A few days ago I attended a very inspiring lecture called "The creativity of organizations". It was about how effective changes can be introduced to any organization to improve productivity, decrease sick days and increase motivation among employees. And all of this will be very noticeable in less than a year. Sounds impossible, doesn't it?
Well, not so according to Swedes Göran Erikson, initiator of Better Working Life, and Mats Birgerson, former CEO of the ventilation systems manufacturer Fresh AB that has proved such changes to be possible. Their theory is that motivation and productivity are directly influenced by the creativity of employees, and that the keys to fostering an improved and more creative working environment is to accommodate freedom, understanding, participation and contributions at all levels of an organization. Under their management they have successfully implemented a range of changes to this effect in dozens of organizations across Norway and Sweden. Fresh AB did for instance, despite the ventilation-industry having a negative market development, go from beeing an apparently doomed business heading towards bankruptcy, to having a 50% productivity increase per employee that allowed a tripling of their staff and being named among the top 25 employers in Europe in less than five years.
This amazing achievement and the ideas they presented are certainly very intriguing, and many of them are absolutely worth their salt. I can myself vouch for the advantages of several of the changes they suggested as I have personally experienced them in action at my former employer. For me it was both motivating and inspiring to work in a culture of responsible freedom and mutual respect, and I believe that this applied to most of my co-workers as well. But how exactly does one create such an environment? Below I've compiled an overview of some of the ways to go about this that was mentioned in the lecture.
- Aim for 4-5% turnover and 1-2% absence due to illness
An economist might tell you to aim for having both these numbers at zero, as both are so called cost-centres, but that can actually be disastrous for productivity. Allowing for a reasonable amount of sick-days gives people the security of knowing that they can stay home if they actually get sick, while it at the same time inspires them to come to work when they can. Having people force themselves to work when ill decreases their productivity both on the days they would have been away, but also for several more days due to longer recovery times caused by a lack of rest. Also they might infect other people and decrease their productivity too for a net loss! Aiming for zero turnover means pressuring people into staying in jobs they might not like for longer than they otherwise would, again causing a loss in productivity over time due to a lowering motivation for the job. Allowing such people to move on and replacing them with motivated people both avoids this loss as well as bringing in fresh perspectives and a change to the workplace that might be inspiring to the rest of the employees, and increase their productivity too.
- Allow for fully flexible working hours - across a whole year or more!
This means that employees can come and go as they wish, as long as they make sure that their tasks are completed and that they end up clocking in an average of 8 hours a day over the course of the year. In theory this means people can work 16 hour days for 6 months, and then take the rest of the year off. In practice however, the protestant work ethic keeps people coming to work as usual, but the knowledge that they can take a day or a week off if they want or need to gives a boost to their feeling of freedom and control, and thereby increases motivation and productivity. Göran claimed to have achieved this effect even in unlikely positions where such flexibility is considered impossible, like with hotel cleaning staff or restaurant waiters. However this requires careful planning and employee ownership of shifts to pull of.
- Have regular improvement meetings with employees
While asking the advice of outside specialists to improve your processes will likely work quite well, your employees might already know about things that are lacking in their work, and maybe even how it can be improved, usually very cheaply. External specialists cost a lot and therefore focus on making changes that give big results, but increasing the efficiency of 100 processes by 1% each is just as good and probably a lot easier than improving a single process by 100%. By asking your employees you can identify all these little percentages, month after month, and since such small improvements usually doesn't take a lot of planning or large investments to implement, you can start doing them today! In such a system the employees will over time gain ownership to the processes that they have helped improve, and thus be more inspired to help reduce waste and locate even more efficiency sinks in the process since it is their own. This effect lets you have a continuing process improvement in all parts of the organization, and its really cheap too!
- Mandate in-house internships
All employees must spend one week each year in an intern in a different internal position than their own. Everyone must be free to choose any other role in the organization for their internships, including roles in accounting, sales or even upper management. While it might sound counter-productive, this will give all employees an insight and understanding into how the whole organization fits together. It will also let them discover negative aspects of "glamorous positions", like that being a sales representative and travelling to fancy hotels aren't all fun and games when it means you have to spend entire weeks away from your family, and thus reduce jealousy of those in such jobs. Through such internships a few will naturally discover something they like better, and by working towards such jobs potentially make themselves more valuable to the organization. Most people will instead find that the grass isn't greener on the other side and get a renewed inspiration and satisfaction about their current job that they couldn't have gotten any other way.
All of the suggestions above were introduced during the lecture as examples of effective measures that have actually been implemented in real businesses of various kinds, and with great results too. Since most of the cases went unnamed I cannot verify these facts, but as I mentioned I have been lucky enough to experience some of them myself and they sound very promising to me.
There is one concept that stands out however, one that Mats introduced to Fresh AB, and it is decidedly the most controversial of the bunch. As the story goes Mats was been becoming annoyed that some of his employees too often ended up yelling at each other and calling each other stupid and handicapped over trivial disagreements or misunderstandings. One morning, during that supposedly most creative time of the day just before you wake up, he thought of a solution. The idea was that if some of the workers actually were handicapped, then the others couldn't really go around calling each other that any more out of respect for them. So he decided to hire actual handicapped people from a local institution to be working in every group at the company. Of course the employees reacted with shock to the news at first, but eventually agreed to try it out for a few months. Since he probably wouldn't tell the story otherwise, it naturally worked out great with the working environment markedly improving, not just for the 'regular' employees but also for the handicapped people that was getting so inspired by the creative working environment that they blossomed and performed nearly as well as everybody else. At a tour of his facility some government visitors were eager to see this miraculous improvement, and the visitors were to their surprise unable to identify which of the employees they met with that were from the institution. Mats explained this to them by saying that we are all handicapped in our own ways, and thus they are no different than the rest of us.
It certainly makes for a good story, but while this final improvement worked out nicely in a factory-setting, it still isn't something that I would attempt in a knowledge based organization for instance. But the power of the story is to really show how much can be achieved if one is only willing to take a chance on change. And with Obama taking office yesterday I just want to say that this truly is Change we can believe in.