For the food and beverage industry, attracting a skilled workforce has never been as important as now. It’s also never been as expensive. Today, manufacturers need to squeeze more and more out of their operations—but must do so with less money and using the resources they already have.

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Employee satisfaction is paramount to maintaining a committed workforce, but an engaged employee—one who is enthusiastic about his or her work and furthers the company’s interests—is key to unlocking excellence. Company culture can improve plant floor operations, as well as profitability. Pairing this positive atmosphere with employee engagement programs and targeted training will support plant safety, food safety and operational efficiency goals.

It’s often a struggle for plant managers and company leaders to find the right way to reach employees. According to the 2013 Gallup State of the American Workplace Report, poor managers are creating active disengagement that costs the US an estimated $450-550 billion each year, due to increased safety and healthcare costs and product defects. Currently, Gallup estimates only 30 percent of the workforce are engaged in their work, while 52 percent are disengaged, and 18 percent are actively disengaged.

By not engaging employees, companies are losing real money. For organizations with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee, Gallup says they experienced 147 percent higher earnings per share. In contrast, organizations with an average of 2.6 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee experienced 2 percent lower earnings per share. With these numbers, it’s hard to ignore the importance of engaging employees.

But it’s not enough to want a change. The process of tearing down existing philosophies, like top-down management, and rebuilding an atmosphere that fosters engagement takes time. It also takes steadfast commitment to the system and to measuring progress—measurements that demand the same critical attention as safety and overall equipment effectiveness.

The changing workforce

As the baby boomers begin to age out of the labor pool, more millennials are moving in. By 2026, it’s estimated 75 percent of workers will be millennials. The chasm between how these generations think, work, communicate and function on many levels is vast, though the differences are not as big as you might think. In a recent Food Engineering Webinar, experts at Hixson say recent research found there was not much of a difference in the needs of these employees, but millennials are willing to seek employment elsewhere when their needs aren’t met.

Older generations might perceive this generation as fickle or even lazy. Tons of ink has been spread proclaiming the “wussification” of America: a generation of workers who took home the trophy without winning the game. They are, in a word, entitled.

While management may uncover new challenges in terms of how to engage this generation, these incoming workers also offer manufacturers unique opportunities. Employers need only find a way to reach these employees to unlock their strengths.

Consider this: Never before has a generation been so enamored, so at home when they have vast amounts of data coming at them. With the rise of automation giving birth to the cloud and Internet of Things, data is something the food and beverage manufacturing industry isn’t short on.

“These people are going to be able to take these technological shifts and add so much value over time,” says Brian Fortney, global business manager of training services at Rockwell Automation. “We need to keep them engaged and give them the opportunities to learn and make a valuable impact to the facility. If we do that, we will have gone a really long way to solve the workforce challenge.”

In order to understand more about the current workforce, Mars Drinks—a division of Mars, Inc. headquartered in Pennsylvania—has teamed up with LinkedIn to seek out how organizations engage and motivate their workforces. Specifically, researchers survey employees across the professional networking site to see if they would recommend their company to job-seekers. How did that go? Not well, according to Mars, which found out half of the surveyed workers would not recommend their company to family or friends.

To work on its own engagement, last year, Mars Drinks introduced Workplace Vitality, a new concept in measuring an organization’s performance across four pillars:

Collaboration – Essential teamwork—working together as a team to achieve common goals

Engagement – Emotional commitment to the company and its goals evidenced by work effort

Well-being – Health, happiness and fulfillment with work life

Productivity – The amount of work produced on time and to specification

“We know that to reach our full potential, we must create work environments where people have a sense of empowerment and belonging,” says Tracy Brower, global vice president of Workplace Vitality, Mars Drinks. “However, our newest research, the Workforce Voice Powered by LinkedIn, shows that barely 50 percent of the people at work feel their current employers are doing a good job of fostering Workplace Vitality.”

Despite this result, what the study did find is employees feel more engaged with their organizations when they believe:

  • Their jobs provide them with the opportunity for continual learning.
  • They can make a positive impact through their jobs.
  • The work they do is important to them.
  • Their jobs are challenging.

“If we are beyond the place of survival, and we are able to pick and choose what we do with our time for a living, people are doing that very deliberately. And they are picking and choosing the types of businesses that matter to their ideology. I think that’s a trend we are seeing across the food world,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association.

