Manufacturing Leadership Skills Your Improvement Project Needs

Patricia Hatem
Contributing Writer

Effective leadership in today's manufacturing landscape isn't just a role; it's a powerful skillset that drives measured operational improvement. Understand the essential manufacturing leadership skills your improvement projects demand to quickly take effect in your facility.

SafetyChain’s latest e-guide operational series provides plant executives, leadership, and mid-level management with guidance to shift from planning to execution. 

In part one of this series, Mastering Alignment: A Guide to Bridging Corporate Objectives and Operational Realities, we provide a roadmap for success to put corporate and operational units on the same page. 

Part two of this series, Strategy in Motion: Project Implementation and Operational Tracking, takes this one step further by providing tips to help you make the right decisions when selecting operational methodologies and tools to execute your plans.

No matter the type of improvement project, they all require a strong project leader with strong manufacturing leadership skills. There are a plethora of blogs out there describing the (well-known) traits of good leaders. In this blog, we’re going to tell you how to assess if you’re that person — and what you need to do if you’re not.

In this blog:

  1. New Expectation for Manufacturing Worker -- and Leaders, too

  2. Are You the Leader Your Manufacturing Team Needs to Thrive?
    a. Build Your Manufacturing Leadership Skillset
    b. Help Your Manufacturing Team Grow
    c. Communicate With Your Manufacturing Team

  3. Getting down to business: what’s next to put your plans in action?

New Expectations for Manufacturing Workers — and Leaders, too.

Manufacturing used to be a fairly straightforward industry. But today’s fast-paced world — supercharged by the abundance and affordability of technological innovations — has changed how plants operate. Decisions and plans are expected to be data-driven, machines are monitored in real-time with integrated internet-of-things technologies, and internal audits are being used to drive ROI as well as keep pace with constantly changing government policies.

With these changes, comes new needs from the workforce. Years of experience and a “keep your head down and get the job done” attitude are viewed as far less valuable as a willingness to collaborate, an aptitude to learn new skills quickly, and forward-thinking to utilize new tools in more efficient and profitable ways. 

Similarly, plants have evolving needs for those they trust in leadership roles. The job is less straightforward and more human-centric than ever before, and requires people who can excel in ambiguous, supportive communities — and, more importantly — inspire others within their communities to grow as well.

[Manufacturing] companies are moving away from relying on just the technical skills to get the job done or, rewarding length of service, and towards those employees who make better humans. Motivation, ambition and communication skills, together with the ability to act as a ‘North Star’ to employees, are now seen as far more import attributes in leaders and managers of the next generation.

Verity Davidge (Director of Policy at Make UK)

Are You the Leader Your Manufacturing Team Needs to Thrive?

[Strong manufacturing leaders] must navigate an increasingly sophisticated and fast-paced supply chain, keep the ship aright through the battering of tariffs and trade agreements, craft a savvy digital strategy that maximizes ROI, and anticipate technological transformation and develop products around it. Oh, and figure out millennials

Laura Putre (Senior Editor, Industry Week)

A strong leader can make honest self-assessments to see whether your team is more productive and motivated under your direction. Here are some questions you should ask yourself when evaluating your manufacturing leadership skills.

Do you know the status of the projects you’re involved in, or interdepartmental projects that could affect your manufacturing team? 

No cheating on this one: where are your projects right now? If you don’t know, you need to spend more time communicating with your team. Equally significant are projects that other teams are working on that could directly impact your team’s projects, and let’s not forget to keep tabs on the resources you’re relying on from up the supply chain. 

If you don’t have a holistic understanding of where your projects are at, it’s time to get organized. Develop a schedule, write it down, keep it visible, and keep it relevant. Have regular (but not overbearing) meetings for project status updates with your team members and across collaborating departments. There’s a lot to juggle, so utilize automation tools and plant management software to set alerts and schedule reminders.

Are you anxious about meeting KPI benchmarks?

A strong leader thrives in ambiguity. This comes from having confidence in both yourself and in your team. On the other hand, an insecure manager will fail to delegate, showing a lack of trust in team members and in his/her own problem-solving capabilities and industry knowledge. A leader who cannot problem-solve effectively will come off as incompetent — and if your team picks up on this it can be difficult to regain their respect. 

There are two parts to solving this problem: sprucing up your skillset, and strengthening your team. 

Build your manufacturing leadership skillset.

Reality is the difference between confidence and delusions of grandeur. If you’re not actively staying up to date on your industry, you aren’t going to be equipped with the basics to handle the problems your team will encounter on a regular basis.  Watch industry-specific webinars, subscribe to email updates of critical industry alerts, and make it a point to frequently review the latest trends and emerging tools in your sector. 

Next, you need to improve your problem-solving techniques. Even if you don’t have all the answers, you should be confident in your ability to get all the answers. Learn the right strategies to diagnose and fix problems fast, with a particular emphasis on predictive maintenance. Some common manufacturing problem-solving strategies that you should be implementing regularly include The Five Whys, Pareto Analysis, Fishbone Diagrams, and A3 Methodology. 

Help your manufacturing team grow.

Once you’ve started the process of supercharging your own capabilities, turn your attention to how you can help your team succeed. Get to know your team as individuals so you can delegate the right tasks to the right people. Also, pay attention to what each member on your team does uniquely well, so that you delegate those tasks to them.

Not confident in a team member’s skill in a particular area? Take the time to train them. Remember that those who can do, can’t necessarily teach, so you may want to brush up on your teaching and mentoring skills. If your team member fails, that means you failed your team member. 

How engaged is your manufacturing team?

Fortunately, the U.S. in general has some of the highest employee engagement ratings around the world. Unfortunately, this isn’t saying very much: globally, employee annual engagement levels are estimated at 23%, in contrast to only 32% across U.S. companies. Best-practice organizations blow these numbers out of the water, with engagement levels averaging at a whopping 72% across organizations. 

Talk to your manufacturing team. 

How can you tell if your team is engaged? Go to the source: ask them. The more meaningful conversations you have with your team members, the more they’ll be likely to open up to you when there are problems at work. Ask them about what skills they’d like to develop, the types of projects they’d like to work on or become more involved with, and how they feel about the work they’re currently doing. 

Solicit feedback regularly to figure out how effective you’re being as a leader, and what you could do to better support your team. Be empathetic when your team members express that they need additional resources or support. Empathy doesn’t mean making excuses, it means dealing with each situation uniquely for the best possible outcome for everyone. Give them the tools they need to succeed and go the extra mile to understand any concerns they bring up about milestones and deadlines.

Remember that in any communication plan, it matters less that you communicated something and more that your audience understood it. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, it shouldn’t be called a communication plan — it should be called an understanding plan.

Mary Mesaglio (Research VP and Distinguished Analyst at Gartner )

Getting down to business: what’s next to put your plans in action?

Being a strong, effective leader is just one piece of the puzzle. You’ll need to break your project into pieces, use different strategies for whether they’re event based or project based, gain top management support, monitor progress, and measure improvements. 

Download a free copy of our e-guide today for a full understanding of these topics and more.