Philip Tocco: Building a High-Performance Manufacturing Culture

Home » Philip Tocco: Building a High-Performance Manufacturing Culture

Empowering Teams for Operational Success

Understanding the core of employee engagement—how individuals perceive their value within an organization—lies at the heart of fostering a thriving workplace culture. Some strategies that cultivate a high-performance manufacturing environment are empowering frontline teams, nurturing curiosity, sustaining Lean initiatives and navigating organizational complexity.

We dig deeper into these critical facets with Phil Tocco, an experienced supply chain and manufacturing leader. His expertise spans medical device manufacturing and consumer products, where his people-centered leadership style and proficiency in root cause analytics have driven significant transformational change.

Phil shared his extensive knowledge and practical strategies for achieving operational excellence with Greg Schinkel on the Accelerating Operational Performance podcast. Feel free to listen to the full episode here or watch the video here.

The Importance of Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is fundamental to a successful organization and we truly believe that an employee’s value and engagement come from knowing how they add value to the business. 

Organizations may be missing the opportunity to educate new employees early on about where value is added to the manufacturing process. Employees must understand their contributions to the company’s success, as this awareness drives their engagement and motivation.

One of the most important factors for engagement is a sense of purpose. Does their work matter? Do they feel that they are making a difference? They are more likely to be engaged when they understand how their contributions fit into the bigger picture.

Creating a sense of purpose is just one way to improve employee engagement.

Here are some additional tips for improving employee engagement:

  • Communicate regularly with employees and inform them about company news, goals, and changes.
  • Be transparent and honest with employees will build trust and credibility.
  • Involve employees to show that you value their opinions.
  • Recognize and reward employee achievements to show employees that you appreciate their hard work.
  • Create a positive work environment so that employees enjoy coming to work and being part of the team.
  • Provide the resources and support they need to do their jobs well.
  • Help employees grow their skills and careers by investing in training programs.

Key Insight: Employee engagement hinges on understanding their value and role in the business.

Strategy: Educate new employees early on about how their roles add value to the manufacturing process. Create a sense of purpose by helping employees understand how their work fits into the bigger picture. Implement practices that enhance engagement, such as regular communication, transparency, feedback opportunities, recognition, a positive work environment, and professional development.

Impact: Higher engagement and motivation lead to improved performance and organizational success.

“The people aspect is crucial. Making sure that they are part of that journey of not only developing it but continuously improving it.”

How Empowerment and Curiosity Affect Manufacturing Teams

Empowerment and curiosity are two essential leadership qualities that go hand in hand. Leaders who embrace empowerment and curiosity can create a culture of innovation and high performance. Phil’s approach is a prime example of how they can work together. By being genuinely curious and willing to admit when he doesn’t know the answer to certain problems, Phil empowers his team members to contribute their best ideas and solutions. 

When we create a work environment where trust and respect are the norm, team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas. This helps them work together better and makes the workplace more inclusive and collaborative.

If leaders are curious, they are open to new ideas and perspectives and willing to listen to their team members and learn from them. This allows team members to think creatively and propose novel or perhaps groundbreaking solutions.

Here are some specific examples of how leaders in the workplace can apply empowerment and curiosity:

  • A manager who is curious about the ideas of their team members might ask open-ended questions and encourage them to share their thoughts.
  • A leader who is committed to empowerment might delegate tasks to her team members and give them the authority to make their own decisions.
  • A team member who is curious about a new project might volunteer to learn more about it and share their findings with their colleagues.
  • An employee who is empowered to take risks might come up with a new idea for a product or service and present it to their manager.

Key Insight: Empowerment and curiosity foster a collaborative and innovative team environment.

Strategy: Encourage a culture where leaders openly acknowledge gaps in knowledge and rely on team expertise.

Impact: Enhanced trust and collaboration lead to innovative solutions and a more cohesive team.

“I’ve learned that in order to drive true sustainable change, you have to have this bubble of the people, the mindsets, behaviors, capabilities, and treat that as equally as you would an operating system with the machine and performance metrics that come with it. When you have a balance between the two, that’s when the real power happens.”

Ensuring Sustainable Value in Lean Initiatives

Achieving lasting success in Lean and operational excellence initiatives heavily involves the ownership and engagement of frontline teams. Sustainable value emerges when those directly involved in executing processes take full ownership of their work, beyond the initial project phase.

Empowering Frontline Ownership

Phil stresses that for Lean practices to thrive beyond the initial implementation phase, it is essential for the individuals who will continue the daily operations to be deeply involved in shaping and improving processes. This involvement not only ensures a comprehensive understanding of the goals but also cultivates a sense of ownership and accountability among team members. This approach as Phil explains, requires investing in effective change management to align team members with the vision and provide them with the necessary tools and skills for ongoing improvement.

Cultural Transformation and Reinforcement

Sustaining Lean initiatives necessitates a cultural shift where supervisors and department heads actively report on and manage the outcomes within their areas. This bottom-up approach contrasts sharply with traditional top-down management styles, ensuring that decisions and improvements are driven by those closest to the work. Phil advocates for establishing regular check-ins and feedback mechanisms, such as Gemba walks and performance audits, to reinforce and uphold the standards. 

This practice serves a dual purpose: it provides leaders with firsthand insight into operational realities and demonstrates to frontline teams that their work is valued and seen. Leaders who manage solely from their desks miss out on valuable interactions and insights that can only be gained through direct engagement on the shop floor.

Supporting Long-Term Success

While external consultants and tools play a role, true sustainability hinges on empowering supervisors and team leaders to take charge of their departments’ outcomes. Empowerment builds a more resilient operational framework where continuous improvement becomes ingrained in the organizational culture.

