4 Workplace Innovations on Repeat

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to serve on a panel discussing workforce and skills challenges created by the automotive industry’s shift to electric vehicles (EVs).  

I’m no expert on EVs.  I’m no expert on cars. 

But I drive one. And it broke down at the end of last week. 

I got off the interstate from a work trip, headed into my hometown on a highway connecting the interstate to my neighborhood.  When I went to accelerate on the highway, the RPMs jumped way up, and it did not want to shift gears for me to accelerate effectively. Luckily, I got home going about 10 miles per hour, not trying to force the car to shift into second gear. 

We had it towed to the dealership where I was told that the issue was “probably the transmission.”  I was then told it would take two weeks to get a technician to diagnose it. Then, if it was the transmission, it would be about two months before they could get to it.  

I took a deep breath (I’m in my car A LOT, I’m not quite sure how to go without a car for a day, much less two months) and asked, “So is the challenge you all are dealing with because you don’t have enough labor?”

He breathed a sigh of relief- I think he was afraid I was going to bless him out- and proceeded to tell me in great detail about all the labor challenges they have. Namely, that they had the only transmission guy in our county and that it takes two to three years to train someone effectively to fix transmissions.  He also told me there were 40 cars in front of mine if it was, in fact, the transmission that needed to be replaced. 

We have a workforce shortage with the current labor skills needed to make and fix cars.  If we can’t handle the current challenges, how can we expect to handle future ones?  The good news is EVs don’t have multi drive transmissions, I have learned :).  Do we have people trained to work or gearboxes (my understanding of what replaces a transmission)?  I doubt it. 

This is not just a phenomenon in the automotive industry, it is in almost all of them. As we innovate products, services, and technology exponentially, we’ve also got to continuously innovate our workplaces through people practices.  And, unfortunately, we are lagging behind here, thinking that what worked yesterday will work today.  It won’t. The labor force is telling this loud and clear. 

We also need to capitalize on the opportunities brought about by innovation that can help us rethink the workplace and how work gets done and in what types of cultures it can succeed. 

I think we could all take a good look back at the automotive industry and how Henry Food transformed it approximately 100 years ago to help pose us well for the next 100 years:  

  1. Early Exposure Matters: Henry Ford showed that early exposure to a variety of skills and work opportunities need to be widespread and that skills in one industry are readily transferable to another.  For example, Ford grew up on a farm. He taught himself to fix watches and this helped him learn basic mechanical skills. These skills, no doubt, helped him in creating “horseless carriages.” 
  2. Learning by Trial and Error: This tinkering also shows that Ford learned by trial and error.  By doing. Failing. Trying again, and again, until it worked. 

We need to be applying these truths in our homes and schools.  Exposing kids at an early age to a variety of domains and subjects and ways of thinking and giving them tools to “tinker” with is necessary for them to learn by trial and error.  I would also postulate that time to be “bored” fosters this tinkering too.  When kids are over scheduled, they don’t “play” and therefore they don’t “tinker.”  

  1. Compensation Matters:  Ford’s company was plagued by very high turnover rates.  According to The Henry Ford Foundation, Turnover was so high that the company had to hire 53,000 people a year to keep 14,000 jobs filled. Henry responded with his boldest innovation ever—in January 1914 he virtually doubled wages to $5 per day.”   Ford realized that he needed to pay people a premium for the repetitive work they were doing, and that doing this would help lower costs, not raise them.  He also was very clear that the people he employed needed to be able to afford what they were producing. 
  2. People don’t want to work all day, every day. They are more productive when they don’t.  Ford is largely credited with the creation of the 40-hour workweek (although union pressure may have led him there). He changed the workweek from six days to five without changing compensation. We are now in a world largely talking about the value gains in a four-day workweek. As innovations increase productivity, should people be able to take advantage of these gains to work less with the same pay? Or should we at least provide people with autonomy to decide how to do the work in order to produce the results that are needed?  I think these are discussions of merit. 

Innovating is not just about creating something from scratch.  It also includes recycling the old to create the new. 

How will you innovate your workplace through old lessons learned? 


Mary Ila Ward