Best Ways for Manufacturers to Boost Employee Engagement

by Dominic Bria, Psy.D., MBA of the Shingo Institute


One of the roles we play here at the Shingo Institute is that of a connector between practitioners of process improvement (by which I mean most of you) and scholars. The research done by scholars ought to answer questions asked by practitioners. Practitioners ought to use research (when feasible) as evidence on which to base their management decisions. So when we have good research to report here at the Shingo Institute, we like to get it out to you, the practitioner, where we hope you’ll find it useful.

Recently, we did a research study involving four manufacturing companies. In order to find out what conditions are the most likely to have the greatest positive effect on employee engagement, we analyzed data from each company. We wanted to see what leaders and managers can do that will most likely foster engagement among employees.

Why employee engagement?

A huge amount of academic research has been done on various aspects of employee engagement and it all seems to agree on one thing at least: Having engaged employees is good for both the organization and the employees. It’s important that leaders understand the positive impact engaged employees can have on productivity, absenteeism, and turnover (Rich, LePine & Crawford, 2010). It’s also important for leaders to understand the most efficient ways to achieve employee engagement in order to avoid wasted time in pursuit of methods which may be less effective or, worse, completely ineffective.

Soane, Truss, Alfes, Shantz, Rees & Gatenby (2012) found evidence to suggest that employee engagement is positively correlated with task performance and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), and negatively correlated with turnover intentions. Other important studies have had similar findings (Lewicka, 2011; Rich, LePine & Crawford, 2010; among others).

Halbesleben (2010) found that employee engagement is related to higher organizational commitment, better health and performance—both mental and physical–and lower turnover intentions. Employees who are engaged at work also report higher levels of happiness and better relations with their significant others (Rodriguez-Muñoz, Sanz-Vergel, Demerouti & Bakker, 2014). This suggests that the benefits of employee engagement carry well beyond just the organization and the self and into the personal relationships of employees—their families and communities.

Why just manufacturing?

Similar research in the future at the Shingo Institute will likely focus specifically on service jobs. The data readily available for this current project, however, was more from manufacturing companies and we thought it important to examine each type of work setting separately. So in this research study, we focused only on manufacturing/production settings.

Possible conditions of engagement included in this study

Initially, our purpose was to find conditions of engagement that could be created with relative ease. Accordingly, we decided to include these conditions in the study:

  1. Employee perceptions of the opportunities available for personal development in the form of cross-training and other learning that might lead to job variability, value to the company, and possible advancement.
  2. Consistent publicly expressed appreciation from leaders and managers for ideas, work, and other contributions.
  3. Employee perceptions of the ready availability of the tools, training, direction and knowledge required to meet the work demands placed upon them.

We decided to test two additional possible pre-conditions of engagement because of their popularity in current literature on employee engagement.

  1. The extent to which an employee is able to make meaningful decisions regarding her/his work.
  2. Understanding of how my tasks help the organization accomplish its goals.

Each of the independent variables listed above were tested against the dependent variable of employee engagement. In other words, we ran a regression analysis to determine to what, if any, extent each independent variable correlated with employee engagement.


This causal-comparative research was a quantitative study that used archival data collected and owned by the Shingo Institute. The survey instrument used to collect this dataset was the Shingo Insight assessment, designed to measure employee perceptions of various dimensions of a company’s culture and employee attitudes and behavior. This survey instrument contained statements that also measured the level of engagement of each respondent, as well as the presence of some antecedents of engagement, including the five aforementioned antecedents of engagement, among others. A regression analysis was performed to determine what, if any, linear relationship might exist in manufacturing/production settings between the presence of engagement and the presence of each of the possible antecedents being examined.

The number of respondents participating in the study was 594. Each respondent was employed by one of four different manufacturing companies. Employees respond anonymously and data from each company is shared in agglomerated form with the leaders of that company.


Development – The work of Andrew & Sofian (2012) identified learning and growth opportunities —herein referred to as Development—as seemingly a significant factor in employee engagement. This confirmed a similar finding by Shuck, Rocco & Albornoz, 2011). But neither of these studies examined only manufacturing organizations. Rather, they used a mix of various types of work settings. The analysis in our study seems to confirm these findings specifically within manufacturing settings. The statistical analysis seems to indicate valid and significant positive correlation between employee-reported levels of engagement and opportunities for development. This suggests quite strongly that opportunities for development, at least in manufacturing settings, does seem to be a consistent antecedent to employee engagement.

