Three Steps Toward a Culture of Employee Engagement

When it comes to making continuous, sustainable organizational improvement, we’ve learned that workforce engagement is an essential, though not sufficient, element for success. 

While there are a number of action steps involved, we have identified three key steps in moving toward a culture of employee engagement – driving out fear, two-way communication and, today’s subject, defining a greater purpose. 

In recent discussions with a client
that has experienced great success in moving toward a culture of employee engagement, we determined a key step in employee engagement is committing to something beyond making a profit or beyond picking up a paycheck. 

In other words, while it is common for a group’s mission statement to involve helping customers get to where they want to be, the mission can also apply to employees and the community in the same simple and direct way:  helping the communities they serve to get where they want to be; helping the employees to get where they want to be.   

This approach simultaneously conveys a respect for the uniqueness of each individual’s goal and a generosity of spirit in its commitment to help.  It creates a sense of camaraderie or shared purpose within the organization that leaves people feeling good about working there.  Of course it is essential for senior management to promote and reinforce this perspective.


As a testimonial to this approach, you might consult the book Firms of Endearment, in which the authors Sisidia, Sheth, and Wolfe present a compelling case that companies do best when they attend to the needs of all of their stakeholders — communities, employees, customers, as well as shareholders.  You might also consult our current newsletter, which can be found at

Moving Toward a Culture of Employee Engagement – Step 2

Last week’s post referred to a discussion we recently had with a client that has experienced great success in moving toward a culture of employee engagement.  We determined three critical steps.

The first step, which we discussed in last week’s post, was driving out fear

Today we’ll examine step number 2: Two Way Communication

In their ongoing efforts to promote and bring about employee engagement, our client’s management team began providing information about the organization’s performance and what they were planning for the future.  Management asked employees to share their ideas and opinions, and people reacted positively, noting the dramatic difference it made when the company went from limited top down communication to suddenly providing everyone with information and asking their opinions and suggestions.  “It brought down the walls,” one long-termer said.   

Sharing information creates a climate of trust and cooperation. But more than that, an organization simply cannot leverage the talents and ideas of even the most engaged employees if the employees do not also have the facts and data about performance — and the skills and training required to interpret and act on that information. Ideally, everyone would understand how their role is expected to contribute to the organization’s success and have access to the performance measurements — not just results measurements but more importantly the process measurements. 

But the communication must not be a one-way street from the top down. Sharing information is an important start, but the very next step involves asking for ideas and input and then listening.  Perhaps every leader ought to start each day with the realization that somebody somewhere in his or her organization has some important information about how to better serve the customer or improve the operations, but does not know what to do with it.

The enhanced communication also served to reinforce the company’s efforts to drive out fear… and fed nicely into step number 3: Defining a Greater Purpose, which we’ll discuss in our next post.

In the meantime, we welcome your input!

Moving Toward a Culture of Employee Engagement – Step 1

Our two previous posts have focused on the importance of workforce engagement. Without it, trying to make sustainable process improvement most often fails! Little wonder that when W. Edwards Deming set out to revolutionize quality and productivity, over half of his famous Fourteen Points refer to one aspect or another of employee engagement.

In a recent discussion with a client that has experienced great success in moving toward a culture of employee engagement, we determined three critical steps, the first of which we’ll address in today’s post.

Step 1: Driving Out Fear
A key place to begin the process involves getting rid of the fear, as people must feel it is safe to disagree, complain, interact and share opinions.  “If people are afraid to say something, you will never learn what they think.  If they are afraid to make a mistake, they won’t risk trying something new.”

Jeffery Pfeffer, in The Human Equation, makes a very strong case for eliminating fear about job security.  The highly successful companies he cites, while simultaneously taking great care in hiring, make job security a bedrock principle and refuse to consider layoffs when economic times are tough.  He quotes Southwest Airline’s CEO, “Sure, there were times when we could have made substantially more profits in the short term if we furloughed people, but we didn’t.  We were looking at our employees and our company’s long term interest.” 

Job security also seems to encourage employees to focus on the longer term.  For example, in a 1996 study published in the Academy of Management Journal, John Delery and Harold Doty found that the greater the job security of loan officers, the greater the returns to banks.

But job security does not mean retaining people who do not fit the culture or performance needs of the organization.  High engagement employers let people go when they prove to be unwilling or unable to work in a way that is consistent with the company values. 

In our next post we’ll discus the second step: Two Way Communication. In the meantime, and as always, we welcome your feedback!

Why Does Workforce Engagement Matter?

