Skip to main content
Winter 2017 - The Path to Engaged Employees
The Path to Engaged Employees
Continuous improvement is not satisfied with a ‘good day.’ The focus is on ‘better days.’ What do high-performance companies do to have more ‘better days’ than good days? They have employee engagement.
By Greg Langfield
December 2016

If you tend to dismiss employee engagement as a priority within your continuous improvement journey, think about this: A recent workforce study conducted by Towers Watson found that fewer than one-third (31.5 percent) of U.S. workers considered themselves “engaged” in their jobs in 2014. On top of that, fully 26 percent of them plan to leave their employers within the next two years. 

Today, as many manufacturers scramble to bridge the skills gap to recruit qualified employees, just as many struggle to retain them. The solution to this challenge is engagement. Engaged employees stick around, they’re more productive problem solvers; they’re more willing to recruit others to your company, and they’re more connected to achieving the internal goals that will help your company grow and thrive. (And not for nothing, their lives are better: they arrive home from work with more energy to do the things they want to do.) 

In short, engagement helps your business, helps your customers, and helps your employees.

Let’s consider two companies, Alpha Tech and Beta Machine, and how they integrate engagement into their lean journeys. Both are hypothetical, but you’ll recognize their behaviors. The management team at Alpha Tech has just begun introducing the tools and cost savings of continuous improvement into their company culture, but with every step they are thinking about how those processes will help motivate and engage their employees. 

When asked about how things were going, the CEO takes a pause and says, “Well, let me just say it’s a good time to be employed here.” They’re on their way to getting engagement with their employees.

Greg Langfield, business growth consultant, Enterprise Minnesota
Greg Langfield, business growth consultant, Enterprise Minnesota

Beta Machine is a major manufacturer. They began their continuous improvement journey almost eight years ago, but its executives have watched their early successes begin to diminish. They’re struggling. They ask, “What’s not working?” As they reassess, they discover that their initial focus was more on tools and cost savings. People were always part of the process, but they weren’t a priority.

Keep these companies in mind. Alpha Tech is just on their journey, so their experience can be applicable no matter where your company is. Beta Machine is having to readjust the continuous improvement efforts to find greater success. They share a commitment to the value of leaning up their operations, and they also understand that no number of cutting-edge continuous improvement concepts can succeed if their employees aren’t dedicated to the process.  

They have also learned that their success is based on three processes that support employee engagement. 

Daily improvement. How do you coach and motivate frontline employees—either in the office or on the production floor—to think about making improvements throughout their days? 

Best method. How do you coordinate supervisors and other leaders to help employees develop? How do you have employees take control of their work, so that it can be improved?

Purposeful leadership. How do you organize and inspire the management team?


Many managers still look to the suggestion box as manufacturing’s time-honored method of enabling employees to contribute improvements to the company’s operations. Experience teaches me otherwise, even that the suggestion box is really anti-continuous improvement, full of good but misguided intentions. Think about it. What’s the first characteristic of a suggestion box: It’s locked! What are we afraid of? A great idea will be stolen? (I also wonder, “Who has the key?”)

Also, from the perspective of continuous improvement, how can you tell if there’s a suggestion in there? Usually, you can’t, of course, another source of waste. It should surprise no one that employees consider the suggestion box a black hole where good ideas go to die. Some consider it the process equivalent of a shredder. 

We can do better. Smart advocates of continuous improvement look for more visible ways to post ideas, out in the open. They want employees in other departments to see those ideas and say, “Good idea. Can I apply it over here?” 

Continuous improvement requires a change in thinking

An engagement culture encourages employees to use their skills to view these processes in new and innovative ways. We want employees to say, “I’m the process expert.” What’s not working for me today? Am I walking too far? Do I need a tool here? What is it?” We’ll help you identify that.

The focus of daily improvement is not merely to develop ideas. We want to transform ideas into action. 

An engaged culture of continuous improvement is built on four fundamentals.  

Learn to See
Engaged employees do more than just to show up and push a button; they continuously think in terms of finding daily improvements that add value and reduce waste. They think in terms of D-O-W-N-T-I-M-E: Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, Not Utilizing People, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Excess Processing. How much walking am I doing? How many times do I move a part before it actually goes out the door? How many times do I move it just to get access to something? These things make our days busy, but don’t add value to the customer. They just add cost to the bottom line.

Learning to see non-value add activities as waste is the key to continuous improvement

(Someone once said that an optimist sees the glass as half full, the pessimist sees it as half empty, and the continuous-improvement thinker sees it as twice as big as it needs to be). 

