How to Develop Employees in the Manufacturing Industry

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If you need ways to develop your manufacturing employees, this post is for you.

Personal Responsibility

Your employees must be able to own their work and take full responsibility for what they do. The work can only be done by them.

You can supply support, guidance, but in the end, the learning work is done by them.

Learning is an act of participation. Physical skills require literally practice. You have to incorporate whatever the skill may be into that and in the context of manufacturing, that means actually doing the work.

They have to physically be able to do the work and in a sense probably develop a rhythm if they’re going to be really good at it.

In-Person Activities

In terms of the more person-to-person activities, again, they require both knowledge and the participation and practice.

You think in terms of human skills, you have things like effective conversations, you have how to be effective in meetings, how you share reports, how you share information across an organization.

Learning is an act of participation.

Personal Reflection

Reflection is the key to learning. I believe, Tim Galloway said, “If you’ve had experience that’s not enough. You have to be able to stop and reflect on that experience.”

The Army has their own practice of the after action review where they, very specifically, stop after an exercise, find out what was intended vs. what actually happened, and from that analysis, then decide what will be done differently tomorrow.

Be the Guide

Finally, there’s a whole idea, especially for new employees or people you’re really trying to develop, is that it has to be a guided practice.

In other words, you can’t just practice anything, you really have to be intentional and you see this in sports coaches.

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One example is famous with John Woodin. His first step every season was to show his people how to put their socks on.

That may sound unusual or odd but he also knew that if they didn’t do a good job of that, then their feet would become sore and they’d be distracted from further teaching as well as just the play of basketball itself.

Again, the practice has to be guided, it has to be done in chunks.

A Challenge

The next principle is it has to be a stretch but not overwhelming. Again, a guy that talks about practice, Jeff Corban, says, “You need to have about a 60% success rate on whatever it is you’re trying to do.”

Again, you see this in terms of people learning video games. There’s always just enough challenge to the game and if they’re overwhelmed, they’ll quit the game and they won’t play anymore.

They have just enough success then they’ll be encouraged to move on and on to those succeeding levels.

Establish a “Job Map”

What’s a job map? A list of key questions or resources that the employee comes up with in a specific position.

You could ask existing incumbents to capture some of the key questions that they have about their job or position.

What are the tools and documents they use?

Who are the people they talk to in their business?

What are they key reports?

Where is the key information held in the organization that they access to develop their skills and knowledge?

Once the tools and resources are established, this information can be used with others to develop employees in all departments and when new hires enter the field.


Networking is especially good for new employees, and even employees in new positions, to go out and interview or network with experts or peers that are in a similar or current position.

In today’s world of social media and Google can encourage them to start reaching out, using the media tools and using internet sources to say, “Okay, what kind of a network would serve you both the person and the organization?”

Asking questions is a great way to learn from others too. When employees can interview or network with like-minded people, they’ll gain experience and have the knowledge to perform better at work.

Learning is in the hands of the employee, it’s your job to provide the opportunities.

John Seely Brown, he said, “The idea of the architecture studio,” where the senior architects would stop in to visit daily or weekly to discuss the work of the junior architects.

What are they doing right? What can be improved?

A similar theme used with medical students is called “Grand Rounds.” Students would show their work, tell attendees what they’ve done and submit it for review.

Not only did the individual learn about his or her work, but then all the other students got to learn too.

When you think of this in a manufacturing context you could, again, stop in for 15 minutes in a day, gather the department together, ask employees what’s going on and what they need to learn.

At that point, you can provide tips and help to improve upon immediately.

Keep it Simple

Employees are busy and it’s a good idea to provide learning in small chunks. Often in today’s digital world, it’s easy to do 5-minute videos, ask people to review it, and then have some reflection on that.

The open, simple environment brings up any issues employees are seeing, what they’re noticing, what their frustrations are and then as a group, information will be offered and you can monitor the conversation.

Outside Opinion

I learned this strategy from the books, Rookie Smarts by Liz Wiseman and Deep Smarts by Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap. Rookie Smarts says, here’s the opportunity for learning and helping your organization get better because new people bring new questions, new perspectives.

They see things that everybody else sees.  So there’s a lot of value in having that rookie experience to challenge assumptions. It helps the whole organization get better.

The flip side to that is how do you develop deep smarts? Those experts that you depend on in your business — they are not always the leaders.

Experts may be the employees that do the work day in and day out, but they possibly have a very complex web of relationships.

They have … Obviously, they’ve seen the exceptions to your processes, they’ve seen where things have gone wrong over the years and what are the workarounds.

Here are the people that probably got 10 to 15 years experience but you’re trying to accelerate the learning of people towards that goal and doing it in something less than 10 to 15 years.

Then we go back to some of these ideas of having people get a guided experience, having a chance to reflect with experts.

It’s the idea of letting people stretch, letting them trial things, fail and learn.

In the end, it’s not about you looking good or being the smartest one in the room. It’s about making the people around you, your co-workers and employees, feel heard and understood.

In the comments below, tell me what point you enjoyed the most.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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