The softer side of manufacturing

Posted on Nov 1, 2012 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

As the economy has thrown more companies between a rock and a hard place, manufacturing leaders are realizing that sometimes focusing on the softer side can make them tougher.

Soft skills – or the lack thereof – can impact a company’s quality, production levels, turnover and bottom line.

“Any company can probably buy the same kind of manufacturing equipment,” says Doug Hamm, instructor of human resources and business management for Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland. “Any company can set up very similar distribution channels, pursue similar marketing campaigns, even have very close intellectual properties. We can replicate a lot of things in our manufacturing processes, but the unique aspect of any organization is the people.”

What are soft skills? Depends on who you ask. Soft skills can refer to dozens of different qualities, but in general, they encompass anything beyond the technical know-how required for a job. The ability to communicate, work on a team and accept feedback are among key aspects. They also can include qualities such as leadership, accountability and taking responsibility for actions, such as showing up for work on time.

“The reliance on those people is really dependent upon the knowledge, the skills, the attitude, the abilities that individual can bring to the workplace,” Hamm says. “All we’re trying to do is to grow some of those abilities.”

Basically, the abilities that are kind of difficult to teach —  but not impossible.

Training soft skills

Hamm is part of a team at LTC that teaches classes in soft skills such as communication and leadership, both on and off campus.

Jill Hennessey, training director at LTC, says more companies are requesting soft skills training from LTC because they’re recognizing the importance of developing the right mix of technical and interpersonal skills in their employees.

“It’s important to educate the whole person – to be a good decision-maker, somebody who wants to continue to learn, to be a good thinker, a problem-solver, an innovator,” Hennessey says. “Those kinds of intrinsic soft skills are just as important if not more important, in some cases, than the technical skills.”

LTC is fielding requests for training in several areas including communication, conflict resolution and supervisory training, as well as work ethic-related issues such as dependability and professionalism.

“(The work ethic) is a tough one,” Hennessey says. “A lot of times that’s not something you can teach – that’s kind of your inner moral fiber.”

That’s the difficult thing about soft skills – there are some qualities that are easier to teach than others. But expressing the importance of a work ethic and discussing what’s expected can have an impact, she says. Discussing examples from personal lives – such as when someone didn’t live up to a promise or made a commitment they didn’t keep – can help illustrate why ethical behavior is important in the workplace.

“We need to look at things in a different way or remember that we’re part of a bigger picture, we’re one piece of a very complicated social puzzle,” Hennessey says. “You’re part of a bigger world, and it’s all synergistic and if your piece fails, there’s a reaction.”

During the 2011-12 academic year, LTC provided more than 1,100 hours of soft skills training to 20 area companies. In 2013, the college plans to launch its Leadership Academy training, which will target “informal leaders” within organizations – workers in non-supervisory positions who nonetheless have influence over their peers.

Sessions will cover areas such as conflict resolution, problem solving and behavioral-based safety.

Practical applications

Hamm spent almost 20 years as a manager for manufacturing companies, including the auto industry, heavy mining equipment and at Kohler Co. So that helps lend some credibility when he goes in and starts talking to people about how to communicate.

“The investment in people is really going to distinguish the superlative companies that are performing at an extremely high level and those that are also-rans,”       Hamm says.

Companies like Nemak (formerly JL French) and Rockline Industries, both in Sheboygan, are also developing their own internal training sessions and hiring staff specifically to target and build key soft skills in their employees.

“There are a whole bunch of things that go into soft skills, so we start at a pretty basic level when associates join the organization, just to give them some basic guidelines on effective communication, effective decision making, and working in teams,” says Colleen Vollbrecht, continuous learning and development manager at Rockline Industries. “And then we grow on that as they grow within the organization.”

The issue of soft skills comes up every day in the workplace, says Travis Knier, human resources administrator for Rockline.

“Where we see it come up the most often and where you can tell a differential is actually in production numbers,” Knier says. “We can see because we are very team-oriented. The teams that are not holding each other accountable, that aren’t stepping up and having some of those conversations, generally are teams that are performing at a lower level.”

Knier and others say it’s much easier to train someone a technical skill than a soft skill. Brent Chesney, manager of organizational development at Nemak, says problems compound when companies make the mistake of hiring for technical skills alone.

“But when they let people go, they’re most often for the soft skills,” Chesney says. “So the hard skills can get you in the door, but soft skills are usually going to have to be present to keep you there.”

