At Cleveland's Eaton Corp., the annual employee survey is not human resources ballyhoo to rate job satisfaction. It is a tool for operational improvement, says Susan Cook, vice president, human resources. Eliciting employee feedback helps the global industrial manufacturer (2003 sales: $8.1 billion) understand perceptions and work behavior that impact business outcomes. In that way the process measures manager effectiveness. Cook describes the initiative -- now in its third year -- as a critical process issue that guides management efforts to improve levels of business operation. "The responses from our employees really do drive [management] actions. The responses are as much a component of our business strategies as financial and succession planning." The goals of the annual Eaton survey are to gather and use information in several important areas, including business ethics, Eaton values, employee engagement, employee relations, manager effectiveness and strategic vision. "Without this type of process, managements are flying blind," asserts Bill Erickson, vice chairman of Wayne, Pa.-based Kenexa, the human resource specialist assisting Eaton with the surveys. "The survey results serve as an executive instrument panel that can be tailored to gauge employee commitment, attitudes and emotional responses to operational issues," adds Erickson. "Eaton not only learns how they're doing compared to the rest of the world, but also how to get better." Comparisons are possible via Kenexa's employee index of global companies. "The idea is to enable managements to create opportunities for employees to feel better about the enterprise. With committed employees, organizations gain via on-the-job discretionary performance improvements. Without survey metrics managers have little but instinct to guide operational decision making. Employers need to know not only the emotional stance of employees, but the causative factors as well." Eaton's focus: enabling employees to experience an attitude of professional ownership in the business process. Erickson says that sense of spirit truly makes employees a valuable competitive tool. "They understand performance in terms of corporate objectives, not merely in terms of each specific task." Kenexa helps Eaton devise the Web-enabled survey. Using statements instead of questions, employees are asked to agree or disagree on a five-point scale. The 2003 survey asked employees to react to 57 statements about leadership, management and organizational climate. The team creates, administers and analyzes the responses from nearly 51,000 respondents in 26 countries on six continents. Some of Eaton's manufacturing locations have employees who don't often interface with PCs, so in these instances, rooms were set up with computers and a proctor. Eaton administers the survey in 20 languages, including traditional and simplified Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Dutch, German, Malay and Marathi. Eaton reports a 96% response rate for the 2003 survey. Completing the survey takes about 20 minutes with measurements focusing on such things as commitment, pride and personal responsibility. Managements have automated, real-time access to employee responses as they're entered. That's followed, says Cook, with Eaton developing formal action plans based on an analysis of the responses. Results go out to all leaders across the organization with senior leaders being held responsible for communicating the results and creating action plans to address any issues. For example, Eaton's 2002, global survey results disclosed the need to make corporate-wide improvements to its recognition and reward processes, performance management system and communication methods. The last step of each annual survey process is senior management's review of the action plan implementation. "Serving as the ultimate accountability process, the review ensures that managers take full advantage of the opportunity to optimize ways of improving employee engagement," adds Erickson. Eaton uses those assessments to guide planning for the following year's survey. (Kenexa itself surveys its own employees twice a year.) Cook notes direct and measurable results. "We have seen employee engagement improve by 5.3%, manager effectiveness rise 12.8% and understanding and positive perception of the Eaton business system climb nearly 15% enterprise-wide compared with the previous year. "One key question that we pay particular attention to is: 'I feel proud to work for Eaton.' We saw this item jump 17.5% from prior year levels based on action plan successes." She concludes that Eaton is exceptionally satisfied with last year's survey. "Many companies are happy with [only] a 60% or 70% participation rate. Obviously, we far surpassed that with a 96.3% response. My advice to any organization that wants to optimize its employee survey would be: Select a timetable and stick to it, engage senior leadership and make the results matter."