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

by Peter Grazier


In my previous two articles, I related some of the key learning points that have been pivotal to my understanding and application of employee involvement and teambuilding concepts. These are the basics that, to me, make it work. I would like to continue this discussion by focusing on the last of my key learnings.

Key Learning Point #6

Continuous Improvement is Beautifully Simple

Early on in this work it became very obvious that front line workers possessed a brilliance of simplicity in the ideas they were bringing to the forefront. This simplicity is really at the heart of continuous improvement. Focusing on continuous improvement raises our consciousness of the thousands of tiny improvement opportunities that surround us each day, most in our own workspace.

It also promotes the notion that one thousand improvements each contributing a 1% gain in performance is the same as one improvement contributing a 1000% gain. Of course, my bias today is that the 1000 improvements are of far more significance, because they give more people a chance to feel ownership which then results in other benefits usually not counted in the analysis of benefits.

In 1982 while working on a construction project in St. Louis, one of the tasks was to build a large metal building to house production machinery. The building had a large open span, so the amount of weight that would be suspended from the ceiling became an important consideration.

The center of the span was to hold a main heating and ventilating duct, 3 feet by 4 feet, that would run the entire length of the building. The engineers had laid out their plans in such as way that the 4-foot dimension was horizontal and the 3-foot dimension was vertical. This design, by code, required heavy angle iron stiffeners to be placed every foot for the entire length of the building, adding significant weight to the structure.

Upon reviewing the drawing prior to installation, one of the sheetmetal workers suggested (using our crude suggestion program) that if we simply flip the duct on its side so that the 3-food dimension was horizontal, we could eliminate the stiffeners completely. His suggestion was implemented immediately, and thousands of dollars were saved in fabrication and installation costs. More importantly, eliminating the stiffeners reduced the amount of weight hanging from the ceiling.

This sheetmetal worker had studied building codes as part of his training, and was able to see an obvious and simple way to make a significant improvement. I remember wondering at the time how many other opportunities like this one had passed us by because, in the past, we had no effective mechanisms for employee feedback.

What I understand today is that encouragement of these ideas is not some supplemental activity that the organization undertakes, but is a significant part of good leadership behavior. Good leaders, therefore, become enthusiastic cheerleaders for continuous improvement concepts, encouraging people to look around their workspaces with a new set of eyes---seeing opportunities that have previously eluded us.

I once wandered into the accounting department of one of my clients and asked if they had any new examples of process improvements. (I like to use the term "process improvement" because it focuses people directly on their work processes.) Upon hearing my question, one of the accountants produced a two-page list of new improvements the accounting team had implemented.

Again, to demonstrate how we overlook the obvious, one idea suggested altering the computer software they used to input data on invoices. They had observed that some of the data being input was so repetitious, that is, having the same information input over and over on invoices, that keystrokes could be reduced by having the computer load it automatically. Keystrokes would only be required to eliminate the information in those rare occasions when it wasn't needed.

As we look closer at our work systems today, we find that they are loaded with inefficiency and waste. The simple idea discussed above lies at the heart of continuous improvement. Multiplied thousands of times, these improvements ultimately contribute significantly to cost reduction, turnaround time, response time, and more.

My lament, however, is that we have tended to overcomplicate this process of continuous improvement. We want to structure it, bureaucratize it, administrate it, and formalize it---when all that leaders really need to do is walk around, ask questions about it, show interest, and create an expectation that this is what the organization needs and wants. This may seem like an oversimplification, but it's not far off. It is my strong feeling that our current management system has discouraged idea generation from the front lines, because, historically, it has been management's job to do the thinking.

(Resource: The Winner's Circle video)

Return to Simplicity

Most humans tend to underestimate their capabilities. Somewhere in our early programming most of us failed to develop high levels of confidence in our ability to excel. As children, we were imaginative and creative in our play. But as we aged and moved through "the system," we were generally encouraged to think and act more logically and less imaginatively.

In school and business, Heaven help you if you applied some creative, perhaps off the wall thinking to solutions to problems. As a result, we tended to become more cautious when expressing ourselves, not wanting to expose ourselves to criticism, ridicule, or embarrassment. This environmental conditioning is a powerful driver of behavior that holds us back from reaching our full potential.

Since our business culture has tended to reward "the big idea," most employees feel incapable of contributing to the organization's improvement process. How many of us have a "big idea" every few days that would save the organizations tens of thousands of dollars? This is where I believe the beautiful simplicity of continuous improvement adds value. By changing the focus to small, daily improvements, confidence in one's ability to contribute is raised.

In my seminars I like to use simple everyday examples to make this point. For example, I travel frequently and, as a result, stay in a number of hotels. Once while taking an early morning shower at a Holiday Inn, I grabbed a bottle of body lotion and proceeded to wash my hair with it. Not intentionally. The two bottles containing the body lotion and the shampoo were identical in every way. The only way one could tell the difference was to read the small letters at the bottom which said "Body Lotion" or "Shampoo." When I show seminar participants these two bottles, they immediately see how easily this error could be made. These bottles are not "customer friendly," especially for those of us over forty whose eyesight is not what it used to be.

We also discuss how difficult this must be for the maids who maintain the rooms, always having to be careful to put out the right bottles. Discussion then leads to the maid's productivity and how much might be lost by such a simple little problem. Seminar participants quickly begin discussing how these bottles could be changed to improve this situation, at which point, I show them samples I have collected from other hotels. Some hotels have different colored bottles or bottle caps. Some have clear bottles and simply change the color of the fluids inside. Hyatt Hotels puts out five bottles, all with a different colored band around them. The point of this example is to demonstrate to people that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to find valuable improvement ideas. All it takes is awareness.

As with the hotel bottles, managers should find similar examples, then teach their people that the world of continuous improvement is nothing to fear, but actually enjoy. People truly enjoy making a contribution, and it is fun when the result is easier work. 

As improvements begin to flow, confidence will build and the process will feed on itself. There is one caveat, however. Remember…

Don't complicate something that is, at its essence, beautifully simple.

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.