by Mike Williamsen, Ph.D.
Whether the environment is set in a family, a team or business, managers should not only expect complaints, they should regularly ask people to speak up when something’s not right. Tough decisions and solutions don’t come from a culture where workers for whatever reason would rather remain silent.
After spending more than two decades as a consultant for businesses pressing for a turn-around (and often on the verge of bankruptcy), I’ve learned that no organization in decline is immune from two factors: complainers and negativity.
A while back, I was struggling with forming the right advice that would get a consumer products company back on track after years of decline. As part of my role as a turnaround manager, I was asked by the client to observe an internal training session on interpersonal communication, facilitated by a Ph.D. in psychology.
Good thing I kept an open mind. If I had known what I know now, I never would’ve complained about attending. Within five minutes of the session, I learned that — in no uncertain terms — complaints equal goals. It sounds simple . . . because it is.
The merits of complaints put all my years of problem-solving and organizational development effort into new focus. Not only is strong interpersonal communication essential for a successful organization, communicating complaints have been at the heart of every action item, to-do list, grievance, equipment breakdown, recurring scrap point, annual goal, and safety inspection that has ever occurred. Each challenge originates from a complaint.
Whatever drives us to overcome challenges can be reduced to the issues that "bother us," whether they involve process and procedures or the mix of people hired to do the job. If we never complain, we’ll never improve. A zero-complaint environment is only good if you’d rather stand still.
Complaints become goals for us to make right
For my follow-up work-group session, I incorporated some of the communication workshop principles by opening with a simple request: "Give me all your complaints!"
Participants were initially caught off guard by such an approach — particularly because production and safety improvement were at the heart of my agenda -- yet it didn’t take long for the shark feeding frenzy to begin. I’ve learned a few things since then, but no one ever said an unqualified dialog about workplace "concerns" would be neat and tidy.
When the dust settled, I had eight full flipchart pages of dirty laundry that for years had been buried deep in the organizational closet. What may have been overwhelming for some, was ultimately deemed necessary. From the list of challenges, we conducted focus groups to organize the issues into logical categories. As a strong advocate in Kaizen volunteer-participant teams, I was pleased how quickly front-line employees wanted to get to the bottom of their complaints.
We listed all of the safety complaints and started our own Action Item Matrix focused only on safety issues. The dozen issues quickly multiplied as we concentrated on what was wrong with the safety system, the conditions, protocol, training, people, accountabilities, etc. Within two months of bi-weekly meetings, we — or they — were ready to begin carrying out their specific solutions. Half had already been solved. But the best part was how much the safety committee’s process inspired the quality committee, shipping committee, and production committee. Compared to the safety challenge, solutions and results, non-safety-related issues turned out to be a piece of cake.
In less than six months, my client performed like an entirely new organization. The old dogs had been laid to rest; morale improved because people no longer had to put Band-Aids on the scores of issues that had been festering for so long. The same results were experienced in operations, maintenance, and quality.
The same tools that work in safety work in operations and quality . . . and vice versa. The lessons on strong communication apply to everyone and every segment of the company. They include noting the complaints, and then engaging the same people to come up with the solutions. When you consider the advantages of empowering your employees, who is more familiar with the day-to-day issues than the people who’ve been living with them for years?
Not all of the complainers participated in solving the problems, but enough did. So much so that the morale steadily climbed, and productivity and profits followed. And no longer was the business in danger of failing because of organizational atrophy.
What are your safety complaints? What are the safety complaints of the employees in your organization? If you don’t know, it’s time you find out. Why wait to turn complaints into improvement goals?
Michael M. Williamsen, Ph.D., is director of consulting services of CoreMedia Training Solutions, a Portland, Ore.-based safety products and services company. Williamsen has more than 30 years of business change management experience with companies such as Frito-Lay Inc., General Dynamics and Standard Oil. He earned his Ph.D. in business from Columbia Southern University.
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