Lack of effective management can constrain both firms’ and workers’ productive potential. It can create a difficult work environment, particularly in a high-pressure environment such as the garment factory floor.
What stock of soft skills and managerial practices should garment factory supervisors be trained in? What is the impact of this training on worker productivity and general work environment?
While the focus on technical skills is crucial, it is often overemphasized at the cost of soft skills such as effective communication, conflict resolution, preventing harassment, stress management, etc. This gap can also play into the problems of psychological, verbal, and physical abuse in factories, negatively impacting workers’ wellbeing.
Acknowledging that good managers play a key role in affecting worker satisfaction and wellbeing, and given the importance of effective management in enabling a safe and productive environment for workers, we hypothesize that a key lever firms can use to improve the workplace environment and raise productivity is to invest in training managers holistically, beyond just technical skills - ones that can be learned via training.
Shahi Exports, one of India’s largest garment manufacturers, in collaboration with Options & Solutions, a personnel consultancy firm in Bengaluru, designed a soft skills training program called STITCH (Supervisors Transformation into Change Holders) for production line supervisors (factory floor managers supervising the work of front-line machine operators and helpers).
To optimize the content of the training, an extensive survey of the managerial practices and styles, workplace behaviors, and personality characteristics of all supervisors (~2000), was conducted at Shahi. The data from these surveys was matched with historical data on productivity, and by using frontier econometric methods, aspects of managerial quality which are the most important determinants of productivity were identified. It was found that tenure, cognitive skills, internal locus of control, autonomy, and attention significantly affect productivity.
STITCH, thus consists of four modules:
• Me as a person • Me as a supervisor • Me as a team member • Me as a leader
These modules cover topics such as self-esteem, gender sensitivity, problem-solving, planning work, and preventing harassment at the workplace. From April 2017, the training was delivered by STITCH certified trainers, through weekly one-hour group sessions to a batch of ~20, at the factory, over a period of 25 weeks (6-7 months).
We evaluated STITCH via a randomized controlled trial. Out of 954 production line supervisors, 482 were randomly allocated to receive STITCH in phase 1 (April 2017 – Dec 2017), while 472 served as control. The control group received the training in phase 2 (September 2017 – March 2018).
In summary - training factory supervisors can increase their stock of soft skills and significantly improve their line’s productivity during and after training. While no significant wellbeing improvement was observed in the treatment group, the lower turnaround and higher salary increase and probability of receiving incentives indicate improved conditions at work for them.
Our work reveals the crucial role soft skills (for managers) can play in determining firm and worker productivity. Shahi has already enrolled over 1600 supervisors in the STITCH program. Close to 850 supervisors have graduated from the program. Shahi’s goal is to have all their supervisors undergo STITCH training by 2024. Further, soft skills training has become a core part of Shahi’s organizational development strategy.
Further research can explore wider systemic impacts of such training such as the long-run impact on harassment on the factory floor.
Our findings can help firms and governments make informed decisions around hiring and training in low-income factory contexts. In fact, these insights have motivated us to design and test a technology to fairly hire and efficiently train factory supervisors.