Aerospace employee engagement

Features - Management

Rely on front-line managers to get the most out of every employee on the shop floor.

February 6, 2019

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

With tariffs and rumors of trade wars buffeting aerospace manufacturing, employee engagement is particularly important as a widely-recognized driver of success and because it’s one factor that manufacturers can control.

Engaged employees are more productive, more profitable, safer, healthier, more loyal, and less likely to leave their employer. According to a recent Gallup report, manufacturing organizations with engaged employees improve:

  • Safety: 70% fewer incidents
  • Retention: 24% improvement in high-turnover organizations, 59% better in low-turnover organizations
  • Absenteeism: 41% lower
  • Quality: 40% fewer problems
  • Profitability: 21% higher

However, few manufacturers are making a systematic, comprehensive effort to control it. Despite clear advantages, a deep, broad lack of employee engagement plagues manufacturing. Gallup reports that for at least two decades, the Engagement Gap has remained relatively constant.

The reasons for the Gap’s persistence are fundamental mistakes manufacturing leaders make in understanding engagement, cultivating it, and sustaining it. Engagement problems stem from leadership failures, changing manufacturing environments, demographic challenges, cultural transgressions, retention problems, skills-deficiencies, flawed incentives, compensation issues, process breakdowns, dysfunctional communications, incorrect assignments, and faulty succession systems.

Despite many factors driving the problem, one solution can work across the board – small-unit leadership.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said, “Generals move the pins on a map, but the front-line troops have to get the job done.”

Without good leadership in front-line units – supervisors and first-level managers in business – manufacturing organizations cannot achieve and sustain comprehensive employee engagement.

Mistaken perspectives

Manufacturers blunder when they try to get the shop floor engaged while neglecting to consider the perspectives their leaders bring to interactions with those on the floor. As leadership coach Steffan Surdek said in Forbes, “When going fast, leaders often confuse their perspectives with reality and have difficulty truly understanding the point of view of others.”

Like poison poured into a population’s water supply, mistaken perspectives can spread toxicity in a manufacturing organization. Manufacturing leaders should constantly analyze, monitor, and evaluate the perspectives by which they are operating. Senior leaders have important perspectives on their organizations’ strategic directions, logistics, buying and selling assets, and organizational growth activities. They often consider their perspectives as the be-all and end-all of their organization, however, shop-floor perspectives can be more productive.

Shop-floor personnel are at the crucial intersection of products and processes. They often respond first when things go wrong; they know what works and what doesn’t on a micro level; and they have a bias for action as opposed to senior leaders who are often afflicted by paralysis-by-analysis.

However, shop-floor perspectives are often grounded in rumors, self-serving attitudes, and wrong actions. They can constitute a toxic brew that thwarts good manufacturing processes.

Small-unit leadership can address mistaken perspectives from the shop floor or executive suite. Such leaders can have their own mistaken perspectives but being on the shop floor allows them to better manage manufacturing advantages. And, because they are leaders, they have substantially more commitment in terms of knowledge, accountability, and performance than the line workers they lead. This commitment ensures they identify and promote the right perspectives.

Senior executives should develop deep, on-going, genuine relationships with their small-unit leaders to ensure the right perspectives are followed. One group of executives I worked with was facing runaway vendor costs and initially opted for across-the-board cuts to address the problem. Small-unit leaders, however, said such wholesale cuts might save money in the short run but lose efficiencies, which would result in more money lost in the long run than the cuts saved.

The small-unit leaders worked directly with vendors, evaluated the immediate results of their work, monitored their efficiencies, assessed costs/benefits of their activities, and could adapt their vendor-offerings to the urgent realities of the shop floor. That interaction allowed them to better understand that across-the-board cuts would have impacted few of those actions.

The time on-site and frequency of visits by nearly all vendors fell sharply, lowering oversight requirements by management and reducing the opportunity for vendor mishaps. An ongoing, comprehensive analysis of vendor employment resulted in more-efficient manufacturing processes and led to developing and executing an improved vendor-management process. Vendor costs fell more than the across-the-board cuts would have saved.

Small-unit leaders were not let loose to accomplish tasks without guidance. Instead, they worked closely with senior leaders, while those senior leaders strongly supported small-unit leadership and acted on the unique perspectives that leadership brought to the vendor-challenge. Employee engagement accelerated productivity.

