Fashion | Research/ Review Paper

Soft skills training for factory supervisors – an idea whose time has come

Published: January 24, 2022

Tuni, a 24-year old woman from Odisha, has been working at Shahi Exports’ large garment factory in Bengaluru for five years. She started as a sewing machine operator and got promoted to supervisor two years ago. As a supervisor, she is responsible for her line of workers reaching the daily production target that has been set — ensuring that all the fabric pieces are moving forward smoothly, sorting out technical issues, thinking on her feet, and deftly re-allocating work based on absenteeism, and keeping the workers motivated. But when she was made supervisor, she received no special training on how to do all of this. “I learned everything by looking at how my supervisor had done things,” she told us.

Though it is very important, the managerial skills of factory supervisors are hardly paid attention to – a costly mistake that firms could be making. Research by Good Business Lab (GBL) shows that training supervisors in targeted skills can bring huge returns to the firm. Like any firm dependent on human labor, in garment factories too, some teams are more productive than others. There seems to be a host of skills and managerial styles that make the teams managed by certain supervisors more productive. GBL documented this for one of India’s largest and most competitive garment manufacturing firms, Shahi Exports, in a learning paper published in 2021. “In a lot of manufacturing settings, middle management (commonly known as supervisors) are often just workers who have moved up the ranks. They might have the technical knowledge, but they don’t often have the necessary soft skills like basic communication skills, people management, etc. that are needed to make sure that everybody on their team feels empowered to be productive,” Dr. Achyuta Adhvaryu, the lead author of the research paper, shared.
Hence, by training supervisors in soft skills such as communication, and specific managerial skills and practices such as control, autonomy, and attention, we could increase the productivity of their teams. In 2017, GBL put it to the test and rolled out a training program designed to study the efficacy of training managers in these skills.

Firstly, the training, called STITCH (short for supervisors’ transformation into change holders), brought down turnover — the rate at which a company loses employees — which is notoriously high in this industry. During the period of the study, of those who were studied, the supervisors who received the training were found to be 15% less likely to quit their jobs than those who did not get the training. The average returns from this training were found to be large and consistent, and the return for the firm was hundreds of times over its investment. These outcomes are
based on the recorded increase in efficiency, an industry-standard measure of productivity defined as quantity produced over target quantity for the day. Lines for which all managers were trained saw 7.3% higher efficiency during the training as compared to lines under untrained managers. Furthermore, STITCH-trained supervisors experienced a 6% higher average growth in their salary as compared to their untrained peers. They and workers in their production lines were also found to have a higher probability of receiving incentive bonuses than those in the control group during and six months after the training.

Chitra Ramdas, General Manager of Organizational Development at Shahi Exports, who has been closely involved in designing and implementing the training, said, “A high-pressure work environment, coupled with power dynamics, leads to supervisors often behaving in an autocratic and aggressive manner. STITCH is one way to tackle this issue by imparting soft skills to supervisors such as communication and problem-solving. In our experience,
this simple training has had a transformative impact on workplace relations and the work environment, leading to wider benefits for our company. We have already enrolled more than 1600 supervisors in the training and our goal is to train 100% supervisors by 2024.”

The study also shows that following an objective method of allocation of such training to supervisors can be a game-changer — by drastically increasing the returns that the firms get when the people who most need the training are offered it. GBL has developed a low-tech screening application for this purpose that is being piloted in a few partner
factories. “While we knew from our previous work that soft skills and this kind of training could have impacts on productivity, the magnitude of the impacts were quite surprising. This being a leading firm in the industry, and a lot of production processes being highly standardized across the entire industry, it’s hard to move the needle a lot with any one particular training. But, this, just by itself, improved productivity by so much. And the effects were fairly persistent. That suggests to me that there was a lot to gain here,” Dr. Adhvaryu said, sharing that the biggest learning from this study is that manufacturing firms, especially in developing country contexts, can benefit tremendously by paying more attention to their lower and middle level of management and investing in their training and development. “What we are showing is that it is tremendously and persistently impactful in this really
transformative way, even in a nuts and bolts technical manufacturing setting. So, it stands to reason, in my mind, that the results should be generalizable to other technical blue-collar settings; and I imagine the results could be at least as big in entry-level managerial roles in other sectors where soft skills are even more first-order — like the service sector. So, we’re now going to explicitly study this in fast food and retail settings,” shared Dr. Anant
Nyshadham, Chief Strategy Officer of Good Business Lab and co-author of the paper.

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