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Hiring for the Factory Floor -- Are Hard Skills or Soft Skills More Important?

Feb. 21, 2017
Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership: Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

We've received a couple of questions regarding metrics in other areas of a manufacturing business (purchasing, for example), which I'll be happy to address. However, since we've just finished a five-part series on factory metrics, I'm going to first catch up on a few questions that have come in on other topics.

Question: When you hired for the factory floor, what was more important to you in the candidate -- the hard skills (e.g., CNC machining experience) or softer skills like problem-solving or being a team player. And why?

Answer: As is often the case, it depends. First let's deal with the hard skills. Any time a company has the opportunity to avoid a lot of training expense and learning-curve time, it's a major plus. Of course we have to pay more up front with the starting wage, but the value to the company Day One is much higher than training our own or sending them to school to be tutored for months or years in the case of journeyman jobs like electricians, plumbers, electronic techs, etc. A technical person should be involved in interviews for these types of jobs to validate the candidate's knowledge and ask detailed questions while HR checks to validate the credentials listed on the applications (certificate/diploma of accomplishment from technical schools). HR also makes certain the applicant passes drug testing, background check, etc.

Once the technical skills have been validated, then the evaluation of the talent moves to the soft skills side. I always asked about personal experiences as well as work examples. For instance, my experience is that people who have grown up participating in team sports are typically more compatible to working in teams than those who haven't. They understand there is no "I" in team. They tend to be more helpful. They tend to have more initiative for what it takes to win. They also know how to use a coach to get better. It isn't always the case, but it's a good conversation to have to learn a lot about the person.

For example, are they interested in improving their skills and behaviors to help the business prosper? We're looking for hints here: Will this person fit into the culture that we have or that we're trying to create? What kind of culture has this person worked with in other companies? Ask for an example of what his opinion is on that culture. All these factors are relevant when you're bringing experienced people in from other companies. If they're the best there is in their craft but would prefer to just do their job and be left alone, it isn't likely they'll engage in team improvement activities and become a contributing part of the new culture. It's simply not worth taking on the resistance/non-engagement that you'll have to deal with until your patience runs out and you're right back where you started--looking for a CNC operator.

Because skills in these technical areas (the same applies for salaried engineering and lean/Six Sigma jobs) are often in short supply, or you're in a similar situation to that just described, you are probably better off hiring a smart, trainable person who thinks and behaves the right way. We can always train-in the technical skills if the person is capable of learning and performing. We can also help with the soft skills where there are gaps. For example, a relatively new engineer may be great at the nuts and bolts of her work as an IE/ME/EE, etc., but not yet have mastered how to lead the use of fishbone diagramming or lead a kaizen event. She may also need greenbelt or blackbelt skills in order to lead lean/Six Sigma projects or group dynamics, or whatever to be more effective and to "walk the talk" of the culture the company has or seeks. Their soft skills can also be improved using the two tools noted below.

As for the soft skills of applicants, there is certain testing that your HR department can provide to give you insight about personal traits that are complementary to your culture or traits that put up a red flag. Employee surveys also are helpful to developing your own database of what behaviors work best in your business. That way you can look for evidence of those qualities in new applicants. In addition to home-grown databases there are wonderful, time-tested tools available.

Two of my favorites over the years are the Myers-Briggs and FIRO-B These tools are also quite effective for helping legacy employees improve skills that make them better workers and team players. Both tools historically have been used primarily for salaried employees, but they will work equally well with hourly workers.

Final thoughts:

  1. Follow up how well the new person is being accepted in their group and contributing to good performance. If there is an issue after the person has been brought on board, deal with it. Nip it in the bud. If it persists, don't waste time in hand wringing. Get them out. On the other hand, for those who are adapting well, making positive contributions and working well with their teammates, be proactive and timely in recognizing and communicating how much you appreciate the early work, and let them know their supervisor and HR folks are always available to assist the transition from new employee to a long-service employee.
  2. Don't forget to trust your gut. If the answers to your questions seem shallow; or if you sense an underlying attitude of superiority or of entitlement; or the personality just isn't a fit for the people in similar jobs being applied for, move on to the next candidate. We can make a bad hire in an hour and spend a year pushing a rope before we have to terminate the bad hire and start over. Make sure your HR counterpart and you are in complete alignment on this.
  3. Don't settle under the pressures of the business. If the candidate isn't right as a regular employee, try to fill the immediate need on a contract basis until you find the right match of technical and soft skills. Recently retired folks are often a good temporary solution.
  4. Plan beyond the end of your nose. I sat down in the plant manager's chair in the fall of 1980 and immediately had to put together the budget for the new year. During the course of that preparation, my maintenance manager stopped by, stuck his head in my office and said, "By the way, I've got a pipefitter retiring in April so I'm putting that in the budget for the four-month overlap of expenses." There had been no planning and the slotting of when apprentices should be started to make a seamless transition for any of the trade positions. That was the beginning of succession planning in maintenance because of the special, often scarce skills they possess. We also embarked on developing a relationship with the local technical school where we could forecast our needs and "place our orders." Every company should have such a relationship.

"Don't water your weeds." -- Harvey MacKay

"A certificate does not make you certified. Attitude, performance, commitment to self and team--these and a certificate make you certified." -- Author Unknown

"We don't just pay a person for their skills. We also pay for their attitudes and their behaviors." -- Larry E. Fast

Larry Fast is founder and president ofPathways to Manufacturing Excellenceand a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of "The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence: A Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence." The second edition was released in 2015. As Belden’s VP of manufacturing Fast led a transformation of Belden plants in the late '80s and early '90s that included cellularizing about 80% of the company’s equipment around common products and routing, and the use of what is now know as lean tools. Fast is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997. As General Cable's senior vice president of operations, Fast launched a manufacturing excellence strategy in 1999. Since the launch of the strategy, there have been 34 General Cable IndustryWeek “Best Plants Finalist awards, including 12 IW Best Plants winners.Fast holds a bachelor's degree in management and administration from Indiana University and is a graduate from Earlham College’s Institute for Executive Growth. He also completed the program for management development at the Harvard University School of Business.

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