Recognition – Menguc, Auh, Fisher & Haddad (2013), a research study that focused on service industry companies, identified Recognition as a possible antecedent to employee engagement. Our research study, however, conducted specifically in manufacturing facilities, had analysis results that differed from this finding. Rather, Recognition appeared not to be a significant contributor to employee engagement in manufacturing/production settings. The regression analysis showed that there was no statistically significant link in the dataset between Engagement and Recognition. This variance may be due to the differences in the nature of the work between the two settings. In manufacturing, work must be repeated in exactly the same way every time in order to assure consistent product quality. This is true regardless of whether the employee receives public praise or not. In service settings, where there is somewhat more variation possible in the work, Recognition seems to matter more.

Resources—or access to tools, knowledge and materials necessary to do the job—has been identified by previous studies (Menguc, Auh, Fisher & Haddad, 2013; Crawford, LePine & Rich, 2010) as a possible antecedent to employee engagement. But Menguc, Auh, Fisher & Haddad (2013) examined only service workers. Crawford, LePine & Rich (2010) mainly examined what happens when employees do not have the resources they need. According to the data analysis of our research study, the antecedent referred to as Resources seems to have no significant correlation with Engagement in the manufacturing settings examined and thus cannot be regarded as a significant antecedent of employee engagement in manufacturing settings. To be clear, the analysis does not tell us that Resources is not important to the healthy culture of an organization or to its smooth functioning. It only indicates that in relation specifically to employee engagement, there seems to be no significant correlation. It should not be assumed from this that employee access to the knowledge training, tools, and supplies needed to perform their duties is unimportant. Even if Resources has no bearing on employee engagement, it seems clear from the analysis of Seijts & Crim (2006) that to deny employees the resources needed to do their jobs efficiently is to invite disengagement, frustration, and job burn out.

Empowerment – The inclusion of Empowerment in our analysis yielded some interesting results. The regression analysis showed an even stronger correlation between Empowerment and employee engagement than exists between Development and employee engagement. Our finding confirms the findings of earlier research studies by Stander & Rothman (2010) and Cattermole, Johnson & Roberts (2013), which both strongly indicate Empowerment as a significant contributor to employee engagement. Much has been written in recent years about the benefits of empowering employees. Considering the conclusion of our research study, as well as the aforementioned earlier studies of this topic, it seems the attention is well justified.

PurposeThe independent variable referred to herein as Purpose – an employee’s understanding of how her/his job helps to accomplish the overall goals of the organization – did not seem to hold any correlation of significance with employee engagement. This finding was unexpected because in some service companies who have used the Shingo Insight assessment, Purpose seems to have been an important factor in employee engagement. This assumption was supported by the research study of Duffy & Sedlacek (2007) but, again, was not supported by the statistical analysis performed for our study. Once again, one possible explanation could be that while Duffy & Sedlacek (2007) had a broad mix of participants from various work settings, our study concentrated only on employees in manufacturing. The difference in the nature of the work common to manufacturing as opposed to work done in service industries may account for these varying results. It should also be noted that previous, similar research by representatives of the Shingo Institute seemed to indicate understanding of Purpose was, indeed, an antecedent of employee engagement. This tells us that the topic bears further research.


Some of the implications of these findings that ought to be considered—at least within manufacturing settings but perhaps others, as well—are these:

  1. Praise and public recognition may not be as important to employee engagement in manufacturing settings as they seem to be in non-manufacturing settings. That is not to say, however, that public praise is unimportant to the culture of the organization.
  2. Similarly, the information, training and equipment to safely and efficiently perform the work required (Resources) may not contribute as much to employee engagement in manufacturing as it may in other settings. However, such elements are still very necessary to a culture of operational excellence.
  3. If a leader or manager of a manufacturing/production facility wants to improve employee engagement, the antecedents that seem most likely to do so are 1) employee perception of opportunities for Development and 2) employee perceptions of their level Empowerment in their jobs; i.e. their freedom to make decisions about their work.




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