Uptime: Is Your Workforce Engaged and Inspired?

bob williamson thumb thumbHigh-performing, productive, innovative, conscientious and safe employees are typically engaged with their work and with the mission and goals of the company. They are inspired to go beyond the status quo. While we would like to believe that many of our employees are engaged, evidence suggests that they’re in the minority in the American workplace, historically ranging no higher than 30%, according to Gallup research.

What would happen if we could truly engage our workforce to eliminate the causes of poor-performing and unreliable equipment? Better on-time performance, lower operating costs, fewer defects, less waste, a safer workplace and more. But what if we can’t engage this workforce, and those in it become actively disengaged?

Gallup’s report on the State of the American Workplace – Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders (2013) provides valuable lessons learned and suggestions that make sense, especially considering the state of flux in manufacturing, maintenance and reliability (i.e., an aging workforce, skills gaps, lack of skills-development infrastructure). It states that on average, 30% of the U.S. workforce IS engaged and that the remaining 70% are not reaching their potential at work. This 70% is divided into two categories: 52% are not engaged and 18% are actively disengaged. 

What should really concern us are those who are actively disengaged. Per Gallup’s survey, these are the people who aren’t just unhappy at work, “they’re busy acting out their unhappiness.” Every day these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish. The 52% who aren’t engaged have “essentially checked out, they’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time—but not energy or passion—into their work.” These are the workers who seem to be on top of things, show up to work on time and aren’t disruptive. Their minds may be elsewhere, however, planning for the evening or next weekend.

One of the most important findings spelled out in the report deals with the extremely positive benefits of engaged employees. In addition to being high-performers, as discussed above, they are actively contributing to increasing their companies’ earnings per share and the country’s Gross Domestic product (GDP). 

The question is, why are so many employees NOT engaged and others dangerously disengaged? The answer is that leadership and work cultures are getting in the way.

Gallup’s survey is based on its pioneering Q12 methodology that encompasses 12 observable and actionable workplace elements. Understanding these 12 elements is the foundation for understanding the basic leadership behaviors and work cultures that promote (or stifle) engagement. The company has used a standard set of questions since the late 1990s to survey over 25 million employees in 189 countries and 69 languages. The following list is a summary of Q12 items that serve as the best predictors of employee and workgroup performance. Regarding engaged employees:

1. They know what is expected of them.

2. They have the materials and equipment needed to do their work.

3. They have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.

4. They receive recognition or praise for doing good work weekly.

5. They have someone who seems to care about them at work.

6. They have someone who encourages their development.

7. Opinions seem to count.

8. They feel that their jobs are important.

9. They have associates or fellow employees committed to doing quality work.

10. They have a best friend at work.

11. They have had someone talk to them about their progress in the past six months.

12. They have had opportunities to learn and grow within the past year.

These seem like straightforward actions and behaviors that employees should have come to expect. Unfortunately, they’re not that common today. Employees’ impressions of their work and their companies are heavily influenced by their immediate managers or supervisors and the behaviors of senior executives with regard to their subordinates. (Interestingly, even something as simple as just using the words “superior” and “subordinate” can imply a command-and-control workplace and leadership style.) The bottom line is that how people treat each other in the workplace has a significant effect on their levels of engagement and disengagement.

Leadership engagement pays dividend
Employee engagement applies to supervisors and managers—not just the hourly workforce. As Gallup points out, “managers and leaders play a critical role.” Leadership, managers and supervisors are in positions to nurture employee engagement or smother it. Thirty-six percent (36%) of the managers and executives surveyed in the U.S. in 2013 were engaged. Research also pointed out that “managers who focus on employees’ strengths can practically eliminate active disengagement and double the average of U.S. workers who are engaged nationwide.” That is an astonishing finding.

Managers and supervisors who are able to identify an employee’s strengths and engage him/her in using those strengths in the workplace hold the key to workgroup, company and national productivity. Being able to identify strengths, however, doesn’t necessarily come easy: Some employees are good at hiding (or not flaunting) their strengths as they conform to workplace norms. Thus, leadership engagement is essential to improving workforce engagement. A company policy stressing engagement principles, however, is not the solution: Selecting the right leaders is. 

The key to improving engagement is top-down at the local level (as opposed to merely putting an emphasis on engagement in the corporate headquarters). Local workgroups and their leadership must be empowered to make great strides in what they do and how they do it—to be engaged not just in work, but also engaged with the business.

Plant-floor engagement
Some the referenced survey findings relate to the types of work and businesses of our readers. The 2013 Gallup research found that in the category of “installation or maintenance workers,” 29% were engaged, 51% were not engaged and an alarming 20% were actively disengaged. Given these figures, one has to wonder how many of our equipment and facility failures are purposely caused by maintenance workers who are actively disengaged. In large physical plants, it takes many people with a wide variety of skillsets on multiple shifts to maintain and repair equipment. Based on Gallup’s findings, 29% appear to be part of the solution, but 20% could be part of the problem with unreliable equipment systems, processes and facilities.

Yet another interesting finding is related to what Gallup classifies as “manufacturing or production workers.” The survey found that this group was among the least engaged: 24% were, 50% were not and 26% were actively disengaged. These numbers could explain erratic product-quality issues and higher manufacturing costs, as well as equipment problems and unreliable processes. Manufacturing processes rely on uninterrupted flow of production through the plant and across all shifts to be competitive. Actively disengaged workers can easily interrupt these processes.

A picture of workgroup engagement  
Imagine what it would be like to have a group of engaged employees focused on achieving 100% reliability of your most critical processes—managers, supervisors, technicians and support staff alike. Collectively, they would be involved in solving and eliminating problems and routinely looking for ways to improve their performance and productivity for the betterment of the business. This workgroup would strive for perfection, even though they knew they could never truly be perfect. “Right the first time, every time” would be their mantra.

This engaged workgroup would be cross-training in the critical skills and knowledge needed to accomplish their goals. Members would be committed to not only doing the right things efficiently, but also be committed to each other and making sure the entire group wins together.

As I wrote the previous paragraphs, it came to me: I’ve seen such workgroups before. They do exist in the real world. While 100% engagement of a workgroup may seem unrealistic, it still can be a goal. Likewise, while 100% reliability may seem unrealistic, sometimes the consequences of failures make 100% reliability a requirement.

Where I have seen basically an entire group of engaged employees—from com-
pany owners to top leadership, from front-line leaders to plant-floor workers
—should come as no surprise to readers who know me and have followed my own research and writing over the years. The summer I spent documenting the inner workings of Hendrick Motorsports (one of the most successful, long-running NASCAR race businesses ever) opened my mind to what’s possible when employees at all levels of an organization are truly engaged and inspired to excel. That’s what workgroup engagement would be like!

In summary
I encourage you to download and digest Gallup’s comprehensive State of the American Workplace – Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders report for yourself at gallup.com. Its findings and insights are quite timely for the future of our nation’s business and industry, not to mention the future of many of our workplaces. The report offers a good read and a great way to start the New Year! MT&AP

Robert Williamson, CMRP, CPMM and member of the Institute of Asset Management, is in his fourth decade of focusing on the “people side” of world-class maintenance and reliability in plants and facil-
ities across North America. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .