John Crossan | Manufacturing Ownership Blog
Experiences and Beliefs

Some Key Factors I've Seen and Believe In

I'm not a psychologist. But for over 40 years working with people at the shop floor level in about 30 plants, all over North America, I've seen people behaviors that are remarkably consistent.


The most powerful improvement tool in any plant is ownership of that plant, its equipment, its products and its procedures, by the people who work there.

People care about where they work and want to make it better. No one can spend the biggest part of their days involved with something and not care about it. No matter what they may tell you,

Managers must take care to continually nurture and build this powerful (but delicate) ownership, and take care not to damage it. When making decisions, they must factor in whether the effects of that decision will increase or decrease ownership of the plant by the people who work there.

Developing Initiative

Initiative develops slowly, especially slowly, in more traditional plants, where managers and supervisors have told people what to do for years, and people have expected to be told what to do for years.

Sadly, these traditional stereotypes still persist, especially in supervision at all levels. When people are reproached (or just perceive it as reproach or criticism) for showing initiative, they tend to be wary of doing it again.

Expecting people to change quickly, and suddenly develop the capability to show initiative, and for others to suddenly develop the capability to foster initiative, is not realistic. It takes very careful nurturing for some time, to get it started, but then amazingly it grows quickly, and is a wonderful thing to see.

Similarly expecting people to suddenly find time by themselves to perform activities they have not previously been doing, is not going to happen. This will take guidance and reinforcement. But what is important, is working with people to build value for the activities, and helping them find the ways to do them.

Equality and Fairness

Equality and fairness are really important to many people, or better said, to everyone. More processes fall apart in plants due to inequality in participation, or just perceived inequality in participation, than for any other reason.

It is very difficult to maintain support for any process that people feel is being applied unfairly. In the majority of cases this is a communication issue. And that's how it's fixed.

Communication is the only way to avoid the inevitable counterproductive paranoia that develops between shifts, between teams, between individuals, when there is no effective communication. Sufficient communication does not happen naturally,and must be orchestrated.

The most powerful motivator I have found, that seems to work on all of us, is peer pressure or peer acceptance, or even the perception of potential peer criticism or disapproval by someone we respect. Good routine communication systems allow this to come into play in an ongoing positive way.

Facilitating Meetings

With facilitation the key is audience participation. Too much process emphasis, particularly in cutting off trains of thought, will inhibit participation, as will a facilitator with a know-it-all attitude. Much better to have overenthusiastic participation, than to have to dig it out. Every one will tend to get into the discussion, if their opinions are treated with respect.

Too often facilitators lose track of the fact that it is the development of the group, not solving a particular problem, that will give long-term gains.
Cultivate facilitation skills by everyone as fast as possible. This has incredible rewards. Facilitation forces people to take a broader, systematic view of the discussion.

Every shift exchange meeting should have several parts however small, covered by different personnel every time, to have them routinely build comfort talking in front of the group. Those who develop the skill quickest can get bigger and bigger parts, but everyone must rotate through some parts, willing or not, at a pretty good frequency and they will get more comfortable in front of a group pretty rapidly.

Initially there must be a capable facilitator in every meeting to coach and build the skills. But, this facilitator should only completely facilitate the first few meetings, and then coach others ongoing.

Managers and supervisors must fight back the urge to jump in and take charge to move things along quicker. (Remember you are teaching people to fish, not fish for them. There will always be plenty of fish to catch.(Problem issues to solve) If an especially big fish comes along periodically, it just means folks need some extra help. You don't have push them out of the way and land it for them).

The meeting pace will pick up as people get used to the process. But the emphasis must always be on quality content rather than pace.

Problem Solving

Too much attention is generally paid to the mechanics of problem-solving tools looking for the absolute best answer. In most plants the issues are not that difficult. The key is emphasizing taking time to gather enough information to understand the detail of the problem. Then approaching the causes somewhat systematically.

And if it's not the absolute right answer, at the very least it's an improvement to build on.

As groups develop, they begin to recognize the difference between fixing issues and fixing symptoms of issues.

The vast majority of the time, the solution comes back to the need to keep the equipment in base condition, to eliminate unnecessary adjustments, and to have consistent operating procedures.

Appreciating Performance

People need to know that their performance is appreciated. Believe it or not, nothing beats actually talking to them.

But simple scorecards that that show performance levels on a day-to-day basis are essential. These must be measures that people feel they are directly impacting, for them to be motivational.

