Someone asked me recently my thoughts on “Smart Manufacturing,” the so-called IT revolution in the factory. They couldn’t believe that I didn’t see smart manufacturing as the salvation of American manufacturing.

Smart manufacturing does have a place in reviving American manufacturing. I have a smart factory. We employ the latest in pick-to-light systems, automated CNC machines and seamless integration from order inquiry to accounts receivable.

But that isn’t where I started my revolution. And you shouldn’t either.

The problem with many CEOs today is they have turned away from the astonishing potential of the workforce and turned toward automation instead. Big mistake. But I hear it all the time.

Too many CEOs view their employees as expendable assets. They should view them as renewable resources. And renew them.

Don’t bother with smart manufacturing if you have a dumb workforce. And if your workforce is dumb, it’s your fault, not theirs. Don’t bother with an IT revolution. Your revolution has to start with a “Smart Workforce.” You have to make a new compact with your employees. You need to ignite the human spirit in your workforce.

This is the place where I get blank stares from many CEOs. They don’t like the “soft stuff.” “Give me the hard stuff,” they say. “Tell me how to build a smart factory, not a smart workforce,” is what I often hear.

It has to be the other way around. Start by building a smart workforce — one that is engaged, enlightened and empowered. A workforce that trusts in its leadership. A workforce that believes in its leadership.

Here are four key ways to start:

At the top. Build leadership credibility. The only way to have leadership credibility is if your leaders demonstrate key values of respect and integrity.

Leaders need to treat their employees with respect. But many don’t. In a recent Harvard Business School study of 20,000 employees, half of them did not feel respected by their leaders. And respect was rated by the participants as more important than anything else, including compensation.

Leaders have to demonstrate integrity. In study after study, integrity is a key attribute in leaders that people admire and want to follow. But leaders also need integrity in everything they say. You have to be bone honest all the time. If the company is headed for trouble, tell them. If the company needs to pivot into new markets or products, tell them. And tell them why. Tell them everything.

This is not just for the top. Your entire workforce has to embrace the values of respect and integrity. But you cannot expect “people below to do what the top will not.” You may have leaders that lost credibility long ago. They can’t get it back. You have to replace them.

Smart manufacturing starts at the top, not the bottom. Smart manufacturing starts with creating a new compact with the workforce. Smart manufacturing starts with people, not machines.

Steven Blue, author of “American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right,” is president & CEO of Miller Ingenuity.

Read or Share this story: