This item was originally published when this blog was known as “The Office Rat.”
Empowerment lessons from the factory floor
When Brian Utting held a ceremony to mark the closing of his massage school (my alma mater), among the many speakers was Hank Queen. I didn’t know anything about Hank at the time, but I was very taken with a story he told about “shiny eyes.”
The story went something like this. Hank was the director of a large manufacturing group at Boeing, which was struggling in the aftermath of 9/11. Orders were down as the airline industry reeled. Employee morale and productivity at Boeing were low and getting worse. Hank and his management team decide to bring in a high-powered business consultant from Japan to help address the issue. Boeing flew the consultant over at great expense, and Hank and his team immediately took him to the factory floor. After only a few minutes, the consultant turned to Hank and said, “I can’t help these people. They don’t have shiny eyes.”
Hank and his team and the consultant retreated to a conference room where the consultant elaborated on his observation. He said that he could tell immediately that the employees he saw were not empowered, which he knew from the lack of a gleam in their eyes.
So Hank set out to empower his group. He started small, working with one work unit on one particular issue. He didn’t have much money or other resources to throw at the problem, so he focused on a process to improve the situation. His goal was to engage his employees and get them to “bring their heart, soul, and brain to work.”
Hank’s process began with a three-question interview. Unit managers would sit down with each of their employees and ask them these questions:
1. On a 1-to-10 scale, how satisfied are you?
2. What is most important to you at work?
3. What are the obstacles to improving performance in this work group?
With their group’s answers in hand – and with a much better understanding of the human beings filling the job slots in their unit – the manager would then sit down with their employees and help them figure out how to improve their satisfaction, get what was important to them, and remove or overcome the obstacles they faced.
The process focused on having the employees do all of the work with the assistance of the manager, who adopted a new role of “leader as servant.” The managers had to let go and let their employees identify the problems and implement the solutions.
The process wasn’t always successful on the first try. And not all managers and employees were excited about the change. In fact, some resisted being put in charge of their own fate, preferring to just follow orders. But ultimately most employees embraced their empowerment, productivity improved, and Boeing weathered the storm.
Hank later discovered other benefits to this approach. Disempowered people suffer a huge amount of stress, and stress – quite literally – kills, or at the very least sickens. Empowered employees take many fewer sick days, live longer, and incur much lower health-care costs, all of which made Hank feel even better about the process – and put him in good stead with the bean counters at Boeing.
Hank’s process rarely involved providing additional resources; in fact, managers would typically preface their implementation of the process by letting their employees know that they would be improving their lot with only the tools and resources they already had. Again, more love for Hank from the folks at Boeing who were watching the bottom line.
So what is an office rat to do with this information? If you’re a manager, consider trying Hank’s approach. If you’re an employee, ask yourself those questions and figure out how to do and get what you want at work on your own. No matter what your position, ask yourself those questions regularly and empower yourself to be more satisfied and productive.
About the Author
Larry Swanson is a massage therapist in downtown Seattle, WA. His practices focuses on the unique needs of office workers and also includes injury treatment for sports and car-accident injuries as well as massage for wellness and athletic performance.