Employee Engagement- Lessons from the Berry Patch

blogHelen and I have been spending a few hours in the berry patches this week gathering enough raspberries to get us through the winter season.  Berry picking is one of my quiet reflective opportunities, so pick along with me as I share some employee engagement  thoughts gathered from the berry patch.

Berries are great this year with all the moisture – and when berries are plentiful, you can quickly fill your container by “grazing” the patch.  But it always amazes me how big and luscious the berries are further inside the plants – often only visible from the ground looking up – or by parting the branches to reach inside.  If you graze the patch picking only the visible berries from the top and outside branches, then you are missing untold riches and rewards hidden from sight by the foliage and branches of the mature plant.

I have spent multiple days recently on a significant consulting assignment in southern Ontario.  Our client was the Canadian arm of a large multi-national engineering consulting firm.  Their interest was in finding ways to improve productivity, efficiency, performance and levels of employee engagement through a more rigorous and participative process improvement program.  They are a smart firm – and the traditional method of leaders and external consultants identifying opportunities for improvement was just was not getting them where they needed or wanted to go.  There were early wins – but not enough of deep substantive ones.

So working my analogy – the “berries”  – or process improvement ideas- were getting a little harder to find.  Being a smart company, they launched a corporate employee suggestion program several years back – but it too was yielding rather disappointing results.  So our challenge was to help this smaller Canadian operation establish a process and an environment where there would be a continuous flow of new ideas for improving how things were done – and simultaneously  create a more invigorating workplace culture and a more engaged workforce.  Sure makes berry-picking look easy, but read on.

Just as in the berry patch, in life, things look very different from the bottom up.  Take a camera and get some pictures from the floor:  of your dog standing over you, your toilet, the kitchen sink, the piano.  And sometimes we wonder why young children have fears !  Employees also see things from the bottom up – while their leaders see things from the top down.  GM suffered from this lack of bottom-up perspective when their ignition problems  that just about turned off their company.

The process we used is known as “Pit-Stop”  – and is very much this bottom-up approach to building a culture of high engagement  process improvement.   It has been highly successful for one of our senior consultants working with Fortune 500 companies in Europe – and we are now moving it into the North American market.   With this particular Canadian client, we trained teams of internal employee interviewers to go out and conduct 20 minute interviews with each and every available employee in the business.  After using this direct interviewing approach with almost 40 individual on-site employees, we had collected more than 140 ideas for improvement over a couple of days  of interviews – or about 4 ideas per individual 20 minute interview!  Along with the interviewers, we then clustered the ideas into common themes and groupings and invited managers in to review the ideas – and take individual ownership of addressing or working through specific clusters of ideas.  We then trained facilitators in a very effective one-hour problem-solving methodology that would most likely address almost 50% of the ideas suggested and ran through several rounds involving almost all employees in one of the sessions.

Back to my analogy of the berry patch.  Bright leaders and hopefully at least equally bright consultants in this organization had addressed most of the process improvement opportunities that were visible from the top.  They picked the berries from the easy-to-see places.   Employee suggestion programs, even the good ones, are analogous to standing in the berry patch calling out to berries to show themselves.    Seldom works for me.    The real way to get at the very best ideas – and the very best berries in the patch – is to get inside the patch  – get the view from the bottom up.  Employees see a world that most business leaders never see.  Employees, when approached correctly, by their peers, in their own work station, will quickly and excitedly tell you of the things that keep them from being more productive on a daily basis.  They will tell you where they are wasting their time, where they are ‘doing stupid’. The posting board of all of their ideas will enlighten senior leaders to workplace realities that they had no awareness of that were detracting from individual productivity.  Things always look different from the bottom up  – just like in the berry patch !!   And did we get all hands on deck – a sure sign of truly engaged employees !

By the end of two interview days, this small group of Canadian employees generated more than 50% of the total number of suggestions fed into their employee suggestion program over the last year by 5000 employees in North America.     And several of the Canadian process improvement ideas, when fully implemented, would each generate a return on our total consultancy cost of more 30:1.  Yes the client was happy.  And so will you be – if you learn to seek and view your process improvement opportunities from the bottom up.

Employee engagement can be as simple as making it easy for them to tell you the way it really is down “where the rubber meets the road”.   Now back to the berry patch.