One of the worst forms of waste in business is underutilizing the knowledge and ability of your workers. In fact, research shows that among companies that have won awards for innovation, more than 50 percent of the winning ideas came from the rank and file, not from management. A company’s workers often have an advantage in many situations simply because they are closer to the problems that need to be addressed. While workers can certainly contribute to major innovations in a workplace, their greatest impacts are often related to daily issues that directly affect productivity.
Unfortunately, many companies are misguided in their attempts to improve productivity. Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory teaches management to focus on making staff more efficient. However, Construction Industry Institute studies have found that only 10 to 25 percent of construction activities actually add value for the client. For this reason, the industry should focus on eliminating waste or activities that don’t add value for the client instead of attempting to optimize the workers’ efforts that do add value. The reality is that the majority of lost productivity is caused not by worker inefficiency during value-added tasks, but by workers completing tasks that don’t need to be done. Why spend time and effort attempting to marginally improve certain worker tasks when you can eliminate or at least substantially reduce tasks that are unnecessary?
For example, Clemson professor Roger Liska has determined that workers waiting for materials, equipment or information cause a 20 percent loss in productivity. If you want to improve productivity, you should ensure the materials, equipment or information are available for the worker when they are needed, rather than attempting to increase the workers’ productivity after the materials’ late arrival.
To increase worker productivity effectively, management must collaborate with the workforce to create a continuous improvement program, also referred to as kaizen, a business term that comes from the Japanese word for improvement. That’s not a new idea, but many executives remain skeptical of this technique because of poor results in the past. Typically, these executives blame the poor results on the worker for not participating, not caring and not taking initiative. However, the problem is that management is usually more at fault for the failure of the initiative than the workers are.
Why might this be the case? Management meets with the workers and says something like, “Times are tough. The market is very competitive. We need to improve productivity to remain competitive and continue to get work. To do that, we need your help. Do any of you have any ideas?”
This approach may sound acceptable to management, but the worker perceives something much different. He may hear something like, “You’re not working hard enough. We need to make more money. What can you do to help?” The worker thinks, “Here we are working as hard as we can, and he wants me to suggest ways I can work harder so he can make more money. He’s clueless.” So, the worker shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “I don’t have any ideas.”
The above approach is wrong because the message from management is focused on the company, not on the worker. Successful companies realize that the best approach to business is to place their customers at the top of their priority lists. In the same way, successful managers realize that they need to truly care for their workers and demonstrate that they matter. Caring for workers doesn’t always translate into additional money immediately. However, worker surveys indicate that the top two motivators for employees are appreciation and a feeling of inclusion. Therefore, asking workers for their opinions and letting them implement their ideas are the best ways to motivate a workforce.
To truly motivate workers, management must use a different dialogue. They should say, “We need your help to identify things that drive you crazy or keep you from doing your job. We want you to help us identify how we can help make your job easier and more enjoyable. Does anyone have any suggestions?”
This approach is effective because it focuses on the 75 to 90 percent of activities that don’t add value, instead of focusing on the 10 to 25 percent of worker activities that do add value. This approach eliminates activities that are hindering productivity, which is what every company wants. Because it eliminates what the workers dislike, it’s the perfect win-win solution.
Don’t expect a tremendous number of ideas at the beginning of this process. Why? Put simply, workers don’t always trust management. When a worker makes a suggestion, give him/her the support and resources they need to make the change. Even if you don’t think it will work, don’t veto the idea. Once you shoot down an idea, you will dissuade other suggestions and reinforce the worker’s belief that you don’t want their input. Let them find out for themselves if a suggestion for change doesn’t work. You must create an environment where it’s okay to fail. If every failed idea is met with repercussions, the flow of ideas will stop. The only exception to this rule would be if an idea could result in unsafe conditions or circumstances. In this case, you simply say, “We will not increase productivity at the cost of your safety.” And if a suggestion doesn’t improve productivity or at least maintain current levels, then you simply revert to the original process.
The idea of kaizen is to focus on small innovations or changes—improvements that the workers can implement themselves. This approach minimizes risk to the company for trying a suggestion while motivating workers. As you allow your workforce to implement their ideas and as they begin to feel appreciated and included in the company’s processes, they will continue to offer more ideas for improvement. Keep in mind that they know where waste occurs because they deal it with on a daily basis, so let them eliminate it. To engage the worker, you must make the process about them—not you or the company. This approach works in both union and merit shop companies simply because no worker enjoys tasks he or she thinks are useless or wasteful. In essence, you must not only challenge your workers to help themselves but also give them the support and resources they need to achieve their goals. When you do this, your productivity will improve.