When it comes to making continuous, sustainable organizational improvement, we’ve learned that work force engagement is an essential, though not sufficient, element for success.  

Occasionally a management team tries to induce a disengaged organization to work on improvement and they always fail.  Disengaged employees are unwilling to risk making suggestions that might rock the boat and are reluctant to invest their energy to improve an organization when they have no assurance that they will be a part of its future.  After all, it is foolish to expect employees to help improve productivity when it might lead to losing their job or their advancement opportunities! 

As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Continuous and significant improvements depend on the vigilance and creativity, the engagement, of people close to the work in a constant search for opportunities to increase quality and productivity for the customer and the Enterprise itself.  Organizations with disengaged corporate cultures either stagnate or resort to expensive technology to reduce reliance on people. 

Now that we’ve further established the importance of workforce engagement, and in response to the fact presented in our previous post  that even experts agree, “…there are no formal, established processes for moving toward a culture of engagement”  our next several posts will focus on methods of building a culture of engagement.

In the meantime, and as always, we welcome any input you may have!

Is Your Workforce Engaged?

Most leaders agree that developing an engaged workforce is a primary objective. Consistently, in our February 14th post we discussed the concept of sustaining a CI effort and noted that employee engagement is an important element of sustainability and success. We also noted that engagement and sustained CI are best accomplished when managers frequently remind the team about the things that matter most. 

Of course this is just one component of the “engagement” process.

Speaking of which, does your organization have a formal “engagement” process? And, if so, how do you measure engagement?  If you’re not sure, you’re not alone…

In fact, we have asked a number of business leaders the same questions and have received similar answers. Further, after a recent Marcus Evans Internal Branding and Employee Engagement conference held in Miami, it was reported that “…there are no formal, established processes for moving toward a culture of engagement.”

We will be examining the entire concept of workforce engagement over the next several posts, and will be sharing some ideas and methodology we’re developing to help people achieve a culture of engagement.

In the meantime, and as always, we look forward to any input you may have.

Too Much of a Good Thing: The Final Chapter!

Our past three posts have focused on the challenge of identifying the best opportunities for improvement when “all” the options are good. So far, three methods for prioritizing opportunities have been presented, any of which can be useful in sorting through the options to identify the best of the best.   But, as noted last week, none of these three takes into account organizational capacity; they consider neither how many resources are required nor what part of the organization would be required to drive or absorb the change.

To handle the complex and inter-related questions required to optimally choose among projects, it is helpful to visually display the information about the relative qualities of the opportunities: both the priority as well as the organizational capacity requirements. 

The following method lays out the organization visually and maps the improvement opportunities according to both the priority for the organization and the area of the organization that the resources must come from. In the following map, the columns depict the relative magnitude of resources available in the different functional groups.  Notice that Operation B has more capacity than Operation A, and both Operations groups have more resources than the technology group or the finance group. 

The y-axis shows the relative priority scores based on a prioritization matrix.  The spheres higher on the y-axis represent projects with higher priorities.  The spheres are labeled with the priority score.  The sphere’s position on the x-axis shows what functional area the resources would come from (Sometimes a project draws from two or more functional groups — such as project E which requires resources from both Technology and Finance.)  The size of the sphere indicates an estimate of the resources and time required.  The larger the sphere the more resources required to accomplish the opportunity. 

Examining the improvement or innovation opportunities from this perspective provides a much richer understanding of the trade-offs available. For more details on how to use or interpret this information, please review this related article on our web site. Or, if you prefer, feel free to submit your questions or comments directly through this blog — we’d love to hear from you!

Too Much of a Good Thing: The Curse of Abundance?

In our past two posts we have presented ideas and best practices for identifying and tackling only the best opportunities for improvement in situations when we have many seemingly good opportunities from which to select.

In other words, how might we best handle situations when what initially had appeared to be an embarrassment of riches, in terms of opportunity, turns into the curse of abundance. As noted, we must be careful when too many good opportunities tempt us because, when an organization tackles too many improvement projects or innovation projects all at once, the result is change gridlock  a traffic jam that slows everyone down. 

In addition to the two evaluation and selection methods discussed in last week’s post, we might also consider using a “prioritization matrix,” because  the 100-point and forced pairs matrix methods do not surface discussion of the different criteria that the leadership team might use to evaluate and choose. 

A Prioritization Matrix lists the opportunities down the left side and the decision criteria across the top — with either equal weight or different weights.  This method surfaces more consideration and discussion about why one should favor one opportunity over another.  Options are then given a score of 1-5 or sometimes a 1, 3, or 9 based on how well they meet the criteria.  The better it fits the criteria, the higher the score.  The totals can be summed or multiplied across.

