“To create a fantastic work culture, give employees the opportunity to actively participate in problem-solving.” with Sarah Boisvert and Phil Laboon

My research with 200 manufacturers showed that the vast majority of companies are seeking employees with problem-solving skills. Technology is changing so quickly, that workers must be able to adapt to new tools and methods. But companies must give employees the opportunity to actively participate in problem-solving. As a part of my series about about […]

My research with 200 manufacturers showed that the vast majority of companies are seeking employees with problem-solving skills. Technology is changing so quickly, that workers must be able to adapt to new tools and methods. But companies must give employees the opportunity to actively participate in problem-solving.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Boisvert. Sarah spent 30 years in manufacturing, building lasers and laser machine tools, as well as providing contract manufacturing for micro products in the medical device and microelectronics industries. Upon the sale of her company, Potomac Photonics, Inc., she founded Fab Lab Hub, a part of the international Fab Lab Network founded at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. Sarah’s goal was to innovate learning for “New Collar” jobs that utilize 3D Printing, laser machining, robotics, CAD design and more. She interviewed 200 manufacturers on the skills needed for operators and technicians in a wide range of fields. The responses led her to develop a Digital Badge program to quickly and cost-effectively verify skills from laser safety for additive manufacturing to service technician requirements for robotics. Her research was published by Photonics Media Press in The New Collar Workforce.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was attending the 2016 RAPID, the SME conference that focuses heavily on 3D Printing and additive manufacturing. HP introduced a new production 3D Printer which was very exciting to everyone in the industry. But all around me — at breaks, lunch, receptions — the overwhelming comment I heard was: “I’d love to get that new HP printer, but I don’t have anyone to run it!” It was clear to me that for disruptive technologies to advance, we needed skilled labor. Of course, in manufacturing, we’ve been hearing for years about the skills gap and having come from the factory floor where we had to do in-house training, it was a topic near and dear to me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Our digital badge program piloted in our fab lab that is on the campus of Santa Fe Community College. I had hired one outstanding student in our Design for 3D Printing Digital Badge class to work in our 3D Printing mold-making department. One day he told me that he had very bad ADHD and had struggled in college. I could see that he was very bright and that traditional learning programs didn’t fit how he learns. Because we use project-based learning, the student was free to explore a topic and use the digital fabrication tools to solve real-world problems in his life. “At first”, he said, “I was unsure how to respond to this approach that gave me creative freedom, but now I just want to be in the lab!”

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

With funding from America Makes, the national additive manufacturing institute, we are expanding our Digital Badge program. 10 Fab Labs and colleges in the US will pilot a program of Master Badge for 3D Printing Operator and Master Badge for 3D Printing service technician. We have formed a non-profit North American Digital Fabrication Alliance that is the issuing body for the credential. With 250 fab labs alone in the US, Canada and Mexico, we will be able to make Digital Badges for New Collar Job skills available to a large number of people who are looking at a new career path.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Many employers don’t respect employees ability to be a true part of the company team. For many employers, “team” is just a noun, not a verb. Engaging our workforce to participate in continuous improvement over their own area of work, brings diverse solutions to problems but also allows an employee to feel empowered and thus respected. These ideas come from LEAN management principles in manufacturing, but are applicable across company functions.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

My research with 200 manufacturers showed that the vast majority of companies are seeking employees with problem-solving skills. Technology is changing so quickly, that workers must be able to adapt to new tools and methods. But companies must give employees the opportunity to actively participate in problem-solving.

An unhappy workforce has high turnover rates, which reduces productivity and profitability but also it is a barrier to companies being able to adopt new technologies like 3D Printing.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

1. Managers should look into LEAN principles across all job functions from production to sales and accounting. Attend a workshop, read a book, get your feet wet.

2. Integrate your employees in continuous improvement but really mean it! Allow employees [as long as safety is not at risk!] to make changes to procedures without onerous reviews. In my company, any idea that cost less than $1,000 does not need management approval. This can be anything from buying a new storage bin for finished parts to re-configuring a workforce to run more smoothly.

3. Reward innovative ideas that improve the work and workplace. A simple board with a photo of an innovation and the name of the employee who implemented it, is enough for someone to feel they are truly recognized.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

We must respect our people’s ability to make innovative contributions to the organizaiton as a whole. The greatest inventions were new and different so we must be open to trying new things and testing if they work. I am continually amazed at how our students are so creative in solving problems!

Things do go wrong and I incorporate our workers in first identifying why something went wrong, and secondly, helping find a solution. I always say, “Why do you think this happened and do you have any ideas to help it not happen again?” Perhaps the worker didn’t have enough training and needs up-skilling by taking a 4 week digital badge course or perhaps the tools needed maintenance. The worker is closest to the work and can easily help identify issues and most likely come up with innovative solutions.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Leading is being a guide. I monitor how workers are doing, and guide them along the best path.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that? 
 My business partner at Potomac Photonics, Dr. Paul Christensen, always trusted my judgement and allowed me to develop a high tech company without having earned a formal technical degree — I am trained as a concert pianist and can do the math! Other laser companies hired engineers and we always felt my unique perspective gave us a competitive advantage in developing new products.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
 The DigiFab Network will not only provide Digital Badges that open career opportunities in North America, we also hope to create a “LinkedIn for New Collar Careers” platform for those who work as operators and technicians in digital fabrication.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ― Thomas A. Edison

It is failure that leads us to success and I view my work as a journey with failure as lessons along the way. In that way, I don’t stress about my failures or those of my employees. We are all using failure to find solutions and in the process learning along the way!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need a radical transformation in education from Kindergarten to higher education. True project-based learning using advanced technology tools like 3D Printing, etc. will bring back the value of working with our hands in exciting New Collar Jobs that come right out of science fiction. College isn’t for everyone and alternative training programs are important to solid careers, especially in manufacturing. I strongly believe this is essential to the resurgence of America’s middle class where people can conduct meaningful work, at good wages in cool environments that foster creativity and innovation.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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