It’s OK to be small
Trained eyes see how processes inter-relate and can better identify waste, no matter how small. When employees start to see waste, little things will add up to big things. 

Permission to try
Engaged employees in culture of continuous improvement need to know that it’s okay to try out ideas, even if they don’t work. I like the guideline, “Fail fast, fail cheap, and learn a lot.” Any idea that doesn’t compromise quality or safety is worth a try. 

Timely Recognition
Effective engagement emphasizes formal and timely feedback. Employees have to trust that management appreciates their good ideas, especially when they are transformed into action.


Masaaki Imai, the famed organizational theorist, once said, “Where there is no standard, there can be no improvement.” The idea is that if I have multiple employees doing a process and each one does it a little bit differently, is that acceptable? If it’s a critical process step related to safety, quality, or productivity, I want to have the best method. 

Do we need to have a certain way of doing things in all our processes? Probably not. Start by identifying core areas: Where are the bottlenecks, constraints, or safety issues? Where can you improve quality? 

List all the specifics involved: walking, picking up, moving materials, waiting time, doing paperwork. Challenge every detail. How many times do we have to pick up that form just to do it? Measure wait times for approvals. Blow apart those process steps and then put them back together using the five Ws and one H. Why are we doing it and what is its purpose? The answer should not be, “because we’ve always done it that way.”

I recently noticed that a team on the manufacturing floor was devoting 10 minutes each morning to fill out a form for quality. They told me the form goes to quality and they store it. We did a little checking and discovered that no one was looking at that form—it wasn’t adding any value at all. That’s pretty typical. We start doing things and we forget why.

Keep asking questions. Where is it being done? When is it done? Who’s the best person to do it? Assess the sequence of work. How can I think about where it is? Can someone else do it? Do they have the right skills? Are they over-skilled? 

Then we get to how is it being done? Can I automate it? Can I do something else? Is the employee overburdened? Are they working hard? Do they need something to aid them their efforts? Do they need a lifting device? It is important to emphasize the “how” last. If we start there, before finding all possible efficiencies, we risk incorporating waste into our process. Don’t get to the how first and automate waste.

By the time you’re done, that puzzle should be smaller and easier to manage. Try out the new method as quickly as possible. It won’t be perfect, and that’s okay—as long as we learn from it. 

We have enough checks in here to see if we’re hitting our goals. Meaningful measurements are important for productivity and also to a culture of engaged employees, who need to know how well they’re doing. They sense it when their machines don’t break down and they produced product. But they need to know how many parts they were expected to produce. How many customer orders were they expected to process? If goals are hidden, they can’t test their own productivity. The idea isn’t to set up punitive consequences for someone who doesn’t hit their score, but for them to analyze their performance in terms of continuous improvement. If they didn’t hit, enable them to ask, why not? What happened today that inhibited them from hitting all those customer orders you were entering? How do they improve that process?

That’s where we need the employees and leaders of the company to come together.

Any time we think about productivity, we usually think in terms of having a score. These measurable scores can apply just as easily to the front office as on the production floor. 

One outcome of this is a document called Standard Work that lists expectations for work and process. It prescribes process steps and estimates how much time each should take. The goal of this document is to make the process visible, but not for the operators. It is a leadership tool. It is meant to enable leaders to see how well it is working. That way we can establish whether we have a best method or maybe there’s improvement opportunity there. We’re trying to make the process as visible as we can using different techniques and tools here to make sure that we have a standard in place.

Continuous improvement thinkers see the world in a different way

This means it is not really a work instruction or a procedure, in the truest sense. Standard Work applies better for companies that have continuous flow, that have repetitive work. It relates less well to a job shop environment that has high mix and low volume.
At some point you may have to document the process. It’s really hard to have consistency in a process without some sort of documentation, whether it includes pictures, videos, work instruction, procedures, or flow charts. 

The goal is to beat the standard. We have to keep getting better and better and that’s how companies continually improve their performance, by having these goals and then figuring out ways that they can make them better.


Engagement in daily improvement and best methods will be unsustainable without purposeful leadership ensuring that the processes are effective.  

Purposeful leaders go and see. They get out of their offices and go to the production floor or to the engineering office, or to the customer service office. They just go. They observe processes. How are they working or not? What’s the value added or non-value added? Leaders need to understand waste as much as employees.

Purposeful leaders also focus on developing employees as problem solvers. They ask questions and learn. They first ask what? And then why? They ask, what do you see? They ask, “What would you do differently?” not “Why did that happen?” Leaders coach employees to solve their own problems.

