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The Perfect Manager

Original article written by Austin Weber. Austin has been senior editor for ASSEMBLY Magazine since September 1999. He has more than 21 years of b-to-b publishing experience and has written about a wide variety of manufacturing and engineering topics. Austin is a graduate of the University of Michigan.

Good communication skills and employee empathy are important attributes.

Whether managing an assembly line or an entire plant, good management skills are something not often taught in engineering school.

Good managers encourage teamwork, foster growth and treat all workers with respect. Unfortunately, many individuals relate better to ficus plants than to finicky people. That’s because plants don’t arrive late, talk back or walk away.

“’Good’ managers are people who know the business and surround themselves with good people,” says Bruce Grissom, a consultant at Management Controls Inc. “They should be willing to do all the same things they’re asking their employees to do.

“’Perfect’ managers are true leaders who exploit their employees’ strengths while investing in improving their weaknesses,” claims Grissom. “They genuinely care about their employees, are committed to the safety of their employees, and remain calm when presented with dangerous or stressful situations.

“They are synergistic leaders who are not just focused on building consensus, but rather on finding the best idea and leading that idea to success,” adds Grissom.

Unfortunately, some experts believe the notion of a perfect manager is a myth that only exists in MBA text books.

“But, striving for perfection is a good goal to have,” notes Denise Rice, president and CEO of Peak Performance Inc. She says all managers should try to do the following:

  • Be honest. “Tell the truth and be transparent,” says Rice, a former shift supervisor and plant manager at Corning Inc. “Leaders are defined by their followers. They need to know that you’re going to tell them the truth, whether it’s good new or bad news.”

  • Be forward looking. “Have a positive and an enthusiastic view of the future,” suggests Rice. “People need to understand your vision and where you’re going. It also needs to be consistent—not the flavor of the month or the initiative of the week.”

  • Be able to inspire and motivate people. “A good way to do that is to have trust and confidence in your employees,” explains Rice.

  • Be patient. “Even if progress is painstakingly slow, you always need to have patience,” claims Rice.

  • Be knowledgeable and confident. “If you’re not, people will lose trust in you,” warns Rice.

She also says it’s a good idea to manage by walking around (MBWA). “When I worked at Corning, I always made an effort to walk around in the morning to say hello to everyone,” recalls Rice. “At least twice a week, I came in early to also catch the night shift. MBWA is similar to gemba walks, but it’s more about having compassion for employees and respecting or understanding the work that they’re doing.

“Knowing employees goes a long way,” claims Rice. “It helps if you know about employees outside of work. Showing an interest in their spouse or children can help you manage in a different way by looking at the human side of your process.

“Always show up for births, deaths and marriages,” says Rice. “Those are significant milestones in a person’s life. If you can’t show up in person, send flowers or a gift. For instance, if an employee has a new baby, providing them with a car seat is a nice gesture.

“People want to know that they belong and that they’re part of something bigger,” explains Rice.

“You can do a lot of things to create an inclusive environment. However, you can’t artificially create morale with things like milkshake Mondays or college football Fridays.

“You need to celebrate successes and have clear metrics,” adds Rice. “Things such as days without a safety incident, on-time deliveries or no quality defects need to be tied into a success that the team is having together. In a factory setting, it’s much easier to get people to rally around your product if you’re looking at your purpose.”

Management Ideals

In the early 1950s, the Institute of Human Relations at Yale University conducted a landmark study at a large automotive assembly plant. They interviewed 55 supervisors and wrote a book about their experiences and observations.

A team of professors analyzed “the problems faced by assembly line managers as they attempt to create and administer a work group in the face of demanding, repetitious conditions not conducive to teamwork and high morale.”

To maintain anonymity, the facility was only identified at Plant X of the XY Corp. However, there’s a good chance that the factory was GM’s large assembly plant in Framingham, MA, which mass-produced Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac sedans from 1947 to 1989.

When The Foreman on the Assembly Line was published in 1956 by Harvard University Press (it was reprinted by Routledge in 2018), the world was a much different place. Automation was relatively primitive, robots were unheard of and OSHA did not exist. There also were few women and minorities working on the plant floor.

But, many of the classic book’s tips and suggestions still apply to industrial management today. Among other things, the authors concluded that:

  • “A good foreman on an assembly line should treat his men as individuals on the job; establish a personal relationship with his men apart from the job relationship; teach and promote his men as far as possible; be a shock absorber; stand up for his men; and consult his men and delegate responsibility.”

  • “A good foreman is not only a representative of management; he is also the leader of his group of workers, and in this role will fail unless he is seen by his men as one who stands up for and interprets their interests and needs to upper management.”

  • “[A good foreman should] consult workers and delegate responsibility to them. One man can’t possibly run everything in a department. The foreman can’t do everything, but he has to rely on his men. And his men appreciate it when he gives them responsibility.”

“Managing is much more complex today, because of trade, technology and talent,” says Rice. “We are now all part of a global economy, which impacts things such as supply chain issues. There’s also lots of new tools and technology available, which is good, but it can also cause anxiety with some people.

“In addition, the talent pool today is more diverse with much wider demographics,” Rice points out. “As the work force becomes even more diverse, managers must be able to respond to different needs or make accommodations.”

According to Grissom, safety is another huge difference between today and the 1950s. “What has changed is the way we address these challenges,” he points out. “Previously, it was much more of an authoritarian system. Today, it is more of an explanation of what is needed and why it’s important.

