Communication Where it Matters Most: The Factory Floor

Last week I spent some time with a manager who is responsible for communication in the manufacturing center of one of my clients. We were talking about her plan to communicate upcoming changes to the product packaging — why they were happening, but more important, what was happening.

It’s important for the people who work on the line to know what to expect with the changes. Lack of awareness could lead to confusion, which could lead to disruptions in the manufacturing line, which in turn could affect the bottom line.

It reminded me how much I love working on communication with manufacturing employees. It also reminded me how difficult “factory floor” communication can be.

I love the manufacturing environment because that’s where the action is. Sure, it’s easier and more comfortable to develop and implement communications with office workers. But when it comes right down to it, for a company that makes things, the factory floor is the most important place and manufacturing employees are the most important audience. What they make brings revenue to the company.

If everyone knows what to do and how to do it and why the business is being run the way it is and how their actions affect customers, the company thrives and people throughout it keep their jobs. If nobody knows or cares about what’s going on, if decisions and changes aren’t explained and customers are nothing more than a faceless entity out there, the motivation to be productive disappears and job losses are sure to follow.

I spent 10 years working for two manufacturing companies, eight of those years in a factory and two of them in a headquarters position. I can tell you that when communicators in manufacturing companies lose touch with the needs of people on the factory floor, they do so at great risk to their companies’ success.

Yet it happens all the time. Here’s why:

  • Many communicators for manufacturing companies never work in manufacturing facilities. Spending eight years in a factory immersed me in that world. I gained not only a deep appreciation for the unique communication needs of manufacturing employees, but also a working knowledge of the processes so that I could develop communication programs that made sense for that environment. If you work for a manufacturing company and are assigned to a headquarters office, you need to get out and spend significant time — not just a day here or there — learning as much as you can about the factory and the people who work there.
  • Communicators who work at headquarters or in an office building adopt a headquarters mentality. I realize I’m generalizing, but my observation is that office dwellers get so caught up in their own worlds and their own work that they lose sight of what the company is in the business of doing. This is natural tendency and I’m not suggesting malicious intent, but it calls for intervening action to get out of headquarters mode. Again, visit the floor.
  • Business leaders don’t understand or appreciate the unique communication needs of manufacturing employees. Communicators often take their cues from business leaders. If the higher-ups don’t look at factory-floor communication as a priority, communicators probably won’t either. To be fair, sometimes communicators are sensitive to manufacturing communication issues, but their pleas fall on deaf ears. Communicators need to continue raising the issues with senior management. If we don’t, nobody else will.
  • Manufacturing communication is difficult, messy and requires an investment of time and money. When your audience is sitting in an office or cubicle, with easy access to the intranet and social media and face-to-face meetings, it’s relatively easy to communicate with them. To communicate with factory employees requires more work and usually more resources. Face-to-face meetings are time off the floor, which is lost productivity. Print is an effective channel for factory workers, but it can be expensive and time-consuming. There are ways around these challenges, but it takes creativity and hard work — and a commitment from senior management to make it happen.

I was the first professional communicator in the factory where I started my career. It was also my first corporate communications job, so it took some time for me to figure out why communication was important to that audience and how to do it efficiently and effectively. As I learned, I educated my senior management.

By the time I left that job, communication was an integral part of the facility’s culture. It took time and a lot of patience. It also took persistence on my part. I didn’t just fold up and let it go when I met obstacles. I persevered because I understood how important it was to communicate with manufacturing employees. If you are a communicator for a manufacturing company, I urge you to do the same. Effective communication at the factory floor level is worth the effort. The impact is potentially huge because that’s where communication matters the most.


