Capability building for frontline workers: A conversation with Kevin Carmody

Kevin Carmody: Capability building programs for frontline workers are not a “nice to have”; they are a critical and essential success factor that fundamentally changes an organization and drives performance at scale.

We went back and looked at 60 companies that did this right, and the results were astounding. When these companies engaged the frontline worker, they had two times the shareholder return.

It’s about really engaging the worker so that they own a piece of the business. They’re closest to the action. Workers can identify and solve problems—and that drives value. When companies do this right, they succeed, and they win. And it’s proven in the data.

The supervisor’s role

The supervisor is the first line of defense. They engage directly with frontline workers. But a good supervisor should want to do more than that—not only engage but empower frontline workers.

One of the most common roadblocks to engaging frontline workers is the instinct to jump into the mix when things are slowing down or not going exactly right. Instead, the most effective supervisors will let the silence carry the air, resisting the temptation to solve a frontline worker’s problem initially. This way they can think through a situation, develop their own solution, get to a better answer, and effectively help them build their confidence so that they know they’re empowered to execute differently.

Capability building tools

One of the areas we have focused on is making sure that we develop capability building programs that fundamentally help frontline workers do a better job.

Here’s an example of a skill that we’ve helped frontline workers develop—we call it problem-solving. A consumer food company had a production line operator on a line that had a lot of waste. We found the solution by engaging that person on the front line and asking questions.

“How is the production line working? Where are the opportunities?” And you could see that person gain confidence through the course of a couple of weeks. They not only identified the waste but also figured out how to fix the issue.

The key was the supervisor engaging that frontline worker to not only identify the problem but to come up with a solution and develop a road map to eliminate that waste.

Solving the problem was an unlock on that transformation, and it cascaded throughout the facility.

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