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Business Journal

Strengths on the Factory Floor

by Brian Brim and Tim Simon

Does the strengths approach work with manufacturing employees? Absolutely, says one shift supervisor, and his crew's results prove it.

Perhaps the most powerful way to understand how effective a strengths-based approach can be is to listen to the stories people tell. Through their stories, we can see what happens when people shift their focus from fretting about what they perceive as their inadequacies to capitalizing on their talents -- or from who they aren't to who they are. Harnessing their natural ambition results in greater success, often more than they had thought possible. What follows is the second in a series of stories about how individuals have improved their performance by building on their greatest talents.

We often hear from executives who think that a strengths-based approach makes sense in professional services workplaces but doubt it will work in more labor-intensive work environments. The argument -- rooted in stereotypes -- is that blue-collar workers aren't interested in sharing who they are. They just want to come in, punch the clock, and get their work done. After all, who cares that Context is your top theme if you manage drill-press operators? It won't help you get the job done, will it? Well, the answer is yes -- and Sam's story will help you see why.

Sam's job as third-shift supervisor is no cakewalk. He works in a industry where the risk of injury is always present.

It's not a quirk -- it's a talent

Sam is a highly successful factory supervisor in a company that specializes in concrete and stone. And you wouldn't guess from his job description that Sam is a history buff, particularly regarding his family. When he was a kid, Sam spent hours asking his parents about the details of their past. He was the child who always wanted to watch home movies -- and not the ones that featured him. He preferred to see the grainy black and white reels of past holidays, his mom and dad's first home, and his grandparents when they were young.

Sam says that his passion for studying the past enriches his life. It gives him a sense of where he came from and why his life is the way it is now. Sam's siblings call this passion quirky, but it reflects an area of talent that helps him run a concrete factory. His family might be surprised to hear that -- but then, so was Sam. There isn't an obvious connection between "intrigued by family history" and "factory supervisor." So before he was able to maximize his "quirks," Sam needed a little help learning to appreciate their fuller meaning.

Sam's opportunity came when his company's owner scheduled a strengths seminar. Everyone in the company took the Clifton StrengthsFinder, an online assessment that measures people's talents -- the ways in which they naturally think, behave, or feel -- in 34 categories called themes, and then tells you your top five themes. Sam and the other participants were asked to pay particular attention to their top themes and were coached on how to use them effectively.

When Sam saw that three of his top five StrengthsFinder themes were Context, Input, and Belief, everything seemed to align in his world. Context is a tendency to enjoy exploring and learning from the past. Belief is a powerful need to connect to a deeper purpose. And Input is a desire to collect information or artifacts.

This not only felt incredibly accurate to Sam, it seemed to remove the stigma of being quirky. Sam was excited to learn that these natural tendencies could be a real asset in his management role if he applied them in a positive and productive manner. So as part of the learning session, Sam spent time with a strengths performance coach and discussed how he could start using his greatest talents intentionally in his work.

Putting talents to work

Sam will admit that his job as third-shift supervisor is no cakewalk. He works in an industry with challenging objectives and one in which the risk of injury is always present. He manages more than 50 tough, hardworking crew members. Sam jokes that if someone ever wants to make a show that combines the harsher elements of Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs, the Discovery Channel should come and hang out with his crew for a while. (Yes, Sam is a fan of the Discovery Channel. We're guessing his Input theme may be at play there.)

Sam's story is a powerful testament to what can happen when we apply our passions -- which others may label as quirky or eccentric -- to our lives.

Not long before the strengths session, Sam's company had established two big goals for his crew: reduce injuries by 50% and improve efficiency by 10%. After talking with a strengths performance coach at the seminar, Sam was excited about applying what he'd learned to meeting his goals. So he sat down, looked at his challenges, reviewed his talents, and got to work.

Sam drew on his Belief talents to show his crew members why, on a deeper level, safety and efficiency matter. He talked with them about what the goals meant, not just to the company, but to each of them. He used his Belief and Input talents to help his crew understand that to achieve greater safety and increased efficiency, they would have to change their habits -- taking time to do things that don't always seem necessary but are crucial to the crew's health and wellbeing. After all, no one wants to see a friend get hurt, and these workers are a tight bunch. Increased efficiency would also help the company ensure a profitable future, which would enable his workers to provide for their families.

Sam didn't preach about these deeper perspectives to his workers; instead, he used his conversations to let his workers make the connection on their own. His crew already knew that Sam was a man of deep values, and in their conversations with him, they discovered that they had deeply held values too.

Next, Sam applied his Input talents to gather ideas and get people involved in making the necessary changes to meet their goals. One of his favorite things to do is collect ideas -- another Input talent -- and his frontline workers are the people best able to provide them.

As the team floated suggestions for meeting their goals, Sam used his Context talents to connect those ideas to his own experiences. He closely studied the company's injury, efficiency, and production records. Then he sat down with members of his team to formulate plans for improvement.

After a great deal of work, Sam and his crew were able to move things in the right direction -- and then some. They decreased injuries by 63%, which meant that they outperformed their goal by 13 percentage points. They also overshot their efficiency goal by 25 percentage points, increasing efficiency by 35%. Sam's team also earned a 90% efficiency rating, placing them at the 90th percentile compared to all groups at the factory.

Look deeper

Everyone, no matter what his or her role may be, wants to matter. People want to know that what they contribute to their world makes them a part of the greater good. By drawing on his Belief, Context, and Input talents, Sam helped his crew realize the importance and the purpose of their workplace goals. He also made them realize that without their individual contributions, the team would never meet its goals.

Sam's story is a powerful testament to what can happen when we apply our passions -- which others may label as quirky or eccentric -- to our lives. In Sam's case, it resulted in fewer people hurt and more people keeping their jobs. With this kind of outcome, we'll take Sam's quirkiness any time.

Gallup


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