5 Responses

  1. The shop floor is absolutely the most critical environment for communication in a manufacturing company. Unfortunately, many business leaders don’t really grasp the role and purpose of organizational communication. I think some of them view communication as something to project an image or deliver corporate messages, rather than an integral part of operations that can help achieve measurable objectives. I’ll bet if you asked those same executives if they would roll out a new manufacturing process without explaining it to employees, they would laugh at you. But somehow they don’t make the connection that a well-focused communication plan can improve efficiencies, productivity, safety, or whatever it is they want to improve. It’s our job to help them understand that, and you’re absolutely right — we need a firsthand understanding of the business to do it.

  2. But what did you do to integrate communication in the culture of the company? Real and practical steps. Thank you!

    • It’s impossible to say what specific strategies and tactics would work for you and your organization, so I can’t give you that kind of detail. However, the important thing is to first understand the organization’s (or specific site’s) culture as well as you can. You can accomplish this mostly by asking a lot of questions and listening. Ask employees and managers “how things work around here.” What are the internal politics? What are the accepted practices? What are the things you should avoid doing? What are the most important times of the day/month/year for the organization and why? What has worked in the past? What hasn’t worked? How do people interact? Is it a heirarchical culture or a flat one? Are there certain protocols people must follow? Then, after you have a good understanding of the culture, brainstorm the communication strategies and tactics you believe would fit that culture. But don’t stop there. Test them out. Run them by your reliable sources and trusted advisors within the organization. Don’t settle for what has always been done. Try to push the envelope a little bit and ask, “Even though this hasn’t been done before, is it possible it would work?”

  3. Hi, I’ve been recently hired as a change and communications manager for a global tobacco company. The organisation is about to introduce a change in technology that will change the operations and processes by and large. I have been assigned to create a change communications strategy for the entire staff in three countries. This is a mammoth task as you may already know and timelines are extremely tight. I’m based at HQ but will be visiting the factories soon. I will be sure to ask these questions in my visit but how should one handle communication with the union? Since this a public limited firm, unions are deeply involved in the working of the organisation. What channels or vehicles can be used to communicate with them? My second question is how can staff based in HQ be made more involved in the change process? In the past giveaways, prizes etc. have been very common majority of the people don’t care anymore about what is going on. What are some of the ways that cynical people in head offices be motivated to accept change? Please note that most of the tested methods have already been tried and response from staff continues to be lukewarm.

    • Hi Rida. Thanks for dropping by. It sounds like you have quite a task ahead of you! It’s great that you will be visiting the factories as you plan for such a major change. That is the only way you can truly understand what your audience is thinking, saying and facing as they prepare for the change. Your time there will be well spent.

      As for the union, I believe a good first step would be to reach out to the labor relations department in your organization, or whomever deals with the union most often. There may be certain rules — written or unwritten — around how you can engage with the union. It’s important to understand this first. If you get clearance to contact union leaders directly, treat them as you would any other major stakeholder or audience. Seek to understand their needs for information, their concerns about the upcoming changes, and their preferences for how they receive information from the company. Find out about their interests in the change — what most concerns them, what would motivate them to support it, etc. This could be valuable information as you make your plans.

      To your question about staff, I would offer similar advice. In any change management program, it’s important to understand what would lead someone to lend support to such a major change. It’s also important to understand their questions/concerns/objections so that you can mitigate them. In general, I believe most people truly want to do a good job and want their organization to succeed — why wouldn’t they? — but that often people run into what they perceive to be barriers to enabling this to happen. Those barriers might be perceived lack of leadership, not feeling they have a voice in the program or that they haven’t been fully engaged, perceived resistance on the part of others, etc. Try to find out what would motivate people to be willing to lend their discretionary effort to the program. Also, generally speaking, people want to see how they connect to the bigger picture or the larger project. They want to understand what part they play in its success. In addition, I believe people are more likely to support something when they feel they are well-informed about it and fully involved in its implementation. So, communication — full, transparent, and frequent — will go a long way to achieving this.

      Chances are you will not win over every person’s heart and mind in this process. But find out who the influencers are and focus on winning them over first. They could help spread positivity about the program if they believe in it.

      Good luck!

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