Dec. 21, 2004
Empowered employees are key to success.

Results from the Second Annual IndustryWeek Census of Manufacturers clearly show the movement toward a greater degree of employee empowerment, employee involvement, employee participation, and employee input into running a business. Yet, an amazing 30.8% of plant-level respondents report that they have not implemented self-directed or empowered work teams. An alarming 19.2% do not consider the issue to be critical. You can bet these same companies are struggling to survive, or soon will be. The notion that management knows best is as outdated as the vacuum tube, but some head-in-the-sand managers cannot, or will not, see it. These are the same managers who believe they can direct success. Tight controls, extensive supervision, and limiting communications to a need-to-know basis are all concepts these managers believe in. The value of an employee who is properly trained, motivated, and, more important, dedicated to company goals, is virtually unlimited and can be measured in overall company performance. The positive energy that a company can generate is limited only by the knowledge, determination, and attitudes of its people. The energy lost to discontent, frustration, confusion, and disillusionment can mean the difference between failure and success. How many customers are turned off by a single employee who is not empowered or motivated to address customers' needs? And don't forget about internal customers. Internal customer dissatisfaction is going to be passed to the end user in one form or another. An employee who is dedicated to his or her job, and who is properly educated and empowered to perform, will find a way to take care of each customer with minimal hassle. The employee who is there just to receive a paycheck and who has not been provided with the tools to discharge his or her responsibilities effectively cannot provide the same level of customer satisfaction. Dedication cannot be bought with high wages and benefits. Employees at all levels must feel that they are part of the action. They must know their contributions are important to the success of the enterprise. We all want to look forward to work each day, to have high expectations about what is to happen that day, and to actually enjoy what we are doing. For this to happen, we must have a say in what we are doing and feel like real contributors. At Senco Products Inc., we empower employees and encourage the formation of employee teams to accomplish many objectives. Teams have been used extensively for several years in the fastener manufacturing plant, a 1997 winner of IndustryWeek's America's Best Plants award. The results of this empowerment initiative are company loyalty, dedication, and an employee turnover rate of less than 1%. Additionally, we have realized extensive improvements with our suppliers, using cross-company teams that include employees from all levels of both companies. There is nothing more effective than having the operator of a supplier's box-making machine talking directly to the operator of the box-folding machine in the user's plant to help find the nuances ways to improve safety, quality, and efficiency. This kind of interaction actually took place between Senco employees and the supplier of the custom-made flat stock used to pack our products. These meetings assured the clear definition of our requirements while taking the supplier's limitations into account. Changes, concessions, and improvements were made on the spot, because all the knowledgeable people were working together and empowered to do what was necessary. The result was a 69% reduction in defects and a 97% reduction in scrap within the first two years that this team met. Another self-directed, empowered employee team in Senco's staple-making facility has been together for several years, bringing continuous improvement to the tune of over $2 million for 1993 through 1997. This team identifies problems or opportunities, determines corrective action, and then implements the improvement. These improvements include everything from rearranging the department for improved efficiency to improving tooling life to redefining team members' own job descriptions for more flexibility. They have reduced scrap, improved efficiency, reduced accidents, and solved quality problems. This kind of success is evident well beyond the Senco experience. In data gathered by the Second Annual IW Census, plants that were well into empowerment demonstrated consistently superior performance improvements compared with those that were lagging in this area. For instance, scrap and rework costs were lower in plants that have 100% of their workforce in teams than in non-empowered plants. Productivity was better, and the percentage of fully empowered plants that reported manufacturing cost decreases in excess of 10% in the last five years was significantly higher. Virtually every index shows that same kind of relationship. In Senco's application to the America's Best Plants competition, we were able to show dramatic improvement in every measurable element of plant performance. The common thread to these achievements is the people factor. When management moves from dictating/directing to leading/coaching, enabling the growth and interest of the employees to blossom, it triggers the beginning of lasting improvements in quality, productivity, and service to the customer. Cauhorn is a former project manager at Senco Products Inc., Cincinnati.

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