Want employee engagement to stick? Start at the top


“Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don’t follow titles, they follow courage.”

– William Wallace, Braveheart


It is a beautiful thing when employees are engaged in their work and are committed to continuous improvement.  Those two things, engaged employees and continuous improvement, often seem too good to be true, like some longed-for Utopian business environment reserved for only a select few companies who have stumbled on the magic button.  The reality is, it is absolutely possible to have engaged employees and continuous improvement sustained for the long term, but it’s going to take some work, and it has to start at the top.


Front line workers will see the most change, so shouldn’t we start there?

Ryan Fogarty, President of Lean Support Solutions says, “Of all the kaizens and improvement projects that I have seen struggle to be effective, the reason was almost always due to lack of leadership buy-in.  The team knew leadership wasn’t fully onboard, so front line workers just didn’t care.”  I mentioned in a previous article that I’ve heard some managers say they don’t trust employees, but employees pick up on that and in turn they don’t trust their managers.  It becomes a destructive, vicious cycle.  Similarly, when a manager implements a new process grudgingly or without explanation, employees know the support just isn’t there, and it’s almost guaranteed to fail.  Employee engagement efforts that start and stop with front line workers simply do not work.  Employees have to see and know that their managers believe in and support the change, and managers can only get there if they know the top executives believe in and support the changes even more.martial-arts-1375614158yo2

“No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher.

Teacher say, student do.”

– Mr. Miyagi, The Karate Kid




Why should top leadership take all the risk?  What if it doesn’t work?

In a recent interview with Dean Sinclair, Lean Consultant & Government Expert with Lean Support Solutions, he gave a great answer to this question:


Good leaders have always practiced “management by walking around.”  They leave the comfort of their offices and close associates and actually look at the work being done and talk to the people doing it.  Lean operations principles simply give this process more structure to make it more effective.  George Washington understood this principle.  He made almost daily rounds among his troops and he was known for asking probing questions.  By doing so, he gained almost absolute respect from his troops.  So loyal were they to Washington that although they endured incredible hardships, still they fought on and defeated the British army.


Employees know when management is merely giving lip-service to culture change.  The result is a half-hearted and legalistic response to guidelines and directives.  The job might get done but employees will lose their enthusiasm for it and begin to think that if management does not care, why should they?


So, what if it doesn’t work?  The answer is that it absolutely won’t work if management fails to take the risk of rolling up their sleeves.  On the one hand, there is guaranteed failure, on the other is the chance for incredible improvement.  Dean went on to describe what it looks like when change initiatives start from the top:


Culture change is looking for excellence in performance.  Supervisors and managers will see the importance of preparing, training and equipping front line workers.  It ultimately accrues to the success of the entire operation.  Customers get the total care they need while meeting the financial and quality goals of the organization.


Senior management trusts the information it receives and the people who provide it.  This creates a life cycle of constant improvement.  This open communication and attention to detail must start at the top.  A custodian can successfully implement an equipment or procedure change only if the management at the top has a system in place and the will to make it happen.


One final note…

Ultimately any change initiative, whether employee engagement, lean operations or others, is only truly successful when it saturates the entire organization.  Victor Lipman, a Forbes Contributor, found that in the change management process, only about 40% of front-line supervisors were “getting the message about reasons for major organizational changes…” (Forbes, 2013).  That means that in most change initiatives, there is a breakdown of communication somewhere between top leadership and front-line supervisors and employees.  Somehow, the message just isn’t getting through.  The answer to this problem is to follow George Washington’s example and get out there with the front-line employees to ask the probing questions and make sure that the message is coming through loud and clear.