The impact on hiring

Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board, tells a story about a large Green Bay manufacturer. In September 2008, the company had 134 job openings and 850 applicants. The company hired 17 people, Golembeski says. The board’s job center helped with the vetting process, which included several questions: Does the applicant have a high school diploma or GED? Does the applicant have some kind of manufacturing experience, and does the applicant have a work record?

“That eliminated 450 of the 850 people,” he says. “That tells you about the importance of doing things like internships and things even at a high school level, just to begin to gain that real-world experience.”

The second tier of vetting involved an eighth-grade reading and math test as well as a manual dexterity test. “That took 208 people out of the game,” Golembeski says.

So they’re left with 192 people, all of whom were interviewed, assessed for character and interpersonal skills. Seventeen people qualified.

“You can be the best welder in the world, but if you don’t show up for work, you’re of no use to them,” Golembeski says. “Teamwork and functioning within this company as a member of a team are so important, and they know how disruptive an individual can be who doesn’t have these kinds of skills.”

Also increasingly important to employers: Wellness. Cigarette smokers, for example, take more days off for illness and have a higher accident rate, Golembeski says. And smoking is often banned not only from buildings but from a company’s entire property, meaning any smoker would have to get in his or her car and drive somewhere else to have a cigarette.

“It is illegal in Wisconsin for an employer to discriminate in their hiring practice against a job seeker who uses a legal product on his or her own time. But if the employer thinks that you are a cigarette smoker, that is a big strike against you.”

Same with being obese – employers know it will be more expensive to hire someone who is carrying excess weight.

“Employers will not say, ‘I did not hire because you are too fat.’ They will not say that. But that’s why they didn’t hire you,” Golembeski says.

Many, many businesses are looking beyond technical skills and instead are looking at the whole picture, he says.

“They’re not accepting warm bodies anymore,” Golembeski says. “They are not going to hire you just because you showed up with an application and you have a pulse. They would rather let their position go unfilled than hire the wrong person.”

Once they’re in

Even when there’s a seemingly strong team in place, soft skills can become an issue when there’s change.

“If we introduce a new member in, that whole team dynamic changes again,” Vollbrecht says.

A team-building event can help, she says. These activities can be fit into the regular schedule, such as during a preventive maintenance day. The company can use that time to let the team get to know each other better on a personal level that might help them relate to one another in a different way.

Chesney is dealing with a big change – the absorption of JL French into the global company Nemak, which is difficult on employees who are coming from two different company cultures.

“It’s like trying to marry a person who already has kids,” Chesney says. “It’s like the Brady Bunch.”

The economic turmoil of the past few years has been the catalyst for a lot of changes. Now companies are starting to bring back training, to take another look internally at improvements.

“It’s usually after there’s enough pain,” Chesney says. “Interpersonal skills and soft skills are one of the things first to go on the cutting table when you have to reduce your budget.”

JL French and Nemak, which make parts for the automotive industry, suffered cutbacks during the downturn and Chesney was brought in as a consultant at first to make some recommendations on action.

“The primary pain that we were feeling at the time was accountability and the lack of accountability, and to some degree most organizations are kind of struggling with that,” Chesney says. “How do you get people who are engaged in the work, performing the work and actually taking ownership for getting that work done?”

Making training work

It actually takes soft skills to make soft skills training work. It takes teamwork and feedback and accountability, trainers say.

“A large percentage of soft skills training never takes (hold) because it is very dependent upon what you do before and what you do after,” Chesney says. “Before, there has to be a dang good reason for doing it. If people don’t understand the rationale and why it is important that they get along with others, then they just tend to view this as they’re going through ‘smile training.’”

Ensuring a team manager is on board and will follow up with team members on their progress is key, he says. There must be opportunities to practice the new behaviors and an expectation that they continue the behavior after class.

Hamm says the training doesn’t stop with the classroom – there are assignments that employees take to the workplace to apply the lessons learned, and the training establishes a “triangular relationship” between instructors, students and the students’ immediate supervisors.

Role playing, modeling behaviors and learning how to replicate the behavior in the workplace are ways to reinforce strong soft skills.

“I think so much of it is either the environment we’re brought up in or the nurturing,” Hamm says. “All we’re saying here is, even if you didn’t have that nurturing environment as a child or as a student, now as a working adult we can still expose you to the concepts and the thoughts, and you can modify your behavior.”