Turning Rules into Convictions
Much has been written on the importance of communicating a clear mission and other "grand scope" matters of leadership, but how do we get people to believe in the everyday tasks that they are asked to perform? As much as senior managers might try to show the rank and file the view from the top, back in the cubicle or stuck in the warehouse it's difficult for most workers to see anything except the view from the bottom. Assuming you've reminded your employees of the big picture and made clear the overall goals of the company, what can be done on the "nuts and bolts" level to make employees feel they are doing the right work in the right way and not just mindlessly following the rules?
In the past I've written about the importance of creating context for workers and I referred to context as "the why and who of work." In other words, if a manager can show an employee the context of how their work fits into the company's goals, the employee will understand why they do their work and for whom they are doing it. But context alone does not address whether or not the employee is doing the task in the most effective manner. For example, an automobile assembly line worker might understand the context of his work -- if he doesn't install the lug nuts, the wheels will fall off, and ultimately the car company will fail, but understanding the context of his job does not address whether he is installing those lug nuts in the most efficient way or simply following instructions that no longer make sense. If employees think they are performing tasks based on illogical or ineffective rules, the absurdity of following those rules will naturally cause them to disengage from their work.
The process of turning company rules into employee convictions is actually quite simple. Employees should be encouraged to put those rules to the test. Toyota has adopted this policy with astounding success. A cornerstone of their Kaizen philosophy of constant improvement stems from encouraging all workers to develop better processes and solutions. Assembly line workers at Toyota are challenged to find better, faster, and more efficient ways of performing their tasks -- regardless of how trivial those task might seem. If an employee cannot find a better way, it will reinforce his belief that the current method is the best way. In his mind, the company's rules for performing his tasks will have been tested and proven as the superior process.
In addition to reinforcing employees' belief in their work procedures, encouraging them to test and develop improved methods for doing their work will often result in better solutions. For example, the now legendary GE Work Out meeting system relies on breaking up employees into small groups and asking them to find ways of streamlining work processes. The lead manager's role in the Work Out process is primarily to approve or deny the solutions proposed by the work teams. In many cases, employee proposals made during a Work Out meeting have resulted in reducing procedural steps by 70 percent or more.
If encouraging employees to challenge the efficacy of their work processes results in both better work methods and greater conviction on the part of employees that those methods are correct, why hasn't this practice been more widely embraced? In a nutshell, it requires managers to help their staff challenge proven rules and processes with unproven ones. Additionally, the new processes developed by employees often cannot be fully tested without actual implementation, so there is a legitimate risk of failure. Unfortunately, most managers would rather continue with accepted and proven methods rather than risk changing those processes and dealing with the possibility of failing.
Rules, assumptions, and processes that are not regularly tested will naturally become stagnant and obsolete. While most managers recognize the need to improve efficiency and may even be open to listening to employees' suggestions, many of these same managers have not recognized the side benefit that simply challenging company processes results in a greater commitment to those processes. Regardless of whether or not an employee actually develops a better process or procedure, the simple act of putting the existing methods to the test will allow them to fully commit to their validity and they will no longer be bound by what might have previously been considered mindless rules. Having personally proven the rules as effective and correct, employees will perform their work with the conviction that they are doing it in the best and most efficient way.