Lessons in Leadership: Putting People First

Over the years, I've written numerous columns addressing the major day-to-day challenges facing maintenance and engineering managers, but I've never directly addressed the more personal side of a manager's job — the people.

Many companies say their employees are their most important assets, and a few have been recognized for outstanding employee engagement. I want to share with you a few things I've seen in my career that the best-performing organizations have in common when it comes to successfully managing people.

Employee Focus

First, managers need to have a true belief that employees make an organization great. Based on industry research and my own experience, the No. 1 motivation for employees is feeling a part of and contributing to an organization. Some people argue that money is a motivator, but in reality, money is only a stimulator — a short-term gain that creates no lasting results.

One of the most influential people in my career was a gentleman who started a company in his garage and built it into a business with 600-plus employees. Every Thursday, he walked around and personally handed out each paycheck so he could get face time with every employee.

He had a way of making people feel good about working, and he made sure you felt you were a valued employee. He also sent each employee a birthday card with a handwritten message wishing a happy birthday and saying how much he appreciated the employee's efforts.

Those two small things made more than 600 people feel incredibly special. They would do anything for this man. It was one of the best places I have ever worked.

Take the story above, and apply that management style to your daily and weekly activities. As a manager, you will be surprised at what you find out directly from the people.

Face to face communication is the most effective tool managers have, but amazingly, e-mail appears to be the most popular choice. By getting out of the office and talking to building occupants and staff, managers create an opportunity for technicians to offer suggestions on deferred maintenance risks, safety issues, and, of course, complaints. They come with the territory.

In industry, we use the term "gemba," which translates as "the real place." Gemba refers to the place where value is created. A true leader or manager takes the gemba walk, listens for that feedback and takes action. As my mother said, "Actions speak louder than words."

Secondly, managers can benefit from a concentrated effort toward continuous improvement. I liken this issue to a professional sports team. Every year, the team looks to the draft or free agency to find the best available people to fill its needs. Businesses are no different. Managers need to constantly identify areas that need improvement and find people with skill sets to help produce those improvements.

In March, I wrote a column about using data to mine for opportunities. This is exactly what I was referring to when looking for opportunities for continuous improvement. The column addressed ways managers can use data to measure life-cycle costs, analyze energy use, identify areas of waste, and re-engineer maintenance management systems.

Training also has a large impact on successfully re-engineering maintenance processes and embedding the resulting changes in the department. Top-performing organizations allocate more than 40 hours a year for staff skills training.

How much of your department's budget is spent on contractors? Could this expenditure be better used to train in-house resources? A previous column discussed the benefits of performing skills assessments — specifically, identifying skills gaps to help close those deficiencies.

Third, departments can benefit from structured days for technicians. This step might seem impossible, but organizing the day significantly helps both efficiency and effectiveness. The average maintenance technician spends 18 percent of the work day looking for parts and tools and another 24-26 percent walking to and from the job. Developing a structure improves both efficiency and effectiveness, especially when managers introduce maintenance planning and scheduling and proper supervision.

Several years back, I wrote a column about supervision and discussed ways supervisors can motivate staff to become a highly functional, organized, and high-performing group. In my research visiting clients and facilitating training sessions around the world, one theme is consistent: A manager or supervisor spends only 5-10 percent of a typical day actually supervising their personnel.

Deming once said, "A bad system will defeat a good person every time." This is proven time after time. I've found that changing or being able to change the system to allow people to succeed works far better than trying to replace all the players working in a broken one.

The three areas I've talked about are really quite easy for managers to address with a little effort and planning, and doing so can pay important dividends.

Establishing an environment in which technicians feel valued and are comfortable offering ideas helps managers tap into their best resources — employees.

Allowing front-line technicians to develop professionally through proper skills training can help managers to develop a culture of continuous improvement in their departments.

Enabling technicians to work in a structured environment without constantly fighting fires can streamline maintenance activities and improve both work quality and productivity.

Andy has more than 28 years of manufacturing and facilities experience, ranging from warehousing operations to plant management. He is a registered CMRP, CPIM and Six Sigma Green Belt, and he is formally trained in change-management principles.

Andrew Gager