I work for a small manufacturing company of less than 30 staff members where there is day to day interaction between top-level management and floor staff as there is essentially no middle management.

There are recurring issues within the company that usually boil down to poor communication from management to floor staff or between management and customers. Neither the general manager or production manager have uni degrees (not that it is a problem in and of itself) but have moved to the top from the floor.

As a result, they are not interested in ideas such as professional development or external consultancy to improve business as they consider it a waste of money. I personally think that both of these things are very important to improve our skills and the business.

What are some points that I can put forward that may show that professional development is a good investment for the the business, not just the staff? How can I encourage management to look into and even partake of professional development without sounding condescending? I feel that they would benefit from some form of management or communications training as they have had none of either. The management skills they have received have come from the management before them and they've haven't worked for another company for 20+ years, which can sometimes lead to narrow views on some things.

Also, what can I say to encourage them to look into business development consultancy to improve efficiency and profitability? Usually when work gets busier with orders, we throw overtime at it or hire more people, which increases costs more but income doesn't scale the same way. I think that having a fresh set of eyes on how the business operates may help them to cross-examine the way things are run and to identify where systems can be improved.

How do I bring up these points in a constructive manner when they consider the only way to improve profit is to increase sales and that both the above ideas are dead money? Or is professional development and consultation really just a waste of time?

  • What's your place in the hierarchy, are you above the managers, are you one of them, do you report to them, are are you in some support function that has nothing with the shop floor? Since you want management to develop professionally, it's your responsibility to come up with a professional development plan. Do you have such a plan, or do you expect them to stumble on their own, taking random courses at the local community college or whatnot and paying out of their own pocket? – Vietnhi Phuvan May 18 '14 at 22:31
  • Other questions:do you knowenough aout the plant's business environment to conclude that it's just a question of professional development and that there is no need to upgrade the plant itself and rework its operations? Have you researched how the competition does it, and who is the competition? – Vietnhi Phuvan May 18 '14 at 22:40
  • My place is as 1 of 3 engineers who is usually left picking up the pieces when things go wrong. e.g. we promise a feature that doesn't exist to a customer, I or another engineer then has to drop what we're doing to fix it. Our role is to design products and offer technical support but we spend more time putting out fires that could have been prevented. This has been put forward in meetings but gets a lacklustre response. I should clarify, by management, I mean the general manager and production manager who own and run the company. They are at the top. – SLaG May 18 '14 at 22:48
  • I have had plans that I have put forward but are ignored as they don't see value in it. I don't expect them to pay out of their own pockets, courses that are good for the business should be supported by the business. It is more than a question of just professional development, hence the point about business consultancy. The idea being that both these things would cause them to look at the business from different angle, to encourage a bit of introspection. – SLaG May 18 '14 at 23:00
  • You must understand, I'm not complaining for sake of it, but for the company. At our size, if the company fails, we all fail. But it is not an environment where discussion is open and encouraged, which can be a problem. – SLaG May 18 '14 at 23:01
  1. Make sure the company really needs this help
  2. Present clear costs and benefits
  3. Be prepared to be told no, and live with whatever decision

Does the company need help?

So there are communication issues. There are communication issues in any company in the world (likely even sole proprietorships with an employee count of one). That in itself does not mean that the companies need to seek (potentially expensive) professional support from outside.

Most of your analysis of the problem seems to be personal preference:

  • "I personally think that both of these things are very important to improve our skills and the business."
  • "I feel that they would benefit from some form of management or communications training"
  • "I think that having a fresh set of eyes on how the business operates may help them to cross-examine the way things are run"

Now these things may be very important to you, but if you ever want to stand a chance of convincing your bosses, you need to show that these are important to the business. To do that...

Perform a Cost-Benefit Analysis

If these things are actively hurting the business, you should be able to show it with hard figures:

  • How many customers have been lost through poor communication?
  • How much overtime has been spent due to poor project management?
  • How many employees have quit due to current management structure?
  • How much have those lost employees cost in training/productivity?

On the flipside, you need to figure out what the probable benefit of taking in an outside consultant will be given that your management is resistant to the fact (and see it as a waste of money). How many of the above problems can be solved by how much? What will the benefit of that be?

