A Suggestion Scheme – is this really about Staff Engagement?
The MD of a client manufacturing company was concerned that the new Staff Suggestions Scheme did not appear to be generating any ideas from staff as to improving the processes.
‘It’s as if they are not interested…’ the MD complained. He was right. Most staff suggestion schemes falter in the early stages.
The reasons usually centre on staff scepticism as to whether any suggestions will be acted upon. Equally important is that employee groups are rarely involved in developing and implementing improvement ideas.
So what should he do? Let me unfold the story of what we did, starting with trust, training and accountability.
Trust, training and accountability
The management team had talked about ‘staff empowerment’ for change with the operations teams. A challenge with this approach is that it often lacks definition and depth. In creating improvements it’s vital to establish trust: ‘this is going be a cultural change, not just a management whim’. That staff are trained in realistic, grounded and useful methods for changing a process. And that there is accountability on the part of managers and staff for making the improvements work. True ownership must be established and this leads to staff engagement. A useful insight into fostering accountability can be found in the book The Oz Principle by Conners, Smith and Hickman. For an overview see The Story Behind the Oz Principle.
Training: what do we need?
Lifting the staff teams out of ‘working in the processes’ to ‘working on the processes’ required training in the first-step essentials such as process analysis (what is really going on, not what it says should be going on in the quality manual). In summary the training topics were:
Process mapping: process sequence steps; process work-flow; plus process time analysis and process cost analysis;
Improvement methods: such as work-place management; work-flow design and set-up reduction;
Project management methods: for example – project charters for the teams, problem selection and prioritisation methods and Gantt charting for timing of activities;
Performance Boards: establishing 15 minute, weekly sessions for directors, managers and staff where staff present weekly ‘dashboard’ updates for measures such as process quality, process costs, and throughput. Other measures such as health and safety, environmental management and staff issues are also reported;
‘Protected Time’: one of the most important ways of establishing trust is blocking out time for the teams to deploy the training and develop and implement the improvements. Yes, it may mean the delivery and lead times may temporarily lengthen. But it’s an investment as we will see later.
What happened next?
The MD described it as ‘outstanding!’ and went on to outline that in 8 months the culture had shifted from one of adequate performance to one where the managers had more time to manage the resources and the business, not get drawn into operations level ‘fire-fighting’. Quality and lead times had significantly improved, and unnecessary process costs were down. Importantly staff morale had measurably improved as noted by one employee ‘it’s great to come to work and just get on with making changes if we see the opportunity. Before all this it was frustrating as we could see what needed to be done but never allowed do anything about it’.
Was it easy?
No, not all of the changes. Particularly as at the weekly Performance Reporting Meetings the managers and directors had to be accountable to staff for some supporting elements of change and actions. Finding Protected Time for staff was often an obstacle when the pressure was on in fulfilling delivery dates. But as the MD noted ‘investment in protected time was just that: an investment and now with faster processes, and better, plus reduced costs we are far more competitive’.
What where the most useful methods?
The production manager noted ‘…all of the methods proved valuable, but the ‘glue’ that bound us all together were the Project Charters (see insert) and weekly Performance Reporting Meetings were are brilliant. Rather like driving a car we can all tell, on a weekly basis, how we are performing as a company, and make adjustments when needed. Production staff also like the news and updates of how we doing with sales and order intake as well. This is not something we would do before’
What were the learning points?
Here are a selection of quotes from the people engaged in the process:
‘Establishing the new culture of trust and accountability takes time: say what you’ll do, and do what you say’.
‘It was mind blowing how much “waste” there was in all the processes: wasted time with delays, unnecessary costs – particularly re-work; avoidable material flow. But most of all waste of staff talents’
‘There will be “tears before bedtime” and some people will get concerned, frustrated and downright annoyed with change…but stick with it. And regular communication – particularly at the weekly Performance Reporting Meetings – will get you through’.
‘The old saying of “with every pair of hands you get a free brain” is very true. Yes, people come to work to do a certain job. But alongside this staff are creative and want to get involved with making working life easier by improving existing processes and reducing their frustrations. Ultimately making then business far more competitive in an already tough world’
‘Training is an investment and part of staff empowerment and accountability. Without the training the collective knowledge and skills would not have improved’
‘Watch out for hum-bug moments. “That’s all well and good for manufacturing processes, but that won’t work for us” is just not true. We are already improving our support activities such as HR, finance, product design and procurement. These are processes requiring people after all’
So in summary sound leadership must involve encouraging accountability and this means unlearning old rules and culture and learning the new rules of trust. Give it a try, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
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