These are just three methods for prioritizing opportunities, any of which can be useful in sorting through the options to identify the best of the best.   But none of these take into account organizational capacity.  They consider neither how many resources are required nor what part of the organization would be required to drive or absorb the change.

For that you need to add another dimension… which we will present in our next post.

Too Much of a Good Thing… Part 2

As noted in last week’s post, when an organization tackles too many improvement projects or innovation projects, the result is change gridlock  a traffic jam that slows everyone down.  Even when the project teams are assigned full time, which is an extremely rare approach, the resources they must rely on for data, information or cooperation in piloting solutions are too busy to help in a timely way.

So, now that we know the problem, we must do two very challenging things:

  1. Identify which few opportunities among the many good ones identified will be most vital to the success of the organization

  2. Determine which, in context with the rest, are also compatible with the organization’s capacity to drive and absorb change

A number of different methods can be used by the leadership to prioritize opportunities; here are two you might consider:

  1. One of the easiest is the 100 point method — each stakeholder is given 100 points to distribute among the opportunities.  The sum of points identifies priorities. 
  2. A more systematic approach is the Forced Pairs Matrix.  With this method, one sets up a matrix with the opportunities listed across the top and down the left side.  Taking one pair at a time, the stakeholders discuss and decide which of two options is the higher priority.  The one that is most important gets the mark in its row.  If B is more important than A the mark goes in B’s row, if A is more important than C, the mark goes in A’s row, etc.  Click here to see an example of the Forced Pairs Matrix.

We will share a few additional perspectives in our next post. In the meantime, we’d also love to hear from you should you have input, questions or experience to share!

Too Much of a Good Thing…

While Mae West may have concluded that “too much of a good thing is wonderful,” when it comes to CI and identifying opportunities for improvement, too many “good” opportunities can actually be a very bad thing if we’re not careful!

When we find a large number of opportunities for improvement, the first step is to prioritize… to engage in a quantification process that helps us identify and work on the best opportunities. However, in many instances it is possible to identify many very good opportunities. So… what’s the best step?

Research and experience shows that the answer is more complex than we might like… here’s a quick list of just some of the things that must be considered:

  1. Tackling too many projects usually results in organizational overload – which occurs when the resources the improvement teams must rely on for data, information or cooperation in piloting solutions are too busy to help in a timely way

  2. Human factor time delays – for every change project, cost increases with time because there is the mental equivalent of “change-over” or “set-up” costs; every time a person picks up the project after setting it down to do something else, he or she invests time ‘figuring out where we left off,’ re-familiarizing him or herself with the issues, and deciding what needs to be done next 

  3. Obsolescence – if too much time elapses, projects tend to lose their relevance as new priorities and challenges emerge

Over the next few posts we’ll share tools and methods for solving the problem of “too many opportunities” and how to go about selecting the “best of the best” opportunities. In the meantime, maybe you’ve had some experiences you’d like to share?

PR: The Recipe for Sustaining CI – Part 2

In our March 7th post we referred to a recent  Partners in Improvement focus group discussion and the group’s agreement that a critical component of maintaining Continuous Improvement (CI) success involves consistent “PR.”

“PR,” in this case, was defined as sharing news of each success with the organization at large… publicizing achievements, recognizing accomplishments and reporting the status of high-profile improvement projects… and doing so with sufficient frequency. We also posed a question about methods of accomplishing this.

Here are a few of the most commonly-suggested communication options:

  1. To help achieve a true culture of CI, the subject should be an agenda item on most if not all department, team or company meetings. Like it or not, the “business meeting” is the most often used vehicle for communication within an organization  in fact, many refer to meetings as opportunities for promoting priorities, protocols and best practices. However, it is important to recognize that, statistically, most business meetings fall short of their goals. The key is in the preparation; someone must create an agenda and the discussion must follow the agenda. If CI successes or challenges are regular line items on these agendas, then CI will, sooner or later, become more cultural.
  2. Internal company newsletters are a very popular method of spreading the word about CI success as well as the recognition of those responsible. Acknowledging and rewarding desired behavior in this fashion has proved effective time-and-time again.
  3. Tying CI success to performance reviews is a sure way to send a strong message that CI is the preferred way of doing business within your organization. While we’re not suggesting a connection with compensation levels, we are suggesting that involvement in and commitment to CI be treated as an expectation.

Hopefully these ideas will inspire additional thought, so we will once again pose the question: How have you been able to provide effective “PR” for your organization’s CI effort?

Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement