Looking inside for a new approach to boosting skills and productivity

23 July 2015

The UK economy’s return to stronger growth and in particular the renewed vigour of the manufacturing sector are both welcome developments. But growth also brings its challenges. Engineering-led businesses that have until relatively recently been focusing hard on managing their costs now have an additional pressure to deal with – finding the skills to support growth. It’s an area of growing concern. PwC’s most recent annual CEO survey [1] found that 84% of UK CEOs are concerned about the availability of skills to support their business in the next few years.

It’s something that we see from the vantage point of our manufacturing practice every day. Large, successful manufacturing and engineering businesses, with full order books, are employing all the engineers they can get their hands on - and still have unfilled vacancies.

Added to this skills shortage is the growing concern about the UK’s level of productivity – something that the Chancellor George Osborne has specifically raised as a target for improvement.  So could the two issues be linked? In other words, rather than trying to throw money at the problem and recruit more and more people, could engineering-led organisations be getting greater productivity from their existing workforce? 

Our experience suggests they can. Indeed, many of the factors holding back productivity are entirely within the control of the organisation, as they are linked to behaviours and ways of working rather than external factors.

For example, engineers and technical resources often work in silos; best practices are not shared effectively, and opportunities are missed to share resources across programmes or functions to address peaks in demand.  Teams reach pinch points and bottlenecks at different times that cumulatively serve to depress overall productivity while leaving individual engineers close to burn-out.

Engineering team performance tends to be measured – if at all – at a high level, and can be impacted significantly by short term schedule changes and ad hoc requests.   And that’s particularly the case with the work of ‘non-transactional’ teams where there is often a misguided perception that the nature of the activity renders it unmeasurable and uncontrollable.

These operational issues are often compounded by a lack of local leadership; team leaders are all too often promoted for their technical competency and expected to fend for themselves in management.  While some excel in that role, by no means all do.

Overall, these challenges are frequently seen as ‘just the way things are’. But if engineering-led organisations are going to drive higher productivity they have to challenge the status quo, and in our experience, there are a number of key interventions that can help them do just that.

The first is to develop pragmatic, short-term measures for performance – even where this seems difficult to do - and to review them daily in order to identify blockers and address them immediately.

Engineers should then take responsibility for solving issues themselves using a simple, structured problem-solving method which gets to the root cause in a pragmatic way.  The key here is to gain the active involvement and commitment of all stakeholders – it’s as much about the rigour and discipline as it is about the content of the solution.

Gaining greater control of short-term performance allows demand to be managed more effectively within and between teams.  Once their own house is in order,  teams can start ‘planning in context’, bringing in the departments that provide the inputs for their work to make more informed planning decisions and build a more robust plan.

Finally, managers need to develop the skills to coach and develop their teams - and to ring-fence time for this rather than retreating into their technical comfort zone.  Over time this will alleviate the dependency on a core of experienced – but busy – engineers.  It also improves morale and motivation. 

On paper this all sounds simple; making it happen in practice requires commitment, discipline and skilled coaching.  The good news is that spectacular results – often 20-30% improvements in productivity in our experience - can be achieved within months by adopting a step-by-step approach that addresses organisational behaviours and ways of working. The extra capacity allows organisations to deliver more programmes with the same headcount with no detrimental impact on quality.

Rather than looking outside to find the skills they need, engineering-led organisations  may discover that turning their gaze inward could be every bit as productive.

[1] http://www.pwc.co.uk/ceo-survey/index.jhtml

Paul Sloman |  Industrial manufacturing consulting lead
Email | +44 (0)20 7213 4406


Mark Jamieson |  Director
Email | + +44 (0)7703 563 056


Emma Haggerty | Manager
Email | +44 (0)77 1548 7041


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