Rarely a day goes by without a tweet or an article articulating the benefits of an empowered workforce. It must be every manager’s dream, some training, a clear direction and then leave the teams to it. Before you can say the magic word “Kaizen” the workforce is engaged and profits are up. Well it didn’t work like that when I first experienced the empowered workforce over 40 years ago. Again it was while working in the local meat cube factory.
As I have written before the cube making process was tricky to control but a couple of guys had mastered it. Inevitably a natural competition arose between these two; who really was the best cuber? In the end they decided the only way to differentiate between them was to run a competition. The start was agreed and off they went. They worked to the best of their ability, only the allowed food and toilet breaks were taken, definitely no extra smoke breaks and every effort was made to keep the machines tuned. Their efforts had immediate results…the shifts output went up and up and up. The competition had gone on for over a week and even the senior staff had noticed the improvement. However the competition was governed by “Omerta”, not a word about it should be spoken to anyone. Slowly people realised that here was an opportunity… brownie points were available and all you had to do was take them. So the maintenance manager alluded to his teams efforts to keep the kit running. Not to be outdone the production manager added that he had been keeping an eye on smoke breaks and times taken for meals.
Eventually the guys got tired and analysis of the data just couldn’t settle who the best cuber was. So they shook hands, called it a draw and returned to their old ways. The output dropped immediately and the senior staff went into shock “is the equipment being fixed promptly”…”have extra smoke breaks resumed?” To save too many ructions word was leaked out about the competition and everything calmed down and went back to normal and that was the end of that.
But probably that shouldn’t have been the end of that. Had the guys been consulted and encouraged I believe some smaller but sustainable gains could have been made. Well this was 40 years ago and today we are much better at engaging our people but I fear not as good as we could be or need to be.