Drive Continuous Improvement with a Highly Engaged Workforce

Manufacturing in metal fabrication

Toyota Production System. Just in Time Manufacturing. Lean Six Sigma. World Class Manufacturing. While the concepts around Continuous Improvement in manufacturing continue to evolve, one thing remains constant: in order to drive continuous improvement, you need a highly engaged workforce working together to identify waste and solve problems at all levels of the organization. 

World class manufacturing: the latest evolution of continuous improvement

Recently, manufacturers like FCA and Whirlpool have turned to a new evolution of continuous improvement: World Class Manufacturing (WCM). One of the most important ideas of WCM is the concept of zero – zero waste, zero defects, zero accidents, zero inventory, and zero loss. Unlike Design for Six Sigma, where 3.4 errors per million is the acceptable goal, in WCM the goal is absolute perfection. This serves as the true north star that guides every decision and interaction, not just on the shop floor, but in all areas of the organization from Safety, Environment, Quality, Logistics, Finance, Operations, HR, Payroll, and IT. 

World Class Manufacturing believes that all forms of waste are intolerable, all non-standard conditions must be made visible, all leaders demand compliance with standards, and root cause problem solving is the job of everyone in the organization from the CEO to the Operator.

Fifteen years ago, I was hired by a very traditional food manufacturer to help implement Lean on their shop floor. I recall on my first day in the plant hearing a supervisor call over the PA system “I need a body on Line One Traypacker!” I was shocked – did I just hear that people were being referred to as “bodies?" I knew at that moment we had a long way to go in terms of changing our culture and employee experience. If we were to ever have an organization where all people felt empowered to solve problems, we had to stop referring to people as warm bodies and start treating them as respected members of the team. In short, we had work to do when it came to employee engagement – and had to move quickly. Knowing that, it was time to ask ourselves: how can we create an engaged workforce capable of driving sustained continuous improvement?

Start with your people-facing systems and processes

Where do you begin? Start with your people-facing systems and processes. It’s important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do each of your people-facing systems (Workforce Management Software, Human Resource Management technology, ERP, etc.) and processes show that people truly matter to your organization? 

  • Are you leveraging hiring software that ensures employees are hired for roles that best fit their skill sets and interests?

  • When onboarding, are you minimizing waste and inefficiencies that frustrate employees and delay their time to becoming a fully contributing team member?  

  • Do your production monitoring systems show, in real-time, when operators are struggling to meet the standard allowing you to provide immediate support in the form of problem solving (rather than disciplinary action)?

  • Have you implemented an employee suggestion program which incentivizes team members to offer ideas for improvement? If so, are you tracking implementation and effectivity?  

  • Is your employee scheduling strategy based on skills and certifications so they can work safely, and according to availability, respecting work-life balance?  

  • Are you providing real time metrics that show how the work that people do on an hourly basis affects the higher-level organizational goals?  

  • When it comes to performance management, are you having meaningful conversations with all employees or just salaried?

Treat employees like the valued team members they are

Years ago, I was leading a Kaizen workshop which took 3 operators off the floor for 3 days to solve a quality issue on labeling machines. Normally, production operators are eager to offer ideas and suggestions that will help improve their work areas because fewer delays, defects, and machine faults ultimately makes their jobs easier. But in this case, one of the participants was very reserved and refused to offer any suggestions, making it clear he did not want to participate in the workshop. I took him outside to see why he was feeling this way. He told me that he was upset because he missed his son’s first varsity football game due to being a night shift employee. His request for the day off was denied by his supervisor because there wasn’t a trained replacement operator to fill his absence. His attempt to swap shifts with another employee had also been denied. Even worse, when he checked his paystub, he noticed his supervisor forgot to approve the overtime that he had worked the prior week. No wonder this team member was less than enthusiastic to contribute in the kaizen workshop. Ineffective workforce management processes caused him to feel like he was not a valued member of the team and in turn, he became an actively disengaged employee. 


Your World Class Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement initiatives will likely never succeed without all employees pulling together and rowing in the same direction as a cohesive team.  To achieve that, you must ensure that your Workforce Management and HCM solutions are contributing to an actively engaged workforce. If your systems and processes are creating waste, inefficiencies, and making people feel less valued, chances are they will be disengaged when it comes to participation in the daily continuous improvement of your operations. More than likely, they may look for an opportunity to leave and work someplace else. In a tight labor market, where skilled productive employees are critical, this is the last thing manufacturers want!  

Learn how UKG can help engage your frontline manufacturing employees to drive continuous improvement.

Check out more resources on how UKG can provide WFM and HCM solutions for your manufacturing workforce.