Employee Involvement... What I Wish I Knew 20 Years Ago (Part II)

by Peter Grazier


In Part I issue, I discussed how my work in the employee involvement field over the last 20 years has changed me. This work has significantly altered my thinking about organizations, performance, and people. What I attempted to share was what I called "Key Learning Points" ...those foundation principles that are critical to actualizing involvement, empowerment, and self-direction in the workplace.

Having written this newsletter for 18 years, I was surprised by the response to that article. It seems that these key learning points struck a chord. The first three points were:

          1. Everyone has something to contribute ...and will if the environment is right.

          2. The human element of performance is more important than the technical element.

          3. Most decisions can be significantly improved through collaboration.

I now want to continue this discussion with the next two points.

Key Learning Points

4. People Need Leaders - Good Leaders Build Trust, a Higher Sense of Mission, and a Sense of Worth

With much of the emphasis today on expanding the role of the front line employee, innovations such as employee empowerment and self-management are moving to the forefront. The concept of "the leaderless work group," virtually unheard of several years ago, is beginning to take hold.

This devolving of the leadership role at the work group level, however, does not mean that people don't need leaders. In 1981 when I was just beginning to work with employee involvement concepts in the construction industry, I had an experience that was to shape my thinking about leadership forever.

While walking around the site one day, one of the workers stopped me and asked why the project manager didn't get out and talk with the crews more often. He was truly interested in who this person was and what he was all about. I thought this interesting, because this worker would probably be laid off at the end of the job and never see this manager again.

What I have come to learn over the years is that work is more than just this task we perform each day. It is an activity that provides dignity and meaning to our lives. Our workplace is another world and another life---a community of people working together toward a common purpose. Such a community looks for guidance and approval that are best provided by a leader. Leaders typically have more expertise and the ability to point the direction.

However, real leadership is in the eye of the follower. One cannot be a leader without followers. In today's workplace, there are many heads of organizations, designated as such by virtue of their position. These people were not elected to those positions by their workforces, but rather appointed through some other arbitrary process. How they behave in those positions will determine if they become true leaders, or simply temporary caretakers of the organization's administrative processes.

Trust and a Sense of Worth

Surveys of the workplace today indicate that trust levels are at an all-time low. Massive layoffs through "downsizing," obscene CEO pay packages, and leveraged buy-outs that weaken good companies are just a few reasons why workers feel alienated from their leaders. Additionally, our society seems to be moving toward greater skepticism of those in positions of power whether they are business leaders or political leaders. Organizations that neglect to address the trust issue pay a penalty in overall performance. People cannot give their best in a system where trust is absent. Good leaders understand this and work diligently to build it.

In 1977 I worked as a supervisor of a group that developed and monitored performance budgets on a large nuclear power construction project. The group of 13 people was located in a windowless office, virtually lost in a sea of about 500 administrative people. It was easy to be overlooked in this huge environment. 

The project's manager, however, seemed to understand that people needed more than administrative processes to guide them. Every couple of months he would wander into our area, stop by each person's desk, and talk with them about their work. After leaving, our group would be buzzing with interest and enthusiasm. People had a renewed sense of energy that lasted for several weeks.

These personal contacts led to a sense that you could really trust this person, because you knew him personally. He would look you in the eye when talking with you, and you knew he was serious. Somehow he made you feel that you were the most important person in his life at that moment, communicating a real sense of worth.

The high performance this man generated in his people was a direct result of his understanding that people need to see and believe their leaders. I like to think that I have always given my best during my career. But if I am really honest, I probably worked harder for his leader than any other. His ability to energize people moved us to higher levels of performance.

One day this knowledge will be taught in colleges and management seminars, because it lies at the heart of organization performance.

A Higher Sense of Mission

One day I asked a janitor sweeping a hospital hallway what his job was and he immediately responded "customer satisfaction." To say the least, I was surprised. Somehow the leadership of his organization had instilled in him a sense of importance, and that the work he performed contributed to a higher mission. Would this change, to some degree, how this janitor approaches his work?

