Photo Credit: Minerva Studio

Employees with a sense of ownership are the key to continuous improvement

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on March 22, 2021.

The most important leadership lesson I learned during my career occurred when I served as president of my company’s Canadian subsidiary. It’s a lesson that still guides my professional life. That lesson: nurture a culture in which employees have a sense of ownership in what they do.

A production unit at our Toronto plant was oversold. We needed to increase capacity to serve a growing customer demand. Due to the small size of the production unit, a capacity expansion was not a major capital project. Rather than assign the project to one of our engineers, the plant manager and I asked the production unit’s operator, Luigi Paolini, an hourly employee, if he had any thoughts on how the unit’s capacity might be expanded. His response was, “Yes I do, but no one ever asked me.” My immediate thought was we probably had many employees who knew how to improve what they did day in and day out, but we needed a culture to allow them to express their ideas. 

After some discussion, I said to Paolini, “We would like you to develop the scope of a capacity expansion.” You could immediately tell from his body language that I was asking him to get out of his comfort zone. Paolini responded, “I’ll do it, but I need the help of a plant mechanic.” The plant manager said, “Pick your man.” Paolini chose Don McNeil, the best mechanic in the plant. A good choice.

A month later, Paolini and McNeil presented their very creative scope to expand the production unit’s capacity. We approved the project, and three months later the expanded unit was up and running.

Paolini and McNeil demonstrated what they could do beyond their normal job duties, an empowering experience for them and an enlightening and teachable moment for us.

Photo Credit: Minerva Studio

When I took a visitor through the plant, Paolini insisted on giving the visitor a tour of the expanded production unit. A few days later, Paolini asked me if I knew why he wanted to conduct the tour. When I responded no, he said, “I gave the visitor the tour because this is my production unit, not yours. This is my production unit!” 

It then hit me! By giving him responsibility outside of his job description, we helped Paolini develop a sense of ownership in what he does. From that point on, he worked to continuously improve the performance of his production unit.

This event changed my leadership style to one of nurturing a culture in which employees could develop a sense of ownership in what they do. A year later, I was promoted to president of our world-wide industrial chemicals business. Shortly afterward, the CEO and I launched the company’s continuous improvement philosophy based on nurturing an ownership culture. 

Many improvement initiatives are top-down – initiated by upper management. Our approach was both top-down and bottom-up, which is more sustainable over the long run. We put power and responsibility into the hands of employees to initiate their own improvement projects that were within their level of authority. If an improvement project was beyond their authority level, they were empowered to present the project to the individual who had the authority to approve it. 

Leaders at all levels were trained to be coaches and counselors to their staff. Training was also given to help employees analyze data to determine the root cause of issues, so proper solutions could be identified. 

Our continuous improvement philosophy saved millions of dollars, which helped us become more competitive and grow our business. I will forever be grateful to Paolini and McNeil for teaching me the value of empowering employees and creating a culture where they could feel a sense of ownership in their area of responsibility.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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