Guest Commentary: 5 Ways to Increase Employee Participation in Continuous Improvement Programs

Getting buy in from employees can be difficult when implementing continuous improvement programs. Employees are often hesitant to change because of the uncertainty on how it might affect them. Getting employees to support the new direction can take time and effort. So what is the best way to increase employee participation in continuous improvement programs?

Here are a few suggestions on getting that crucial buy-in from employees:

1. Get Management Truly Involved – The workforce needs to see that management is committed to the initiative. Senior leadership should be involved in the initial roll-out of Lean education, as well as the Kaizen events aimed at standardizing processes and the defining of goals and standards. They should remain engaged thereafter, and even reinforce their commitment by following “Leader Standard Work” and truly participating in the process. Oftentimes, senior leadership comes into a facility to participate in a kick-off, or to simply deliver a message of encouragement at the start of the process, but is not involved after that point. Your employees see right through this, and do not consider it to be true involvement. Senior leaders need to actively participate in the activities and engage with employees at all levels of the organization. It is very powerful for team supervisors to feel like they have gotten true face time with their leader; it can shift their perception. They will go back to their teams, promote the culture change, and get their teams to embrace the new program.

2. Share Positive Feedback, Not Just Negative – If feedback from management is always negative, the workforce will perceive the program as just another way for management to monitor them, under the pretext of an “initiative.” Management should consciously provide positive feedback as well, so the workforce feels they are recognized for good performance too. In addition, negative feedback should be handled carefully; it should be handled as coaching. Never single out an individual in front of their peers. Instead, refer to a “situation” and present feedback to the entire team. This reinforces that the team is “in this together.” If the workforce fears individual retribution, it’s likely they will not fully engage in programs out of concern that they might say or do something that will be detrimental to them.

3. Implement an Employee Suggestion Program – Once created, it’s imperative that entries received are followed up on. Designate an individual that will be responsible for providing immediate feedback to the employee who submitted a suggestion, even if it’s just a simple, “Thank you for your submission. We will review and let you know how we might be able to make improvements.” This will make an employee feel like their opinion is valued. Beyond that, make sure to provide feedback on suggestions during shift start meetings. For example, you can take 5 minutes weekly during a shift start meeting to read out suggestions that are being considered, and recognize the employee who submitted them. You can also provide pins or patches for an employee’s safety vest that visibly recognizes participation. If a suggestion is not considered, it’s important to communicate back to the employee why it is not being implemented. This is the only way for an employee to learn what suggestions may or may not work.

4. Correlate Facility Performance to the “End Goal” – In many cases, employees don’t understand the end goal. The reason for becoming more productive in a facility is to control operational costs, which ultimately makes your company more profitable or your service more competitive. It is good to share these larger goals with employees. Other than just publishing improvements on individual and site productivity, also publish a measure of how the overall company (or account) is benefiting from their efforts. For example, publish the performance of that facility compared to others on the network, or something indicating the average operating cost per unit for that facility and its performance over time, etc. The important thing is to create a connection to the overall company, and beyond the four walls.

5. Create Performance-Based Economic Incentives – While opinions on this vary, in my experience, the biggest motivator for involvement in these programs is the ability to improve a person’s income and quality of living. Some think that providing economic incentives sends the wrong message because employees should offer high levels of effort and commitment simply because that is what’s expected of the job. There are certainly employees with this mentality, which regardless of an economic incentive, are generally very productive because of their own intrinsic motivation. But not everyone is the same, and creating a systematic way of rewarding performance can bring tremendous value. When you reward employees, you are not just reinforcing their behavior, but you are also creating a role model for under-performing employees to follow. Managing incentives requires processes that are well documented along with well-defined productivity standards, but again, the rewards can be well worth it.

Mario E. Rivera is a Director of Supply Chain Excellence at Ryder. He is a logistics and engineering professional with 10+ years of experience in supply chain engineering, optimization and solutions design and development, operations and business development. Throughout his career, Mr. Rivera has been involved in designing, implementing, and supporting numerous supply chain solutions for Ryder’s customers across a variety of industry segments.