I have thought about this a lot in recent years as I continue to compare high versus low-performing organizations. Good leaders seem to understand that within each person is a spirit that wants to make a contribution to a higher purpose. Thus they link what might appear as an ordinary task to a meaningful outcome.

Bill Budinger, CEO of Rodel, Inc. of Newark, Delaware, asked his sales people once that if they were working with a customer and suddenly realized there was a competing product that would provide a better solution, would they recommend it? After discussing the issue at length, they concluded that it would be consistent with their mission to recommend the other product. In this case, serving the customer was clearly a higher mission than just selling them a product. Having discussed this and other life philosophies with Mr. Budinger, it doesn't surprise me that Rodel has grown rapidly to become the market leader in its products. Something seems to drive these leaders and their people that transcends the profit motive.

The above examples, however, seem to be rare exceptions to the traditional approach to managing organizations in America today. These leaders are few, and it will take many more years before the above examples become commonplace.

5. Employee Involvement is NOT a Program, but Rather a Leadership Philosphy

Early on many of us mistakenly created "Employee Involvement Programs" whose sole purpose was to involve more of the organization's people in improving the work. As such, these "programs" of participation were overlaid onto traditional management systems with disastrous results.

Employee involvement, as a program, was stacked up with all other current programs and then relegated to some subordinate position in the priority listing. Not surprisingly, few managers took it seriously and the failure rate soared.

What I have learned since is that involvement is really an internal belief about people and their ability and desire to contribute. This belief translates into leadership behaviors that involve the organization's people more naturally in the thinking and decision-making processes. In other words, involvement becomes a natural way of operating rather than forced.

Max DePree, chairman of successful Herman Miller, Inc., said it best in his book Leadership is an Art: "I believe that the most effective contemporary management process is participative management. Participative management is glibly discussed these days in a number of magazines and books, but it is not a theoretical position to be adopted after studying a few journals. It begins with a belief in the potential of people. Participative management without a belief in that potential and without convictions about the gifts people bring to the organization is a contradiction in terms."

Belief Systems as Barriers

The above discussion hinges on a belief in the potential of people and the "gifts" they bring to the workplace. However, most of our mental programming through the years has emphasized that those in positions of power make the decisions. Leaders have been handsomely rewarded for their ability to make decisions and control the work, and so the existing belief system tends to support top-down hierarchical decision-making.

Changing one's beliefs is difficult but can be accomplished with repetition. Quality guru Dr. W. Edwards Deming talked incessantly about "constancy of purpose" when changing organizations. If the organization's leadership can remain focused on the strategic change year after year, eventually people will begin to adapt to the new way of operating. As everyone in the system begins to experience one success after another (for example with employee involvement), belief systems gradually change to accept the new way of working. It just takes time.

Where Does Employee Involvement Fit in the Overall Improvement Process?

If employee involvement is not a program or a tool, where does it fit in the overall organization improvement process? A simple model for designing such a process might look as follows. The beauty of this approach is its simplicity.

Goal
Total Customer Satisfaction
 
Strategy
World Class Quality in Products, Services, and Work Processes
 
Tools
TQM, SPC, JIT, Process Analysis, SMED, Quick Changeover, Mistake Proofing, TPM, Kanban, CEDAC, Surveys, Focus Groups, Measurement, ABM, Problem Solving, and on, and on.
 
Underlying Philosophy
Customer Focused; Continuous Improvement; Driven by Organization Vision, Mission, and Values; Total Involvement of Workforce, Customers, and Suppliers

In this model, employee involvement is clearly a foundation principle or underlying philosophy. It is not a tool or program unto itself. It becomes a normal way of operating that supports the quality strategy.

Mr. Grazier continues with his discussion of Key Learning Points in the three part series:

Six Key Learning Points

                    1. Everyone has something to contribute‚Ķand will if the environment is right. 
                    2. The human element of performance is more important than the technical element.
                    3. Most decisions can be significantly improved through collaboration. 

                    4. People need leaders. Good leaders build trust, a higher sense of mission, and a 
                        sense of worth
                    5. Employee Involvement is NOT a program, but rather a leadership philosophy. 

                    6. Continuous Improvement is beautifully simple.