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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Quality Lesson from Hopeulikit

Thank your employees

Published: Monday, November 20, 2006 - 23:00

Last year I had the good fortune of doing some consulting with B&C Specialty Products in Hopeulikit, Georgia. B&C does light manufacturing, primarily plastic molding and assembly, and they also distribute imported products produced by companies in the Far East. They have about 150 employees and are the biggest employer by far in Hopeulikit. B&C was a perfect place to learn about managing and quality. Every day presented a new lesson. Usually the lessons were hard-learned, and those are the ones that really stick with you. B&C was gracious enough to allow me to interview their personnel about things that came up during my time there. Here is one of those lessons: Don’t let personnel problems fester. The scenario is described by the people who actually lived it.

—J. T. Ryan, president
“We have a good and loyal workforce. Nobody knows that better than me, and I try to show my appreciation by providing better-than-average wages and benefits. It’s a true partnership we have here, much like a family. Most of our employees come from the surrounding community, and quite a few went to the high school just around the corner from here. The average length of service is close to 10 years. The truth is that there aren’t that many choices in this town, but we still have a lot of long-term employees. I take that as a sign that we’re doing some good things in terms of employee relations. We take care of our people, and they stick around.

“Our employees come from very traditional backgrounds. They are interested in family, church, sports, the outdoors and auto racing. They want to do a fair day’s work, get paid and get on with the rest of their lives. The truth is that they really don’t want to be bothered. Leave them alone to do their work and everybody is happy. When managers walk around the production floor talking to employees, it makes people very nervous. The best thing managers can do is stay out of everybody’s way and let them do their jobs. Sure, managers need to provide direction and resources, but they shouldn’t tamper with things.

“Another thing about our people is that they’re not stupid. They know what’s sincere and what’s not. Some people have suggested that management needs to walk around, really get to know their people, and tell them thanks for their work. I even knocked around the idea of having monthly birthday lunches for employees. Thank God I came to my senses. These ideas might make sense in a textbook, but they just don’t make sense around here. The problem is that people work for money, not for cheap words and birthday cakes. Platitudes just make people angry. Life is hard enough without getting people all riled up. Management’s job is to operate in the background and keep things nice and smooth. That’s the way we’ve been successful, not by patting everybody on the head and telling them they’re terrific.”

—Jesus Rivera, molding operator and department trainer
“This is not an easy place to work. The production area is hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and the work is very strenuous. If you had a choice, this probably wouldn’t be the place you’d choose to work. There aren’t many choices around here for people who don’t have college degrees, though. You can work in a fast food restaurant down by the interstate, or you can work in a plant like this. I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m glad to have a job, and I work hard at it. Everybody I know here works hard. The problem is that nobody on the other side of the wall seems to care.

“We had one of our biggest days in history last week. Everybody had to work overtime and a lot of people even skipped their breaks to get the orders out. And we hit a homerun. Not a single order was late and there were no shipping errors. We just about killed ourselves, but nobody inside the office seemed to give a rat’s tail. All they would have had to do was tell everyone thank you. A simple ‘good job, team’ would have been nice. I don’t care about rah-rah tee shirts, coffee mugs and junk of that sort. I’ve got all the trinkets I need. Being told ‘Thanks for a big effort’ has value beyond what anybody can put a number on.

“Here’s a funny story. The last time I saw a manager come out onto the product floor was about six months ago. One of the fire alarms went off accidentally and a couple of office guys ran into the plant. They thought it was an exit door, but it was actually the door to the production area. That’s how seldom anybody from the office ever comes into the plant. I would laugh if I didn’t feel like crying.”

—Dennis “Cowboy” Kelly, finishing department supervisor
“A few years ago, we had an Employee of the Month program. It was the biggest joke you’ve ever seen. I mean, we’re running a production facility here. It’s a team environment and everybody has to work together to get the work done. There are no ‘individual performers.’ Have you ever seen one person try to run an extrusion line? It’s not a pretty sight, I promise you.

“The Employee of the Month really ticked-off a lot of people. Even the people who got the award were ticked off. Why? Because top management had no idea what was really going on. They just picked out one person the first month, and picked out someone else the next month, without any real understanding of what it takes to make things happen. They probably thought it would communicate to everyone their appreciation, but it really just conveyed their ignorance.

“Forget these silly programs. Management needs to walk around, see what’s happening, and tell everyone thanks for busting their butts. Sure, it would be nice to get more money, but I realize that’s not always possible. To realize that someone really understands your efforts and thanks you for them, well, that’s an incredible feeling. That’s what makes me want to keep excelling. Management just has to take the time to do it in an honest, straightforward way. It isn’t brain surgery, folks. It’s just good human relations. The last time I checked, that’s who we had working here: humans. I’m not a robot yet, dammit!”

—Richard Biter, Esquire, corporate legal council at Biter and Associates
“We’ve got to be very careful what we tell people in this day and age. We’re living in a time of rampant lawsuits. A company can be sued because someone looked at someone else funny. You can bet your paycheck that someone might try to sue for discrimination, when the only thing that happened was a manager said hello to one person but forgot to say hello to the next person. The best policy is to keep everything businesslike and detached. I held a seminar for B&C management last year entitled, “How to Avoid Employee Lawsuits,” and it really opened a lot of eyes.

“The most important role for managers is to keep this plant in business. The hourly employees play an important role in this, but the ugly truth is that most of these jobs are low skill. The company could go out tomorrow and hire a whole new set of people every bit as good as the ones we have now. Employees aren’t an asset, but a potential liability. Why do you think so many companies have relocated to the Far East? Because the costs and risks were lower. I agree with the decision to keep this plant where it is, but management has to limit its exposure to lawsuits by keeping everybody at arm’s length.

“I had a heart-to-heart with J.T. about his idea of having birthday lunches for employees. Number one, the costs would have been excessive. Number two, there was a serious risk of favoritism. If an employee was absent on the day that they were supposed to have their birthday lunch, then they might perceive that they had been discriminated against. The appearance of discrimination is what matters. What may seem like a nice gesture today will be grounds for a lawsuit tomorrow."

When dealing with your employees, remember:

  • All human beings respond favorably to honest appreciation
  • The best kind of appreciation is often a simple, heart-felt thanks
  • The best recognition programs are typically peer-based, because peers have intimate knowledge of their colleagues’ work.
  • Meddling and micromanagement are never helpful, but invisible management isn’t helpful, either. Managers should strike a balance between these extremes.
  • Managers should strive to become familiar with the big efforts and accomplishments of their employees, and take time to show their appreciation for these things.
  • Lawyers are good at telling you why something is a bad idea. They’re not as good at defending a good idea. Trust your common sense when using their advice.

Discuss

About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.