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March 18, 2024

6 Steps to Effective Communication in the Manufacturing Industry

The way many people work has changed dramatically in recent years, with so many more employees working online or adopting more flexible schedules. What’s often lost in the discussion of this dramatic workforce shift is the fact that workers in the manufacturing industry – a sizable part of the U.S. workforce – still feel left out of the flexible workplace transformation.

Manufacturing workers make up roughly 11% of the total output in the U.S., accounting for $2.5 trillion in 2021. The industry employs about 9% of the workforce, with 12.5 million employees, according to the U.S. Manufacturing Association

In manufacturing companies, plant employees are the heart of the company. They are on the front lines with the power to turn strategy into results. At the end of the day, plant employees ensure operations run smoothly, quality products are made to exact specifications, and products reach customers in time.

Persistent Disengagement Among Manufacturing Employees

Despite their key role, many manufacturing employees are disengaged. According to a recent study published by Gallup, just 25% of manufacturing employees are engaged, 8 percentage points lower than the national average for U.S. employees.

That disengagement comes at a heavy price, dragging down results for companies just as they are being challenged to become more effective and efficient than ever before. To meet rapid growth worldwide, manufacturing is looking to standardize and continuously improve operations. That type of aggressive effort naturally requires highly invested employees.

Why Better Production Floor Communication Truly Matters

Naturally, better communication is key on the path to more highly motivated and engaged employees. Yet it can be especially difficult to reach plant employees because of the natural challenges that go with the job. Employees are often not on email or smartphones, there are multiple shifts to manage throughout the day, and the plant environment is noisy, making it a huge feat to even have one-on-one conversations.

At the same time, communication with plant employees has traditionally been uninspiring and disconnected from the employees’ daily challenges. Without careful planning or consideration, messages come across as “corporate speak” for many employees.

After all, given all the pressures on plant employees, they may be thinking more about concerns such as: Do I have a job? If so, what is it really? And does anyone really care how I do my job on a daily basis?

Meanwhile, plant managers often feel torn too. With tremendous demands on their time and pressures to be more efficient and cost-effective, it can be tough for leaders to find moments to connect with employees.

All of the pressures can up add up to poor communication, and less-than-desired results.

The Business Case for More Effective Manufacturing Communications

Disengaged employees have a staggering effect on business. Research estimates that actively disengaged U.S. employees cost the U.S. $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity. Furthermore, increased workplace injury, illness, turnover, absence, and fraud have an economic impact estimated at $1 trillion per year. These impacts are felt around the world but have personal and immediate effects on organizations, teams, and individual employees.

Further, disengagement has been a persistent challenge for all industries. In 2023, just 33% of U.S. full- and part-time employees reported they were engaged, according to the latest research from Gallup. The latest Gallup survey of the U.S. workforce also found that 16% of employees are actively disengaged – what Gallup calls “loud quitting.” 

Disengagement often results from poor communication. Here’s just a snapshot of the top communication issues that disengage employees:

  • An overload of information that makes it hard to discern what matters most
  • Information that doesn’t provide a clear picture of business goals and priorities
  • Leaders who don’t “walk the talk” and demonstrate what it means to be a true team player
  • Communication as a “check-the-box” activity that doesn’t feel useful or easy to access through multiple platforms
  • Leaders themselves clearly don’t see value in communication and don’t plan for their communication
  • Communication is reactive, scattered, and not relevant to employee questions or needs
  • Valuable information is repeatedly withheld from employees
  • Employees have limited access to managers and leadership
  • Employee directives have no context or background
  • Information is shared in the media or community before it’s shared with employees

Research has found that engagement declines the further away from the CEO and company headquarters that employees work. This presents a special challenge for manufacturing plants, as the following NetSurvey demonstrates.

Engagement drops with each layer away from the CEO

Netsurvey International Engagement Survey of 200,000 employees

The good news is that when companies focus on improving communication at their plants – or anywhere within their organization – they can often make significant strides with engagement. And when communication is done well, there are many direct benefits to the business. Namely, employees are actively engaged, and highly engaged workers have been shown to be 87% more likely to stay with their company.1

Manufacturing Employees Are Demanding More Flexibility Than Ever Before

Better production floor communication for employees is often about better listening. Managers need to take more time to hear from employees about their needs – and those needs are definitely shifting in a workforce that has become increasingly more flexible. Manufacturing employees see what friends and family members achieve with flexible schedules and often want to see the same. And when they don’t get it, they start to look elsewhere. 

