People -- Your Biggest Key to Profitability

Creating a productive, inclusive shop atmosphere that encourages employee initiative. 1998

by Anthony Noel

Owners and managers can take definite steps to create a positive and productive shop atmosphere.

In a previous article, we talked about how finding the answers to some very basic questions can help you determine your company's market niche (see Finding and Fine Tuning your Niche).

We've considered how adopting a more service-oriented approach can help define and expand that niche. We took the idea a step further and concluded that knowing the strengths of other shops, our 'competitors,' if you like, can offer long-term benefits for you, your customers and even the competitors themselves.

The message is really simple: Stay alert for shops that can help you meet your goals and for customers that need what you are able to offer, either on your own or through a combination of your own capabilities and those of other shops.

Doing these things not only helps you find your niche, it also proves that your niche is only as limited as the extent of the capabilities - and your knowledge of them - of other shops. Competitors, we have found, can actually be one of our greatest resources.

Just as cultivating good relationships with other shops can help us expand our market niche, there is also a direct link between profitability and how well we, as managers, listen to our employees.

Do you, as a manager, regularly consult with people in the shop to determine the best, most efficient way to build projects?

Have you made it clear that suggestions from the shop floor on issues ranging from quality control to finding a better benefits package are welcomed and that they won't be ignored?

And how about this one:

Will the majority of your employees go above and beyond the call of duty, if needed, to make a job profitable or to meet a deadline or to make a new process work better?

If you can confidently answer 'yes' to the last question, you can almost certainly say 'yes' to the others as well.

Many factors go into creating a positive, productive working relationship between a company's management and its workforce. But the biggest single factor by far is how responsive managers are to employee concerns, suggestions and initiative.

If you own a small shop, don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Don't automatically assume that since you are often out on the floor with everyone else, you know what's going on with all your employees. Unless you ask, you don't know. And sometimes, depending on the individual, you don't know even after you've asked.

If your business is bigger, remember that the job of keeping the lines of communication open is bigger, too. In larger settings, more work is required to ensure that employees' voices aren't lost in the daily shuffle.

The owner of a small shop has the distinct advantage of knowing everyone on a first-name basis. If you're in this category, use that asset to its full advantage.

But whatever your company's size, get to know your workers' strengths and weaknesses and, just as important, their hopes and dreams.

For example, what attracted them to woodworking in general? To finishing or cabinetmaking or laminating in particular? To your shop specifically? What are their goals in the next six months? The next year? Five years from now?

Of course, these are not questions you just walk up to an employee and ask on the first day of work. You need to have a genuine interest in your employees. And let's be honest: for the first couple of weeks (at least) you're still feeling each other out. So you'll have to earn his trust and belief that you are really concerned.

You can create a shop atmosphere, no matter how big or small your business is, that encourages and rewards employee input. Suggestion boxes are one approach. But consider suggestion sessions as well or, better yet, instead. Suggestion sessions are just regular meetings that are held specifically to enhance the relationship between employees and management. Ultimately, the strength of that relationship has a huge impact on your business' profitability.

Set aside some time on a regular basis, every four to six weeks, to sit down with everyone in the shop as a group and talk. If people have ideas, they should be expressed. If they have gripes, same thing - get them out in the open.

Some shops hold these sessions around lunchtime and even buy pizzas or have hot food delivered. (Consider, though, whether that's a good idea. After all, how anxious will people be to offer criticism when you've just bought them lunch?) And that is the whole point of the suggestion session - to get opinions out in the open, the good and the bad.

This is not to suggest that there shouldn't be a few simple ground rules that should be clear from the start of each meeting. Things like:

- No personal attacks on anybody. The idea is to address company-wide issues. If there's a behavioral or other problem with a co-worker, that is best discussed privately with a supervisor.
- No raised voices. We are all adults, so let's act like it.
- Ask people to preface their comments by saying what, specifically, they are addressing. For example, 'I've got an idea for improving how work flows through the shop.' Give some preface before getting to the specifics of the idea.
- Finally, encourage everybody to troubleshoot the ideas offered and to suggest anything that might enhance them. Stress that everybody is playing on the same team, with the goal being to make the company work better for everyone.

For especially complex ideas, remember that there is always the option of giving everyone a chance to think it over until the next meeting, when it can be discussed in greater detail.

Remember, too, that instituting an idea does not make it irreversible. Let everyone know that if what seemed like a good idea in principle turns out to be useless in practice, it can always be scrapped until a better solution comes along.

Something else to remember - if you choose to hold regular meetings, it's important to involve everyone in the company. That means office personnel in addition to the people in the shop. Because those in the shop are often left to cope with the decisions made in the office, it's important to promote a dialog between these two facets of your operation. It will pay handsome dividends.

In the next article, we'll consider some ideas for rewarding employee input and initiative - and how to respond to workers who'd rather not provide ideas and suggestions.

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

Have a business related question? Visit WOODWEB's Business Forum. The Business Forum is co-sponsored by ISWonline and is moderated by Anthony Noel. All business topics are welcome, from sales and marketing to dealing with difficult customers.

This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.