The decisive how

In a “Global Human Capital Trends 2014” survey published by Deloitte University Press, leadership “remains the No. 1 talent issue facing organizations around the world,” with 86% of respondents rating it “urgent” or “important” while only 13% say they do an excellent job of developing leaders.

Studies show that people leave managers, not companies. However, many leaders spend their careers encumbered not so much by the wrong ideas of how to lead but how to realize the right ideas. That’s because the preponderance of leadership advice they receive is linked to what, not how. “What” details leadership activities. “How” shows precise ways to make what happen.

One manufacturer’s small-unit leaders were advised to get rid of the motivational slogans (what messages) plastered all over the shop floor and instead use simple leadership communication processes to engage workers in productive relationships. Employee engagement jumped.

They were addressing the “Leader’s Fallacy.” If leaders don’t see the central issues of the challenges they face, they stumble in trying to close the Engagement Gap. The Leader’s Fallacy is the false notion that just because they are leaders, people automatically believe in and want to follow what they say. Leader’s Fallacy victims typically use orders and directives to get things done, obstructing employee engagement.

The manufacturer’s small-unit leaders were given a crash course in identifying and understanding the fallacy and were provided with communication tools to redress the wrongs caused. Rather than a simple change in perception, the change involved taking specific actions such as interacting with the people they lead by making a systematic analysis of their needs, and then doing and saying things that took their needs into account. New leadership relationships increased engagement, productivity, quality, and safety. Relationships evoked activities that slogans on the walls could not come close to matching.

One small-unit leader said, “I was absorbed with the task and responsibility that I had in front of me, and what I needed from my team. In the process, I had become unmindful to what the needs of my team were…. Now, I understand the importance of motivating the team… rather than giving them a lecture about what the problems were and telling them what to do and how to fix it.”

Top-level commitment, though necessary, is not enough. A passion for small-unit leadership should soak the entire culture of the organization. To grow small-unit leaders, everybody in the organization must cultivate them – spot them early, bring mentors into their lives, set high expectations for them and colleagues and leaders above them, and encourage them to develop leadership in others.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Maintaining engagement

The persistence of the Engagement Gap proves that efforts to close it – even if initially successful – don’t last. Reasons include an overreliance on surveys, succession issues, operations bias, ignorance of engagement drivers, lack of funding, and management deficiencies.

When workers view engagement efforts as simply one more flavor of the month, long term success cannot be achieved. Engagement efforts must have mechanisms built into them at the beginning that ensure success later.

I worked with a manufacturer that was facing a serious Engagement Gap with its employees. A new CEO was demanding rapid, comprehensive changes in productivity and quality. The top-level push from the CEO’s office led to symptoms of disengagement for the workers at the bottom – absenteeism, high turn-over, mediocre performance, low morale, many complaints, and frequently voiced desires to be back in the good ole days.

I suggested that small-unit leadership is the crown jewel of sustainability, and the first step in getting help from the small-unit leaders was to reverse a great deal of the demand and expectations flow from top-down to bottom-up. Small-unit leaders helped plan new productivity and quality endeavors.

  • I stressed that senior leadership relations with small-unit leaders could not be based on token participation; small-unit leaders had to be viewed as partners.
  • As results-partners, their input into changes in productivity and quality were given priority over senior leaders’ inputs.
  • Small-unit leaders were extensively trained in leadership communication techniques to get broad, deep support from workers.
  • Small-unit leaders were challenged to accomplish new productivity and quality and to take leadership of tasks. They had to exhibit on-going initiative, be advocates for change, develop systems for success, and be accountable for results (or lack thereof).
  • Small-unit leaders’ successes were communicated to and openly celebrated by senior leaders.
  • Small-unit leaders were to communicate the support they needed from senior leaders to accomplish their leadership tasks.

As the CEO said, “I want the support of the teams I lead to continue to work on increasing production throughput and implementing productivity projects. Now, they have a better understanding of possible futures and why there is a need to develop higher line speeds and improve productivity.”

Most manufacturers are, in small and large ways, suffering from an Engagement Gap. Just as an engaged emergency brake curtails the optimal running of a vehicle, an Engagement Gap vitiates every manufacturing function that involves people.

Closing the gap does not entail extraordinary countermeasures. Instead, it demands the help of what is clearly present and immediate in most manufacturing organizations: small-unit leadership.

The Filson Leadership Group Inc.

About the author: Brent Filson is founder of the Filson Leadership Group Inc. He can be reached at