Manufacturing Respect

  • Article by: LAURA FRENCH , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: October 15, 2007 - 11:42 AM

Some progressive manufacturing companies empower staffs to retain employees with a new approach called "humanistic manufacturing." This approach helps employees feel valued - which results in higher quality, productivity and profitability to their employers.

The training program required for new employees at Steinwall, Inc., a thermoplastic injection molding company in Coon Rapids, includes topics such as "Respect,"Brainstorming, "Win-Win" and "Listening Techniques." More than 30 percent of the employees at E.J. Ajax, a precision metal-stamping company in Fridley, have taken Dale Carnegie courses.

What do these "people skills" have to do with running a successful manufacturing operation? Absolutely everything, say the owners of the two companies.

Manufacturing Optimistic Workers

U.S. manufacturing is facing challenging times, with rising costs for energy and raw materials and stiff challenges from foreign competitors. There are two ways to face the challenge. One is what Erick Ajax, owner of E.J. Ajax, refers to as "the race to the bottom." Keep wages and benefits low and try to compete on price. Maureen Steinwall has a simpler term for that strategy: "Bullying."

These two Minnesota employers, and many others like them, are taking a different approach, one that Steinwall calls "humanistic manufacturing." It means "allowing people to feel safe and respected, to know their voice matters. When people feel valued, they tell you what they're seeing," Steinwall says. The result is what Steinwall calls "optimistic workers," who offer higher quality, productivity and profitability to their employers.

Empowered Employees

Steinwall says the advantages of worker-centered manufacturing are well documented. In the 1980s, W. Edwards Deming articulated a 14-point "Total Quality Management" philosophy. "Eleven of those factors are hard skills, but the three that have boiled out as the greatest competitive advantage have to do with leadership and the human element," Steinwall says. Her short list for success: "Clear vision, open communication and empowered employees."

At E.J. Ajax, empowered employees have total authority to shut down any machine or operation at any time if they question its safety. Workers have documented an average of 200 process improvement suggestions a year for the past 10 years in the areas of lean manufacturing and safety improvements. The company's safety culture has reduced its workers' compensation rate to a small fraction of the industry average, and workers get 50 percent of the saving back in the form of an annual "safety bonus."

Being humanistic doesn't mean being soft or lax. "It's easier to be a bully boss - it doesn't take any knowledge," Steinwall says. "It takes an emotionally sound manager to empower people." Fifteen years ago, Steinwall's entire second shift quit because, they said, she was "too nice." Some of the workers asked for their jobs back the next day. Steinwall says, "I gave no jobs back. The rest of the company got the message: 'We will have a calm, quiet, safe place to work.'"

Empowerment Pays

At E.J. Ajax, maintaining a safety culture means that one safety violation in a 12-month period gets a verbal warning. The second is put in writing. The third results in a one-day paid "decision-making leave," when the employee is sent home to decide whether he or she can follow safety policies. If not, termination results.

The humanistic approach is paying off at both Steinwall, Inc., and E.J. Ajax. The companies have continued to grow through a period when many competitors disappeared. "The survivors are the ones that have embraced the human element," Steinwall says.

To read Steinwall's article on "The Humanistic Approach," go to and click on "Published Papers." For information on E.J. Ajax, visit its website at

Laura French is principal of Words Into Action, Inc., and is a freelance writer from Roseville.
  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters