A lot of organizations claim that employees are their greatest assets. To many this seems like a very profound way to view the employees. I disagree. I think that this terminology can be very harmful to organizational culture.

The word asset means “anything tangible or intangible that is capable of being owned or controlled to produce value.” When this definition is dissected, there are two words within it that are cause for concern. The word "owned" means “to have or possess as property” and the word "controlled" means “to exercise authoritative or dominating influence over.”

To add clarification, property is defined as “something tangible or intangible to which its owner has legal title.” Most of the time when we think of property it is something that we have in our possession that can be traded or sold. It could be something that could depreciate in value or an item that could potentially be used to turn a profit. Next, "authoritative and dominating influence" means “commanding, controlling, govern, or rule by superior authority or power.”

Once it is broken down, we should see why the word "asset" is an issue when looking at the workforce from a continuous improvement perspective. It doesn’t really communicate a team environment attitude or a serious focus on development or positive engagement.

People do not want to be dominated, commanded, controlled or owned and viewing the employees as such will not reap a strong culture. Often this will beat people down and discourage participation, contribution and input. Continuous improvement has taught me to teach, coach, enthuse, create excitement and view the people as equals.

This can be perfectly communicated using the word "colleague." Colleague simply means “someone you work with, a fellow worker.” This molds a more positive outlook. In fact broken down further it communicates “comrade, associate, one that is closely connected” or “one that serves another.”

A continuous improvement culture is based on these attitudes. Everyone is a fellow worker, a comrade. Everyone needs to be closely connected to the continuous improvement process. It needs to be a culture of service to customers, external and internal.

I think the continuous improvement organizational proclamation should be that employees are colleagues. It’s dynamic, bold, positive and screams engagement.

Eric Bigelow is a continuous improvement expert located in Spirit Lake, Iowa. He is an advocate for dynamic employee engagement along with cultural succession programs to spread the continuous improvement philosophies. Join him on Linked-In or email him at eric.machead@gmail.com.