Workers’ talents underutilized

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I recently sat in a bidder’s conference where each of five firms was asked to give a 30-minute presentation on its organization and capabilities. Each gave a glossy PowerPoint presentation ranging from 18-20 pages.

The participants used all the appropriate buzzwords and graphics. All were working on lean techniques and Six Sigma; all had hired black belts who were busily training green belts and taking part in mentoring programs.

Not surprisingly, they all were using similar equipment, had similar plants and information systems. All the participants gave excellent presentations. Only one thing was missing — differences.

After almost three hours of “me-too theater,” they had successfully defined themselves as a commodity. The only thing left to negotiate on was “price.”

We need to remember that we don’t compete on what we have in common; we compete on what we do better. It is what makes us unique. Lean, Six Sigma and like programs are critical tools, but they are threshold events — it’s what gets us in the game; it’s not the finish line. These initiatives will only give us parity with others using the same adopted programs.

So where does unique advantage come from? I suggest that we first look to the most underutilized asset in most organizations — our workers.

We tend to look at labor as just that, labor. Workers are more than just the muscle behind management’s intelligence and creativity. Understand, with every worker we hire we also get a brain. Most floor workers are doing what they do because they lack education or training, not because they lack intelligence and creativity. So how do we tap this intelligence?

We need to access all the talent available. Innovation is not the sole province of the corner office. Companies that ignore that run the risk of becoming the underclass of the next economy. They will compete solely on price, if competing at all. While they may survive, it will be at the will of more-dynamic organizations.

While Kaizen events are one of the best tools to generate employee involvement, they are also commonly misused. I asked a floor associate if she knew what a Kaizen event was. She responded, “I have been in a couple. It’s a three-day meeting where managers come out on the floor and explain to us what we think. If the event succeeds, they take the credit for showing us the error of our ways. If it doesn’t work, it’s because we don’t understand the genius of management … Sometimes we get a tee-shirt.”

This was not a stupid employee; she had seen through an organization’s attempt to misuse Kaizen to forward a predetermined agenda. The organization lost her engagement as a result.

If you want innovation from the workforce, ask for it. Make it part of the job description. Let your workers know you value their minds.

Another technique for structuring this effort is a tool called “idea portfolios,” where managers meet biweekly with operations teams to explain and update challenges.

Leadership supports the teams with data, technical expertise and capital when justified. Teams generate, implement and execute their ideas, and document their progress in notebooks called “idea portfolios.”

As you start this dialog with your workforce, it generates some interesting dynamics.

First, the process can force management to re-evaluate the factors behind decisions. While this makes us better managers, it can be a humbling experience.

Second, the composition of your workforce will change. Employees only willing to offer physical efforts tend to disappearand employees that are willing to engage in this challenge tend to spread the word and attract new workers with similar values.

Most importantly, your organization will be better prepared for the challenges of the next economy.

Adopted external innovation, while making us stronger, can make us less distinguishable from our competitors, a commodity.

Added internal innovation makes us unique to the markets we serve.

Stuart is a principle at Carbon314, an operations consulting company in Columbia, S.C.