A couple of years ago I wrote an article (“Use employees as a resource to make business succeed,” July 27, 2009) about how managing employees has evolved over the years. I noted that our culture can often be a function of the economic times, and we ought to utilize and manage employees in a prudent manner like we do with other corporate assets. I believe all that still holds true. However, I thought it might be good to take another look at the topic with a perspective shaped by a three-year economic downturn.
We can all point fingers at who caused the problem and look for scapegoats like legislators, regulators, overseas competition, etc. However, that does little to get us out of the problem. What may be a better approach is to look for viable solutions that we can control.
If we wait for a new party to take control of Congress, or put pressure on existing politicians, or expect a lawsuit to work its way through the courts, we could wait a long time and still not get the desired results. I think most business people understand this but rarely are sure of what steps to take. So let’s see if we might develop at least one plan to go forward. Others may spring from getting a process in motion.
First of all, let’s define the problem or problems. This can be done in terms of where we want to be or where we need to be to keep the business going, or where we stand related to our mission or vision. The more the problem can be defined in concrete numbers, the easier it is to determine the course of action. For example, we must produce a new product at “X” cost, or the number of quality defects must be reduced to X/1,000, or our sales are $5 million and they need to be $7.5 million by 2014.
The second step is to identify the contributing factors, both pro and con. Now it’s time to get others involved. Organizing this process can be a little time consuming and may require some training. The people who are part of your organization all have knowledge and experience that can be a positive contribution to resolving the issues identified or providing ideas to achieve the desired goals. The real key is to make them believe you want their input or that they have a vested interest in contributing.
This latter point is often the easiest matter to overlook or give the least amount of effort. It may also require some investment or demonstration that you are sincere. It requires some serious thought about how this will benefit the people you are working with and how to show it. Unfortunately, most folks think only in terms of their own objectives or only slightly about the objectives of the other people.
The media has done a very good job of telling the story of lost jobs, reduced wages and factory closings. People know this side of the picture. What needs to be addressed is what can be done to offset these issues. A shared effort and responsibility that keeps everyone in the boat and pulling in the same direction can do wonders.
Thirdly, pick the “low-hanging fruit.” When there is clear direction on where you are going and how success will be measured, people will know where to look for the most important issues. There is likely to be other “fruit” around, but picking the right one first will have the greatest impact, and people won’t be distracted or going off in scattered directions.
Then you want to organize the folks on the projects in a way that will give them adequate time and tools to accomplish the task. This may mean some education, a “go-to” resource if necessary, but most of all, be able to give them recognition when they hit critical milestones. This will highlight success and reinforce desired behavior.
And finally, be prepared to reward them with the most desired outcome: a meaningful job with the best possible level of pay and benefits the organization can afford. As a leader or owner of the business, be sure you provide every opportunity for the employees and the organization to maintain the jobs here. If the difference in labor costs is less somewhere else, be sure you consider the full picture before closing out your workers. That means quality controls, shipping costs, supply chain matters, maintenance, communication, etc. If you still need a few more ideas or options, go to your workers and see what they might put on the table. Your work force might be better than you think — especially now that you’ve help them grow and understand your view of the picture.
Ardon Schambers is president and principal of P3HR Consulting & Services LLC.