Marni Hockenberg addresses the audience

Gears & Gadgets & Insights

Recent MN Manufacturing Executives' event highlighted what seasoned executives have learned from their time in the manufacturing industry

By Brian Martucci
Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Four Minnesota Business magazine 2015 Manufacturing Awards winners got a second round of exposure on October 28 at Minnesota Manufacturing Executives’ 15th Gears & Gadgets gathering. Host Marni Hockenberg, Hockenberg Search principal and Minnesota Manufacturing Executives founder, and emcee Mark Capaldini, Resultants for Business advisor/EOS implementer, led an “all star” panel with the four award winners:

With prompting from Capaldini, the panelists shared their respective insights and experiences for about 30 minutes, took individual questions from the audience for another 20, then worked the room at a free-form networking reception that lasted into the evening.

The panelists spent a lot of time talking about what they’d learned during their time in the manufacturing business — in some cases, from numerous employers over careers spanning decades:

Change Is Hard; Communication Helps

Eric Gibson quipped, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, strategic changes that make sense to senior management often don’t translate well for the rank and file. Communication is key, even for seemingly innocuous initiatives.

For instance, Gibson recently deployed a new scheduling system that affected shift employees’ paid time off. “We didn’t do a good job of explaining how and why we were changing the system,” Gibson said, and employees pushed back harder than management anticipated.

You Can’t Please Everybody

“I disappoint someone every day I go to work,” said Janet Bearmon. Not because she’s not doing her job well — far from it. She just knows she can’t please everyone, try as she might. That’s also true of her fellow Sign-Zone managers and executives. “It’s hard, because I really like to be liked,” she said, “and our managers don’t want to confront employees either.”

It’s her job, she explained, to empower managers to communicate feedback and redirect employees without fomenting resentment. Positive reinforcement is a huge piece of the puzzle, she added; employees don’t want to walk away from every coaching meeting feeling beaten down.

At the same time, “I’ve learned that everyone is replaceable,” she said, “even people with critical technical skills or deep historical knowledge of the company.” The number one reason Bearmon puts people on performance improvement plans is because they violate Sign-Zone’s core values, often by treating other employees poorly.

Never Stop Asking Questions (Even Obvious Ones)

Curiosity pays off, said Chuck Gruber. Some years ago, during a tour of a Pennsylvania plastics manufacturing plant he’d just been tapped to run, he sat in on a periodic plant changeover — the employees cleaned and reset the facility prior to changing the product being produced. Such changeovers happened periodically, and were named based on their length: two-hour, six-hour, twelve-hour, and so on.

Gruber noticed “a lot of sitting around” during this particular changeover, so he asked a simple question: “How long does this actually take?” The answer: “Well, it’s the two-hour changeover, so…”

Gruber made sure that was the last “two-hour changeover.” He renamed each interval alphabetically — A, B, C — and cut downtime in half “almost overnight.”

Treat Your Employees Fairly

“Your employees need to be able to afford to work for you,” quipped Murphy. “Paying people a few extra dollars per hour is worth it if it means they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to provide for themselves or their kids.” Well-taken-care-of employees, the thinking goes, have more mental and physical energy to devote to their jobs.

Murphy also conducts a comprehensive annual review of pay and benefits; in her first year on the job, she increased the value of employees’ total benefit package by a whopping 38 percent. But the change paid off for MITGI: Under the previous arrangement, employees didn’t pay their premiums directly and thus didn’t really understand the value of their health plans. The restructuring “gave [employees] some skin in the game,” she said, and made them more likely to make better financial and health decisions