Manufacturers have no trouble hanging onto key employees these days, since job opportunities are scarce. But, that hasn’t reduced the need to find new ways to engage people. No matter what type of economic opportunities a company can provide, engagement still plays an important role in employee retention.


Manufacturers have no trouble hanging onto key employees these days, since job opportunities are scarce. But, that hasn’t reduced the need to find new ways to engage people. No matter what type of economic opportunities a company can provide, engagement still plays an important role in employee retention.

However, you can’t just sit back and assign this problem to the human resource department. Engagement must be continuous at the point of activity. The following three elements must work together:

  • Building the right culture that enables and even values engagement.
  • Building the right systems or management infrastructure.
  • Building skills in both employees and managers to make it all work.
Culture is the set of shared assumptions, beliefs and principles that a group holds. A certain set of beliefs and behaviors need to be developed to support engagement.

The most important people to exhibit these behaviors are front-line managers. They are in the best position to create a culture-and in the easiest position to destroy it-simply based on the frequency and consistency of engagement.

The beliefs that support engagement are centered around two fundamental principles. First, is the belief that everyone can make a contribution and is an expert at something. Second, is the belief that, given the opportunity, most people want to make a valuable contribution.

It’s important for front-line managers, and their supervisors, to espouse those beliefs. But, it’s even more important that they practice those beliefs through the right behavior. Behaviors are what people experience and it’s what influences their own behaviors.

So, what behaviors best demonstrate these beliefs? How a person reacts when someone makes a mistake is a great indicator. If the first reaction to a mistake is condemnation and chastising, then this is not consistent with a belief that people are intending to do good. On the other hand, if a mistake is met with empathy and support to correct the mistake, that is a very different experience for the individual.

The second element is building systems and processes that enable engagement. When conducting an assessment, one of the most revealing questions that I ask is, “If you have found waste or an opportunity to improve, what do you do with it?” I usually get answers ranging from “I don’t know” to “I wait for the next kaizen event.”

Without systems, we depend on the sheer willpower of the individual to decide to overcome momentum and make a change. This is a big chance to take.

When developing systems, lean managers should consider two important criteria in the design. First, consider the natural flow of work. You want people to be able to leverage what ever systems you design while they are doing the work.

Second, consider how you can enable decision making at the point of activity within the systems. This might be decision guides, criteria, standard work or simple empowerment. Anything that requires permission or interruption to complete a task is disempowering and disengages employees.

The third element of engagement is to be aware that skill gaps exist in both employees and managers. Most transformation efforts wrongly focus on only one group or the other.

Employees need to be able to identify problems. Have you ever asked a team, “What problems do you have?” and received the answer, “No problems”? Yet, problems seem to appear all over the place. We need to be able to consistently spot problems and opportunities.

In the future, I believe engagement will be one of the top performance differentiators. Are you doing enough?
 
 
Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, MI, and the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road. He is a coach and consultant to executives and practitioners in industries ranging from hospitals to high technology. You can follow his writings on his blog at www.jamieflinchbaugh.com. To contact Jamie directly, go to the web site www.leanlearningcenter.com.