Observant leaders will quickly step in when problems become too big for employees to solve on their own. They might involve time, materials, vendors or information that is beyond an employee’s control. Leaders step in and keep track of the process. And when the problem is solved, they share the results with the relevant employees, who deserve to hear about how they contributed to the solution. 

Just like any other process, leadership requires a best method that holds them accountable for seeing if a process is effective. Maybe just Mondays and Thursdays there’s an hour dedicated where leadership is out on the floor, going through office areas, spending ten minutes at a certain critical area and just seeing how things are going. Twice a week. In this way we can see what the expectation is when the leaders will be going by, but we also have to hold them accountable for continuous improvement. If this isn’t working, we want to improve it. So we need to make the process visible. That’s all we’re trying to accomplish.


I like this story: The leadership team came in at 5:30 one morning, hitting the key processes before third shift went home. We came up to this one machine, a critical piece of equipment, just about every product flowed through it. We could see that it generated a high level of scrap over third shift that night. The operator said she noticed the scrap issues, checked the machine and couldn’t identify anything wrong. She called maintenance, who couldn’t find anything wrong with it either, and so they changed out one of the materials. The scrap went down.

She retained the material and wrote down the lot number. Because the purchasing buyer was part of “go and see,” the buyer took that. As the leadership team all we did was say thank you and we moved on to the next process. Now did that employee and maintenance make it a good day? Absolutely. Did they make sure first shift came on and had a good process running? Absolutely.

This wasn’t always the case. Four years earlier, employees didn’t know how to troubleshoot that piece of equipment. They didn’t have any documentation or support, and didn’t know what to look for. Maintenance had the mentality that if the machine was running, yet producing high amounts of scrap, it was OK. And leadership would discover problems only by looking at a report, maybe a week to a month later.  

What can one expect of a return? Let’s say you had a daily improvement process and let’s say you gave $10 to every employee who actually implemented an idea, and you get 20 improvements a month. That’s $200 a month. Not very much for most companies.

What if you had a supervisor go into a critical area with a team of operators and took two days to disassemble the process, and put it back together? What’s the cost of that? Two days of time? What about if leadership dedicated two hours a week to go out and see really how those processes that are important to the business get better. Is that too big of an investment? Well, the only way we can talk about it is, what’s the return?

Using twos again. What would happen if we saved 20 minutes per day per employee? That would be huge. Think about all your employees, think about all that time. What would you do with that? I’d be really happy with two minutes per day per employee, that’s still fantastic, that’s huge. Two minutes per day per employee, the process improvement is really big. What if it was only two seconds a day? Would it be worth the investment? I hope you say yes, because it is worth two seconds a day, it’d be worth two seconds a week, if we could get there by getting engaged employees and going after continuous improvement.

We’re really after these seconds in our day. What can we do to go after them and see ways to improve processes here?

Think about continuous process as a three-legged stool. We need all three legs. If we take away daily improvement, we’d still have best methods and leadership. We could measure our work for today, but the challenge would be on making the employee work harder. We’d have goals, but employees would have lost their ability to see processes and waste. We wouldn’t be able to sustain it.

If we took away best method, we’d have a good start, but at some point, but we’d say, “How’d that hour go? How’d that work order go? How’d that day go? And what can we do to improve it?”

Likewise, the process would still tip over without leadership; it’s never going to sustain itself. We need that active role in leadership to really build that culture to build our employees up to get engagement there.

By looking at these three processes together, and as I mentioned in my story, it’s not overnight, it’s not one day, it’s a journey. We know where we’re headed. Hopefully you’ll see days getting better, less frustration. In my own personal continuous improvement journey, these three processes came together one day, and I didn’t realize it. It’s hard to tell with engagement how well you’re progressing, right? It’s not like you can take a picture before and then after.  Go ahead, now take one small step to make today a better day!  

Greg Langfield is a business growth consultant at Enterprise Minnesota. His expertise ranges from enterprise-wide lean transformations to targeted improvements including various lean workshops and lean certifications. Before joining Enterprise Minnesota in 2012, Greg worked as an engineering manager for Covidien, as a project engineer for Automation Services Inc. and Doboy Packaging Machinery, and also as a design engineering manager for Laser Machining Inc. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from North Dakota State University.

Next article

Winter 2017 - The Outside-In Perspective
Summit Machine used the findings from a candid customer performance audit to build strong customer relations through early collaboration.
Read Article Back to the Main Issue