Nurturing leaders in manufacturing firms requires a bespoke approach

27 Jul 2017 By Cecilia Westin Curry

Cecilia Westin Curry assesses the hurdles facing L&D professionals in the sector, and the most effective learning techniques for leaders and employees alike

Employers in the manufacturing sector have a common L&D challenge: they need to develop the capabilities and potential of their existing and future leaders, with relevant, memorable and culturally sensitive learning. But, unlike their counterparts in other industries, manufacturing companies have distinctive characteristics that make learning design and delivery a unique challenge.

Manufacturing’s myriad learning challenges

For example, manufacturers are often major employers in their community. Some may have employed generations of workers from the same local families – and, in many cases, they’ve employed them in the same role or function. Many workers take a great sense of pride in these roles but, in some cases, this can limit their ambition to progress beyond the achievements of other family members. L&D teams sometimes have to battle against these ‘unwritten rules’ and misconceptions about the value of learning, development and career progression.

In traditional manufacturing organisations, the values of the founders are often revered and, in some cases, the same production processes have been used for generations. Leaders have to be sensitive to the cultural traditions of the past, but also open to modernisation and the fresh potential of the future.

Manufacturers also have a highly diverse workforce with a broader mix of skills and ages than in almost any other sector, ranging from school-leaving apprentices, skilled and unskilled blue-collar workers and technicians to highly educated professionals, engineers and scientists. This creates the ultimate L&D challenge, as these employees will have decidedly different learning needs and preferences. Leaders also need to be credible to – and respected by – diverse groups of people, who often work in self-managing teams.

In a noisy, fast-paced production environment, leadership is necessarily different to how it would be in an office – you can’t have a quick one-to-one chat with a colleague when you’re surrounded by thunderous machinery, for example. What’s more, scheduling and delivering face-to-face training can be problematic, not only because individuals work in shifts, but also because you can’t interrupt production by taking people away from the factory floor for long periods. This means that L&D teams have to be creative in how they provide learning, and they must ensure that any time away from the workplace is well spent.

Defining what learners need

The learning needs of leaders, managers and supervisors in the manufacturing sector will cover the demands of each individual’s relevant function, as well as standard compliance and health and safety training. There may also be an explicit requirement to cover imperatives such as lean manufacturing, total quality management and just-in-time production.

Importantly, L&D teams will need to create a core learning curriculum covering key skills such as communication, trouble-shooting, people management and teamwork, performance management, project management, trust and integrity, motivating others, giving feedback, coaching, customer relationship management, organisational development and continuous improvement. Central to many of these skills is the right mindset, which means having a healthy respect for people and good decision-making.

You also have to look to the future. There’s a recognised shortage of skilled workers in the manufacturing industry. But there is also a shortage of skilled leaders. Growing your own leaders from within pays dividends because they know your business – and are known by your employees. Supporting succession planning therefore becomes another key challenge for L&D.

Choosing the right approach

To meet the different needs and preferences of learners at all levels, L&D teams could consider using a blend of learning approaches. This may include face-to-face workshops and/or other options such as digital learning (for example, videos and infographics) and virtual classroom sessions. A balance of options will help you to appeal to a broad range of people.

Because video content is quick to develop and the costs are relatively low, it is increasingly becoming the medium of choice – particularly for ‘micro learning’. Infographics transcend generations as they can either be viewed on a tablet or smartphone, or you can hand out printed versions to employees who don’t have mobile devices. You can even display them as engaging posters on noticeboards and in communal areas, for maximum visibility.

All learning content should directly relate to your specific environment and be aligned with your brand values. Any learning concepts should be associated with on-the-job scenarios, so that individuals can see precisely how the learning points apply in their own roles.

A thorough review of your learning provision will help you quantify your return on investment. Capture data on employee performance using risk logs, sales volumes, customer ratings, performance appraisal ratings, line manager feedback and other appropriate metrics to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the learning.

The manufacturing sector is fraught with its own idiosyncrasies and challenges. But with the right development in place, you can cultivate new leadership talent from within and cost-effectively support your existing managers and supervisors. Doing this can lead to measurable improvements in productivity, engagement and retention – as well as in quality, customer satisfaction and market share.

Cecilia Westin Curry is a development partner at global learning consultancy OnTrack International

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