A key daily overlap meeting issue is pointing out how the group has impacted the numbers.

Complex informational bulletin boards, that are maintained by managers, get very little attention from people in the plant.

But there is a real need for simple, working communication boards that people constantly interact with. There should only be a few items on the board. And if any items are not used daily, get rid of them.


The best production managers I have seen are the ones who know performance and issues in their plants on an ongoing basis.

Amazingly, they do this by spending time on the plant floor, actually observing and talking to people.

This doesn't mean that they themselves are taking action on a moment to moment basis. They leave this to those responsible, and do not second-guess them in front of others. But those responsible know that they are aware and available to help.

Good manufacturing plants always have a real sense of urgency to produce. Without this attitude productivity falls off rapidly. All of us need something to drive us to keep going through the daily adversities.

Good managers generate this urgency. But good manufacturing takes more than a sense of urgency. There must be a longer term effort to make permanent solutions. Energetically fixing a problem today, and then having to deal with the same issue again next month or six months from now, is not improvement.

The most effective people managers are the ones that people trust enough to bring their problems to. Not just the chronic complainers, but the people who typically are not heard from.

Positive Reinforcement

Keeping things positive is essential. Effective review sessions start by asking for what people think went well that time, rather than immediately looking for what went wrong.

Everything always gets better in some way every time, even if the net result might've been a setback.

Capturing these positives helps reinforce the processes. Then move on to what could have gone better, and develop some action steps for the next time, (which usually turn out to be some process improvements).

People tend not to remember the positives, particularly if there has been difficulty, so it is key to have someone there looking for positives to point them out, if necessary, in discussion afterwards.

A statistic I saw just recently maintains that 3 positive events are necessary to make up for 1 negative one. I can't speak to the validity of the study, but it feels about right. (Something to keep in mind when the urge to speak sharply to someone arises.)

It's Not About Fixing People

Unfortunately there is a natural tendency (see paranoia) to feel that people deficiencies are directly responsible for problem issues. It's vital in discussion of problems to make sure the discussion focuses on the actual detail of the problem issues, not the attitudes of people. Some venting is understandable, but must be cut off as soon as it becomes personal.

Given the same set of circumstances, most people will behave the same way. Everyone in my experience comes to work intending to do the best they can that day. Nobody comes to work intending to do a bad job. Many people, myself included, just need structure in their lives.

The core forever processes that are a solid part of any good manufacturing operation (see main page), like anything, require constant maintenance as there are many factors that can cause them to be deemphasized. These might be, new equipment, new products, hiring waves of new personnel, and many others.

But, without any doubt, the absolute, most destructive, and most common reason they wane, is inexperienced management and supervision that just do not know and value these basic processes, and either actually damage them, or just let them fall into disrepair.

There are no new issues, (only the frameworks are different). There are only issues that some people haven't experienced yet. Throughout time, the best generals have been those who studied history and learned from it. The worst ones have been those who didn't.

Only about 3% to 5% of the people cause 90% plus of the "people problems". Everyone else is pretty much okay as long as they are treated fairly, and are told what's going on. Effective managers deal directly with this small percentage of individuals, and do not mandate across the board procedures and laws that punish everyone.

This 3% to 5%, unfortunately, can quickly overwhelm the 95% that buy into the ongoing improvement activity. They do this by just not participating, and by continually talking negatively of the work being done by the others. Unless this is addressed by making sure they participate, and by questioning them to explain their negative statements in public, with specifics, they will overwhelm the 95%.

It would be great if peer pressure could deal with this, and it does to some degree, and more and more as groups develop. Unfortunately I've seen very few workforces at the level where they can handle this by themselves. They generally need help from managers and supervisors. I have seen lots of instances, though, and facilitated many, where negative individuals were very effectively confronted by others in meetings and asked to explain and substantiate their comments.

Improvement Momentum

Meeting shipments is the highest priority in any plant, the highest priority by miles. To think otherwise is naïve. And that's the way it should be, with safely and quality in place. This may occasionally mean rescheduling planned improvement activities. But if these activities happen on a regular schedule, they are much more effective. Improvement becomes a routine that people expect, and enthusiasm builds as results are seen. Frequent schedule changes to planned improvement activities destroy the momentum.

The maintenance group in a plant is almost always the most poorly utilized pool of valuable resources. Sadly most managers have no idea how to best use these resources, and wonder why they usually seem disgruntled.

John Crossan Sept 2008