A Culture of Caring in Manufacturing

April 12, 2016
General Mills uses automation to steer efficient operations in the plant. But it’s the people who drive innovation.

There’s a new trend in automation, and it has more to do with people and processes than technology. Or maybe it’s not so new. Steve Jobs once said: “It’s not the tools you have faith in, tools are just tools. They work, or they don’t. It’s people you have faith in or not.”

People, it turns out, make the difference between a super successful technology deployment or an epic fail. That’s what Gregg Stedronsky has discovered since he started in manufacturing 20 years ago as a plant engineer, rising through the ranks to his current position as vice president of engineering for global safety, environment and manufacturing excellence at General Mills.

During his keynote this week at the Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference and Expo, Stedronsky reflected on his early days working in his father’s hardware store and compared it to his work as a plant engineer building out control. Specifically, regardless of the work environment, knowing people care about you as a person is the single biggest motivator.

“Creating a culture of caring results in an engaged workforce and better performance.”

The idea of putting people first seems intuitive, but in a complex environment like the plant floor where automation is a priority, organizations often turn to technology to solve problems without considering the human element involved.

“To an engineer, a Control Information System (CIS) architecture is a piece of art. But if you are an operator it isn’t simple,” Stedronsky said. So the first thing manufacturers must do is make sure the engineers understand who they are designing the technology architecture for. Second, standardize on industrial control systems and add mobile devices and dashboards to integrate and facilitate the use of tools. Third, lead with a strategy that builds flexibility into the architecture. “Because you’ll never get another chance to wire your plants.”

Most importantly, simplify to gratify.

“I learned where management took the time to simplify for people; it was an act of caring. And where we took the time to educate and get people comfortable with their technical skills, they embraced the technology and we got performance,” Stedronsky said.

The theme of creating a culture of caring carried through to other presenters at FA&M, including Wendy Fox, the manager of microbiology services at Abbott Nutrition, who spoke of behavior-based food safety and environmental monitoring. Specifically, when bringing a new product to market organizations typically think linearly of the events that could lead to failure. But a behavior-based process considers the people and how their behaviors impact safety in an environment.

And that means you have to maintain work environment that is pleasant. You have to care about the people and show you are interested in their life. “Understand there is a reason for everyone’s behavior and be aware of the behavior influencers,” Fox said.

Similarly, Kim Marotta, the director of sustainability at MillerCoors, said that in 2009 the company embarked on a water efficiency project in the U.S. At the time, the thought was to invest 80% in capital and 20% in people. But the progress was slow. So they looked around at other breweries around the world and found some in South America that were older in infrastructure but had great numbers around water efficiency. “We went there and noticed they had an 80% investment in people and 20% investment in capital,” Marotta said.

So, they asked every person in the company, from the brewing line to the corner office, what they thought could be done to increase water quality and reduce the use of it. They implemented 50 of the best ideas and saw immediate changes that resulted in saving 1.5 billion gallons of water.

The bottom line is, use technology as a tool and people as a strategic advantage.

“It is people who bring the tools to life,” Stedronsky said. “If you don’t get that part of the equation you are on a futile mission in manufacturing.”

About the Author

Stephanie Neil | Editor-in-Chief, OEM Magazine

Stephanie Neil has been reporting on business and technology for over 25 years and was named Editor-in-Chief of OEM magazine in 2018. She began her journalism career as a beat reporter for eWeek, a technology newspaper, later joining Managing Automation, a monthly B2B manufacturing magazine, as senior editor. During that time, Neil was also a correspondent for The Boston Globe, covering local news. She joined PMMI Media Group in 2015 as a senior editor for Automation World and continues to write for both AW and OEM, covering manufacturing news, technology trends, and workforce issues.

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