Japanese business leaders once characterized American workers as illiterate, lazy and unable to compete with their offshore counterparts. Most Americans were incensed when these comments were published. They would be outraged to learn that many corporate managers in American share this belief. If we were to evaluate corporate America’s attitudes and management philosophies, we would find that many of our corporations treat their workforce as though they lacked the intelligence and work ethic required to compete in today's global market.
With the exception of a small, inner circle of senior managers, many companies routinely exclude employees from the decision-making process. Senior management fails to provide enough insight into corporate planning that would permit middle management and hourly workers to focus their effort in a direction that supports the company’s long-range plans.
It’s true that the education level of many Americans has declined and that some workers lack the motivation required for effectively producing output that is comparable with offshore companies, but the blame doesn’t rest solely on the worker. In too many cases, the culture and work environment engendered by corporate management philosophy and our society doesn’t support a highly motivated workforce that’s committed to product quality and competitive production costs. In many cases, the work environment, methods and restrictions management imposes actually discourage employee involvement or participation. The American workforce is frustrated. If properly motivated and given a suitable environment, the American worker can, and will, produce output equal to or better than that produced offshore.
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A fundamental premise of optimum plant performance is the realization that the only real asset a company has is its employees. Therefore, a prerequisite of optimum plant performance must be a work environment that’s conducive to employee involvement. It’s one that will provide the means to use the workforce effectively. This might sound like a simple task, but it’s the most difficult to accomplish. During the past 25 years, America’s business philosophies and management methods slowly eroded to the point that product quality, competitive production costs, on-time delivery and, of course, profitability have become almost nonexistent. To reverse this serious negative, we must completely change the corporate culture that has evolved with this erosion. Changing the thought processes, ingrained attitudes and prejudices that have become second nature isn’t easy. Corporate management can’t decree that its managers and employees instantaneously reverse habits that have taken years to evolve. How, then, do we effect change in the work culture?
Much has been written about empowering employees, but few companies understand what that means. Many think that empowerment refers to establishing small groups or teams, which either will produce a product or seek to improve product quality. Others think of it as the ability of any employee to stop production when a quality problem is detected. Neither definition is a true representation of what employee empowerment means. According to the dictionary, empower means "to authorize; delegate authority to; to enable; to permit; to give the employees the means and authority to affect the day-to-day plant operations.”
Management's most common philosophical error is the failure to delegate to managers, supervisors and employees the authority required to fulfill their roles within the company. This error might sound insignificant, but it’s the greatest single contributor to poor plant performance. Without the authority to manage assets on a daily basis or correct problems that arise, managers can’t control their portion of the plant effectively, and employees can’t take an active role in improving inefficient practices. As a result, overall plant performance declines.
The second factor that limits most U.S. plants is lack of acceptable employee skill levels to produce a cost-competitive, quality product. Empowerment, in this instance, means providing the training, tools and management support that enables the workforce to function effectively.
Total employee involvement is the natural result of a work environment that encourages the active participation of each employee in the day-to-day operation of the company. The environment must clearly define goals and objectives; have stable, uniform direction; trustworthy leadership and, most importantly, have a viable, open communication throughout the organization. This concept sounds easy and the senior management of most companies truly believes that these conditions already exist in their companies. Unfortunately, most companies don’t meet any of these criteria and, therefore, don’t have the full support of their workforce.
The key to total employee involvement rests with corporate management. Only the highest level can effect the changes in company policy and procedure that are a prerequisite to this critical part of any improvement program. Unfortunately, most corporate managers don’t have the knowledge of day-to-day operation, at the plant floor level, required to recognize the limitations and problems that existing management philosophy is causing.
Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley, CMRP, is principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering in Charleston, S.C. E-mail him at kmobley@LCE.com.