“The biggest change is how we address safety,” explains Grissom. “Safety is no longer an afterthought, but is built into everything we do. We went from passing out job assignments first thing in the morning to having interactive safety meetings to start every shift. It’s also important to make those safety meetings personal and connect with your workers—make sure they’re invested in everyone going home at the end of the day the same way they arrived.”

Old-School Advice

During the middle of the Great Depression, Dale Carnegie wrote a best-selling book entitled How to Win Friends and Influence People. Today, many of the management principles he espoused are more relevant than ever.

“Ask any manager what ‘personal development’ and ‘excellence’ means to them and you’ll surely receive a vast array of differing answers,” says Joe Hart, CEO of Dale Carnegie & Associates Inc., a global training and development company that specializes in professional development, performance improvement, leadership training and employee engagement.

“On the whole, some popular definitions regard personal development to be interchangeable with self-improvement, consisting of activities that advance a person’s capabilities and potential, build human capital, facilitate employability, and enhance quality of life and the realization of dreams and aspirations,” explains Hart.

“That sounds pretty good in theory,” adds Hart. “In tactical practice, however, those overarching outcomes can seem lofty. Indeed, not intended to be a short-term endeavor, the quest for personal development and excellence is a lifelong one to be pursued throughout one’s entire human experience.”

Hart says great managers build enduring relationships. “Having strong connections with the people around us is an essential part of a fulfilling life,” he explains. “Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, it’s important to be able to connect with people authentically and respectfully.”

According to Hart, there are four keys to building great relationships:

  • Be warm. “Showing warmth is an important part of building relationships,” says Hart. “Being open and friendly with body language, facial expressions and tone of voice helps others feel emotionally safe and trustworthy. Research shows that 55 percent of communication is nonverbal, so the way you present yourself is almost more important than what you say."

  • Listen. “Effective listening involves more than simply not talking while someone else speaks,” warns Hart. “It means opening your mind to truly hear what the other person is saying and asking follow-up questions to gain a deeper understanding. It also means being patient and showing that you’re truly listening. Dale Carnegie wrote that ‘intent and focused listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay someone.’”

  • Find common ground and show genuine interest. “Connecting with others through common interests, hobbies, professions and values can help build strong relationships,” explains Hart. “This is especially important in the early stages of getting to know someone, but it can also be used to reconnect with relationships that have faded or to strengthen relationships that are going through a rough patch. Showing genuine interest in others helps build connections."

  • Set clear goals. “Pursuing your purpose and creating a vision for your life are important steps in living an intentional life,” notes Harts. “This means knowing your ‘why’—what drives you and what you want to accomplish. It’s about taking control of your life and making conscious decisions about the kind of life you want to live and the contribution you want to make.

“To live an intentional life, it’s important to step back and think about your values, goals and priorities,” says Hart. “In the end, living an intentional life is about making conscious choices that align with your values and goals. By taking control of your future and defining your purpose, you can create a life that is meaningful and fulfilling.”

Employee Engagement

Employee engagement plays an important role in industrial management. Assembly line supervisors and plant managers can’t just sit back and assign this to the human resource department. Engagement must be continuous at the point of activity.

“Culture is the set of shared assumptions, beliefs and principles that a group holds,” says Jamie Flinchbaugh, a lean manufacturing expert and former author of ASSEMBLY’s “Leading Lean” column. “A certain set of beliefs and behaviors need to be developed to support engagement.

“The most important people to exhibit these behaviors are front-line managers,” claims Flinchbaugh, author of People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem (Old Dutch Group). “They are in the best position to create a culture—and in the easiest position to destroy it—simply based on the frequency and consistency of engagement.

“The beliefs that support engagement are centered around two fundamental principles,” explains Flinchbaugh. “First, is the belief that everyone can make a contribution and is an expert at something. Second, is the belief that, given the opportunity, most people want to make a valuable contribution.

“It’s important for front-line managers, and their supervisors, to espouse those beliefs,” Flinchbaugh points out. “But, it’s even more important that they practice those beliefs through the right behavior. Behaviors are what people experience and it’s what influences their own behaviors.

“I think one trait of a good factory manager that isn’t talked about enough is being consistent,” says Flinchbaugh. “That consistency enables consistency of operation. We put so much effort into variation reduction in manufacturing that we don’t think about variation reduction of management.

“I believe the role [of managers] has changed,” adds Flinchbaugh. “There is still a core component of consistency, discipline and accountability. But, engaging people, helping them connect to the work and helping them bring their talents to the task is more important as the work has changed.”

Jim Barbaretta, plant manager at Brose Tuscaloosa Inc., the 2022 Assembly Plant of the Year, subscribes to a similar philosophy and management style that encourages employee engagement.

“I view my role as plant manager as helping everyone be successful team members,” says Barbaretta. “We focus on sharing information and spending our energy on solving problems, rather than status updates.

“I like to spend time on each shift and focus on direct communication with the employees, with the sole purpose of soliciting feedback and developing an open dialogue,” notes Barbaretta. “This creates relationships with our employees so they feel important, respected and valued.

“I try to take two hours a day when I leave my clipboard and pen in my office,” adds Barbaretta. “I put on safety glasses and walk out to the plant floor with the sole purpose of talking to people to get their feedback about things or listening to what they did over the weekend. It helps open them up to sharing ideas about improvement opportunities and lets them vent to me about grievances.

“This lets them know that they aren’t mindless numbers,” explains Barbaretta. “It helps instill the fact that we’re all on the same team, sharing the same goals and objectives."

To engage employees, Barbaretta does a weekly podcast series that addresses a variety of topics. He also hosts lunch and learn meetings three times a month that enable small groups of operators to sits down for an hour and talk about production processes or parts of the plant that need improvement.


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