Building a culture of involvement that includes self-managed work teams is undoubtedly the most challenging of all leadership endeavors, but it is also the most rewarding. Great leaders involve employees from all levels in the business operations. By creating an environment of trust and openness and developing a culture of risk-taking, leaders are able to turn over the responsibility of the daily operations to the employees. These leaders recognize the need and take active steps to produce ownership within the ranks.

The key here is involvement, and the critical question is: "How do you involve employees and motivate them to take ownership?" The best companies know that employees who feel involved in the business feel trusted. This trust helps to create a sense of ownership. A sense of ownership enables employees to empower themselves, making them happier, more fulfilled, productive and loyal.

It is important to note that you cannot empower employees. However, you can provide them with the environment, the tools and the resources to empower themselves.

Keep in mind that the process of involvement is tricky. It takes work, and all supervisors, managers and leaders must be on board. There must be consistency in the rollout, support and accountability processes. For most organizations, especially manufacturing organizations, the level of involvement is very low, if not non-existent.

Deciding to implement a process of involvement is about making dramatic cultural change. You will face resistance. The roadblocks to involvement include:

  • Lack of trust – Most employees will be suspicious of a leadership team that has, in the minds of its members, suddenly decided to involve them, ask their advice and listen to their ideas.
  • Fear – Employees will quickly realize that they will be required to learn new skills and perform additional responsibilities. They will worry about what happens if they make a mistake (will they be disciplined or lose their jobs?) or if they are not able to learn the new skills (will they lose their jobs, be moved to less desirable positions or be forced to take a pay cut?).
  • Resentment – Employees may resent taking on more responsibility, especially with tasks that they perceive to be management's responsibilities.

Despite the challenges and frustrations during the process, creating a culture of involvement is worth the investment. When I worked for Textile Services (Disney's laundries), I was fortunate to have been a member of a committee that changed the laundry operations from a typical, autocratic, authoritarian operation to one of involvement and self-managed work teams. During the process, we thought often of giving up, but in the end the perseverance paid off.

At the end of one year, we saw light at the end of the tunnel. Within the next two to three years, we managed to change the culture, despite the fact that more than 40 percent of the workforce had tenure of 20 to 25 years. When I left Disney three years ago, the culture of involvement was still firmly in place and had been the mode of operation for their business for more than 12 years. The benefits realized from directly involving the employees in all levels of the business were:

  • Turnover was reduced from 60 percent to an average of 5 percent annually.
  • Prior to the cultural change, the plant ran with four managers per shift, for a total of eight managers per day. This number was reduced to one manager per shift, for a total of two per day.
  • On the annual survey, more than 80 percent of the employees stated that they were very proud to say that they worked for Textile Services.
  • The customer survey ratings improved dramatically to more than 80 percent satisfaction with all aspects of customer service.
  • Outsourcing was no longer a threat.

5 Tactics for Creating a Culture of Involvement

Below are the tactics that we used at Textile Services to create a culture of involvement within the laundry operations. They should be considered guidelines and a good place to start.

Tactic 1: Communicate the vision and ensure everyone is on the same page, working toward a common goal.

It is imperative that all employees buy into the vision if they are going to assist in the execution of the vision. In most cases, they are not paid more to get involved. Therefore, it is critical that the benefits to the employees are clearly articulated by leadership.

One of the roadblocks at Textile Services in accomplishing this goal was the diversity of the employee base. Employees in the laundries represented 15 countries and spoke seven languages, many of them speaking no English whatsoever. Obviously, communicating the vision in English alone was not the answer.

The committee settled on a more creative method of communication. They scheduled several sessions where employees were released from their positions for approximately one hour. The vision and the mission were presented to all employees in groups of 30 to 40.

The laundry leadership team communicated this important message in English with bilingual translators in the room representing every group. The leaders demonstrated the principles of great service through mini-plays or skits. Employees were encouraged to get involved by giving feedback and asking questions at the end of the session, ensuring clarity of the message and expectations of the employees.

Every employee was required to attend one of the scheduled sessions. For those who were not able to attend due to extenuating circumstances, leaders were required to meet one-on-one with these employees to communicate the key message points.

