Employee retention is more important than ever before. How is your relationship with the company’s employees structured?
We have about 50 employees, and I spend the first hour of my day touching base with each of them. Not only does that convey I’m interested in what they’re doing, but it’s also important for me to be aware of the status of our various projects, because if our customers aren’t getting what they need I’m the one they’re going to call. So I need to know where our current jobs stand and what we’ve got in line to start working on next. Customers are also demanding shorter lead times, and this impacts everyone in the shop, so our employees are dealing with that stress as well. But I want them to know that they can approach me if they have any questions or concerns. It also gives me the opportunity to see how they’re going about doing things so that I can suggest a better way if I think it would save them some time and get a better product out the door more quickly. I like to think that’s one way we’ve been able to keep our lead times in check
How do you manage to monitor an employee’s activities without insulting them in some way?
It all has to do with treating people with respect, because I believe that’s what I’ll get back in return. I’m not being critical when I show interest in what someone’s doing, I’m staying engaged. For instance, we handle our training in-house, harnessing the knowledge of our older, more-experienced employees to teach the younger ones what they’ve learned about their job over the years. In the same way, I’ve got a few years in the business under my belt as well, so all I’m doing is trying to share my experience with someone who might be able to benefit from it. I also think it’s important for them to know that I’d never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself—even though that can be a double-edged sword for them, sometimes. A good example would be the fact that, here in Wisconsin, it snows a lot, and usually for months on end. Well, I live about 20 miles away, and I never let a little ice keep me from getting to work in the morning, so the people who live even closer than I do really don’t have a good excuse for not showing up because of the weather. We have a job to do every single day, and all of our livelihoods depend on coming in to work and getting that job done.
Do you think customers pick up on things like whether a vendor’s employees have high or low morale?
I know they do, because it’s reflected in so many ways, from the quality of the customer service you provide all the way to the parts you produce. If an employee is dispirited, or not really concerned about the caliber of their work, it will eventually cause your customers to look elsewhere. You’ve always got to remember that, no matter what you make or what service you provide, you’re not the only one out there who can do it, so you’ve got to pay close attention to your employees’ actions as well as their attitude. You’re always walking that fine line between being approachable and the leader and decision-maker your employees expect you to be.
Do you think people in upper management who become isolated from the shop floor are losing something important?
Definitely. You just can’t afford to distance yourself from the lifeblood of your company, the actual work you do that allows everyone involved to make a living. Not only will you lose touch with the processes that lead to the products you send to your customers, your employees might start to feel you think you’re too good to get your hands dirty, like theirs are. And I also pay close attention to our relationship with our own vendors, taking tips from the ones who treat us well and also from those we no longer work with because they didn’t quite live up to our expectations. You can learn from every business relationship you have, but the most important thing is taking pride in everything you do.