One of the biggest things I noticed in the business world after spending years working on a submarine was the physical separation of employee groups. In the Navy, officers and sailors worked together in small spaces like maneuvering or the control room.
We spent long hours standing watches together, often with little going on. During those long shifts, we got to know each other. We developed relationships, and we built trust because we shared common experiences.We developed relationships, and we built trust because we shared common experiences. Click To Tweet
Imagine my surprise when I took over my first manufacturing business at just 32 years old. I noticed the employees in this plant were physically separated by role. The white-collar employees, like purchasing, sales, marketing, engineering, and accounting, all worked in two office areas on each side of the plant. The blue-collar workers all worked on the shop floor.
The only areas they shared were the breakroom and bathrooms. Other than that, these employee groups had no common experiences. The blue-collar employees worked in one place and the white-collar employees in another.
As a result of years working this way, animosity had developed between both of these groups. There was a strong “us and them” attitude that existed in the plant.
The white-collar workers had very little understanding or appreciation of the difficulties that existed in the production environment. The blue-collar employees had no idea what the white-collar employees did all day. Each group blamed the other when things went wrong.
As the new plant manager, I knew I had to do something to change this. I also knew it had to start with me.
So I did what good leaders have been doing for years, I got out of my office, and I walked around. Every afternoon, I would head out to the shop floor to get to know the employees, learn what they did, and let them ask me questions as well.
Getting out in the plant had some positive effects, and I could tell the shop employees were genuinely glad to see that I was interested in them. But, I kept thinking about my time in the Navy. We eliminated the “us and them” attitude through working together and building shared experiences.
My visits to the shop floor were helping, but I knew it wasn’t enough.
I decided that if I wanted to build relationships with the factory workers, I needed to work with them side-by-side. So that’s what I did. I started a program called “Fridays on the Floor.”I decided that if I wanted to build relationships with the factory workers, I needed to work with them side-by-side. Click To Tweet
On the first Friday of every month, I would spend four hours working in different plant areas. Employees would show me how to do the job, and I would work with them throughout the morning.
Through this process, I got to know the employees better, they got to know me, and I learned more about our problems. For the first time, white-collar and blue-collar employees worked together, sharing an experience and learning more about each other.
Eventually, the entire site management team joined me in these sessions.
The production employees were excited that management was finally paying attention and trying to make conditions better. A common understanding of the challenges in the plant began to evolve. Managers got to know shop employees better, and we formed deeper relationships.
When managers realized how difficult some of the production processes were and how skilled the employees were, respect deepened. In the same fashion, shop employees learned what managers were doing in their offices each day. They realized how difficult their job was as well.
Mutual respect spread throughout the operation.
“Fridays on the Floor” became standard practice at this operation, and it helped us build unity in the organization. As we broke down barriers between blue-collar and white-collar employees, we began to appreciate each other.
As we worked together to fix the problems we found, our performance improved as well. The plant eventually became the top-performance operation in the division setting new records for sales and profitability. It all happened because we worked together and became a unified team.
Twenty-two years later, I’m still doing it. I’m still leading a manufacturing business, and I’m still working on the shop floor with my employees. In fact, the worn-out boots in the picture are my boots.
You’ve probably heard that you can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Well, I’ve walked that mile (and maybe a little more). I can tell you that it’s true. I’ve built a greater understanding of my teams through this process.
To eliminate “us and them,” you need to find ways to work together and build those shared experiences. It’s the only way to create unity, and a unified team is hard to beat.
If you’re interested in learning more about “Fridays on the Floor” and the impact it can have on an organization, pick up my latest book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner. I cover this topic extensively in chapter 5.