Do not be over-pessimistic about the current costs to the business. The owners are running a successful money-making business (presumably) and employing 30 people. Telling them the sky is falling will not make them more willing to listen.

Do not be over-optimistic about the potential benefits from consultants. The owners are running a successful money-making business and aren't going to believe pie-in-the-sky best case estimates where all the above problems get solved.

If the analysis doesn't show a significant benefit with conservative assumptions, consider dropping the idea entirely. Resist the temptation to fudge the numbers to get what you want, your management will probably respect you more and listen to your ideas more in the future if they see you can be objective even about things you care about.

Be prepared for 'no'

Even if you find significant benefits, and you present this to your management, live with their decision. Maybe the potential benefits are not worth the definite costs. Maybe cash flow is a bit of an issue. Maybe they want to mull over it for a year and tell you they won't do it now.

That is their prerogative as ownership.

If you cannot handle a 'no' or a lack of change, then you may want to start preparing for the possibility of leaving as you go through this process. Do not use your leaving as a reason for them to accept your proposal, just think about what they said in response, decide if that is something you can live with, and if not you can tender your resignation.

Running a company is far more complex than it may seem from where you're sitting, and it is very easy to make money-spending suggestions when it isn't coming out of your pocket. These people are successful for a reason, and while it may not be the cutting edge of management, it still pays the bills and creates a benefit for the employees it is able to pay. Showing respect through the process will help strengthen the relationship even if you decide to leave.

  • Thank you for that, you've made 3 strong points. What I've stated here is subjective but having you highlight that is helpful. I can easily implement a process to collect empirical data in terms of cost when something goes wrong. I also think the personal is important (though maybe overstated in the question) because the company (especially small ones) IS the staff, we rise and fall with the company's success. We work for its success. The cost-benefit is a great point, though the financial situation has been grim for some time. Finally, no is always an option, they are the boss after all. :) – SLaG May 19 '14 at 0:37

You say this.

How do I bring up these points in a constructive manner when they consider the only way to improve profit is to increase sales and that both the above ideas are dead money? Or is professional development and consultation really just a waste of time?

Then you say this in the comments.

My place is as 1 of 3 engineers who is usually left picking up the pieces when things go wrong.

And this in another comment.

You must understand, I'm not complaining for sake of it, but for the company. At our size, if the company fails, we all fail. But it is not an environment where discussion is open and encouraged, which can be a problem.

As I see it, you are attempting to help a dysfunctional organization change from the inside. But you are at “the bottom” and they are at “the top.”

The reality is the chances of you changing a culture like that are 100% zilch. Companies & cultures like that will not change as long as they are successful in their own eyes. And if when you say “if the company fails, we all fail” what is that based on? Your rational perspective on how a company like yours should be run? Because the reality is dysfunctional companies like that will only change if & when they actually fail. Proactive mindsets don’t come easy to places like that.

And when that happens you can hope that you have some way to insert your ideas into a discussion. Perhaps a client was lost or a job order was screwed up and ate up too much time. But somehow something negative to the company needs to happen to serve as a wake up call.

On a practical level, you can document every screw up that falls in your court. And save that for a rainy day when the proverbial crap hits the fan.

Also, instead of encouraging management to seek help, maybe you should instead encourage a layer of middle management to be built up. Perhaps project managers can come in. Or something else. But it seems like this might be a small company that grew to be a bigger company & has not had decent perspective on how growth is changing it.

Getting a layer of some kind of middle-management into the structure you describe is the only real practical solution I can see. And heck, make a good case & perhaps you can be elevated to middle management?

  • 1
    A massive undertaking as an idea I know and I'm realistic enough to say that nothing will probably happen. It took me 2 years to finally implement regular meetings when there were none so change can be affected, it just takes a lot of persistence and like you said notes for the day the crap hits the fan. By the company fails, we all fail I mean that because we're a small company, if we don't work together on everything, then the system falls apart. Maybe I'm idealistic in trying to change the culture before more problems arise and things get worse and I need to let things take their course... – SLaG May 19 '14 at 2:34
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    @SLaG “Maybe I'm idealistic in trying to change the culture…” A company is a company is a company. The best advice anyone can have in a situation like this is basically: What does it mean to you? And can you work elsewhere if the whole house of cards collapses. It’s hard to look at a thing you have spent 2+ years on like that, but that is the reality. – JakeGould May 19 '14 at 2:43
  • A very good point. Even a change of culture doesn't guarantee a change in outcome at the end of the day. But after 5+ years, you develop a soft spot... – SLaG May 19 '14 at 2:59
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    @SLaG The only times I have ever seen cultures in organizations change is when the place either gets bought out, collapses & fails or management leaves. That's just the way things tend to be. – JakeGould May 19 '14 at 3:33

