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Why Your Workforce Won't Participate in Making Improvements or Problem-Solving

Shyness is not the reason. Get to the root cause of their behaviors and actively engage to resolve the issues.

Question: I’m having difficulty getting my plant floor workers to offer up ideas for improvement or take an active part in problem-solving. It seems to be a shyness thing, rather than lack of interest or lack of ideas. Do you have any thoughts about how to combat this?

Answer: It’s been my experience that shyness is seldom the root cause for lack of hourly employee engagement. Sure, there are some who are very introverted at first, but who very often have great ideas once they get comfortable with their peer group. More prevalent, however, are background stories that have negatively impacted the shop-floor culture. Here are a few examples of what may be affecting their behavior:

  • They had a tyrant supervisor, either there or elsewhere, at some point in their lives so it’s easier if they just blend into the woodwork and do what they’re told without question.
  • The union has a poor relationship with plant leadership and members are expected to behave passively.
  • Little if any training has been provided, and workers simply don’t know how to help solve problems, e.g., lean tools, group interaction, team communications.
  • The last time they volunteered an idea it got shot down, and they felt embarrassed or humiliated.
  • The big picture about CI has never been explained.
  • They do not understand what their individual roles are in making improvements happen.
  • A paternalistic culture exists where, based on management behaviors, workers believe their role is to await the next set of instructions from on high.
  • They have a serious family issue and they just can’t bear to take any additional responsibilities on right now due to emotional stress.
  • Add more of your own experiences here

So, what’s the best way to approach this? Talk to and listen to your people. Schedule a private one-on-one conversation with each member of your team, and simply ask them to give you their response in a discussion that starts something like this: “You seem really interested in helping to improve both the business and the working conditions here. Nobody knows your job responsibilities better than you do. So, I’m asking for more personal involvement in making improvements here. (Note whether their eyes are receptive or evasive for a clue of what’s next.)

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“I’d like to see you become more engaged, working with team members to take advantage of your skills, your problem-solving input and your ideas. One of the ways we can impact improvement the quickest is to eliminate all the reasons why machine operators have a bad day. If we do that, your job gets easier and much more productive, and you have more time to think about what we can do as a team to further improve instead of dealing with quality and maintenance issues and the assorted other hassles you deal with every day. While you’ll get the real benefit first, the elimination of these shop-floor issues will result in better customer experiences, better business results and better job security for us all. What do you think? What do you need from me so you’ll feel confident to engage more directly in CI?”

Follow that up with a team meeting recapping the input and how you plan to proceed to enable the engagement of the group. Without naming names, share the key items that surfaced and, where appropriate, take accountability for the issues that you need to solve. This will help to solidify your own credibility or to prove you’re turning over a new leaf yourself. Ask for their help in prioritizing what their biggest process issues are.

Don’t allow the scope to creep and for it to become a gripe session of personal issues. Stay focused on CI and take note of any unrelated questions for follow-up later through different channels. The focus at this meeting is CI and each associate’s role in it. Good luck!

Culture Change: People instinctively doing the right things when management isn’t looking.” -- from a 2007 slide used at my last operations conference just prior to my retirement

“Talent is the multiplier. The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield.” -- Marcus Buckingham, author and business consultant

Larry 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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