Empowered Employees Part 1

February 27, 2006

By: John Zink

Your employees have great ideas about how improve productivity and reduce costs in your company. Are you asking for these ideas and listening when they are offered?

Sometimes it takes an employee stepping outside of their authority to show the benefits of employee empowerment an owner. The following story was shared at the Foundation's Essentials of Project Management class a few years ago.

A company owner had a field superintendent from the fire sprinkler division approach him one day to say that they would be changing the brand of fire stop insulation caulk they use around pipes and vents going through walls. The new brand that he had selected would cost about eight times as much as the brand currently being used by the crews.

The owner was being told (not asked) by a field superintendent that they would be changing to the new brand of insulation, effective immediately. Naturally, the owner was a little put off by this. The expense was one thing (their current caulk worked fine for years!), but more so by the fact that he had not been consulted on this change. He asked the super to explain himself.

The superintendent said that he had witnessed the crews trying to work with the old brand of insulation material. It was messy, difficult to work with, hard to clean up and left the finished work looking sloppy. He saw that there was an opportunity to improve a small part of the company that he was associated with.

Without waiting for an opportunity to ask permission, the superintendent had purchased tubes of several different brands of insulation and experimented with each to see which would be easiest for the crews to work with and make the finished installation look clean and professionally done.

The superintendent told the owner that he had determined that the new brand would save the crews up to about five minutes per gap sealed because it was so much easier to work with and required very little clean-up.

At this point, the super grabbed the calculator on the owner's desk and started punching in numbers: The number of gaps they sealed on an average job multiplied by the minutes saved per gap to get the hours saved per job, per month, per year.

This super knew his crew's average fully burdened labor rate. He multiplied those hours saved per year by the labor rate. Then he pushed the calculator back to owner. He explained that as he saw it, switching to a caulk brand that was eight times more expensive would save them twice as much in labor savings. He said he didn't figure that he needed to get permission to save the company a few thousand dollars.

If you were the owner of this company, what would your next step be? The superintendent identified a problem, researched solutions, analyzed the options, ran the figures and took the appropriate action. Because he had the numbers from his analysis, the super was able to show the owner proof of the benefits of his actions. If you were this company owner, would you praise the super for taking initiative or punish him for "going around you?"

Of course, things get messier in real life. What if the super had not done a careful analysis & instead just went with his gut feel that the new material might save the crews some time? What if the owner had other reasons for using that brand of caulk that the super didn't know about?

Consider training and encouraging your employees to take initiative the right way.

  1. Each person should seek out opportunities for improvement at every step in the job process.
  2. Keep communication lines open. Management should be kept informed, but not in charge of the improvement process—that is every employee's responsibility.
  3. Take the time to do the math. Analyze the impact to the company by the numbers--in terms of dollars and time so that you can know for sure that the change will be beneficial.
  4. Involve employees in measuring the results after making a change to see if the expected outcome is achieved. Be prepared to give the change time to make a noticeable impact. Don't be scared by negative short term impacts if the long term benefits will make the current pain worth it.
  5. Be prepared to readjust if necessary without pinning blame. If a great concept fails in practice, analyze the implementation before throwing the concept out as a bad idea.

Empowered employees can take some of the management burden off the owner's shoulders while producing higher profits and productivity. These employees are usually happier at their job too. This results in less worker attrition and the wasted time and money associated with employee turnover. How can you afford to not empower your staff?

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