The invisible heart: Safety at the core

At its most basic level, the concept of engaging employees in order to breed company success isn’t hard to understand. But how this is accomplished isn’t that simple. For one, supervisors cannot simply approach employees and declare they are now “engaging them.” Rather, engagement is an outcome built, in part, by instilling trust in employees and empowering them with the right skills and resources. Moreover, it’s showing the right kind of leadership to demonstrate to your employees that you care about them and their safety. But how is this done? For starters, it means not treating employees as “bodies.”

“I would tell you as a leader, if you are trying to maintain your talent: If you believe your workforce is bodies, I guarantee you will always find evidence to support that belief,” says Eric Robker, member of the automation controls team at PepsiCo. “Your job as a leader is to help them reach their potential.”

In a Rockwell podcast, Robker outlined the benefits of caring for employees and training them to become multi-skilled technicians. Once employees gain skills beyond their practice, say from mechanical to electrical, they make better decisions, and troubleshoot and diagnose systemic problems that, in the end, will boost productivity.

“[Employees] are not tools of production; you have a whole new generation that will remind you of that,” Fortney says. “They are going to force you to view them as individuals. You need to focus on showcasing these jobs as a strong career choice, one that is highly engaging and is technically challenging.”

Gregg Stedronsky, vice president of engineering, global safety, and environment and manufacturing excellence for General Mills, understands this change in the industry. More so than ever, companies are being asked to get more out of the asset base they have. At General Mills, Stedronsky says engaged employees, process discipline and strength of leadership are three essential elements of overall manufacturing excellence.

In his time with General Mills, Stedronsky says a question kept emerging in his head: How are some companies doing it better—what makes them safer, more reliable? If everyone in the food industry has access to people from the same schools, the same equipment, the same systems and trade shows, then what must be different? For Stedronsky, the answer became people and processes.

With a focus on people, Stedronsky says it’s his belief that success on the plant floor is tied to a company culture that leads with safety and cares about its employees.

“We know we have to lead with safety, because we have got to create a culture that cares about people,” Stedronsky says. “People know you are caring about them, if you are trying to simplify their life. They will respond. If they don’t believe that to be true, all the technology in the world will not create a culture of excellence.”

At the plant level, Stedronsky says he learned three things that help drive engagement: People want to succeed; simplicity demonstrates caring; and performance depends on culture.

When automation—PLCs, flow meters, control valves—became part of General Mills’ industry standard—while it added value—it also brought complexity. But what Stedronsky found is that when leadership took time to invest in teaching the processes of new technology, employees saw it as an act of caring. When they were supported with training, they supported the technology.

“When you take the time to engage employees and make sure safety is a part of the culture, they are really able to leverage the technology,” Stedronsky says.

Laying the foundation and training

When it comes to engagement, the key is finding the right recipe to get workers to give of themselves—to want to exceed at their tasks and participate in and align themselves with the overall goal of the company to increase efficiency and productivity.

Recognizing the importance of employee engagement in today’s plants, the OpX Leadership Network—formally the Alliance for Innovation and Operational Excellence (AIOE) founded by PMMI in 2011—sought to study engagement and provide a tool for manufacturers. What it developed is the Engagement Framework, a roadmap by industry and for industry that helps plant managers achieve the engaged culture they desire through diagnosis and treatment. The culmination of two years’ work, the framework brought together a wide group of industry leaders who have implemented meaningful engagement strategies and found the commonalities between them.

While there are many definitions of engagement, OpX defines it as “a high degree of emotional attachment, intellectual commitment and behavioral actions creating ownership and generating individual, team and organizational performance.” The framework outlines three foundational elements: leadership, values and mission/vision/purpose. SugarCreek’s production facility in Cambridge City, IN, has been using this model since last July.

Edward Rodden, SugarCreek’s chief information officer, says it was partially food safety, but primarily high turnover rates and productivity, that drove the company to pursue a new strategy at its Cambridge City plant, one of six the company operates. At times, Rodden says, turnover was as high as 60 percent on an annual basis. “Imagine trying to manage and develop a workforce in that environment,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult, and it’s not just us. It’s a common issue in the meat business and food, in general.”

By using the OpX method, he says the plant is operating around a 15 percent turnover rate, but wants to get that figure down below 10.

Of the foundational elements, leadership, as described by Greg Flickinger, vice president of manufacturing and corporate engineering at Snyder’s-Lance and OpX member, “…is the prerequisite to all other components of the engagement framework.”

While there are many styles of leading, the “servant leader”—one who spurs growth through performance—is suggested. Leaders must be transparent and give of themselves to support their employees and be willing to accept criticism. By opening the lines of communication, engagement can be strengthened.