In one study, 43% of manufacturing leaders reported an average of 20% higher turnover among their employees, which naturally caused a lot of turmoil for the company's culture and finances. 

Other organizations, including the U.S. Manufacturing Association, highlight turnover as a huge challenge in manufacturing. The association said nearly 50% of employees cite flexibility as the reason they stay with their employer, and 63.5% say they would look for more flexibility in their next role if they were to leave their current company.

To address the greater demands from employees for more flexibility, many more manufacturing companies are surveying employees to hear what they want to see and adopting more flexible scheduling options to address employee needs. 

Following communication surveys and focus groups with employees, manufacturing can better understand what employees want and have considered new opportunities, such as:

  • New shift options, including 4-9 p.m. or 4-10 p.m. shifts
  • Putting people on rotating shifts
  • Organizing teams of “floaters,” who work limited hours on different shifts and have a variety of skills, allowing them to fill in for the needs of colleagues who need time off
  • Shift swapping, allowing workers to swap their shifts with a colleague up to a week beforehand, as long as a supervisor approves

The 6 Key Steps for Effective Communication in Manufacturing

In our work with many manufacturing companies, we’ve learned that a strong commitment to better communication can make a world of difference in improving the overall culture, level of engagement, and business success of plants, even those with some of the biggest initial problems.

One leading global automotive supplier that we worked with, Tenneco, saw extremely encouraging results from its work to transform the communications effort inside some of its plants with the lowest engagement scores. After putting together a plant communications Playbook and providing ongoing coaching support to plant leaders who were struggling with turnover and poor engagement, Tenneco saw double-digit gains in engagement scores.

Tenneco’s experience, and that of many other manufacturing companies we’ve worked with, demonstrates the power of effective communication in improving the overall culture. Based on the progress we’ve seen, we have summarized the 6 key steps to getting similar positive outcomes inside your organization.

1. Define what world-class manufacturing or plant communication looks like

The first step in improving plant communications is benchmarking to define what world-class communication looks like on a wider scale. This involves some research into what top-performing companies are doing, and then defining what great would look like for your organization.

You can start that work by interviewing communications pros in manufacturing companies and determine what themes emerge. Through our work with leading companies, we’ve identified some key traits, which include:

  • Clear plant communication standards
  • Consistent communication of the mission, goals, and strategy inside the plants so employees can be constantly reminded of what the company is striving for
  • Structured communication processes that also allow for a tailored approach to specific local needs
  • A consistent measurement of plant communications so there’s a clear sense of what’s working well, what needs improving, and what new needs employees may be identifying from year to year

Once you’ve established what great looks like globally, it’s time to narrow in on your organization and assess exactly where you are. What baseline are you working from? If you don’t already have an annual employee engagement survey in place, drafting one is key as it lets you know where your strengths and weaknesses are, and what you need to target for improvements.

2. Establish a specific vision and set of goals

Some organizations that we’ve supported found it helpful to establish a “maturity model” to show what the path to world-class would look like, and in terms that leaders would understand. This model might define where you are now, where you want to be in a year, three years, and five years, and what specific things you’ll want to see in those time frames.

As part of that model, you may define what reasonable progress you’d like to see for each plant. Maybe it’s about improving engagement and/or productivity and efficiency levels by 10%, 20%, or even 25% within a specific time frame.

As part of the maturity model process, you may also consider drafting a “scorecard” that matches literally with the vision and progress you’ve laid out. For example: Where is the plant on each of the identified improvement activities, and to what extent are they progressing? The goal is to make the expectations as concrete, objective, and formulaic as possible so it’s easy to draw conclusions on which plants are doing great, which plants still need to improve, and the specific areas they need to focus on.

3. Develop a triage support plan

After your path forward and scorecard are in place, it’s time to identify where your communications and leadership team needs to focus their initial efforts. In many cases, it’s smart to start with a smaller group of pilot plants, those most in need of improvement, and develop a “triage” plan for them that will lead to more immediate strides forward.

The triage plan allows your communications team to spend quality time with the plant managers to support them. That support often comes through a specific communication plan for the leaders and guidance for practical, immediate steps they can take to improve communication – and results.

