Plant Floor Relations: Dealing with Resistance

Departments - From the Plant Floor

April 9, 2013

I was all set to write an article this month about developing a food safety schedule until I sat down to write it and realized that what was filling my mind had nothing to do with schedules. Rather my mind has been plagued with challenges I’ve been facing with worker resistance in the plant, and I’ve been struggling to find a way to communicate better. So I thought that this would be an even better topic to address in this issue.

There is an old adage that production and quality don’t go together, that it’s like oil and water. Production wants to “run, run, and run” while quality wants perfection. At my facility, we have worked hard over the last 10 years to break that cycle and learn to work together. We know that by working together, not only can we actually “run” faster and be more efficient, but we can do this while achieving a safe and wholesome product.

But it’s not always an easy togetherness. When things are challenging, how do we, as quality managers and food safety professionals, achieve this? How do we break the cycle of mistrust, disparaging views, and what, on the surface, appears to be opposite goals?

The first step in developing a dialogue and a relationship is to know and understand what the other side is doing, thinking, and trying to achieve. Sometimes, as quality managers, we assume the other side doesn’t care when, in fact, it’s that they don’t understand. So often we have hundreds or thousands of rules and regulations we have to know and enforce, and we assume everyone knows them. But usually, the reverse is true.

On the other hand, production personnel sometimes assume that we don’t know or care about their quotas and benchmarks to get product out the door.

Communicate for Understanding.
So how do we fix this? The simple answer is to communicate the rules and regulations that you are trying to enforce. But communicating is not enough. What’s missing in the relationship is understanding. So often we talk about the “whys” (think root cause) within the food safety and quality world, but we don’t take the time to explain it to the people actually doing the job. Here’s an example:

You tell a production employee that the trash container needs to be labeled “trash.” You come back the next day and see that the trash container is not yet labeled. This goes on for days, and you become so frustrated that the next day when you see the trash container, you scream and yell at the employee, and things go from bad to worse. “What an idiot, he doesn’t care,” you think.

Now, let’s look at this from the employee’s perspective. He/she is trying to do everything possible to keep the line running, to get the product out, and the QA guy keeps yelling at him about something trivial. “DUH!” he thinks. “Everyone knows this container is trash. It’s been trash for 10 years, why would we need a label?”

You can see the obvious disconnect. And this is just a small example of something that can, and usually does, turn into a much bigger problem. Let’s go back to the “why.” Why does the trash container have to be labeled? You are certainly aware of the regulation and have had multiple auditors check this item. But does the employee know? Does the employee understand the consequences if the USDA or a third-party auditor walks in and sees an unlabeled trash container? I would bet not. Take the time to explain the why.

Remember when your parents told you, “Because I said so”? Remember how you felt? That’s what is happening here. Explain it to the employee, relate the consequences. If you can, put it in dollar terms that they can understand. Show them the regulation or the audit standard. Let them know you understand how they feel.

Step by step. The first step in dealing with resistance is to truly understand, not necessarily agree with, but at least understand the other’s point of view.

  • Don’t be afraid to empathize with the employee: “I know it’s really busy right now and you’re working really hard, but can you help me with something?”
  • Recognize your own judgments, prejudices, and biases.
  • Demonstrate that you are listening by maintaining good eye contact and appropriate facial and/or body gestures.
  • Understand their main concerns: “So you feel like you don’t have time? What if we pre-labeled the containers, would that help?”
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions.

The next step in dealing with resistance is to openly acknowledge or communicate the other’s point of view. If the person is expressing a great deal of emotion, it also is helpful to openly acknowledge those emotions. This means effectively listening, not only for what is said (the content), but also for the feeling or emotion behind the content.

Only after the person feels that his or her point of view and emotions are being understood, will they be open and receptive to options, suggestions, and problem-solving. Attempting to provide options and suggestions, or to problem-solve, before the person feels heard and understood will only increase the resistance.

So next time you are struggling with resistance, take a minute to follow these four steps:

  1. Understand the employee’s point of view.
  2. Acknowledge that point of view.
  3. Explain the “Why.”
  4. Offer to work with the person to solve the problem.

By following these simple steps, most resistance will disappear and the level of cooperation and respect between departments will increase.

Good Luck!