Fortney says you have to start with the assumption leaders are engaged and aware. Fortney adds it’s important for leaders not to fixate on engagement to the point where it removes them from their duties, but to take time to pause, think and act. “How do we push the pause button to focus on what is important and urgent?” Forntey asks. “Communication is a must. Leadership is holding others accountable and supporting others.”

Values represent behavioral expectations that hold employees and managers accountable for their actions. Baseball fans may be familiar with the unwritten rules players use to maintain order in a game. Sure, they may be antiquated, but if an opposing pitcher hits one of your players, you know the favor will be returned to them.

While food and beverage manufacturers aren’t out beaning their employees, a company’s values or unwritten code needs to be firmly established. Make them clear, concise and visible, the framework suggests. Similarly, the mission/vision/purpose of a company must be communicated to all team members in a way they understand and feel motivated to act on them. An individual’s understanding of a company’s purpose sows the “seeds of commitment.”

These three elements support the three pillars of engagement, which the framework defines as empowerment, enablement and connection. Employees are empowered by developing a desire or emotional attachment, ensuring they are appreciated for their individual achievements. Secondly, employees should be given authority—that is, allowed to feel responsible for themselves and others, making decisions and being comfortable with providing feedback. “There is no greater form of trust than telling someone, ‘I trust you to make the decision.’ Empowering people with ownership authority and responsibility catalyzes engagement,” Flickinger says.

Once employees have been given desire and authority, employers should provide them with the skills and resources necessary for them to take action. This represents the enablement pillar of engagement. Skills include management, technical and leadership, as well as collaborative thinking, adaptability and perceptiveness. The resources for employees include tools, processes, funding and time.

Last, when these two pillars are met, Flickinger says employees are ready to make a full contribution, once they are connected by finding each employee’s “fit” into the organization, combined with corporate communication infrastructure. An effective communication leader is one who can make sure all employees know how they are contributing and that every network of communication at the organization is properly evaluated.

After using the framework, Rodden identifies one of the biggest changes to be the team approach—something quite different from the traditional top-down philosophy of management, which Rodden says can be autocratic at times. This team approach strategy begins with the hiring process, when employees who will be working closely on the same team as the open position, are brought in to be a part of the hiring process. This progressive team dynamic is carried through to the plant floor, where employees work together and are encouraged to make decisions while engaging in a productive back-and-forth relationship with their supervisors. Rodden says it’s the supervisor’s job to take on the role of a coach. “Teams are instructed to work together and make choices; the encouragement is for them to make the decision, and the coaching is there for them to make the right decision,” Rodden says.

The strategy is working at SugarCreek. Rodden describes the first termination SugarCreek needed to make at the plant; it was initiated by the employee’s team members who approached their supervisor with documentation and a clear case as to why things weren’t working out. In another case, a team leader was approached by other members of the team, who were critical of how she lacked the coach mentality and commitment to the system. While the supervisor was unhappy at first, Rodden says she used the criticism to get better, and ultimately, appreciated the feedback.

Rodden says ridding SugarCreek of the top-down philosophy has been the biggest challenge. “It’s always tempting to be expedient and say, ‘Just go do that,’” he says. “It’s easier, but when you start down that road, you’re throwing most of [the system] out the window.”

Overall, the biggest indicator the system was a success came early in the adoption phase. Rodden says the Cambridge City plant features a process line that is a duplicate of a line at one of the company’s other plants. Quickly, SugarCreek noticed the Cambridge City plant was exceeding the output of the long-established operation. They attribute the success to the team structure.

“The best way to light the fire is show them trust,” Rodden says.

To unlock employees’ inherent desire to be productive and engaged, Sally Smart, technical safety specialist for Grainger, says companies can demonstrate their commitment to employee engagement by forming committees and getting employees involved in training in a peer-to-peer way, so it’s more hands on. Training should meet the employees at their level, which may mean addressing language barriers or other roadblocks at times.

Smart says when Grainger representatives come into a plant, the first place they start will be to talk about people to understand each employee’s perspective. Next, they focus on what is driving the company’s training or safety programs. Smart says it’s not always easy for companies to identify their points of failure. To remedy this, leaders need to ask questions like: Did we have a written procedure? Was it updated annually? Did someone miss training? By asking these questions and looking at workers’ compensation, injury rates and near-misses, Smart says they are easily able to identify if it is a training issue.

