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How Important Is Employee Engagement in Manufacturing? 6 Questions for Mark Whitten

This week, we sat down with Mark Whitten, Director of Operations, USA at Martinrea International to talk about the importance of company culture and employee engagement in the manufacturing industry.

First, a Little About Mark Whitten. . .

Mark is an experienced manufacturing professional with a proven track record of operational improvement through employee engagement and collaboration. He has been directly responsible for plant operations ranging in size from 500-1500 employees.

While we always look forward to a good Q&A session, we were especially excited for this opportunity to sit down with someone who is a champion of the employee experience and the effect it has on overall operations.

In an industry that must remain laser-focused on the bottom line in order to stay in business, company culture and employee experience sometimes get overlooked in manufacturing. This is why we were so happy to have the chance to speak with Mark!

Here are six questions we had for this titan of manufacturing operations.

1. Why is employee engagement critical in the manufacturing industry?

In my opinion, employee engagement is absolutely critical. If employees are not engaged, they won’t want to be at work, and they will only put in the minimum amount of effort required.

As employers, we want 100% committed employees, the ones who will give what I describe as “discretionary effort.” This means going that extra mile and exceeding expectations.

Manufacturing Employees

2. Knowing this, why do you think it isn’t a higher priority?

Honestly, it’s a great question.

Frankly I’m shocked at how many organizations do not understand the value of an engaged workforce.

There are so many clear examples of high performing teams, whether in a workplace on the shop floor, or a sports team with a winning record. What do they all have in common? Well I can guarantee one thing, they have highly engaged teams.

3. How does engagement improve operations and workplace safety?

I believe employee engagement comes in many different forms. However, there are very obvious signs of employee engagement that managers can look for. These may appear odd at first, but think about what engaged people do in any given circumstance.

Here are a few behaviors employers should look for when trying to gauge employee engagement.


Employees are present. They come to work every day because they have a sense of worth and feel appreciated.


They add value and contribute to the success of the organization. This can include (but is not limited to) improvement ideas, suggestions, and a willingness to expend discretionary effort.


They participate in company functions, activities and sponsorships. They give feedback openly and without fear of reprisal.

When you have highly engaged employees, they are present. They contribute ideas to improve operations and safety, and they participate in improving the overall performance of the organization.

4. What role do frontline leaders play in employee engagement?

Frontline leaders have a direct impact on employee engagement. This impact can be both positive and negative. I’ve had the privilege to work with, and for, great leaders. I have also worked for some not-so-great leaders. Both experiences were extremely valuable to my personal development.

The great ones taught me the importance of servant leadership, humility, and the cornerstone of all leadership: dignity and respect for others. Equally, the not-so-great leaders reinforced that message through their negative actions with people, believing that the human side of leadership was unimportant, and that people were simply another commodity and could be replaced.

All leaders, frontline or otherwise, have a responsibility to be consistent, fair, and predictable — to treat employees with dignity and respect. This is the starting point to driving employee engagement!

We must listen to our employees’ ideas, communicate expectations clearly, and follow up with them to explain the decisions we make.

5. What are some successful employee engagement initiatives you’ve carried out at Martinrea?

We utilize a Workplace Culture Plan which includes several activities aimed at promoting a workplace centered around dignity and respect. Some examples include training for supervisors, monthly employee celebration events, employee suggestion programs for safety and continual improvement.

6. What advice would you give manufacturing leaders to help them create a positive workplace culture?

A high level of employee engagement is a byproduct of a positive workplace culture.

A positive culture is driven by management behavior. As leaders, we have the ability to improve the engagement of our people.

A few things to consider…

1. Ask for, and listen to employee feedback.
2. Where possible, involve employees in decisions that impact them.
3. Utilize employee opinion surveys to solicit feedback.
4. Be very clear in terms of what is expected of employees, and provide regular feedback, not just when there is an issue.

These are a few ideas that you can consider to help improve employee engagement.

Looking for new ways to boost employee engagement in the workplace? Download our eBook, “15 Best Practices for Employee Engagement” to get started!