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Michael Muillenburg


Manufacturing Doesn’t Have a Hiring Problem. It Has a Retention Problem.

Invite your people to tell their stories

Published: Thursday, January 12, 2023 - 13:03

Consider these two pieces of recent industry data: (1) 75 percent of the workforce will be millennials by 2025. Thousands of experienced workers are retiring daily. The Silver Tsunami is real, and it’s rising fast. This unprecedented talent loss is draining industry of its ability to train and retain the incoming workforce. Manufacturers need to adopt proactive solutions to combat the effects of the shifting workforce of people hitting normal or early retirement.

(2) 81 percent of manufacturers reported they still rely on paper for work instructions. Most manufacturers are still operating as if they were in 1975. They’re working in a patchwork of systems to power their operations. The shop floor hasn’t changed much since the ’70s. The downstream effects of this communication and training issue ripple throughout the entire company.

These two statistics, among others, point to a trend that manufacturing companies are trying to navigate daily.

Understandably, ensuring every individual understands how their efforts are linked to overall organizational success is a herculean task. Just recently, Dozuki spoke with one of our auto parts manufacturing customers; their VP of operations explains it this way: “When you’re looking at the ROI of digital transformation efforts, whether it’s the safety of your people or the training of your people, it’s all linked back to retention. How much will our company save in the big picture? I will say much more than $100,000 a year.”

I spent four decades working as an operational leader for 3M, and in my experience the solution to this retention problem requires two elements:
• Create change and improvement with your people, not to your people.
• Establish a safe environment for them to change and improve.

Let’s unbox those elements so your manufacturing organization can engage workers and create the frontline of the future.

Create change with people, not to them

During my career, I have rolled out numerous solutions for various companies, including Dozuki. Our focus was always to find solutions for real problems in operations, particularly those affecting our frontline.

In one particular Dozuki rollout, we were adding dozens of procedures for multimillion-dollar production lines that were adding capacity and helping the company grow. And rarely did we hear from frontline workers:
• “I hate using tablets.”
• “I’m not a computer guy.”
• “I don’t want to be part of this.”
• “I follow instructions, not write them.”

Instead, employees made comments like these:
• “This is fun.”
• “Pick me!”
• “Let’s do this in my area.”
• “I want to go next!”
• “This is a little intimidating, but I like it.”

Because the reactions to using the software were so amazing, I wondered, "What if this digital frontline technology is actually an employee retention strategy?"

People now could immediately see that they have a voice, particularly through features in the Dozuki platform that allow them to make comments and improve standards on work instructions. They didn’t have to accept the status quo. All of this made my change management efforts, aka convincing people to move in a new direction, less of an uphill battle.

One tactic for driving change and improvement with our people (rather than to them) was leveraging “The Law of the Few,” as detailed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point (Little, Brown and Co., 2006).

A quick summary of the principle

Before widespread popularity can be attained, three archetypes have to champion an idea, meme, or project before it can reach critical mass. Connectors are the people in your company who know everyone and regularly make introductions. Mavens are subject matter experts who connect people with new information. Salesmen are charismatic, persuasive, and interpersonally influential.

On our team, we had several employees who were gifted in each of those three areas. They took turns influencing the broader group with their knowledge, connection, and sales abilities.

Diversifying in this way relieved the burden on me, their leader, from having to do all the change management efforts myself. If the executive leadership team was resisting me or coming down hard on my ideas for digitizing work instructions, other change agents would step up.

From frontline workers to shift supervisors, everyone modeled how our new tools helped the company operations become more profitable.

Want to put this into action at your facility? Here’s a powerful five-word question to get in the habit of asking as you walk the factory floor: “What are you working on?”

It’s not rocket science, but these simple, curious, empathetic, and organic words go a long way. I found that by inviting frontline workers to talk about their work, I gained greater perspective on every aspect of our operation. How do they do the work? How did they learn the process? How are they improving, or what are their daily struggles?

Soon the phone started ringing, and team members from other lines, shifts, departments, and facilities would say: “Hey Michael, I have a problem. Do you guys already have a solution in play over there? Does anyone else have this same problem, and what are they doing about it?”

That’s how transformation starts: those moments of clarity, compassion, and connection. And when practiced over and over, they have a material effect on retention.

The problem with most digital transformation programs is they fail when they don’t engage line managers and frontline employees.

If you want operator engagement and adoption on the floor, start by putting tablets in the hands of your culture leaders. The others will look up to them. They’ll see them using the tools, and they will be much more likely to be adopted. It won’t be scary but rather an enjoyable tool for them to use that they see as an improvement over their current processes, especially if they’re using the same tools that are being used by the salaried staff and engineers.

Now that we’ve reviewed how to lead change with people (not to them), let’s double click and learn additional approaches.

Create a safe environment for change

Manufacturing organizations of the past often operated via command and control. Leaders built a template for, say, compliance training, and micromanaged that initiative within an inch of its life. Digital transformation programs were presented in only one way.

In all my years of manufacturing, I’ve spent the last decade in particular trying to close the gap between white and blue collar, and bringing together everyone to make the business better. I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard some version of this change management story: Corporate “experts” drove around the country in a van, going plant to plant, tearing down people’s tier boards and bringing in an entourage to rework everything.

Frontline workers don’t want leaders like that in their plant, because the strategy isn’t leading with psychological safety. Operators fear speaking up, challenging the status quo, even making suggestions about processes and work instructions, because they might be punished or humiliated.

A more approachable change environment would look like this:
• Invite operators to tell stories
• Ask them how they run projects
• Request that they share results
• Engage others in a way that suits their communication style
• Listen for insights, wisdom, and innovative solutions

Not only does this create an environment in which change is embraced, but also retention can’t help but follow suit.

Want to put this into action at your location? Try this:

Empower people to be as creative as they want with their tier boards, work instructions, training programs, and other digital transformation initiatives. Rather than prescribing a solution and giving people the answer, ask them: How can we make this work for you? How would you build your own? What help do you need?

Understandably, you might lose a bit of standardization with this level of operator ownership. But it’s better to allow and encourage some personalization so all employees buy in and are more confident and less fearful at the expense of losing a bit of consistency.

Ultimately, if you do change and improve with your people (not to them), and if you create a safe environment for people in which to change and improve, not only will they do great work but they’ll also keep doing it for a long time.

First published on Dozuki’s Solutions.


About The Author

Michael Muillenburg’s picture

Michael Muillenburg

Michael Muillenburg spent more than 35 years at 3M building a high performance operational technology strategy and team. He now divides his time between serving on the board of directors of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, teaching and coaching at the Manufacturers Alliance, and partnering with Dozuki to deploy digital training, onboarding, and improvement platforms, where he co-hosts the popular Voices of Manufacturing podcast.


The Retention Problem can be reduced to one thing.

The best employee retention strategy is caring about people. It's really that simple. We have a problem with retention because people understand (in their heart) that their employers don't care about them.  We are much more intelligent instinctively and emotionally than we are rationally, even if we justify ourselves and our actions rationally.