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What Works The Blossoming of a Workplace Drone

April 27, 2001
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It used to be that whenever I talked with my friend Walter, I had visions of Dilbert. You probably know Dilbert. He's that famous cartoon character who personifies work's absurdities. But do you know Walter?

    Walter and I first crossed paths about four years ago, when I interviewed him for my research into work and workplaces. He had put in nearly 20 years on a production line, he told me, and his nine-to-five had become a blur of sameness. In fact, Walter seemed so worn out and lifeless during the interview, I was tempted to reach over and check his pulse.

    Walter's story is like so many others'. Recalling his early days at the company, he told me about being genuinely enthusiastic and trying to exert his creativity. Then the work took on a plodding, mind-numbing cadence, he said. "Do this," "Do that," day after day. He followed his marching orders, and before long, he was beginning each workday by checking his brain at the door.

    After that interview, Walter and I stayed in touch. Every once in a while, he'd call or send an e-mail telling me how this manager did such-and-such to so-and-so, or how the powers that be were piling on more policies and rules. Always, he made me think of Dilbert's world of cynicism and hopelessness. His stories had everything but the funny punch line.

    Then things changed dramatically. Walter got a new supervisor who seemed keenly aware that the employees in production were real human beings. The new boss had a habit of asking the people who did the work how that work could be improved. Responses came slowly at first. But when some of the ideas were immediately implemented, everyone noticed. Even the cynics like Walter began to perk up. Pretty soon people were coming up with all sorts of improvement ideas -- without any prompting from the supervisor.

    The crowning moment occurred on Walter's 20th anniversary with the company. The supervisor asked him how he wanted to be honored for reaching the milestone -- perhaps figuring that Walter would ask for a new watch or a weekend stay at a local resort. The veteran employee surprised everyone with this response: "Let me visit a customer plant."

    For two decades, Walter had worked in a foundry, producing castings for power-generating facilities. His work helped create 12-cylinder crankcases, electric motor housings, and 300-pound manifolds. Yet in all that time, he never got to see the finished product doing its thing at a customer site. Let me repeat: in 40,000 hours of work, he had never, ever seen the final fruits of his labor.

    The supervisor heard the request and understood. And a month later, Walter was flying halfway across the country to visit one of their major customers. He spent a full week there -- touring several plants, seeing the castings in action, and getting into conversations about foundry stuff like flaskless molds, drag molding, and integrated cleaning.

    I spoke to Walter when he returned, and you know what? For the first time ever, I didn't think of Dilbert. Walter seemed to have undergone a sort of transformation. There was a lift to his comments, a certain spirit of engagement. He told me all about the trip, about the briefing he did for his coworkers soon after his return, and about the company's plans to institute regular customer trips. He went on about all the ideas he had picked up at the customer plant for making good castings even better.

    The story has a happy ending for Walter. But Dilbert-like cynicism lives on in so many other organizations. Plenty of workplaces have tried to become mission-driven, but they've gone about it in a task-driven way. They crank out the mission statement, slap it onto posters, seal it in plastic laminate, and distribute it to the workforce. Then everyone efficiently goes back to the "real work." If you want a mission statement, fine, that's the way to get one. But nurturing a true mission requires so much more.

    Do you and your colleagues stay close to your customers? The daily hamster wheel of tasks can make this difficult. In fact, staying close takes time and creativity. What to do? Send someone packing to a long-distance customer site. Organize an informal customer focus group, attended by employees, so people can hear directly from the end-users of their products and services. Get everyone into the loop on customer-related survey information, letters, calls, and so on. Temporarily swap jobs if possible to give more employees more exposure to customers.

    Is your mission statement just a statement, full of words but lacking life? If so, get people together to talk about it. Don't simply rewrite it or waste time in debates over grammar and punctuation. Instead, dwell on what the mission means, how it's coming alive in the workplace, and what can be done to make everyone more in tune with the real purpose behind the daily tasks. Make sure this dialogue is ongoing and widely inclusive. You won't win any efficiency awards for pulling people from their busy schedules, but you'll be doing vital work that benefits hearts, minds, and (ultimately) the bottom line.

    Finally, are you doing all you can to create an environment that brings out the best in employees? Walter's supervisor started to exorcise the Dilbert demon by asking questions and acting on the answers. He wanted to engage people's gray matter -- and he succeeded. He also bucked the old way of doing things by giving Walter that first-ever plane ticket. It's amazing how a few small steps can make such a big difference.

    Just ask Dilbert -- er, Walter.

Workforce, May 2001, pp. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!


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