“Wait,” I said, somewhat surprised, “I think I have that book.”
My wife was relating a story she heard on a podcast with Simon Sinek, the author and leadership consultant. He was talking about examples of enlightened management, and he mentioned a manufacturing company that refused to lay off employees during a downturn. The company’s somewhat strange name, “Barry-Wehmiller,” caught my attention. I went to get my copy of Everybody Matters, written by their CEO, and started reading.
Barry-Wehmiller is a 130-year old manufacturing company, made up of 11,000 employees who design and build machines that do things most of us never think about, like injecting shampoo into bottles, or making toothpaste boxes. That might not sound particularly interesting, but their financial performance is on par with Warren Buffet’s.
More importantly, when it comes to how their employees relate to each other and to the work they do, Everybody Matters serves as an inspiring example of the way things could be.
“Enron had wonderful cultural statements too”
Like many CEOs, Bob Chapman worked with his management team to craft a set of management principles that could guide the company. Once they did, a division president pointed out that Enron, an iconic symbol of greed, abuse, and mistreatment of its employees, also had a similar document. Here’s an excerpt:
“We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here. We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.”
Then she asked, “How is this not just going to be something that’s on the wall?”
Doing what most managers don’t do
The answer was in how Bob Chapman related to employees. When he visited a factory, he would ask questions - and he would listen to the answers. What he heard often gave him ideas for experiments to try and changes to make. Then he would ask more questions. How do you feel about these programs? What are we doing that doesn’t match up to what we say?
Workers were understandably skeptical. One factory worked asked, “If I tell you the truth, will I still have a job tomorrow?” Then he made this observation.
“Well, I see you have the word ‘trust’ near the top of this document…
Why is it when they go to the office and I go into the plant, we are treated completely differently? If the lady in accounting wanted to call home and see if her kids made it to school, she could just pick up the phone and call; I had to wait until I had a break and then use a pay phone. If I have a doctor’s appointment, I have to get my supervisor to sign off on my card and I get docked for the time; she just goes to her appointment. I had to wait for the break bell to get a cup of coffee or to use the bathroom.
You trust them to decide when to get a cup of coffee or call home, but you don’t trust me.”
The CEO was taken aback. “How could we treat our people - thoughtful, responsible adults - with such disrespect and distrust?” Chapman, despite the objection of the personnel director, had the time clocks removed from all of their operations.
In another plant, he noticed people working in the parts storeroom were fully enclosed in a metal cage. He asked, “What did those people do wrong?” and was told, “Well, we always secure the inventory. It’s the responsible thing to do.” The cage was removed.
It wasn’t a document or set of values that made a difference. It was the actions and changes over time. The more that management listened, the more opportunities they discovered to build trust and a sense of shared humanity.
“Our eyes were opening to things we had never noticed before. People came to understand that we truly cared and would not just pay lip service but really listen to them.”
“I’m more excited about where I’m at in my life”
As a manufacturing company, there was of course a focus on quality, and they implemented Lean Manufacturing principles. Yet Barry-Wehmiller expanded the focus beyond reducing costs and jobs to improving employee satisfaction and safety. That shift in focus changed the quality initiatives from a threat into an opportunity to contribute. But they had decades of cultural inertia to overcome.
Larry, one of their long-time workers, shared his story of how, early in his career, he had an idea for improving things.
“I think if we just change this…”
The supervisor interrupted him: “Stop right there. We don’t pay you to think. Go back to your machine and make the part right this time.”
From that moment on, Larry didn’t share any more ideas for improvement with the organization. He maintained his silence for forty-two years!”
Randall’s experience was similar.
“We had four supervisors who circled throughout the work area all day, making sure everyone was working. It was a very aggressive environment. You came to work every day, didn’t ask any questions or make any waves, and made sure that you got your work done.”
The CEO asked Steve, an employee in a Green Bay, Wisconsin plant, about what work was like for him.
“Do you know what it’s like, Bob, to work in a place where you show up every morning, you punch a card, you go to your station, you’re told what to do, you’re not given the tools you need to do what you need to do, you get ten things right and nobody says a word, and you get one thing wrong and you get chewed out? You feel empty. That was basically every day.”
But over time, the approach to work changed - and so did the workers. The changes even rippled outside of work, affecting their home life.
“I’ve been part of making things better. People ask me what I think; they listen to me, and I can have a chance to impact things including my own job. When I feel respected and know I’ve done a good day’s work, I feel pretty good about myself, and I find when I feel better about myself, I’m nicer to my wife, and when I’m nicer to my wife, she talks to me.”
“I went from the guy who didn’t want to do it to now teaching it! Everything about me is different, and everything in my life has changed….It’s opened my eyes to the possibility that even though I’m fifty-two years old, I can still make a difference in the world. I’m more excited about where I’m at in my life than I’ve ever been.”
Larry, after seeing that ideas were taken seriously and implemented, stood up at a continuous improvement event and said he wanted to be an ambassador of the program because he saw that “everybody was treated with respect and dignity, something that’s too often lost in our organization.”
The quotes about employees feeling like cogs in a machine reminded me of the quotes from Studs Terkel’s classic, Working, published in 1973. In Out of the Crisis in 1980, Deming railed against common management practices at that time, and argued for giving employees a voice and the opportunity to take pride in their work.
Decades later, not much has changed. Perhaps Barry-Wehmiller is just an exception to the rule. Perhaps the gap between where most companies are and where we need to be - in any industry - seems like too big of a leap, so we never take a step.
My hope is that Working Out Loud can help get us moving in the right direction. The people in these companies deserve better. We all deserve better.