Employee involvement and problem-solving on the shop floor

Curtiss Quirin
Tags: maintenance and reliability

Success in a factory begins with two ingredients: people and information. And, when you add leadership to the mix, you get a recipe for serious improvement. What management often forgets, or chooses to ignore, is that we need more than people’s hands — we need their heads, too. Many times, poor attitudes in a group are the result of frustration and can be turned around with a little participation.


A leader needs to create an environment that encourages employees to help solve problems. A key element is to focus your energies on improving the areas that are important to you and to them. Do not make the common mistake of trying to make your employees work harder. That approach rarely succeeds. What does prove effective is asking the following: What can we do to make employees’ jobs safer, less ergonomically stressful, more predictable and more efficient? How can I get them involved in the solution?


To answer these questions, you can use a four-part strategy that will take you and your team from the recognition of a problem to its solution.


Step 1: Gather data for weak areas

To begin, you must first decide what you want to improve. It could be many things, but in a factory it usually falls into three categories: quality, operational availability, and health and safety.


The shop floor should be the primary source for your data collection. To make the process easy and not a burden for your busy employees, keep it clear and straightforward; simple tally sheets are a good place to start. You can create forms that enable them to keep track of things like: injuries, first-time quality, different types of rejects by quantity, machine downtime occurrences, causes for downtime, and so on. Once you are able to get several weeks of data, the process starts to become much more interesting.


Step 2: Make the data meaningful

The second step is to analyze the data for meaning. In other words, you’ve got to take all that raw information and use it to create understanding and give your team new insights into the problem at hand. Pareto charts or concentration diagrams are excellent for this purpose because they are vivid and help convey information immediately.


Note that having created a database in Step 1 will help tremendously here. As you and your team begin to review the basic data and questions begin to flow, you will require more and more detail. If you have a database, it will allow you to review the information from many different perspectives: by shift, by part number, by line, by machine, by defect, and so on. This will allow your team to look at problems on a definable and solvable level.


Step 3: Share the information

The third step is the most important one, because it serves as a transition point. In this step, you must share the information your employees have collected and you have analyzed. Use the opportunity to engage them in an open dialogue about how to improve the workplace. You can share the data at daily team meetings, weekly departmental meetings, plant meetings or special task team workshops. Whichever format you choose, the process of sharing information in a meaningful way will have many benefits:


It will keep the employees interested.

It will tell them that you care.

It will eliminate opinions and replace them with fact.


Step 4: Solve the problem

Now we’re ready for the final step, in which we engage in problem-solving. We’ve already collected the data on our weak or problem area, synthesized it, and presented it in a meaningful format. All of that will have allowed us to highlight the areas that are most in need of improvement. We’ll also have a very strong basis for idea generation from the people who work the process every day. Remember from Boss Kettering, “a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved” and once you are in a position to take a close-up look at definable issues, it becomes much easier to address and correct them!


No one plays a game or watches sports without keeping score, and most people want to know how well they are doing on the job. Involving your employees on the job helps keep their heads in the game. Remember, people collect data that feeds into analysis. Sharing creates understanding. The generation of ideas for solution leads to implementation and improvement.


About the author:

Curtiss Quirin is the director of supply management for industrial supplies for Delphi Corporation. He previously was director of operations for its battery plants.

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