Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lean Engagement

Lean Engagement from Lean Sensei's newsletter Q1 2014 issue


If you are a typical organization, you likely struggle immensely with the whole concept of employee engagement.  Discouraging, yes, but true.  Please allow me to explain, and keep in mind that I care about you and want to help you and your business to succeed.  First, I must admit that my research is based only on a “small” sample size: a few thousand managers, a few hundred clients, dozens of business leaders, and multiple industry sectors.  Yet despite these logistical limitations, patterns have emerged in overwhelming regularity.  Yes my lean friends, I have come to the conclusion that most organizations don't really measure engagement well or even understand what it is.  I have seen companies and government agencies equating and measuring engagement through employee surveys, job satisfaction scores, retention rates, and other symptoms that represent a complex set of employee relations issues muddled together in a satisfaction score.  Frankly, these measures fail to get to the root of why people stay or go.  I see many initiatives intended to build team morale that have nothing to do with real work in the gemba.  Sometimes I see hard-nosed managers press their staff and criticize them relentlessly, oblivious to the resulting disengagement. I also see executives and managers pandering to employee whims and apologizing for organizational shortcomings to improve engagement scores, while ignoring needed action to improve business effectiveness.  Sorry, my job is to point these things out, even though few leaders like to hear it.  Thus, the topic for this blog is building real employee engagement. 

It seems many businesses would be happy to ignore the truth about employee engagement.  The stark truth is that engagement is not about having employees feel good about what your company does for them.  It is not about knowing the names of your employees spouse, children, dog, cat, and goldfish.  Yes, you have to care for them, but in the context of what a man or woman can do and how you can help them do it.  It is about employees intrinsically feeling good about making a contribution to your company.  “Wow wow wow!”  That is what we need—a big paradigm shift about what engagement really is.  Let me state this emphatically - from a lean perspective - engagement is about feeling that you are making a difference in the company you work for.  It is not about feeling that someone else is making a difference for you, or gives your trinkets because you are an employee!  It helps if the difference you make is explicitly understood and recognized at the time you make it.  It hurts if someone tosses a few general platitudes out to everyone after the fact without ever acknowledging your specific work, and then HR organizes another company picnic so you can burn another Saturday in an attempt to feel good for the team.   Hmmm.  Time to check the rear view mirror.

I suggest a fundamental re-definition of "Engagement" is needed if we want genuine positive feelings and retention of good dedicated employees to persist.  Here is the key premise: Engagement = the degree to which employees demonstrate a shared destiny with the organization by proactively solving the problems of the business.  Lean engagement is not simply about employee happiness.  It is about commitment to mutual destiny and actively fighting for the business.  It is about working together with your manager, peers, staff, and cross-functional teams to make ‘how you do work’ better.  So from this perspective, voluntary participation in problem solving teams and kaizen activities is the purest form of engagement.  Yet very few companies measure and celebrate problem solving engagement.  Taking ownership of processes and seeing improvements through will not only get results, but will build mutual trust which improves all those employee relations issues, and reduces the relevance of many predictable employee relations symptoms.   

So what are the implications for leaders to promote an engaged workforce?  Here’s a secret ten-step engagement program that any manager can do:
(1)    Stop relying on employee surveys and start having real 1-on-1 “real” conversations with your team
(2)    Find out what makes them upset and frustrated more than anything else at work
(3)    Make sure you and they understand the root cause of the dissatisfaction
(4)    Figure out how to solve it, or who has already solved it (but don’t tell anyone that you know)
(5)    Equip your team to solve it; ask the right questions that will cause them to discover solutions on their own; be delighted in the creative ideas they come up with and assess them objectively
(6)    Coach them through solving the problem, clearing roadblocks but letting them take the lead
(7)    Congratulate them for solving it, and show how it helped the business and the customer
(8)    Ask them how they can pass on what they learned; get them to tell their story
(9)    Have them take ownership of the new standards, and re-training / maintenance of those standards as inevitable changes are realized
(10)  Follow-up to ensure their kaizens do not fizzle out, and their efforts are not diminished.  Show pride in their accomplishments, not your own.

If you do this (or are doing this already), you are actively building engagement.  If you are not doing this, what are you doing?  Whatever it is, please don’t call it engagement.  Have a look at the ten points.  There are always a couple of them that leaders recognize that they can do better.  Commit to doing it.  Engage.


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