Monday, 4 November 2013

Little things (and the need to avoid turning them into big things)

-        A bit of a rant about employee engagement.

I contend that every job, no matter how much you love it, and how great your team is, contains some ‘little things’ that drive you up the wall. If yours doesn’t, then you are very lucky, and maybe you can stop reading now and feel very satisfied, or to use current HR/management speak, feel very ‘engaged’ with your job and your employer.

I love my job, I love my profession, I am honoured to be part of a great leadership team and to manage a dedicated and very capable team. Even with massive structural change almost upon us, we are still maintaining a strong sense of local employee engagement and dedication to the vital service we deliver.

But…I still find there are frustrating and annoying little things I have to do, or that I am not allowed to do, that have the potential to upset the balance I strive to maintain. Most I am happy to say, not down to local strategy and direction, but as a result of being part of a commissioned public service. Those who work with me, will know which ‘little things’ I am thinking about. This blog is not about those; it is about the need to find ways to avoid or minimise these for everyone. And if that can be achieved, it may just be the key to maintaining an engaged and motivated workforce.

Muda is a Japanese word for waste that anyone who has read Womak and Jones’ book, Lean Thinking (1996) will know they apply to work of no value. Specifically ‘any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value.’ To cut a long theory short, they link this to value streams, flow, pull and perfection. They say that lean systems ‘can only flourish if everyone along the value stream believes the new system being created (or ‘the system’ – my addition) treats everyone fairly and goes the extra mile to deal with human dilemmas…’ Without re reading a book I first read over 10 years ago (font size 8 or 9 closely spaced), I am not sure they particularly applied their theory to ‘employee engagement’ and I don’t think the term was coined back then anyway. But I do think their lean processes both lend themselves to engaged employees and are likely to lead in turn to improved employee engagement, by removing pointless ‘little things’ and through being treated fairly etc. The word ‘muda’ has stuck in my brain and is something I muse on when doing work of no value or at least where the ‘value’ is so far removed (if it exists) that I can’t see what it is.

Other ‘little things’ can be Maslow’s basic needs, (or hygiene factors), and this is something I have blogged about previously, when aiming to demonstrate the value to operational teams of high quality and efficient corporate services. See here I am firmly of the view that getting these factors right is the foundation block for employee engagement. Being paid correctly, having systems that are easy to use, having policies and frameworks that make it easier to do your job and don’t dis enable/restrict etc. etc. What is the point of an all singing all dancing ‘Employee Engagement Strategy’ if there are too many payroll errors, system crashes, and policies that don’t make sense? Little things…that can all too easily become big things, if organisations get them wrong. Getting them right gives a strong message that the organisation’s leaders think that work, work systems and reward processes matter so much that employees should not have to worry about them so they can get on with their jobs, in fact go the extra mile and enjoy their jobs.

Then there is the amount of discretion you have over your priorities, workload and the way you do your work; control according to the HSE’s 6 stress management standards. I could list all 6, but I think this one is the most relevant to the impact ‘little things’ can have, and also the way change is managed (a subject for a later blog?) Transparency and balance are critical factors affecting discretion. Is the amount of work, the nature of the work, the deadlines, and the amount of freedom over how it is done clear? Is it easy to see and to understand the reasons why, when the work you are required to do is set by somebody else, and over which you have no discretion? If you do have to do work where you have no control, how does this balance with work that you can control? If the balance is wrong (meaning wrong for you as related to your role expectations, your skills and capability), then the ‘little things’ have probably already become ‘big things’.

All of the above, I contend can go a very long way to achieving or reducing Employee Engagement, all within a transparent and enabling leadership style and organisational form where there are strong working relationships. As I have already said, much simpler and more effective than a gold plated strategy that nobody reads, never mind takes seriously and commits to.