“It usually is,” she says. “Especially in the food industry, where these employees are so engaged and enthusiastic about what they do. Because they are actually making a consumable, they want to do it right, and they want to do it safely.”

Working closely with its associates, Rockwell Automation developed what it calls the Global Workforce Solutions Program—a managed training program with four steps. First, Fortney says a company must assess the situation to create a base and find out what its employees already know, so it can create individualized training plans. After an assessment, Fortney says they can recommend a path forward; execute on training; and finally analyze the plan to see how it worked.

“When students come to a training class, they have to be able to see, in quantifiable terms, what has changed,” Fortney says. “What is the delta?”

Furthermore, once employees have gone through training, Fortney says there must be some accountability to hold them to a different standard of engagement than before they went in.

“That is a step that is not as well-noticed in many organizations, and what happens is you have leaders sending folks to training but not changing their expectations; and then, when the results don’t change, they tend to take the approach of ‘well, that training must not have worked,’ or ‘my people didn’t learn what was needed,’” Fortney says. “So you have to look at it from all aspects. A student sent to the wrong class is as demotivating as not being sent at all. Understand what your gaps are and help people feel supported.”

Outside the plant floor

So you’ve assessed your needs, identified training gaps and addressed engagement by adopting a company culture that cares for people and puts safety at the center. What other steps can you take to ensure employees are effectively engaged? When discussing engagement, it’s impossible to separate this idea from the concept of employee retention.

“When you retain people, they do develop higher skills; they get better at what they do; there is more cohesiveness to the process; and that naturally leads to productivity improvements,” Rodden says.

When employees believe they are cared for, they are more likely to remain engaged. But engagement is more than being cared for; it’s ensuring employees are comfortable.

In a recent Food Engineering webinar, experts at Hixson identified ways to boost productivity through employee retention. This retention can be accomplished through small touches throughout the plant, such as addressing thermal comfort by altering air speed or flow in some areas and adding natural lighting or vitamin D fixtures on the floor to improve employees’ circadian rhythms. Other options include anti-fatigue mats and ergonomic chairs, where possible. At one plant, an enclosed “pit stop” on the plant floor gave workers a place to rest and recharge for a few minutes. Here, workers could get relief from heat, cold and noise and were provided access to personal items, a cooler and Wi-Fi.

Non-plant spaces can also be taken to the next level to increase employees’ comfort and satisfaction. According to a survey during the webinar, quiet spaces were identified as the thing that would have the greatest impact on destressing employees, followed by comfortable furniture and lighting. Hixson experts also identified aesthetic finishes, atypical food options, and childcare and fitness facilities as other items that are increasingly being included in plants. Finally, Hixson says training spaces should be a focus, not only off the plant floor, but on the front lines—where new technology can be utilized to engage employees close to their workspaces.

At SugarCreek, Rodden says he tries to lead as a servant, but also makes things fun for employees and puts them in positions where they are happy to be at work. When it comes to engagement, sometimes you need to think outside the box. Rodden says the CEO will often arrange trips around the country where employees, not just upper management, are invited to come along. Rodden says it’s clear investing in people has made a difference.

One segment within the food and beverage industry that embraces the company culture mentality has been craft breweries. What began as a strategy of survival to separate themselves from dominant, larger breweries has become a hallmark of the industry.

The Brewers Association’s Herz says the industry has long sought to develop a robust employee culture and focus on retaining its workers, despite salaries that are not as competitive as others in the food and beverage industry. Recently, brewers have been accomplishing this through employee ownership programs, travel rewards and even a home ownership program at one brewery. Brewers are also investing in their workforces to build professional advancement and secure the necessary training for their employees. In addition, they are using their workforces to caucus and collaborate on new ideas, embracing the strategy of one vision.

Simply put, employers should actively seek to identify the needs of their employees and solicit their advice when necessary, whether that’s face to face or through anonymous surveys. “Ask people what is getting in their way; they will tell you,” Fortney says.

For more information:

Brian Fortney, Rockwell Automation, 440-646-3434,,

Sally Smart, Grainger, 440-464-3434,

Boosting Productivity & Profitability Through Employee Retention webinar:

Engineering Keynote Address: Harnessing The Power of Automation and Information to Achieve Manufacturing Excellence webinar:

The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance:

Engagement Toolkit for Managers and Leaders:

OpX Leadership Network Engagement Framework:

Rockwell training solutions that lead to a more engaged, competent workforce:

Gallup study: