“Leaning Out” Hispanic Employees to Improve Productivity and Quality

January 1, 2011

I enjoy working with multicultural workforces. I am fully bi-lingual, and bi-cultural, so this skill really comes in handy in relating to today’s very heavily Hispanic workforce in the manufacturing environment. What I often find is that these compadres have so much to offer, but their intellectual capital is very rarely fully utilized by management. Many times management thinks that because a Hispanic employee may have very little formal education or may even be functionally illiterate (cannot read nor write in their mother language) that they cannot get more involved to view themselves and participate as stakeholders in the organization.
There is a lot of untapped leadership out on the shop floor. Remember, outside of work many employees are church leaders, Scout leaders, PTA leaders, business leaders, etc.

Another issue is plant layout and design. Most factories are in a traditional layout; that is to say, machinery is placed where it fits rather than where it is needed to maintain a smooth production flow. Plant layout affects productivity – but that is only part of the picture. Moving away from traditional manufacturing techniques is important for many industries because in some ways the U.S. is still behind other countries – especially for skill intensive and labor-intensive jobs. Latinos are “hard workers,” but many lack the process knowledge needed, which can be a key to increased productivity. Japan has put a great deal of effort – known as “poke yoke”, or mistake avoidance into designing machines for quality production. In general good machine design prevents fatigue and increases the accuracy of the work. Additionally, it is interesting to note the five Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) that Toyota (the leader in Lean Manufacturing) stresses are:

  1. Safety
  2. Quality:
    • Conformance to specifications
    • Downstream “internal customer” satisfaction
  3. Reducing Cycle Time
  4. Workability: Does it make sense for the employee? Is it ergonomically engineered?
  5. Reducing Costs: The philosophy is that if the first four are satisfied, then costs WILL BE reduced!

As plants get more crowded, and plants need more equipment to keep competitive, “small footprint” machines really are as productive as the larger ones. In fact, at one recent aerospace contract employees in the elastomer department figured out that they could be more productive by mixing smaller batches of rubber cushions in dedicated smaller kettles. This eliminated the need for a 3-hour clean up and reduced set-up time significantly. By eliminating the waste, they reduced the production time from 162 days down to 37 days.

The move to smaller equipment has been driven by the higher cost of facilities. In addition, shorter runs are becoming more common; the smaller machines can be as effective as larger machines for certain operations and save space. You can put these smaller machines on rollers so that they can be moved around where needed.

It is important to note that using smaller machines and shorter production runs can only be profitable if they fit your overall manufacturing strategy. Just buying a small machine because you do not have room will not help you if you need the capacity or capabilities that can only come with a large machine. Customer demand should determine the manufacturing strategy, which in turn will determine the type and size of machine you use. This is always dependent of the actual customer demands. Under certain circumstances in converting operations, even cellular manufacturing has its place. This would be where one person could handle multiple operations on several machines. By doing all the steps, boredom is decreased and doing all the steps increases quality. By the way, Japanese workers operate an average of seven machines per worker; a U.S. worker operates and average of three machines.

Some industrial engineers have talked about the concept of the “productive atmosphere” in designing plants and even offices (The Lean Enterprise). Manufacturing is getting back to looking at how people do their jobs. Much of a Hispanic workers job is through communication with management, fellow workers, and even customers. Communication between production departments is critical, and workers need to understand that everyone’s job is interdependent on each other. That is to say, that what one does affects other areas. No one can work in isolation. Studies have shown that just linking departments together so they understand what the other department actually does will increase production by as much as 15 – 30%. In other words, there is a lot of money to be saved by just improving communication. Because of sub-segmentation within the Latino community, this becomes a challenge for Latinos, so management’s role is to create a work “familia” to leverage this strong value.

Facilitating production related communication requires cross-functional teams. And for best results, these should be not only cross functional, but have a variety of experience levels to aid in overcoming many of the communication and educational barriers. It is also an aid to problem solving when production problems arise.

