By Martin Marquardt

Modern day performance improvement (PI) and total quality management (TQM) efforts owe much to the precedent set by quality circles and participative management of the early 1980s. These initiatives were collaborative efforts of teams or frontline workers focused on identifying problems and developing solutions to them. Initially the focus was on environmental factors related to the quality of work life, but then soon evolved into efforts targeted to improve product or service quality. TQM, as promoted by Edward Deming, allowed management to build on the early quality circle initiatives and quickly morph into full-fledged TQM efforts. As these efforts evolved, many left behind engagement of frontline workers, shifting to a model that mostly involved subject matter experts.

In the course of the PI and culture change work we are doing with our clients, we are seeing more requests to engage frontline workers in improving organizational performance. Our clients desire the development of a process and set of tools that can produce improvement results in the short time frames available to take frontline workers off production. Working with our clients, we developed a process and set of tools that could cascade down from managers to supervisors, who, in turn, would use these tools to engage their employees in improving team or department performance. This cascading (train-the-trainer) model engages all managers, supervisors, and employees in learning PI tools while overcoming real-time performance issues. The backbone of this process is an eight-step problem-solving model and a short set of assessment tools that guide frontline teams to find root causes and solutions to overcome them.

A supervisor facilitates the team to define a performance issue that is under the team’s control, quantify its impact and develop a SMART-based performance improvement objective. The team then develops a solution, creates an implementation plan, and completes a follow-up evaluation after implementation to test the result. The results of frontline engagement are very promising. Supervisors are facilitating entire teams to resolve performance issues and frontline workers, including bargaining unit leaders, are self-initiating teams to resolve real-time performance issues. The engagement of frontline workers is producing results, accelerated acceptance of change, and increased confidence to resolve more difficult issues.

Quantified performance impacts have been realized, such as:

  • Increasing adherence to scheduled work from 50% to 90% in a 6-month time frame.
  • Improving accuracy of restoration estimates from 60% to over 95%.
  • Decreasing from 10 per month to zero work delays because of equipment shortages.
  • Decreasing the time it takes crews to get work started on shift from just over 40 minutes to 20 minutes. Applied across the entire company, this results in over 100 hours a day in increased productivity.

Research shows us that companies with engaged employees have higher employee retention, productivity, profitability, and customer satisfaction. Involving frontline workers and equipping them with a process and tools to resolve performance issues are what produce this type of employee engagement, resulting in lasting performance improvement.

MartinMarquardtAbout the Author
Martin Marquardt is a 30-year veteran of organizational effectiveness and is president of Tosan, Inc. Martin and his team partner with great leaders to improve performance, shift culture, and build excellent companies. In addition to providing consulting and training services, he has served on nuclear safety oversight boards at a number of plants.