I have a long-standing practice of asking managers “What percent of your employees come to work every day, excited about a potential solution to a problem or an idea for improvement?”
After 20 years in Lean consulting, the answers I receive to that question have not changed much. Here are a few:
- “We had a good run for a few months when maybe a third of our workforce was engaged, but we’re probably at about 5% now.”
- “The only serious work on improvement or problem solving comes from our dedicated Kaizen team.”
- “One company owner, call him John Smith, actually told me during a sales call, “Our employees are morons, so that wouldn’t work here,” a comment sufficiently offensive that I politely excused myself from the meeting: “If that’s how you feel, Mr. Smith, then you’re right, Lean is not an option for you.”
Fortunately, most responses to my question are kinder than Smith’s, but the percentage estimate for employee involvement is still almost always less than 25%. If less than one fourth of employees are participating in problem solving or improvement, no wonder so many organizations report lukewarm outcomes from Lean. You can debate the exact percentages for employee involvement, but all of the estimates and expectations are resignedly low.
So, what’s missing? Do we need better employees as Mr. Smith suggests? Or are employees like the daisy in my walkway? Even an awful environment will grow an occasional daisy. We call those few, the "self-starters", the "A-team", persons who rise above every obstacle to achieve. And how do we reward them? We give more challenges to them until they are overwhelmed. That’s the predominant system.
So, how do some organizations break through to generate broad employee involvement? A manager from one Shingo Prize-winning factory related:
“When we first subscribed to the Shingo insight that systems drive behavior, we realized if employees were not engaged, then perhaps the means by which we encouraged involvement needed to be revised. That was a humbling eye-opener. For example, we discovered that our idea system was literally losing employee ideas in the evaluation process. Employees took this as rejection and just stopped submitting ideas. They felt disrespected.”
At a deeper level, the willingness of this factory's managers to question the systems that they themselves had created exemplified a couple of fundamental Shingo Principles:
- Lead with humility
- Respect every individual
Are you relying on a few self-starters to create improvement or are you developing an army of involved employees? Please share your thoughts.
BTW – Want to learn more about creating a culture of Total Employee Involvement? We’ve got a twofer for you.
First, on October 21-22, we’ll be at Legrand (Wiremold) in Hartford teaching the Shingo Institute’s CULTURAL ENABLERS workshop that describes the fundamental principles of Lead with Humility and Respect Every Individual. Read more about it here.
Then on October 23-24, the 15th Annual Northeast LEAN Conference will be held at The Connecticut Convention Center, also in Hartford. The event features 50+ sessions to engage the hearts and minds of our most valuable asset, out employees. Learn about GBMP's biggest event of the year here and register your team today! I sincerely hope to see you there.