I am not by education or inclination a narrow numbers person.

I like to look behind data.

That's why some statistics from North America's best manufacturing plants, collected by IndustryWeek as part of its annual Best Plants competition, have my attention. They deserve your attention as well, for these numbers underscore the vital importance of empowering employees.

Among the manufacturing plants judged to be America’s best in the year 2011, more than 70% of production employees, on average, were members of self-directed or empowered work teams. At 94% of these best plants, teams handled training responsibilities; at 88% workers were involved in quality assurance decisions, and likewise at 88% of the plants, team members made safety and compliance decisions. Some 75% participated in production scheduling. More than 80% were involved in communication between teams, and 81% in daily job assignments.

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Keep in mind the context for these numbers. As impressive as they would be in almost any year, these numbers are more remarkable because they come in the context of economic recession and a still-ragged recovery.

America’s recent Great Recession could have been an excuse for plant managers and company executives to trash teams, impose direct control, and strip employees of any substantive decision making.

At America’s best plants, managers and executives did not do that.

Why?  Because for more than two decades, sharing responsibility for production decisions has proven its value—and continues to do so. Whether you label the practice employee empowerment, self-directed work teams, employee engagement, or enlightened management, sharing production decision responsibilities has proven its value at the bottom line and in increased competitiveness.

And, just as important, for more than two decades at America’s best plants—and those aspiring to be the best— shared decision responsibility has dramatically boosted trust between managers and production workers. In plants where responsibilities are shared, there is much less of “they” and “us” and much more of “we.”

Why do I write these words with such conviction? I have been in North America’s best plants. I have asked hard questions of managers and production workers. And I have listened to their unvarnished answers.

To be sure, in America’s best plants, there is exemplary use of metrics. But they are humanized numbers. They are a very important product of people exchanging ideas, sharing experiences, implementing best practices, and learning from mistakes. In the best of America’s plants, managers walk and talk with the people who work with them and who report to them. Virtually everyone talks the talk. And just about everyone continuously puts the talk from the walks into informed actions.

Are you?

This is another of a series of occasional essays by John S. McClenahen, who retired from IndustryWeek in 2006 and remains an interested observer of global manufacturing.