Two Key Forces That Drive Employee Engagement

By on May 14, 2019
Two Key Forces That Drive Employee Engagement

What does it take to cultivate a highly-engaged, enthusiastic employee population?

The impact of a devoted workforce on productivity, quality and profitability is well known, and yet many companies have great room for improvement when it comes to employee engagement. Recently, I had the great pleasure of observing two companies that are experiencing great success in this area.

The first company supports manufacturing of a wide variety of products, including cleaning of parts for Boeing’s F-18s. The work they do includes, for example, packaging, assembly, collating, sorting, inspecting and mailing/UPS shipping. They are FDA certified for medical devices and pharmaceuticals and licensed by the Missouri Board of Pharmacy. Doing this work with high-quality outcomes requires a dedicated, engaged and focused workforce. And that’s exactly what they have.

The excitement and enthusiasm I observed in their employees at a monthly employee and staff recognition ceremony was awe-inspiring. In my career, I’ve been in many all-employee meetings and a large number of them were filled by employees who were sullen, unengaged, unenthusiastic and obviously wanting to be somewhere else.

Not these workers. When the names of their fellow workers were called out along with comments about the great contributions they had made to the company, almost everybody cheered, cheered, and cheered. When the names of their supervisors were called out for recognition of their exemplary performance, the workers cheered, cheered, and cheered.

As further proof of the level of employee engagement, this company has many long-term employees, one having worked there for 50 years.

JSI Supervisor Christie Schumer recognizes the excellent work of Debra Arnold.

JSI Supervisor Christie Schumer recognizes the excellent work of Debra.

The second company also provides many of the same services as the one I’ve just described. I’ve observed in this company the same dedication to quality work, enthusiasm, focus on the job, and engagement that I saw in the first. I’ve also had an exchange with one of their workers that I will never forget.

I was standing at the first stage of a production line when a worker turned to me and said, “George, do you know why I want to do a really good job?”

“Please tell me,” I responded.

He replied, “Because I want my company to succeed.”

I thought to myself, what a great demonstration of what being an engaged employee really means. It wasn’t all about him; it was all about his company.

I’ve also observed highly-engaged workers in this company, meticulously focused on doing high-quality work. I’ve seen teams of employees following very well-designed standardized work processes, including great improvements made in the production process used with one of their major customers through the application of Lean manufacturing principles. I’ve observed a cadre of supervisors who are continually looking for ways to improve work processes. Finally, I’ve witnessed happy workers who really value having an opportunity to work for their company.

This company, like the first, also has many long-term employees, one having served there since the company’s founding 40 years ago.

Primary drivers of high employee performance

On a personal level, the employees in both of these companies reminded me of workers I interacted with in 1986, at New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) in Fremont, California. That joint venture of Toyota and General Motors was established to build quality cars—and they did—with a highly-motivated workforce—which they had—and to allow General Motors to experience Lean manufacturing in action so they could use the lessons they learned at other GM facilities.

Valley Industries honors John Shaughness and Mary Wajciechowski at the company’s monthly recognition of employee excellence.

Valley Industries honors John Shaughnessy and Mary Wajciechowski at the company’s monthly recognition of employee excellence.

So, what’s happening in these two companies that reminded me of what I saw at NUMMI? And what was driving the kind of performance I observed? Quite a bit, but I’d suggest two are the most obvious. I’d also call them the primary drivers of high performance in any organization. They are:

  1. Workers knew that they were needed and that they were respected.
  2. Managers and supervisors understood that the performance of workers would be greatly enhanced by well-targeted reward and recognition and they continually gave positive feedback to employees who were doing a good job.

By the way, both of these companies are sheltered workshops, serving employees who have been diagnosed as developmentally disabled. The first is Valley Industries in Hazelwood, Missouri and the second is Jefferson Subcontracting Inc. in Arnold, Missouri.

The fact that they’re sheltered workshops is really irrelevant.

Two forces behind a highly-engaged work culture

There are two primary forces that drive a highly-engaged workforce doing high-quality work in any company, just as they do in these two companies. The first is as follows:

1. All human beings—you and I and everyone else—need to know that the company for whom they work respects their intelligence and creativity. This respect is the fire that ignites the desire to do good work, to “want to make sure that our company succeeds.”

Why is this incredibly obvious need of all human beings not acted upon in many companies?

I’d suggest it’s because the mass production thinking of Frederick Taylor, called the “father of scientific management,” still impacts the thinking of many leaders. None would admit to agreeing with Taylor’s observation about iron workers when he said in testimony before Congress, “I can say without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is physically able to handle the pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”

No leadership teams would admit to accepting what Taylor says about workers, but they act like they do. As a result, they have developed workforces that are detached from the work they do, with only a marginal concern for building quality products and little concern for the long-term welfare of the company.

The second primary force that drives a highly-engaged workforce is:

2. All human beings—you and I and everyone else—need to have our good work recognized and rewarded. And the most effective rewards are positive, immediate and certain. They are given by supervisors who know what good performance looks like, aided by the existence of standardized work, who reward it immediately with “high fives,” loaded gift cards, points toward the purchase of items online or in a catalog or other incentives.

Why is it that many managers and supervisors don’t see the need for reward and recognition programs? Why have several plant managers told me, “Their pay should be enough to drive high quality work?”

It isn’t. If it was, they’d be getting 100% performance from their workers. They’re not.

So why aren’t they making much more effective use of reward and recognition? Once again, although they’ll never admit it, I’d suggest it’s because they view their workers as machines. Put enough gas (i.e. pay) in them and they’ll run at full speed all day. What an incredible delusion!

What a difference it makes to show respect for all of our workers and to reward and recognize their good work.

The Lean mentality that leads to engagement: employee respect, candor and trust

These two primary forces, I must add, are the core teachings of Lean manufacturing where the goal is to develop work environments in which respect, candor and trust are the defining characteristics. What a difference it makes when this type of work environment is established.

This environment of respect, candor and trust is exactly what I saw at Valley Industries and Jefferson Subcontracting, Inc.

And that’s exactly what needs to happen at any company that wants to build a high-performance workplace and a high-performance cadre of workers.

Implementing this approach isn’t complicated. All it takes is a leadership group that believes that respecting one’s workers and recognizing and rewarding the good work done by these workers are steps that have to be taken.

Like all change processes that are sustainable, beliefs must precede actions. Take these two steps. If you pursue both with vigor and persistence, the changes you’ll see in your company will be amazing.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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