Several years before the word “engagement” claimed residence in the workplace lexicon, a consulting firm was retained by the management of a U.S. medical products manufacturer.
The manufacturer was home to a very dispirited workforce that produced intravenous bag and tube assemblies. The symptoms of low engagement were classic: high rates of turnover and absenteeism, low morale, low productivity, and unacceptable product quality among others.
The consultants spent weeks working tirelessly to discover the root cause of engagement problems and determine a cure. Finally, one of the senior consultants told his team it might be attributable to workers not fully appreciating just how important their work was.
To test this thesis, they arranged a tour of a nearby county hospital. Over the course of three days, groups of production employees boarded a bus, a big, yellow school bus in fact, which transported them to the hospital, where they saw with their own eyes, the fruits of their labor delivering life-saving nutrition, medicine and pain relief to patients.
The effect of this little demonstration was almost instantaneous, beginning with wide eyes and knowing smiles on the faces of nearly every worker as they re-boarded the bus after the tour. More importantly, those wide eyes and smiles turned into a near miracle in the workplace, as people realized just why and how their work mattered. Slowly but surely, worker attitudes, productivity, and product quality all took turns for the best.
Fast forward several years, and we are now faced with production models and workplaces that are very different, though many of the fundamental precepts remain. Indeed, the factory where the “yellow bus miracle” took place has been replaced by one in Puerto Rico. In a word, things have become far more complex as, in both the manufacture of products and delivery of services, it has become common to atomize business processes into disparate chunks of activity, and assign those tasks to bodies, bots, entities and machines here, there, and everywhere in pursuit of an ever more efficient supply chain. At the same time, we have introduced almost infinite customization on our product and service offerings, adding ever more complexity to our processes.
In so doing, we have unintentionally, but very effectively obstructed the view that many workers once had of their efforts, their downstream partners, and to be sure, the end user. As might be expected, when one loses grasp of the importance of what they do, things like morale, engagement, and productivity suffer as a result.
Solutions to try:
- Connect the Dots. Asking people to do a job without the benefit of a clear picture of how their work fits in is like asking someone to assemble a jigsaw puzzle without first getting a glimpse of the assembled version on the box top. It can be done, but the progress is slow and frustrating. Take time to reconnect the dots for them. Whenever and wherever possible, actually put your people in the customer’s shoes, just like wise hotel and restaurant managers do when they encourage staff to take in the guest experience (even at a competitor’s business). When that is not possible, give people a direct window into how their efforts matter in the scheme of the larger production process.
- Adjust Hiring Profiles. In an effort to maintain updated skillsets, make sure that job qualifications and hiring profiles are modified to reflect new exigencies whenever the supply chain architecture is rejiggered.
- Think Like Disney. Be a Storyteller. High performance workplaces do a masterful job of catching people, often in the “bowels of the ship” going all the way for the customer. They make sure that story gets told and repeated, emblazoning it on the very fabric of the institution.