Back to the Shop Floor
Reconnecting With Your People
Chances are, you've seen an episode or two of the hit TV show "Undercover Boss," where senior executives of major companies disguise themselves as lower-level employees, and are put to work in different parts of their own organizations.
It's often an eye-opening and humbling experience of life outside the boardroom, as the undercover bosses hear the unvarnished truth about what their people really think of them and their company's leadership.
But the executives also learn valuable lessons about working conditions, team morale, and where processes could be improved.
So, should managers and leaders swap their suits and swivel chairs for hard hats and work boots more often? In this article, we look at the advantages and pitfalls of getting back to the "shop floor."
Unlike the TV show, we are not suggesting that you go back to the shop floor undercover or in disguise! What makes for good television viewing could lead to accusations of spying or deception in real life. This article is about being yourself and learning firsthand about the issues that your people and customers face, and what opportunities there are for improvement.
What Is the Shop Floor?
The shop floor can have a number of interpretations, depending on what type of organization you work for and your level within it. Traditionally, it means the factory or manufacturing area where assembly or production takes place. It is also used to describe storage or warehouse facilities.
For the purposes of this article, the shop floor can mean any lower rung of your business or organization. It can be any location where you can put yourself in your people's shoes. For example, it could be the passenger seat in a truck or delivery van, a meeting about a low-level project, or a retail outlet where you meet customers face-to-face.
Benefits of Getting Back to the Shop Floor
Stepping out of your comfort zone and discovering day-to-day life at a level of business that you've not tackled for some time can be refreshing. You may rediscover long-forgotten insights or revise long-held assumptions. It's a great way to reconnect with your business firsthand.
You'll likely get a better understanding of your team's key challenges. For example, you may not have known that they are struggling with ineffective processes and procedures, or that they are working with outdated equipment.
On the shop floor, you can cut through layers of hierarchy and use your own eyes and ears to find out what's really happening outside your office doors – you won't be so dependent on potentially sanitized reports or data from other people.
Meeting your team members informally as they're working – or, even better, while you're working alongside them – can help to build trust and engagement between different layers of your organization. And you'll no longer be viewed as a remote, inaccessible figure who pays no attention to the people who work so hard for you.
Pitfalls of Getting Back to the Shop Floor
As we warned earlier, don't turn this initiative into an episode of "Undercover Boss" – you aren't on a spying mission!
Be open with your staff. Tell them when and where you will spend time with them, and tell them what you hope to learn or achieve. For example, if your intention is to experience firsthand how your warehouse staff cope with a seasonal surge in demand, then say so, and they can consider any issues that they may want to raise with you in person.
A high-level manager or executive suddenly popping up to "lend a hand" could be misconstrued, and may cause concern or fear on the shop floor rather than interest and expectation. For example, people may think that an unexpected visit means you're conducting a headcount as a prelude to cuts or job losses. If you don't explain what you're doing, it can lead to unfounded and damaging rumors.
When you're on the shop floor, don't undermine your team members or attempt to take over their roles. The idea is to work with them, not against them. You won't do much for morale or trust, or for people's opinion of you, if you "swan in," tell everyone how to do their jobs, and then leave again.
Don't make promises that you can't deliver. For example, don't raise people's hopes of installing brand new machinery if you know that you don't have the budget for one.
Finally, don't get so caught up with life on the shop floor that you neglect your own leadership or management duties.
Five Steps for a Successful Stint on the Shop Floor
We've seen how spending time on the shop floor can be a valuable learning experience. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you to ensure that it's a worthwhile initiative for you and your people.
Step 1: Set Your Objectives
Work out what you want to achieve by spending time on the shop floor. For example, is there a particular manufacturing process that you want to see firsthand, or do you want to see if your customer service could be improved? Even if your intention is simply to get to know your organization better, try to focus on practical ways to do this.
Your visit may not have been your idea – you may have been "invited down" by a shop floor supervisor, to address a specific issue. Your objective here could be to listen to his or her expert opinion, and consider his advice or suggested plan of action.
Step 2: Plan Your Time on the Shop Floor
Plan and structure your time on the shop floor as you would any other project. However, remain flexible: you may just want to accept the advice and schedule of the supervisor that you'll be working under.
If one of your objectives is to make yourself more visible and approachable to your people, you can find out how to do this with our article, Management by Wandering Around (MBWA). Keep things relaxed and informal to put them at ease, for example. Also, listen and observe more than you talk, and be inclusive – don't favor one department or team more than another.
If you're on a fact-finding mission, you can use a technique called DILO, which stands for "Day In the Life Of." This is an effective way of finding out who does what, and how long it takes them to do it. But a word of caution: let people know how you will use the data that you collect. Some people may assume that you are conducting some form of performance review, and change the way that they work or what they report.
Talk to your shop floor supervisors to find out the best times to visit, so that you get to see the best and worst of what really goes on.
Step 3: Do It!
With your objectives and plan in place, it's time to take the plunge.
Pay attention to the pitfalls that we looked at earlier. Rubbing your team up the wrong way, overruling a good decision, or other shop floor faux pas may undo your good intentions and careful planning.
Roll your sleeves up and do a good day's work!
Step 4: Put Your Findings to Good Use
What you learn on the shop floor could inspire a number of ideas or actions, such as improving or implementing processes, or updating or replacing equipment.
Don't leave those ideas on the shop floor. Make it a priority to analyze your findings, and plan how you will make any changes. If you leave it too long, your normal managerial or leadership duties will quickly take over again, and your ideas will likely get "kicked into the long grass."
If you do set up working groups or meetings to consider any proposals, keep on top of them. Don't let them fizzle out with endless talk and buck-passing.
Your people will have more respect for, and trust in, you if they can see that your time on the shop floor led to improvements in their working conditions. The flip side is that their mistrust and suspicion of senior leadership can be reinforced if they believe that no good comes of your visits.
Step 5: Do It Again
Repeat the exercise, if you found it useful and illuminating. Being seen every now and again can boost communication and trust, and help you to be more approachable.
How often you do so depends on a number of factors. For example, if you manage or lead in a large organization, there may be numerous teams or locations that you want to visit. Also, it may be difficult to schedule regular visits into your busy workload or timetable.
But don't overdo it. Visit often enough to get a feel for what's happening, but not so often that you become a distraction to your people, or that they feel you are always monitoring or judging them.
Getting back to the shop floor can give you a new perspective on your business and its processes and practices. It can help you to rediscover or refresh knowledge that you've forgotten.
Spending time with your people will also help to build trust, rapport and communication with them.
Set objectives and plan your visit, as you would any other project. Then act on your findings sooner rather than later, to avoid any insights that you've gained being sidelined once you return to your normal leadership or management duties.