Have You Thanked Your Employees Lately?

Oct. 22, 2010
Ways to motivate your workforce and build productivity

Continuously improving factory productivity, quality and cost is a challenge every leader faces. To accomplish this we need a well motivated work force yet we are often confused by the many and varied options for motivation. Some experts suggest money while others proclaim job enrichment is the ticket. Still others press for contentment as the best method. These options arise from myriad and often conflicting theories of motivation proffered from social scientists who often disagree with each other. No wonder we are confused.

While there is no unified motivation theory, there are areas where most experts agree. First, people are motivated by needs, up until the point where the needs are satisfied. Food does not motivate once you are fed.

Next, it is hard to motivate someone with a goal that is overshadowed by a more pressing personal need. If an employee can't pay his rent, then a permanent parking space is unlikely to impress. Task goals, such as productivity or quality improvement need to be linked to personal needs. The better the linkage and the stronger the personal need, the more effective the motivation.

There are as many unmet needs as there are employees and each employee enters the door expecting to fulfill at least some of those needs at his place of work. And finally, intrinsic motivation, that which comes from within, is stronger and more lasting than anything we can offer extrinsically. According to some experts, a leader can't really motivate an employee at all but can only create the environment whereby the employee motivates himself.

So with all that preamble, the stage is set to discuss some do's and don'ts about how a leader can best achieve organizational goals through motivation. Since most employees enter their workplace on day one already motivated to do a good job, the best thing a leader might do is to just not de-motivate, we will start with some don'ts:

Telling Employees What to Do Without Asking Them How to Do it Better

Giving direction without first discussing its impact on the employee diminishes the employee's need for esteem and prevents you from gaining valuable ideas. When was the last time you went down on the factory floor and asked an assembler if there was any way you could improve the design of your product to make it easier or faster to build or more defect free? Suggestion programs are inherently demeaning.

Inspecting an Employee's Work

Inspection is a crutch for bad design, poor training, improper tools, or the like. Inspection hours are directly proportional to defects; you can't inspect in quality, and the harder you try the worse the quality will be as you continue to insult the worker.

Ask the employee to inspect his own work and sign it off as fully compliant, or have the employees check each other's work. Is the worker responsible or not? Or start a worker off with ample inspection and let him earn the privilege of working without inspection. Convert a de-motivator to a motivator.

Constant Rounds of Lay-off and Hiring Cycles

We blame the market, we blame the weak dollar, and we even blame the weather. We tell the employees that a few lay-offs now will save the business for the rest of us and be a good thing in the long run. We tell them it is hard for us to do this, but we have to make tough decisions in reaction to tough economic times. Then we pat ourselves on the back for having the fortitude to make those decisions. What we fail to do is admit that lay-offs are a direct result of our inability to correctly plan for the future and our own bad management. We expect our employees to be accountable for their actions yet we often do not accept accountability for our own and the spin we add makes things worse. By creating fear we focus the employee on fulfilling basic safety and security needs and some good employees not as risk go elsewhere anyway. When we lay off 5%, we de-motivate the other 95%.

Time Cards

If you don't fill in a time card then why should any of your employees? Because a time card prevents cheating the company? Not likely. If an employee wants to loaf he can surely do it without your taking notice, regardless of the timekeeping system. Some customers, the U.S. government being the largest, may insist on extensive labor tracking, but even then the focus should be on allocating labor costs to the appropriate task, not on keeping tabs on the employee. Try telling an employee you don't trust him and then ask him how motivated he feels.

Locking Up the Tools and Supplies

Plenty of studies have confirmed that petty theft goes down when the locks are removed from the supply cabinet. Why should honesty be assumed for management, but not for the rank and file? Are they really more likely to steal from the company?

Alright, we have beaten ourselves up enough. So here are a few ideas whereby we can either directly motivate or create the environment for self-motivation:

Show Them the Big Picture

Do all your employees get briefed on your strategic plan? Can you trace the company's objectives with mathematical precision from the CEO down to the employee on the factory floor? Each and every employee should know exactly what is expected of them, how many widgets they need to produce every day, if they are to meet their performance objectives and contribute to the successful attainment of their boss's production and sales objectives. This level of alignment, where the status of objectives at every level is completely transparent, helps to create the bonds between the employees and their bosses that lead to a shared sense of ownership.

Let Them Share in the Satisfaction

Do they see their finished products in operation? Have they visited a customer site? Employees that understand the company, its products and its customers will appreciate this knowledge and appreciate you for making the effort to include them. Maybe you manufacture brake linings for aircraft, then take your assemblers to the Boeing assembly plant to see where their parts fit in. Maybe you develop software for Wall Street or tooling for machine shops. Whatever your product you can find ways to connect your employees with your products and customers. Help them to feel proud of their contribution.

Enable Team Spirit

Efficiency experts are always looking for ways to dissect labor tasks and distribute them to highly trained, narrowly focused, process oriented workers. But we are all social animals. We want to be part of a group. We want see how our team's contribution adds to the greater good. Organize your worker's primary allegiance around teams and products and programs, not processes or functions. Nobody develops much affinity for a process. When an employee proudly wears a company monogrammed jacket to the local grocery store, you know you have a motivated worker.

Ask Them for Help

Not everybody has great ideas, but everybody likes to be heard. Go sit down next to an assembler, or engineer, or secretary and just talk to them about what they do. Be open to new ways of looking at things. Listen well and you may learn all sorts of new ways to improve your product and your company. How did you feel the last time your boss asked you for help?

Share the Monetary Rewards

If money isn't a motivator, then why do so many companies offer incentive bonuses? Because a good paycheck may be a need satisfied, but a variable bonus is the carrot that keeps on motivating. So if bonuses are such a good idea why are they usually restricted to the executives? If business is good, who is responsible? Why not just assume that the source for all good performance emanates from the employees and not the executives and then reward accordingly. Maybe a self fulfilling prophecy in the making?

Build Trust

Can you talk to your employees honestly and openly about the company and its prospects for the future? Do you freely admit it when you make mistakes, or do you have HR, or worse yet, Legal, spin your communications? Just what is the level of trust between you, your fellow executives, and your employees? Would they give you an "A" for trust? Lack of trust between employee and manager is not inherent in today's workforce but it is endemic. And without trust you can forget about motivation.

Thank Them

Nothing new here, but when was the last time you went down to the factory floor and shook the hand of an assembler and thanked him personally for his contribution. Speeches to large audiences don't count. Letters from the boss in the weekly newsletter don't count either, especially those ghost written by Communications. Remember your Lean Thinking. You are part of the waste equation and they know it. The assembler is value added so treat him appropriately.

In summary, forget the motivational speakers; they will have no more lasting effect than the Chinese food you had for lunch. Uncover and eliminate the de-motivators from your leadership quiver. Seek to understand ways to satisfy the needs of your employees and align them with your task goals. Look for opportunities to create a work environment that enables intrinsic motivation. And develop the level of trust necessary to make it all possible.

Greg Smith is the owner of Seacoast Aerospace and Marine, LLC, a consulting company specializing in advising manufacturing and program management executives. Formerly he was a VP/GM at BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H. He can be reached at [email protected]

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