It's incredibly easy to send mixed messages to your employees.

For example, you can tell your employees that quality and customer satisfaction are vital to your business's success... but that message can easily get lost when weekly, daily, and even hourly productivity results are splashed across every bulletin board in your facility.

The key is to help your employees find a larger meaning in what your company does--and in what they do.

But that's not easy.

Productivity vs. Quality

Years ago I worked in a run-and-gun book manufacturing plant: Our goal wasn't to produce the highest quality product possible; our goal was to avoid customer complaints while maximizing productivity.

Publicly management might have disagreed with that goal, but since there is often a difference between what is said and what is expected, on the shop floor we were well aware of the real expectations. Numbers mattered--a lot.

(Keep in mind I don't disagree with striking a balance between quality and productivity. Commodity production, especially when price is the major competitive factor, requires meeting quality expectations while maximizing output and minimizing costs. Exceeding quality expectations is fine, as long as it doesn't slow you down or cost you more.)

In the mid-80s our plant expanded its printing and binding capabilities to include Bible and hymnal production. Convincing publishers we could reliably manufacture Bibles and hymn books wasn't easy for our sales force; one publisher even sent a vice president to talk to everyone at the plant involved in producing their work.

I only remember one thing she said: "You aren't running books," she told us. "You're running Bibles."

At first I assumed she was speaking from a religious perspective. Years later I realized her statement carried a larger meaning. Her point was that a Bible can be more than just a book: It can also be a cherished gift, a source of comfort, or an heirloom passed on from one generation to the next.

In short, a Bible can take on a meaning greater than the words it contains. Unlike a "regular" book, a Bible might be more than just a book to be read once and placed on a shelf; it could, over time--even if a page is never turned--become an item that takes on real significance in a person's or a family's life.

So can almost anything.

What's the Larger Meaning?

What your business sells--no matter how transitory--may turn out to have a larger meaning. The restaurant you own doesn't just serve food; your restaurant may create a touchstone for a family's memories. The smartphone you sell may not just store music and images but could provide the soundtrack and photo album of a teenager's life. The clothing you sell might be worn on the first day of school or on a first date.

At the time I didn't take her message to heart. I stayed focused on out-producing the other crews and trying to set production records.

In large part that was my fault, but some of the responsibility does rest with the expectations our management team set. They occasionally told us to run quality Bibles--but they constantly measured how fast we ran those Bibles.

The products and services you provide can at times make a lasting impact in a customer's life. Help your employees understand how they sometimes provide customers with a lot more than a product or service.

Maybe that is better quality; maybe that is better service; maybe it's the recognition that most purchases have an objective and an emotional component, and that emotional component must be supported during and after the sales process.

Whatever you provide, help every employee find the meaning in what they do.

That's the most important message of all--and one that should never be mixed.