Key Insight: Achieving lasting success in Lean initiatives requires front line teams to take full ownership and engagement in process execution beyond the initial phases.

Strategy: Invest in effective change management to align them with the organizational vision and equip them with the necessary tools and skills. Additionally, shift towards bottom-up management where supervisors manage outcomes within their areas using regular check-ins, Gemba walks, and audits to maintain operational standards.

Impact: Empowering frontline teams provides continuous improvement and accountability, enhances operational resilience, and ensures sustained excellence through adaptive responses to challenges.

Navigating Organizational Complexity and Alignment

Within any manufacturing organization, there are intricate dynamics of alignment and the challenges posed by competing objectives across departments. Differing metrics and goals can foster healthy creative tension and innovation, but misalignment can also lead to inefficiencies and siloed efforts.

Understanding how different ideas and goals work together can help teams come up with new ideas and solve problems better. When a company or leader can balance the competing objectives, all departments can reach their goals. This is achieved through organized top-down leadership that sets clear priorities and expectations. 

Phil advocates for a dual approach: strong top-down leadership to establish priorities and a bottom-up engagement to develop sustainable solutions. This strategy not only ensures that organizational efforts remain focused but also empowers front line teams to innovate and solve problems within the established framework.

Managing conflicting objectives is not about eliminating tension but rather harnessing the positive aspects of differing perspectives and experiences.

Key Insight: Navigating organizational complexity involves balancing competing objectives across departments to foster creative tension and innovation, while ensuring alignment to prevent inefficiencies and siloed efforts.

Strategy: Leaders should set clear priorities and expectations from the top-down, aligning the entire organization around critical metrics and goals. Simultaneously, encourage bottom-up engagement to empower frontline teams in developing sustainable solutions within the established framework.

Impact: Implementing this dual approach enables organizations to harness the positive aspects of conflicting objectives. This strategy ensures that while departments pursue their individual goals, they remain aligned with overarching organizational objectives, promoting efficiency and collaboration across the board.

Advice for Early Career Professionals

For those early in their careers but interested in advancing to operational leadership roles, such as plant manager or director of operations, Phil shares three insights from his own journey. 

  1. Early in his career, he was eager to climb the ladder quickly, often pushing for promotions. However, his mentor offered a perspective that changed his approach. Instead of focusing solely on rapid vertical advancement, consider making horizontal moves to gain diverse experiences across different functions. These lateral moves can provide valuable insights and skills that are beneficial in the long run.

    Remember to value each role and company as part of your broader career journey. Every position offers unique learning opportunities that contribute to your development. Enjoying the process and focusing on the big picture rather than rushing through can make a big difference.
  2. Everyone’s career path is unique, and what works for one person might not be suitable for another, so avoid comparing your progress with that of your peers. Concentrate on your own growth and journey, and understand that true excellence will always be recognized and rewarded.
  3. When you are faced with problems, take the time to thoroughly analyze them and develop well-thought-out solutions rather than just addressing the symptoms. This approach ensures that solutions are effective and sustainable. Also involve your colleagues and team members in the process of identifying and solving those root causes because their insights and involvement are crucial for successful problem-solving and implementation. This patience and thoroughness will pay off in the long run.

“The key success that I saw with that site was going after the root causes of all these various problems and bringing the people in the workforce along for the journey in both establishing the vision, understanding the root causes, and then ultimately aligning on a roadmap to get us to where we are best in class.”

Key Insight: Gaining diverse experiences, focusing on personal growth, and thoroughly analyzing problems are crucial for long-term success.

Strategy: Embrace lateral moves for diverse experiences and growth, focus on personal growth and excellence, not peer comparisons and thoroughly analyze problems and involve team members for successful solutions.


  • Diverse experiences allow you to gain a broad range of experiences to enhance your overall skill set, making you more adaptable and well-rounded. 
  • Focusing on personal growth rather than comparison fosters a healthier mindset and more sustainable career development. It encourages intrinsic motivation and resilience.
  • Problem analysis and team involvement lead to more effective and sustainable solutions. This patience and thoroughness will pay off in the long run, ensuring successful implementation and continuous improvement.

Embracing Continuous Growth for Operational Excellence

Employee engagement is the backbone of any successful organization. It is about ensuring every employee knows their value and how they contribute to the business’s success. By creating a sense of purpose and offering opportunities for professional development, companies can significantly boost engagement and motivation. Leadership is pivotal here; when leaders embrace empowerment and curiosity, they foster a culture of innovation and high performance. Leaders who are genuinely curious and open about their own knowledge gaps encourage team collaboration and trust, leading to more effective problem-solving and creativity.

In Lean initiatives, sustainable success hinges on frontline teams taking full ownership of their work. This requires effective change management and a shift towards a bottom-up management approach. Regular check-ins and direct engagement with the workforce ensure continuous improvement and operational resilience. Navigating organizational complexity involves balancing competing objectives across departments. Strong top-down leadership to set priorities, coupled with bottom-up engagement, ensures alignment and fosters innovative solutions.

As you strive for operational excellence, remember to remain open to feedback, process it thoughtfully, and implement necessary changes to foster continuous growth. We are dedicated to helping you become a powerhouse company, whether through our comprehensive training programs or one-day workshops, check out our website for more information.


Did you enjoy this blog?

Here are some related topics that you may find interesting:

Lori Da Silva: Essential Leadership Insights

Phil Buckman: The Essence of Effective Leadership

Karin DiCarlo: How to Inspire, Motivate, and Achieve Operational Excellence

John Berkmortel: Navigating Challenges, Fostering Growth, and Achieving Excellence in Manufacturing