How Employees See Themselves and the Improvement Process
The key to any performance improvement is employee engagement. This is also the biggest challenge. I recall many conversations with peers and colleagues where the word empowerment seemed to get tossed around as though it was some kind of “permission” employees were given to do better. “Our employees are empowered to improve our processes.” What does that really mean?
So, it’s been a while since I’ve written any kind of article having retired four years ago and feeling like I’d exhausted any possible insight I might have on the world of manufacturing. While this may still be true, it’s occurred to me that I occasionally still find myself back in that head space. This typically happens when doing the most mundane of things (daily walks, cutting the lawn, at the gym, etc.). I guess even though you may have left that “world” it never really leaves you.
Recently, I found myself thinking about some of the many experiences I had in trying to evolve workplace cultures to ones of higher performance and the processes that entailed. I had a bit of a “light bulb” moment that led me to reflect on previous articles. It wasn’t there. A simple but significant element. Let me explain.
The key to any performance improvement is employee engagement. This is also the biggest challenge. I recall many conversations with peers and colleagues where the word empowerment seemed to get tossed around as though it was some kind of “permission” employees were given to do better. “Our employees are empowered to improve our processes.” What does that really mean? I never saw empowerment as something that was given. I believed it to be something that was taken. Sure, you can and should and must create an environment where employees naturally and instinctively act in an empowered manner but that’s not enough to make it a reality.
In my experience, employees (especially those working in an hourly-paid manufacturing environment) typically equate self-worth with hard work. I heard more times than I can remember; “but I work harder than any of the supervisors/ managers here so why am I not paid the same?”. Despite the many successes we had in improving performance over the years I’m not sure I really ever dealt with that question effectively. We all know the responsibilities are different but the question remains to be resolved in the mind of the employee.
I believe the key to improved operational performance is in transitioning employee self-worth from being seen as hard work to that of value-added work.
It’s all in how people see and feel about themselves. Workplace culture has to shift to one where employees see themselves as valued. This requires more than the occasional “thank you”. While a great and necessary sentiment to express, it is transactional by nature. Feeling valued requires greater recognition and consideration. It requires investment and development in them as people not just as employees. The more this happens the more people truly feel empowered to add value.
So, how to make this happen?
Workplace culture needs to support this change. You can start by creating learning experiences for employees. They don’t need to be work-related. They can be as simple as paying for a night school course in wood-working, for example. Many hourly employees haven’t had a structured learning experience since they left school. In order for people to become engaged in the improvement process they need to be actively learning, thinking and problem-solving. What better way for them to become better-equipped to participate in a value-added culture than to improve their personal skill-sets by re-engaging with the learning process? They will begin to recognize that they are being seen as more than just employees. They will begin to gain confidence which will, in turn, promote self-worth.
I’ll never forget an instance where this was never truer. It involved providing company paid time and tutoring for employees to receive their GED. We had an employee in his fifties who hadn’t graduated from high school. At the end of a couple of years of hard work, on his part, he achieved his goal. I can still see the look on his face and those of his family when he received his diploma (we had a little ceremony). Talk about self-worth. The courses weren’t specific to the needs of the Company but was he better equipped to add value? Of course, he was. Did he feel more confident and better able to engage in the improvement process? Of course, he did. Did he feel empowered to make a difference? It goes without saying.
There is much more to an ongoing performance improvement process but in the early stages it’s important to:
• recognize the need to re-engage employees in the learning process • invest in the development of employees as people • begin to add the necessary skill-sets that will enable and foster problem-solving, teamwork and effective communication • create settings for employee-involved decision-making • utilize frequent feedback loops where the conversations begin to shift the narrative from working hard to adding value • find ways (conversations/ team meetings) to introduce the concept of personal accountability – no one is accountable unless some one is accountable • Out of this process leaders will emerge. They will be the first to recognize the value-add proposition. Invest in these people. Develop their leadership skills.
It’s simple really – what kind of people do you need to create an engaged and self-identifying as empowered workforce? You need people that feel valued and are equipped to do the work but most of all you need people that recognize there is more to “value” than hard work. You need people that understand there is a shared and mutually beneficial responsibility in improving processes and workplace culture.
Show me a workplace where employees are seen and invested in as people and I will show you an environment where the improvement possibilities are endless.
Time to cut the grass.
Doug Harper has been a frequent Update contributor, a long-standing past EMC member and a retired management professional with over thirty-five years of diversified and progressive experience, in a variety of fast-paced and demanding operational and manufacturing roles.
Doug has demonstrated expertise in sustainable performance improvement. A Specialist in changing operational “cultures” through the use of common-sense people management and employee empowerment and particularly effective in implementing strategic approaches to accomplishing organizational goals with high levels of employee engagement. Skilled in the development of leadership at all levels of an organization through the use of mentoring and participatory management.