I can almost hear the collective rolling of the eyes! Of course we want our people to participate! Of course we are looking for a high level of employee engagement! It almost seems like one of those mom and apple pie statements that everyone would instantly agree with. And yet....?
I am not disagreeing with you, I believe that those are indeed the sentiments of the vast majority of people in leadership roles and who are trying to create a continuous improvement culture on their teams. Let me share one of best selling author Andy Andrews stories to give you an idea of where I am coming from. Five seagulls are standing on a pier and one of them decides to fly away. How many seagulls are left on the pier? If you answered 4 you are wrong. You see until the seagull actually flies away he hasn't moved at all. Intending (or agreeing with a premise) is not the same as doing or acting upon it. Starting to get the idea?
We know that continuous improvement is iterative, that is it is constantly going through the cycle of goal setting, measuring, communicating, innovating and evaluating. But when you are first trying to build that culture you have to be very aware that once your team has the goal and have started measuring their own metrics and kpi's having them move to communication and innovation will require giving them permission to participate. This will be particularly true if this move to continuous improvement is taking place in a setting where employee participation was not traditionally encouraged. It is also one of the areas that is most prone to failure. A wrong comment, a snicker from a team member or an idea being dismissed without discussion and dialogue will cement with your team that calls for participation are not real and only being used for optics for the bosses higher up. Getting them to open up after that will be a much harder and much longer task so you must be very deliberate and careful to create the kind of milieu that will nurture the participation you want.
How do you "give permission" to participate? Well, in a nutshell, you ask. Ask not just once but ask frequently. You may have a feedback loop built into your pre-shift or post-shift meetings. You may have a suggestion box or board where ideas are collected and then discussed with the team at the next meeting or it may be as simple as just walking up to a team member and asking for feedback. Asking for participation, putting it on every meeting agenda and sincerely engaging your crew in that discussion is how you give permission.
I have seen this at its inception and it is painful but if you persist you will get the participation you want and the innovation that comes with that. I recall one oil and gas company that I walked through this process and they decided to have each team member report on their metrics and performance at each pre-shift meeting. They were to report on how things went the previous shift, what went right, what went wrong and what they were going to do to address those issues on the current shift. You can imagine how threatening this would be for crew who had never been exposed to this approach. I timed the first few of these meetings and I think the longest one was just under two minutes! But then one meeting early in the process a crew member shared an issue and was stumped with how to deal with it. The assistant lead hand spoke up at that point and shared that he had experienced that issue as well and came up with a couple of suggestions that might work. It was amazing! The whole meeting opened up with team members offering experience and suggestions to each other and all because someone in leadership jumped in to acknowledge that participation and reward it. Meetings went from two minutes to almost 45 minutes literally overnight and it was deemed so important to the crews that they came in early to make sure they could do the meetings properly.
Soon they were doing post-engagement meetings and developing opportunities lists that were populated with items gleaned from those original shift meetings. Each week the opportunities list would be posted along with which ideas had been implemented. At that point if you had tried to stop the participation it would have been impossible.
Participation does not just happen. We would like to think that it is something organic to every organization but the reality is that this is simply not so. Don't feel awkward or be afraid to structure participation into your daily interactions with your team. After all they are looking to you for permission to participate.