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.