What Manufacturing CEOs Can Learn from Their Front-Line Workforce

Mark Dohnalek  |   June 14, 2017

As CEOs, many of us find that we have to spend a great deal of time shuttered away in our offices, away from the people who make what we do possible: our frontline workers.

This is one of the inevitabilities of the job, and much of that time in the office or meeting with clients is unavoidable.

However, all CEOs must stay in touch with their workforce if they want their companies to succeed – and manufacturing CEOs are no exception. In fact, they may even have more to gain from spending time with their employees than CEOs in other industries do. Here are a few reasons why.

Some of your best production ideas and improvements will come from your workers.

The people who are on the line with your materials, building motors, putting together delicate machinery, or painting components, will know where the slowdowns are in your production process. They’ll know which steps need to be better managed, or where changes could help improve the process.

Talk to your workers as often as you can – not just to build a strong rapport, which is very important, but to get ideas on how to make your production process more effective and efficient.

Seeing the production process firsthand can help you anticipate new demand and developments.

Staying present on the floor and keeping up with the production process can help clue you into future developments for your industry. Knowing how the process works firsthand will allow you to make much more informed decisions about how to guide your company in today’s, and tomorrow’s, market.

After all, how will you know what’s next if you don’t know what’s now?

Knowing your frontline workers will allow you to identify and recruit talent.

It used to be practically impossible to move from the factory floor to the executive suite, but that barrier is breaking down – to the benefit of manufacturing companies everywhere.

Talent exists throughout every level of your company. If you’re not making yourself familiar with the workers who handle your materials, run your machines, and assemble your products, then you’re missing out on a major recruitment pool.

Chief Executive magazine, for example, tells the story of one frontline worker at Toyota, Mitsuru Kawai, who was promoted to senior management after spending 50 years in various factory floor positions. The knowledge he brings to his position is vastly different – and, one could argue, more relevant – than that which a career executive without industry experience could offer.

In today’s competitive environment, the most effective CEOs are the ones armed with the most knowledge of their industry, company, and products or services. 

Global competition is only getting stronger, and the CEOs who are going to lead their companies into the future need to have more practical knowledge than they used to.

It’s no longer only about balance sheets and high-level thinking. The more practical, hands-on knowledge that you can add to your wheelhouse, the better off you – and your company – will be. This is especially true given the fast pace of change that manufacturing is seeing, as automation and smart robots continue to grow in importance on the factory floor.

Where can you get this knowledge? Not in the C-suite. You’ve got to be able to talk to your senior managers, your managers, your floor supervisors, and your project leaders if you want the day-to-day perspective that can give you that competitive edge.

The divide between executives and frontline workers is far from unbridgeable. Although it may at first be difficult to carve out the time to get down on the factory floor, you’ll soon find that it’s well worth it to do so.

For more, read “How Logistics and Supply Chain Management Will Make or Break Your Business.”