by John Mills | August 23, 2016
For years manufacturers have been told of the benefits of tracking trends and operational minutiae via analytics and Big Data tools. Doing this and making adjustments during growth periods can help to address uncertainty later, and despite all the buzz to the contrary, you don't need big-ticket software to find areas for improvement --- a little extra on-the-floor engagement may be even more fruitful. Here are six tips for gaining grassroots insights about the state of your manufacturing operation:

1. Work hours on the floor. If you want to get to know how your workers are faring, spend time with them on the line. Use the same tools they do and practice the same processes. Then, discuss what you're seeing. Are there obvious areas for improvement? What's the minimum that could be done to achieve gains? Make your time on the line a chance to show your team that you care as much about their success as you do the success of the rest of the operation.

2. Take a team to lunch. Every workplace has high-performing and low-performing teams. You can learn from both. Each month, create a schedule where you'll host a lunch with each team. Where or when the meal takes place isn't important; the key is to have some private time for workers to share their thoughts with you. What do they see that needs improving? What's working, and why?

3. Meet with other factory managers in your industry. How does your own workers' experience on the line compare with that of others in nearby factories? The only way to find out is to contact your neighbors and check-in. You don't need to share anything proprietary. Instead, look for diverging patterns: are you growing while your neighbors are still trying to fill capacity? See if you're doing something they aren't, since that may be a one-time behavior you'll want to turn into a habit.

4. Create reporting incentives. While you don't need "big data" or analytics software to do basic number crunching and analysis, gathering some bottom-up information in email and loading it into a spreadsheet can help with tracking trends over time. Offer perks such as concert tickets, gift cards, or an extra day off for workers who agree to help with gathering data on line-by-line output and production.

5. Develop a system for recognizing peers. Workers always like to be recognized for their efforts and their achievements, but the honor can be more meaningful when it comes from peers. Set up ballot boxes in the factory where workers can nominate peers for a series of small, monthly rewards tied to performance and leadership.

6. Solicit investment ideas. Good intel is only as good as it is actionable. Go into the process of gathering information about your team and your lines with the intent of making changes when you find opportunities to do so. And don't put all the pressure on yourself; hold a monthly briefing to let employees know what you're thinking and then ask for feedback over email. Reward ideas that top yours so workers know that, as a team, you're all working towards the best outcome.

In the manufacturing business, every day is a good day to think about improvements. Good times give way to bad times too quickly for factory leaders to not look ahead and plan conservatively. Talk with your teams. Talk with your peers. Incentivize data gathering and create a system for employees to recognize their co-workers. And finally, solicit ideas for investing resources to capture gains. You won't be able to prevent all the chill effects of the next downturn, but you'll be better prepared than most.

John Mills is executive vice president of Business Development at Rideau Recognition Solutions, a global leader in employee rewards and recognition programs designed to motivate and increase engagement and productivity across the workforce.