The triage plan should include very clear leader expectations. In a lot of the organizations we work with, there aren’t specific expectations outlined for leaders on what they absolutely have to do – the minimum requirements or rules of communication with employees. So outlining those expectations, and building them inside the maturity model and scorecard, give leaders their playbook to success.

4. Develop a plant communications Playbook

Letting leaders know the problem areas is a critical part of the process. However, they also need practical tools so the newly established standards can be easily understood and followed for years to come. Plant leaders need to know exactly what to do on a day-to-day basis.

While those tools can be established with the worst performing plants in mind, they can easily be made available to all plant leaders, thus becoming the detailed, go-to “Playbook” for them.

The best Playbooks feature a lot of helpful resources, including:

  • A message from the CEO or president about the importance of improved communication in an overall effort to better engage employees and get better business results
  • Clear explanation of what the minimum communication requirements are for all plant leaders
  • Specific tools to help achieve the minimum communication requirements, and then thoughts on how to exceed them
  • Celebrations of best practices and what’s going well already inside the plants. This then serves as a critical guide for what leaders could emulate inside their own plants
  • Guides for other tools that are often helpful, such as a template for a plant newsletter or a sample for how to quickly conduct regular and effective shift huddle meetings

5. Offer coaching support

While the Playbooks are a great ongoing resource, for the plants that are seriously struggling, there’s no substitute for real-time coaching and support.

In our work, that support often started with an initial call with the plant leader to discuss their specific challenges, wants, and needs. It may be followed up with a more specific survey of employees inside the plant to identify the employee view of what the leader is doing well, and how they might improve.

Secondly, a plant visit and walk-through is a great way for communications leaders to identify challenges and work with leaders on the best approach to improve the situation inside their plants.

Once the initial touch points are made, regular follow-through with the leaders – through consistent phone calls over the next six to seven months – helps leaders break through and make even greater progress on their specific goals.

6. Measure progress

Consistent measurement of results is an important part of any communications improvement effort, but especially so for manufacturing companies that are looking to make steady and consistent progress in the midst of a great deal of change within their industry.

Many organizations do a yearly leader evaluation, giving employees the chance for feedback on what’s being done well and where there may be issues or concerns. Regular scorecard evaluations also help to ensure that leaders are looking to continually improve upon their success year over year.

An annual scorecard evaluation also helps the leader identify yearly goals and action plans with an eye toward steady progress.

Manufacturing Communications Case Study

Tenneco, a leading global automotive supplier based in the U.S. with 196 manufacturing plants and 71,000 employees, saw significant results from its campaign to improve communication with leaders and employees.

After seeing a wide variance in engagement scores from its engagement study, Tenneco worked with The Grossman Group to boost engagement at targeted plants. The goal was to substantially improve the communications capabilities of leaders to support accelerated growth within the company.

The impact of Tenneco’s communication effort was extremely encouraging, including double-digit gains in engagement scores in nearly all the plants they targeted. One plant saw engagement score gains as high as 66%. There were also a myriad of other positive results, including:

  • Requests from other plant leaders who wanted the same level of communications support to help boost engagement inside their plants
  • Several requests for the communications team to share its positive results with the rest of the organization as a “best practice” example of successful continuous improvement work
  • Enthusiastic support from human resource leaders. One HR leader said: “We are fans for life because you’ve helped us, made life easier for us, and I know I can count on you.”

Closing Thoughts

As anyone who’s worked inside a manufacturing plant knows well, effective communication is often an ongoing and intractable problem. Still, what has become clear from the experience of organizations that dig in and address this is that communication challenges can be overcome with a thoughtful, strategic, and well-planned approach.

One of the most important pieces to keep in mind is just how much listening matters. The effort to listen better can take a wide variety of forms. Employee surveys, focus group sessions, leader huddle meetings before a shift, simple one-on-one conversations between a manager and employee, and a variety of other tools have proven to work for top firms. That communication has to happen if organizations truly want to reverse the trends plaguing the industry, including high turnover that has a huge cost for companies.

Companies have already found that taking the time to listen pays off in manufacturing, and that’s why strategic communication in the industry is getting so much attention today. 

After all, it makes sense that when leaders have the tools and resources they need to connect better with their teams, great things will follow. As communicators, it’s our role to help leaders realize just how much those tools and resources can actually help.

Are you ready to boost engagement in your manufacturing plants through best-in-class communication?


1 Corporate Leadership Council, Executive Summary, "Driving Performance and Retention Through Employee Engagement," 2004

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