Employee to Associate to Owner – Yes! But How?

By John Matura, Manufacturing Solutions Architect, InSource Solutions

The level of engagement of the people of an organization drive its ability to succeed and to sustain success.  Dynamic market conditions are forcing companies to find new ways of competing successfully. A differentiating asset can be its people, but how do we get more value from existing employees?

The 2017 Industry Survey “The Global State of Operational Excellence: Critical Challenges & Future Trends”, an BTOES insights Report ( http://insights.btoes.com/grab-your-copy-global-state-of-operational-excellence-2017-industry-report) found that “Improving Company Culture for employee fulfillment, to own their role for sustainable Operational & Production Excellence” is the “most critical challenge” being faced. How do you go from a command and control environment where associates are mere cogs in the bigger production machine to “ownership”?

With the advent of mass production in the early 19th century, work activities were broken into simple, repetitive tasks. Employees were viewed as extensions of the machine/process. This arrangement required close supervision with no worker autonomy. High quality relied on tasks were to be repeated without variation.  Employee loyalty and work performance were rewarded by a steady paycheck. There were few expectations for anything beyond this. Workers were only hired “hands”. If there was a question, management had the answer.

This model is not sustainable in the current market environment. Management cannot hold all the answers and most work is no longer solely repetitive.  In recent times, work teams (functional, cross-functional, or self-directed) have attempted to harness the hidden and often under recognized process knowledge and ability of employees. Organizations have transitioned from having employees to associates. These teams normally require less supervision and are allowed some autonomy within their span of control. Work processes have been aggregated, structured and documented. The teams are often charged with determining best practices based on their operating knowledge. Finally, there has been some recognition that associates could bring their “heads” to work and contribute to process improvements. Management still makes final decisions, but has become more willing to team with associates.

Today, the challenge is to go beyond associates contributing with both hands and heads. How do we engage the “heart”, i.e. ownership? We need associates as owners that are self-directed problem solvers that have a creative interaction with the process. They are personally involved in the success of the company and they are aligned with the company’s vision and goals. Supervisors are “servant leaders” that help anticipate and resolve issues before there is impact on the process. Getting to this level involves a great deal of trust by management that associates will do the right thing based on having the knowledge, information, ability and management support.

Developing an ownership culture is a process.  The first step is to conduct an objective assessment that identifies where an organization is and defines a roadmap to an ownership culture. This step is often skipped. A good assessment will reveal an awareness of organizational operating, meeting and communication practices. These are the rhythms in all companies that provide structure and influence culture.  They exist whether or not acknowledged or defined. How and what you communicate is a foundation for increasing the overall level of ownership.

Once an understanding of the rhythms is established, the focus is to correct the gaps identified. Commonly agreed, structured interactions need to be established or updated. Deficiencies can be related to a lack of level specific, actionable KPIs; little consistency of meetings with variable content and user benefit; communication that is often random vs. structured; and unclear or poorly defined work expectations without an understanding on how each associate contributes to the company’s success.

Some organizations attempt to address communication issues to increase engagement and drive ownership with visual management tools on the shop floor (i.e. Associate digital bulletin boards).  These efforts normally fail because they do not integrate the process for associates to understand, own and act on the information. Coaching and reinforcing the use of the new communication tools is critical, but often overlooked. The timing is critical.  When new technology is introduced, if it is not immediately aligned with the process and current operational culture and rhythms, the technology will not be embraced and provide the intended benefits. The tools are important, but do not change a culture in isolation.

In summary, ownership connects associates with their team, co-workers, management and the larger organization. There must be a compelling “why”/reason for their company that they can relate to. Functional rhythms are a vital component providing effective, consistent, two-way communication; peer and organizational recognition and support; and personal growth. Aligning an empowered workforce, (its people and processes) with enabling technology allows disciplined execution and an ownership culture to grow. Technology alone is not enough.