Communication also plays a part in large or noisy machinery isolating workers. For many workers, in especially noisy areas the use of hand’s free headset in-plant radios can free a worker to do their job and yet remain in close touch with all the parts of the process. The use of large status boards or silent radio around the plant can also help keep different parts of the process aware of what is going on.

It can all be summarized this way – if you want to change the way your plant operates you need to change people AND processes. For people you need to ask the questions: Who are they? What do they do? And how do they know what to do? For processes, you need to ask: Why is it done? What happens when it is done? And — Where are the bottlenecks?

Much of the manufacturing in small to medium-sized operations is now done in a bilingual and even trilingual setting. Machine and plant layout can overcome some of the inherent difficulties in a multi-lingual production setting. Especially with issues such as safety and health.

The best ways that I have found in all my work with Hispanic employees are these:

Use Universal Visual Controls:

  • Graphics and color pictures (laminated) not words on machines
  • Universal safety indicators
  • Bilingual glossary of terms at every machine, with pictures
  • Either have managers learn key parts of the workers language or make sure that you have supervisors who have multi-language skills.
  • Offer Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL) through a local school. Many times, they will come out to your plant, I teach this class occasionally.

Routine production jobs can be made less stressful with favorable plant and equipment layout. Worker stress is a major cause of poor quality, absenteeism, and job turnover we could learn from our own manufacturing history about how to do a better job. Many Latinos come from countries where there is a very definite “jefe-peon” mentality or Theory “X” management. Employees are micro-managed rather than empowered.

If you design the process so the mental processes of the workers are not wasted on routine tasks that could be handled by a machine, you will reduce worker stress dramatically. Making a worker do the job of a safety switch is sure to cause both stress and eventual failure due to boredom! Also, engage the workers in job redesign by working together with the plant management, engineers, the front office, sales and marketing, etc.. Get the engineers and customer service reps out on the shop floor, get the shop floor or office employees out on sales calls. This way, everyone can appreciate each other’s job responsibilities and contributions.

Many ideas and trends have “popped up” over the past few decades. The problem with these “buzz-words” is when people attempt to increase performance without making fundamental changes in the process or people issues. There is nothing wrong with the concept of Teams or worker involvement but the fundamental changes must be made to make it work with full support from the bottom up.

Notice I did not say from the top down. Fully integrated, outrageously successful organizations are driven by decisions coming from those closest to the customer. It is then management’s job to facilitate the tools, resources and strategies to make them come to fruition. This is called the inverted pyramid management

What do I think is the most important concept for a plant manager to know during the next five years?

If I could select only one thing, it would be for a factory manager to understand the relationship between his customers, his business, and his processes.


I call this the pinnacle or triangle of partnering. Any manager must always be thinking about how his process strategy (and that includes all capital equipment purchases, as well as worker training) support the overall business strategy. The business strategy supports the customer, so the process strategy is equally critical, but one step removed, from direct customer support.

To put it in simpler form, both the business strategy and the processes must be developed to meet the needs of the stakeholders in the company. And by stakeholders, I include customers, managers, workers, vendors, and competitors all being a part of the company strategy. Even competitors can be important – Peter Senge coined the phrase “coopetition” in the early 90’s – they may become partners if you go after a very large job and on the down side – if a competitor changes – either goes away or gets stronger, it can seriously disrupt your work flow. Managers who learn to look at all their company assets, people, processes, and equipment in the larger context of their stakeholder strategy will be much more successful.

About The Author

Carlos Conejo is a highly sought after management consultant and expert on the rapidly-growing multicultural marketplace, he conducts major work internationally in the areas of Lean Manufacturing, Workforce Development, and Economic Development, in either English, OR Spanish.

The independent market research firm of MarketData ranks Mr. Conejo as one of the “Top Five” Hispanic Motivational Speakers in the nation. The April 2002 issue of Hispanic Business Magazine features Mr. Conejo as one of the “Top Five” Hispanic speakers in America!

His new Book: Motivating Hispanic Employees contains management break-through ideas and techniques for effectively developing Hispanic employees.

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