We may at last be entering a different period. The previous period was one of shrinking payrolls, as manufacturers made cut after cut to their staffs in an attempt to strike a truce with declining revenues. Now, for some shops, business has stabilized or picked up. Will these shops be hiring? For the most part, probably not. The ratio of the number of people in our industry to the amount of work that must be done is liable to be quite different for some time to come. On shop floors and in the offices connecting to them, the challenge now is to spread the labor across a larger volume—to do more with fewer. Depending on the shop, the response to this challenge might involve any and all of the following:
- Automation. This is the obvious answer. It is also the right answer for many shops. Automation can involve hardware or software. For any repetitive task, look for a product that can free a human being from having to do the repetition.
- Predictability. It is not just duration that costs time; it is the uncertainty as well. Maybe a cycle time varies in length, or maybe a shop’s time estimates vary in accuracy. By changing the process to achieve predictability—even if some steps then take a little longer—the shop can realize labor savings by allowing personnel to better plan when they need to intervene.
- Proximity. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing? Does the right hand have to track down the left hand just to get the answer to a question? When two different groups in the shop handle interrelated aspects of production, consider as a first step just moving these groups closer together.
- Sheared corners. Some corners are OK to cut. Steps that directly affect quality, safety or delivery likely can’t be compromised, but steps that support or document production might be candidates for streamlining if they are no longer as important as they used to be. Steps that exist just to support the support steps might be eliminated altogether.
- Inspiration? Is there a vision for the company that goes beyond the numbers? If so, then articulate that vision. Describe for each employee—or let the employee describe—what he or she can do to help the company advance. An employee stuck in a static role is prone to grow tired, but an employee who is offered the chance to bring about real progress has an incentive to bring untapped personal resources into play. In a downsized workforce, at least the smaller group is more flexible, and the lower performers are gone. So what can this core group of valuable employees be motivated to accomplish?