Knowing what your workers really think and taking action on their good ideas are essential to your competitiveness and productivity. Here's one company's approach

Whenever CEO J. W. Kisling catches himself barreling off on a tangent about how American companies can stay competitive in the global economy, he tells this story: "A few years ago at the company's annual picnic, the employees gave me a present. They built me a box with the word soap stenciled on the side of it. Now when I start pontificating I stand on it." For more than 20 years the 150 employees of Multiplex Inc., a manufacturer of automatic beverage dispensers in St. Louis, have listened to their leader preach to them about the importance of the latest management theories about quality, customer service, and employee empowerment. But when Kisling decided to survey his 80 line workers about life on the factory floor, "the old, autocratic supervisors cringed," he recalls. "There's a helluva lot going on in a company that line workers aren't going to tell top management. But if supervisors are doing a good job, they shouldn't have to worry."

Kisling based his survey on one published by the National Association of Manufacturers. This allowed Multiplex to compare its results with those of thousands of other manufacturers nationwide. Fifty-two questions covering nine categories of information were asked. Although in the survey, the questions appeared in random order to encourage candor and a fresh approach to each, the results were analyzed by grouping the answers according to category: attitude toward top management; work and safety conditions; supervisory effectiveness; pay and employee benefits; communication and recognition; job security and promotion; attitude toward fellow workers; attitude toward the survey; and -- what else? -- quality. Space was also provided for suggestions.

Once the results were tallied they were posted on the factory bulletin board, and the executive committee began addressing the issues that were raised. Although not startling, the responses helped place urgency on problems that had been out of sight, out of mind. "There's enough information in this survey to keep us busy for two years," says Kisling. "By becoming a better place to work, the company is more productive. This in turn makes us more profitable, which of course makes us more competitive and allows us to grow. My family bought this company for $50,000 in 1970, and we earned revenues of $18 million in 1991, so we think what we do works."

Kisling is quick to point out that surveying employees has its limits. "It isn't a cure-all for management-employee communication channels, but it is a way for managers to get feedback on their performance and to initiate a dialogue with line employees." And as with any survey, don't make it routine or it won't be taken seriously by the employees or the managers. Anonymity is a must, and management must be committed to following through on the recommendations. "If you don't, you just dig yourself deeper into the hole," says Kisling.

Below, Kisling and personnel manager Jim Wuest describe how key managers have read the results and what they've decided to do with them.

Attitudes Toward Top Management

Kisling saw a red flag in what he interpreted as mediocre reviews of his company's management. The outcome? A plant manager whose autocratic style had earned him the nickname "Little Hitler" was let go, and Kisling has increasingly tried to implement open-book management practices. Kisling's voice-mail box now serves as a confidential communication link to employees and is filled with messages from line employees about life on the floor.

Barometer Questions

[Question on form: "I would recommend employment in Multiplex to my friends.] "This question gives you an overall impression of how the employees feel," say Kisling. "We're real pleased that a whopping 82% of our workers agreed with the statement. We try to do so much to make the work environment pleasant. We moved our plant to this beautiful 26-acre site and built a running track. I have 'Breakfast with the Boss' day, when I get together with line employees and they fill me in on what's going on and I tell them about new sales and what management has been working on."

Survey Method
"Asking the same question a few different ways improves the validity of the answer," says Kisling. For instance, questions 9 ["Our management keeps us informed about new plans and developments."] and 25 ["We are given little or no information about the company."] elicit similar responses. They are two of seven questions grouped in the communication and recognition area, where Multiplex consistently scored well above the average. "You should get general agreement among those answers for which the questions were designed to get at similar issues."

Attitudes Toward the Job
"Some people were bored with their jobs or felt they weren't being challenged by their supervisors," says Wuest. "A person who's bored isn't going to give you 100%. Some others felt they were being pushed too hard. We broke out the results by department to pinpoint who thought their jobs were boring and who thought they were overworked. In the assembly department, where the work can be monotonous, we've tried to make games out of filling orders. We now give employees targeted goals and cross-train them at different positions on the line. As for those who feel pushed to the limit, I think it's a good sign. You always want people to be stretching and improving."

Evaluating the Supervisors
"Overall, our supervisors scored well," says Wuest, "but we were weak in two areas that surprised me. We found that while we were doing a good job of keeping employees updated on new sales contracts, new employees hired, and new projects, we weren't following through on their suggestions or keeping promises about things like instituting new procedures or buying new equipment. I think if you asked them about that today, they would be much more positive. We were also generally bad at handing out 'attaboys.' So we started a program where employees may write commendation letters about their fellow workers, which are then filed in their personnel folders."

"The survey allowed everyone to be detailed and frank about what was on his or her mind, and we have been able to take action in a lot of areas," says Kisling. "We've had fire drills, added emergency exits, and completely overhauled storeroom management. We also invested a half-million dollars in more-efficient machinery."