Here is the problem. As an engineer you have something they don't have: formal training, and solid experience that formal training makes things better. You want to share with them your knowledge of how things could be better for everyone. But they hear:

If you guys were more like me, or did what I have done, it would be better

and they push back. I think your best approach is to give up all hope of directly and explicitly suggesting anything general or overarching like "professional development" or "more training" or "bringing in consultants" as a vague concept. Instead, I think a highly specific suggestion has a chance of working. Some examples, which are probably not applicable to you but you can use them to construct ones that do apply:

  • A meeting turns a little sour and someone is upset. You ask a question or say something and the meeting turns sweet again and the upset person becomes happy. If management praises you for that, you can "aw shucks" it and advance your agenda by replying "thanks, I learned that in my Effective Communication course. I thought it was going to be useless but it's actually helped me a lot. Something like that happens at least once a month. I think some of the managers here might like a course like that if one is offered... perhaps I should try to see if there's one available?" (This may be overly compressed. It's possible that a better pace would be the first time, you mention the course, the second time, you suggest that perhaps others would like it to, and the third or fourth time you offer to investigate.)
  • A process fails, work or time or money is lost, and afterwards it's clear that the cause was poor communication, or lack of knowledge about a new government regulation, or someone spending far too long investigating some new thing that nobody knew anything about. In the moment that people are realizing "pain X came from cause Y" you can ask "is there any way we can reduce the chances of this recurring a few years from now?" which is a standard question in Lessons Learned conversations. If nobody suggests training on A, B or C, or handing off these occasional projects to a consultant who specializes in A, B, or C you can (after listening patiently to suggestions from others) throw those ideas into the mix. (They may not get picked up. It might take several Lessons Learned conversations before "would this have been different if we'd brought in outside help" is something people are willing to think about.)

Over time, if just one person goes on training for something and then is better, if just one project brings in a consultant and goes more smoothly, the concept will spread. You may never succeed in getting anyone to agree to the general concept, but if you seize the opportunities to suggest highly specific instances of the concept like "sending Jane on the Effective Communication course that is offered every quarter" or "bringing in a consultant to write our policy in response to the new government privacy rules" then you may find that over time, the resistance to the general concept disappears.

  • Thanks. I think you're very right about them pushing back when we push for a new idea. Their experiences are different to mine and I need to better understand that. I can also use the things I have learned and the tools I have better to highlight the benefits so that they can see the results before they make the investment. – SLaG May 19 '14 at 21:43

If you are no in management or above management, then it’s not your place to suggest that management needs improvement. No matter how diplomatically that you attempt to couch such a suggestion it will be seen for what it is: an unsubtle criticism of management in your company and the people employed in those positions.

If you are indeed, in a management or above position, then you need to carefully ascertain how and why things got to where they have and how much of what you are perceiving is solely filtered through your biases and what is actually exists. When you have determined this, then you can sit down and write out a lengthy proposal for areas that you see which could use change and how that change can occur.

Frankly, you should expect your input to be rejected if you are not a ‘rainmaker” within the company as many people will suggest changes and most people perceive those suggestions as personal, rather than constructive criticisms. If you are rejected at first, then carefully modify your plans and re-present them at a later date as they may gain acceptance.

Until (or if) you achieve a management position within a company, then you should do the best job that you possible can and allow the person or people running the company to either self-correct or be forced by the market to correct any deficiencies in their management styles or capabilities

  • @SLaG - management makes scope changes without telling you is a problem. Since they eventually let you know about the change, it seems like timing is a bigger part of the problem. Do you really need to send them back to school or call in an expert to solve this problem? – user8365 May 19 '14 at 18:25
  • ****comments removed****: Please avoid using comments for extended discussion. Instead, please use The Workplace Chat. On Workplace SE, comments are intended to help improve a post. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details. – jmort253 May 20 '14 at 3:04

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