Maintaining a flourishing company culture was difficult enough before employees were required to wear masks on the job or come into the workplace at a time when many other workers were able to work from home.
While the pandemic has brought new workplace challenges few could have predicted, manufacturing leaders who gathered for a roundtable discussion during the Manufacturing First Expo & Conference say sustaining a strong culture amidst adversity is possible.
Ann Franz, executive director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, led the discussion, which featured four manufacturing executives from around the region: Bassett Mechanical President and CEO Kim Bassett, Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry Co. CEO Sachin Shivaram, Carnivore Meat Co. owner and CEO Lanny Viegut, and AmeriLux CEO Kurt Voss.
Voss says his company, a De Pere-based distributor of building materials, has experienced conflict arising from uncertainty, employees’ differing viewpoints about how to react to the pandemic, and the divide between people working from home and those required to work onsite. In the face of that, he says it’s been vital to acknowledge the difficulties, keep communicating and give everyone a voice.
“By calling that conflict a good thing and having everyone on the same page that we need to work through that together was important,” Voss says.
At Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry in Manitowoc, Shivaram says the pandemic has drawn his employees closer together and deepened relationships. In a departure from business as usual, no one was traveling and people began having consistent, everyday contact.
Brightening people’s moods with food and catering in lunches has helped, Shivaram says. The company also launched a daily newsletter to keep people up to date on what was happening.
“We were honest about what we knew, we were acknowledging the fear for our physical safety, and that prospects for the business didn’t look great. This shared vulnerability combined with the consistent contact and the positive environment really helped us build great relationships,” he says.
Prior to the pandemic, Shivaram turned to mass communications and town hall-like meetings to share messaging with his team, but the current situation opened his eyes to the importance of fostering individual relationships.
One of Bassett Mechanical’s core values is respect for people, and that has helped carry the manufacturer through the pandemic. Bassett says she and the leadership team have remained flexible, adaptable and focused on change management and caring for associates.
The Kaukauna company recognizes each person brings to the workplace his or her own “box of life” — made up of life and work experiences, Bassett says. During this time, especially, that may include child or elder care challenges.
“It caused us to pause and make sure that we’re not judging or criticizing or assuming and to step back and look at them as an individual and realize that everybody’s going to handle the stress of this pandemic differently,” Bassett says.
To focus on the positive, Bassett says it’s helped her team to rally behind something bigger than themselves by helping people in the community. That’s included making 18,000 nose clips for face masks, helping to design deployable medical units for health care systems and hosting a blood drive.
At Carnivore, a Green Bay-based maker of raw pet food, snacks and treats, Viegut says he strives to be visual, verbal and actionable. The company’s facilities include several video screens that communicate culture components, share employee news and quotes of the day, and provide key performance indicators.
To continue to build his leadership skills, Viegut attends a TEC/Vistage group, where he meets with other leaders once a month to “smack each other around and get better.” Leading isn’t easy and to do it well, you need to be all in, he says. “If you’re not committed yourself, the rest of the organization will see right through.”
When it comes to balancing care for people with accountability, Bassett says businesses can do both. To do so, they must share expectations, provide needed resources, communicate and hold people accountable on the back end.
Bassett Mechanical’s commitment to lean principles engages people and gives them a voice, Bassett says. Lean methodology emphasizes process-focused improvement rather than people-focused.
“That helps eliminate the blame or the bias or the excuses and focuses the teams on fact-based continuous improvement,” Bassett says.
Voss says accountability and a people-centric culture go hand-in-hand. “I think people want to be successful,” he says.
AmeriLux remains focused on the bottom line and doesn’t “confuse activity with results,” Voss says. That idea is tied to each employee review the company does. Reviews assess just two areas: satisfaction and contribution. Both reviewer and reviewee ensure they’re aligned on what they see and develop game plans to enhance both areas of focus.
As Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry continues into a future that contains a lot of uncertainty, Shivaram says he’s remaining focused on creating an intentional culture that’s based on one-on-one interactions — and reminding workers they’re doing a great job during a difficult time.
“What really matters is how we practice our culture in everyday life,” he says. “The sporadic efforts don’t work. A culture needs to be groomed.”
Bassett says it remains vital to communicate, show appreciation and acknowledge that employees are showing up each day to work under difficult circumstances. Words of encouragement or a note go a long way, she says.
“(Give) people that peace of mind that they’re hearing from you, that they’re given the comfort that things are going to be OK. The message has to be that we’re here to take care of you, take care of each other and we’ll get through this together
as a team,” Bassett says.