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The Politics of Improvement: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Employees

March 31, 2015
Good leaders will consistently show their employees respect while earning their trust and building pride in a humble and heartfelt way.

In the early days of my career at General Electric, I was asked to join a team that was investigating why a major capital expense had not yielded the expected benefits. We concluded that there were three reasons why this project had failed.

First, a bad process that is automated is still a bad process. Second, so many fires had to be put out due to this bad process that no one had the time to get to the root causes of the problems and permanently fix them. And third, there was no ownership for the changes by the employees who worked in the area where this project was implemented.

As I got more involved with the “continuous improvement” movement, this third reason really shaped my views. How do we win the hearts and minds of the employees so they embrace the need to change and improve?

Editor's Note: Don't miss John Dyer at the 2015 IndustryWeek Best Plants Conference, scheduled for May 4-6, in Charlotte. John's presentation is titled, "Why Six Sigma isn't as Scary as You Think.

Recently, I wrote an article for IndustryWeek titled “The Politics of Improvement: The Challenge of Getting Company Leaders’ Buy-In.” Several of the conclusions I reached at the end of that article also apply to the workers in a company. However, I would make two additional recommendations when it comes to building ownership with employees.

Build a High Level of Trust and Respect – This is something that can’t be faked and may take quite a bit of time to earn. (It can be lost quickly, however.) An example of a company that tries to fake respect would be putting up employee improvement suggestion boards and then never following up on the ideas or providing any sort of feedback to the employees. “Look, we respect our employees enough to ask for their inputs on how to better meet our customers’ needs,” says the company leaders while the employees know it is all a sham.

Another example would be putting up the red, yellow, green status lights and no one responding when the light changes to red. Or, telling employees to shut the line down when there is a quality problem and then reprimanding them when the line is actually stopped.

Gaining trust and respect has to be a company value that the leaders demonstrate in all aspects of their interactions with the employees if they want to win their support.

Build a Sense of Pride within the Organization – In the old World War II movie “Twelve O’clock High,” the main character -- played by Gregory Peck -- inherits the leader role of a squad of Air Force bombers who are performing well below all of the other squads. Peck’s character takes a hard-line approach to getting back to basics, including training and discipline.

In a pivotal scene, the squad doctor asks Peck to ease up on the men in order to increase morale. “The one thing that will solve it (the morale problem) is pride,” says Peck. “Pride in this group. The kind of pride that will make it the last thing a man wants is to be left on the ground. And that is my job…”

In one business I worked with, we asked the workers to conduct the plant tours for our customers. Not only did this expose the employees to all areas of the business, but it also gave them the opportunity to interact with the customers, which fostered a sense of pride in the product and company.

If the employees can see how their improvement efforts will help increase customer satisfaction and how that improves the company’s reputation, then a sense of team unity and pride will develop. And, just like Gregory Peck’s character, it is the company leader’s job to help cultivate this in order to win over the employees’ hearts and minds.

In order to sustain an improvement effort, it is critically important to gain the support of the employees. Many times they will take a ‘wait and see’ approach to determine if the company leaders are sincere in soliciting their help. Those who might want to block the improvements will look for every opportunity to point out any inconsistencies in their behavior. So, good leaders will consistently show their employees respect while earning their trust and building pride in a humble and heartfelt way.

These leadership qualities will go a long way toward getting the employees on board -- which will lead to sustained, positive results.

John Dyer is president of the JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 28 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. Dyer can be reached at (704)658-0049 and [email protected]. Linked In Profile: He is on Twitter: @JohnDyerPI.

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