Shopfloor Management reloaded. An "old virtue," its stumbling blocks, its potentials

A Plea for Tough Skills

„If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere“. No, no. We're not singing a hymn to New York. We're snapping the line to draw your attention to the hotspot of every manufacturing company: the store floor. This is where the mammoth portion of every manufacturing company's value creation is created. What is achieved and not achieved here is what makes any manufacturing company competitive.

Yes, we are a company that supports manufacturing companies on their way to digitalization. Industry 4.0, Smart Factory, IoT, IIoT ... - our world. BUT: As much as we are convinced of the possibilities and future potential of digitalization: Digitalization is a TOOL. This tool is as effective and efficient as the attention to its stumbling blocks is high.

What are we getting at? The realization of successful digitization projects depends on the interaction between man and machine. So far, so good. Heard often enough. But what EXACTLY is meant by this? Here comes our plea: It is about - still, further and more and more - how prudently and well people interact with each other. It is about how attentively and competently teams shape and develop their interaction. Because it depends on how they handle their tools - and whether they succeed in using and exploiting their potential.

Systematic guidance on the scene

Let's turn to the store floor and thus to store floor management. A term that is used as a matter of course. In other words, "Where there's a store floor, there's store floor management. Which is true as far as it goes - if you include immature, neglected, tired store floor management.

Wherever people work together, they are structured, organized and managed. However, not automatically well or even optimally. Skilled interaction requires attention, reflection, exchange, agreement, perseverance. Strikingly, it is precisely these skills that are usually (and not least in industry) regarded as "soft skills".

Companies think or fear that their digitalization projects on the store floor will fail due to appropriate equipment and IT solutions (or their costs), due to a lack of or insufficient technical know-how. We observe: The number one success factor for successful digitization projects of any size is soft skills - which are actually "tough skills".

Conceptually, store floor management is a tool. It is used with the aim of carrying out the central actions relevant to value creation directly at the place of action, the store floor:

  • lead (plan, organize, decide)
  • Detect deviations from the target
  • Solve problems
  • Optimize use of resources

Recognized measures and methods are used to make this possible:

  • Alignment with standardized goals and processes
  • Management based on figures, data and facts, i.e.: key figure systems
  • Control of deviations and thus fast problem solving by means of visualizations

The more these measures are supported by IT solutions and data-based equipment, the higher the degree of digitization of store floor management. So that's the technical side.

The challenges beyond standards, key figures and equipment

However sophisticated the technical side may be developed (a demanding task in itself), in practice it quickly becomes clear that if at least as much attention is not paid to the interpersonal side, the possibilities provided by technology and methodology can never be fully exploited.

Even during the introduction of the systems and methods, the "human" levels are the ones that are decisive for success:

  • A clear understanding of leadership and roles in order to know and shape all interfaces with all directly and indirectly affected areas.
  • A developed culture of communication and exchange to enable the necessary collaboration and the indispensable capacity for development of each individual and the entire system.

In his book "Shopfloor Management and its Digital Transformation," published in 2019, Jörg Brenner describes three widespread imbalances on the store floor. They illustrate the problems beyond sophisticated standards, key figures and equipment.

Skew 1: Micro-management

The manager is convinced that only he knows what needs to be done. He does not consider the levels below him to be competent enough to make the right decisions without him. Thus, all levels below this executive are degraded to mere executives who can neither make their own decisions nor contribute their own ideas. All important information is concentrated in one hand. Thus "starved", the employees actually lack problem-solving competence over time. The employees' motivation is limited to the fulfillment of their tasks. They experience that they cannot contribute, their knowledge and opinions are not sought after. Their know-how on processes, plants and optimization potential is not used in any way to advance the area - and thus the company.

Skew 2: Firefighting

Firefighting is solving one problem at a time without eliminating the cause of the problem. As a result, the problem arises again and again. The leader puts out one fire, then the next, and the next, without really analyzing why the fire occurred. If a machine stops, he quickly finds a solution to get it going again; if a delivery date is in jeopardy, the Firefighter still manages to ensure that the customer is satisfied. The firefighters are therefore also the company's heroes. This is exactly where Brenner sees the cause and the problem: Who is more in the spotlight? The person who put out a fire? Or the person who prevented the fire in the first place? Firefighters reach a high status in the company more easily than fire preventers. Both approaches require different skills and systems. The firefighter's technical creativity and detailed knowledge is matched by the fire preventer's in-depth knowledge of problem-solving processes and his or her ability to integrate the expertise of everyone involved.

Skew 3: Remote Leadership

Leading by remote control - a management style that arises specifically from increasing digitization. This is because it increasingly offers the possibility that the manager no longer has to be on site. Technology enables extensive interaction via electronic media. The manager relies on the information provided in digital form. On-site presence is reduced to a minimum, as is direct, personal contact with employees. Decisions are derived from the (supposed) transparency based on available data. The overlooked trap: no matter how sophisticated and efficient the system, it can never replace 100% of the work on site. What happens on the store floor cannot be virtually mapped in all facets. Data remains an abstraction. Each production area is like a living organism that has its own dynamics. People (still) represent a central factor in store floor management.

The success trap and the healing consequence

When does a company notice that the understanding of roles, leadership style, communication - and thus error culture, employee motivation and performance on the store floor - are suffering from one of the symptoms described above? Very often when the "clocked" manager is absent. Through promotion, job change, illness, retirement.

Here an additional problem becomes apparent, which Jörg Brenner describes in his book from years of observation of shopfloor practice:

Even a highly developed Shopfloor Management that is consistently practiced on all levels often collapses when its key figure drops out/replaces.

This is an important indication of another stumbling block of store floor management: what must be developed and lived as a culture of togetherness is in reality embodied and kept pulsating by a (particularly capable) manager.

The crux of the matter is that everyone assumes that Shopfloor Management will continue to function even after the manager leaves. After all, all systems are well in place, the instruments and measures have proven themselves, and the cogs of the team are well oiled and meshing. Unnoticed, however, the following is now happening: Precisely because of the success achieved, Shopfloor Management is soon no longer operated with the original consistency.

This "success trap" does not only flourish in store floors that lose a central manager. It lies dormant in all successful production companies: The required volumes are continuously increasing, and it is becoming more and more difficult to achieve the operational goals. Errors and modifications of previous routines are creeping in. At the same time, no one has the freedom to take care of the re-tuning of processes and systems. All capacities are allocated to the production of the necessary quantities. The wound that the success trap tears: exploding costs.

The necessary healing consequence: a return to the "virtues" of prudent store floor management - including all its technical and interpersonal aspects.

Book tip: Jörg Brenner 2019 "Shopfloor Management and its Digital Transformation. The best tools in 45 examples", Praxisreihe Qualität, Hanser Verlag Munich.

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