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Updated: April 1, 2024 / 2024 Manufacturing Excellence Awards

Manufacturing awards: Wilson-Thomas promotes continuous improvement, and welcoming policies for women

A woman stands in front of lab equpiment Photo | Courtesy of Waters Corp. Sonya Wilson-Thomas takes notes on operations at a Waters facility.
  2024 Manufacturing Excellence Awards  
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During her first year working in the manufacturing industry, as a customer service representative, Sonya Wilson-Thomas took part in a Kaizen event, a five-day session bringing together workers and managers to brainstorm a workflow issue and find a solution.

“It was so empowering being part of that team,” Wilson-Thomas said. “There was a problem that had been plaguing the department for years. Within a five-day event, we solved it.”

Today, as manager of continuous improvement deployment at Milford-based laboratory instrument and software maker Waters Corp., Wilson-Thomas’ job is to help other people have that kind of experience. She works with teams at the company to develop solutions together.

At one Kaizen event, she said, some machine operators noted they spent a lot of time walking around looking for materials and for people who needed to sign paperwork for them. Together, the group developed a new workflow in which people came to them for sign-offs and materials, allowing them to spend more time doing the actual production work.

Continuous improvement is a process of getting people to take a step back from their day-to-day tasks and feel empowered to find solutions, Wilson-Thomas said. Along with organizing events to help that happen, she works with managers at Waters, encouraging them to be open to thoughts workers share, even if they come in the form of complaints.

A bio box for Sonya Wilson-Thomas
A bio box for Sonya Wilson-Thomas

“When somebody brings up an issue, how the manager approaches it can completely change the outcome,” she said.

Since she began working in manufacturing, Wilson-Thomas said, she’s gotten used to frequently being the only woman in a room. Today, she supports others in a similar position as secretary of the Massachusetts chapter of the Women in Manufacturing Association. The group, which Waters supports as a corporate sponsor, organizes monthly factory tours and get-togethers where women in the industry can network and share ideas.

At Waters, Wilson-Thomas advocates for women’s needs, from free sanitary products in the restrooms to special parking spots for pregnant employees. She helped the company institute bereavement leave for pregnancy loss. She’s felt strongly about that issue since she lost a pregnancy years ago and had to be at her job while the miscarriage ran its course. At a women-in-business conference, she heard about other companies offering this benefit, and she worked for a year to get it adopted at Waters.

“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that,” she said.

Wilson-Thomas was inspired by her first manager at Waters, who modeled being a pregnant and then nursing mother on the job shortly before Wilson-Thomas herself became pregnant.

“It was so different than my first pregnancy with the last company, when I didn’t report to a female manager,” she said. “I hope, going forward, that I am doing that for other women.”

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