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Preparing Machine Operators to Lead

By AICC Staff

September 13, 2022

width=411Our industry has an honorable history of promoting from within. We also have a very poor success rate with operators who transition to supervision. This is due in part to the interpersonal challenge of managing one’s peers, but the main obstacles have to do with the disparate skills and motivations required for achievement.

The best operators possess people skills to a degree that they can train others and share the workload with the whole crew. They are motivated by a will to better their individual or crew performance and by competition with other shifts or machine centers. They strive to safely produce quality products at the speed of demand, be that from the next process in line or the shipping department. These are admirable and useful traits. For those who keep score with a cross-training matrix, operators engage by gaining proficiency at multiple machine centers. They may have the added incentive of pay differentials earned at the varied processes, but the matrix is motivating even without pay increases. Incidentally, there is a new course on Packaging U that features the use of the cross-training matrix.

Those who manage a team successfully share the traits mentioned above, but they have a more elevated perspective of winning. They appreciate the contribution of an individual or a crew, but they focus in on the coordination of the entire team to safely produce quality products at the speed of end-user demand. This difference in perspective requires technical and interpersonal skills that come only with experience. Provision of experience is the difference maker for leadership success.

It reminds me of baseball—because everything reminds me of baseball. Players are motivated by the team win but focus on individual performance. It is rare that a retired player moves directly to team manager, as they must gain experience assisting, coaching third base, or wrangling pitchers to develop the necessary skills and perspective to manage.

Preparation of leaders may be accomplished by a variety of methods; I will offer one strategy here. Start a leadership club including all current production managers, including leads and supervisors. While participation is mandatory for current managers, machine operators are required to attend only two consecutive meetings before deciding to participate long-term. During this time, they will learn that participation is a plus for consideration for internal promotion. This “exclusive” club will accept volunteer assistant operators that qualify (length of employment, attendance, etc.). Also, there is no shame in an operator being content to make a career of the position. The existence of the club and the gains that will be made over time will create an expectation for operators to lead their teams.

The agenda may be as simple as assigning a member to lead discussion on a key topic such as safety, production measurement, conflict management, or waste reduction. This can be as easy as sourcing information to address a recent challenge. In the discussion, all are encouraged to participate and to recommend topics to address specific needs. While a seasoned superintendent may be able to comfortably facilitate a group, a rookie will need assistance to prepare and encouragement to overcome the nerves involved in public speaking, even on this scale. In this situation, the courses at Packaging U are a perfect match. Whether the topic is waste reduction, delegation, or production code accuracy, there is a course to inform and prepare the discussion leader. At some point, there may be worth in sending one or more members to outside training (e.g., Dale Carnegie, SuperCorr, or the Science of Paper course), with the expectation that they return with practical ideas for improvement to explain and then work with the group to apply.

As the club proves the value of the time investment, local experts may be invited in. Field trips to supplier and customer facilities are invaluable perspective enhancers. The group might utilize group problem-solving tools to address real-time . This adds immediate value and models the use of the tools so that members may put them to use in their own areas of responsibility.

What is the ROI of a strategy like this? The investment is significant in terms of effort, time, and perhaps even lost production opportunity. The return will be engagement of the willing and self-selection out of the leadership ranks for the unwilling. In meetings like these, perspectives are changed, skills are modeled and developed, and ultimately, a culture is changed. Yes, it is one more thing to add to your to-do list, but developing leadership is always worth it.

And, oh, by the way, had you not heard? There’s no crying in manufacturing.

width=67Scott Ellis, Ed.D., delivers training, coaching, and resources that develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. He recently published Dammit: Learning Judgment Through Experience. His books and process improvement resources are available at AICC members enjoy a 20% discount with code AICC21.