apply your learnings at all levels. You’ll know when it’s time to begin seeking bigger opportunities in the company. But don’t be surprised if your potential is recognized and you’re stretched to grow into a bigger role sooner. Go for it!

UPDATE: WRONG! BE IMPATIENT! Reset priorities to accelerate the learning and business performance. Create high energy and shake off the rust of COVID’s impact the last two years.

4. Say yes as much as you can! When you are asked to do something new and different, even if the assignment is outside your area of responsibility, say yes if you can. You’ll probably be expected to maintain your regular responsibilities, but it’s an opportunity to grow and have visibility.

I had such an early opportunity that started my rise through the organization. The VP & general manager of the business called me in to his monthly staff meeting where they had been discussing the need for a productivity metric in the factory. I was asked if I was interested in taking on a special assignment to develop three productivity options for their review and decision. I said yes, and by the next staff meeting I presented three options and recommended the one I thought was best after vetting it beforehand with my manager and peers. It was approved.

This was the beginning of a succession of management assignments and opportunities that launched my career, ultimately, to the corporate level leading all North America operations.

UPDATE: Say YES as much as you can, but focus your priorities on accelerating the impact on the significant few. Don’t over-extend yourself. You can’t be all things to all people, so manage your time accordingly.

5. Be a joiner. The first organizations I joined during my first year was Toastmasters International. I am a shy person by nature and was often reticent about participating in discussions in my first job as a schedule supervisor in the production control department. It wasn’t that I couldn’t add value; I simply felt anxious about speaking up and afraid I’d embarrass myself with a dumb comment or erroneous input. Toastmasters changed that. Each local chapter creates a supportive atmosphere, and members learn from each other and improve their abilities. Members share their own experiences and the veterans of the organization provide great coaching. I developed a level of competency that allowed me to thrive. Toastmasters is a very simply a confidence-building experience. And confidence was what I desperately needed.

Public speaking and conversational skills are applicable from formal presentations to individual interactions with fellow employees. As you progress in the organization, the skills and poise learned from Toastmasters is a lifelong asset. Other organizations are helpful for developing relationships with peers in industry and getting to know the broader community of business leaders and government officials. As you ascend in your organization, jump at the chance to serve on the Chamber of Commerce, your relevant trade organizations, local labor and management councils, service clubs. Volunteer to help your favorite charities. Become involved and become known as a leader in your community.

UPDATE: My original column detailed a lot of participation in various local organizations. Selecting the significant few things you want to be a part of is important. Find the right balance for your work and, importantly, for your spouse and children.

6. Learn how to hire great people. As you climb the supervisor and management ladder, no skill is more critical than learning how to interview and hire great people. Shamelessly seek input from peers and superiors alike about what tools they use to probe deeply enough to really understand a person’s skillset. Does this candidate have the necessary skillset to excel in the position being applied for? Is there real potential to move up in the organization? What is the culture of their last company, and will they be a cultural fit in your company? Discuss at length their way of dealing with people and whether it is compatible with your company’s expectations. Can they think outside the box? Is their ego in check? Are their career goals realistic based on their credentials? Do they have experience working in teams? (When new people come into the business, get to know them and learn if it was a good hire and why. Apply the learnings next time you do an interview.)

UPDATE: Top talent is hard to come by in today’s tight labor market. As a result, companies must stay up to date on where the markets are for special skills that are in high demand. It’s a bidding war where the best talent is making six figures for low- to midlevel jobs. Higher-level management jobs and senior engineers command up to million-dollar packages in the technology space.

The old paradigms about metering out annual reviews and salary adjustments will cause you to lose your best talent. HR and other senior leaders must be on top of salaries and benefits in these inflationary times. It’s far better to increase the salaries of your best people now than to lose them to more aggressive offerings from other companies. No company can afford to lose its best inhouse expertise and the accompanying loss of productivity, long cycle for hiring and getting a new employee up to speed. It takes about a year to get back on target. Take care of your best people NOW! It’s more important now than ever before.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” -- Steve Jobs

“Good employees quit when management is bad. Bad employees quit when management is good.” -- Peter Drucker

Larry Fast answers your questions in the IndustryWeek feature Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership. Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence, A Lean Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, 2nd. Edition.

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