Too Much Focus on Engagement!

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In our quest for engagement, are we forgetting the willing worker?

I spend a lot of time with clients across different industries, there are lots of traits these companies share but a popular current quest is employee engagement.

We all know that an engaged workforce is very desirable.  We assume that if our employees are engaged the company will do well, tasks set will be completed with 110% effort (!), safety will increase and our profits will rise… but are you sure?

Anyone who has heard of Deming(1) will know the red bead experiment. In this experiment, Deming sets out to show how much variation there is in any process. Variation is everywhere; making chocolate bars or walking the kids to school… It does not matter if we set a numerical target. Sometimes it will be met, sometimes it may even be exceeded, but there will also be times it is not reached. In the red bead experiment, Deming demonstrates that even with numerical targets; money incentives, director reports and procedures, there is still variation in the process.

Do we think employee engagement will make any difference to our variation? Let’s think about it.

Where does the variation come from? It comes from our method, materials, measurement, people or the environment. At any time one, or all or, even multiples, of these factors will affect the process to cause variation. Engagement will only focus on people, but there are 4 other areas that need to be considered.

In Deming’s bead experiment, it highlights that no matter what you tell or how much you motivate the workforce, you do not improve the system. This is where, as a manager, you need to take responsibility and take some action:

  1. Set company goals and workplace metric in line with what the customer wants, but then listen to the process to understand if it is achievable. Focus on quality not units manufactured.
  2. Leadership; Develop the skills in your team to understand the process and improve it
  3. Improve constantly and with purpose focusing on the customer, and drive out fear from the company
  4. Break down barriers between departments; you cannot improve a process if everyone is focused on the part they play and not the process as a whole
  5. Develop a system that enables the production of the right product at the right time in the right place

Sometimes the focus we have is very narrow. We think one area needs improvement and go for it often at the detriment of other areas of the business. Employee engagement is needed in the workplace, it does make for an easier workplace but not on its own; we need great processes run by great people.

Take a step back and reflect; are you on a crusade with a single goal in mind or have you viewed the whole system and thought “what can I do to improve the system for my team?”


Ref 1; Deming red bead experiment –

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