The results were surprising. The vast majority of employees was on board and excited about the future. This led to an immediate increase in productivity and a buzz of excitement in the plants.

Tactic 2: Create a culture of trust by giving employees the knowledge, skills, tools, resources and parameters to make good decisions, ensuring that they will successfully deliver on the vision.

Providing this level of skill and knowledge can be accomplished in many ways. Informally, daily huddles can be held to share information critical to the day's work. An article in the April 2006 issue of Business 2.0 magazine highlighted how UPS starts each day with a three-minute huddle to keep 220,000 drivers and package handlers on time. These meetings ensure that employees are informed of company announcements, local traffic conditions, customer complaints and even a daily safety tip. The strict 180-second time limit helps enforce the company focus of punctuality.

More formally, monthly meetings and training sessions that facilitate two-way conversations are valuable ways to involve employees. For those employees who may not be comfortable sharing information in a group setting, one-on-one conversations are good ways to get people involved.

Providing tools and resources is critical in supporting self-directed teams. You must determine which tools and resources are necessary for the employees to experience success in their new roles. These tools and resources could be computer training, English-speaking classes, effective communication classes, training for implementing new processes or updated standard operating procedure (SOP) manuals.

Tactic 3: Involve employees in the process for budgeting financial results.

Once employees understand the process for budgeting productivity, purchasing supplies, etc., they are more likely to understand their impact on the budget. However, it is not enough to explain the process. To build trust and commitment toward delivering on the goals of the organization, employees should be involved in creating the budget goals.

Some managers would argue that employees cannot possibly create budget goals. Although it may be true that some employees have limited education and cannot comprehend the complicated process of budgeting, only by having a hands-on experience will employees understand their role in making the business successful. They will realize that it is they, the frontline employees, whose primary interaction with the customer has the true ability to impact the customer experience. Employees who are involved in creating the budget will understand their value and importance to the organization. They now have a sense of control over their own destinies, making the connection that success for the organization means success for them.

Tactic 4: Develop training that creates interaction within departments and with customers.

Great training is about more than a strong on-the-job (OJT) training program. Certainly nothing replaces a good OJT program, but consider enhancing it with a cross-utilization or job-shadow program. This type of training builds camaraderie, relationships and empathy for one another's positions. It is especially helpful in situations where the success of one department is reliant on the success of another.

Tactic 5: Build continuous improvement into every step of the operation.

Teach employees the process for measuring operational efficiencies and challenges, and involve them in the continuous improvement process by asking for their opinions and ideas. This is how you leverage the talent, knowledge and experience of your employees. No one knows better than the frontline employees what is and isn't working. They understand where you can gain operational efficiencies to impact the business in a positive way.

A word of caution: The mistake that many managers make is that they ask but do not act, saying things like: "We can't do that," "We don't have the money for that," or "It's been tried before, and it didn't work."

The leader's place in this process is to clearly delineate the parameters, provide tools and knowledge, remove roadblocks, and support the employees in their efforts. This means that leaders must implement employee ideas as often as possible. Supporting the employee by implementing their ideas, even if they seem small and insignificant, builds the leader's credibility and relationships for future endeavors.

Undoubtedly, you will not be able to implement all employee ideas, but what you must do is acknowledge the employee for trying to improve the operation and explain why the idea cannot be implemented. If you do not at least acknowledge employees for their efforts, you may never receive another idea from them, but the most damaging result will be the loss of credibility by the leader.

Reward and recognition is a critical step in the process of continuous improvement and does not have to cost a lot of money. Employees who feel valued are more likely to work harder.

Creating a culture of trust is hard work and means taking risks. Each day, you face the risk that employees will make bad decisions and that those decisions will cost the company money. Taking the time to provide the skills, knowledge, tools and training will not eliminate the risks but will minimize them.

Some employees will carry their sense of involvement to the extreme, despite your best efforts to communicate the parameters. It will be necessary for you to coach and counsel these employees. If they insist on working outside the stated parameters, you may need to take some level of disciplinary action. However, experience has shown that these employees are the exception to the rule and that the benefits far outweigh the risks.