The Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 4.3 million workers quit or changed jobs in January. For months, companies have struggled to find and retain workers. The problem exists across virtually every industry, from healthcare to hospitality.
But while news headlines are all about better wages and benefits, few are about better jobs (though LEI President Josh Howell wrote on this subject late last year). A recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review suggests that wages are only a small piece in a much larger puzzle. Employee reviews from Fortune 500 companies indicate that a “toxic work culture” has been the top predictor of attrition during the Great Resignation and is 10 times more important than compensation. When breaking down the factors of a “toxic work culture,” the authors identify “disrespectful” as having the most negative impact on culture. The authors define “disrespectful” as “a lack of consideration, courtesy, and dignity for others.”
“Take this job and shove it” is how LinkedIn’s Chief Economist Karin Kimbrough summarized workers’ attitudes following an analysis of posts from those who had quit.
Is this problem more complicated than poor wages?
While at the gemba, I’ve been asking: Is this problem more complicated than poor wages? For instance, I recently visited a manufacturing company struggling with a labor shortage. They had a lofty goal to double output by the end of the year and even moved some salaried employees to the factory floor to meet demand. As I walked the plant with management and an LEI coach, we came to an island workstation. We observed a middle-aged man insert a two-by-four into a machine that attached a metal guard, which he then handed to the adjacent operator. It was a tedious, one-step job. When someone asked him, “What’s the purpose of this?” He replied, “I don’t know.”
A single-step job is boring enough. But to not know the purpose behind it? That is a cruel assignment. I wondered how he explains his job to his family at night — and what hourly wage would be necessary to feel pride in such a meaningless job. How much respect can this person feel?
On another visit to a company struggling with labor, I followed a material-handling associate as he completed a cycle of restocking and reordering. This job was essential because assembly operations could not function without the parts he supplied from the warehouse. Moreover, he was the only worker trained on the job. When he was unexpectedly absent, the facility’s output fell precipitously because no one knew how to reorder the correct boxes for packaging and shipping finished goods.
For two hours, I watched the operator tackle all kinds of struggles. He balanced twenty boxes on a single dolly while weaving through a labyrinth full of closed doors and sharp turns; inevitably, he fell to his knees to pick up a mess after a box had tipped over; and he finished by wrestling with a broken ERP system to place orders. While I am sure this worker would have welcomed a raise, he voiced frustration over the condition of his job, not his compensation.
Having taken the time to “go and see” this man’s work, an LEI coach and a motivated CI leader saw an opportunity to engage with him in improving the work process. So, the three began an A3, defining the problem to solve, capturing the current condition, and imagining a target condition. Then, they led a small team to 5S the warehouse, set up clear pickup and drop-off locations for materials, and set min-max inventory levels for every item.
The measurable impact after only one week of improvement work was significant:
- Time to complete reduced from 67% from 90 minutes to 30 minutes
- Number of steps reduced 55% from 3600 to 1600
But the physical and mental impact on the worker was more profound. For one, the organization engaged his head — not just his hands and feet — by enabling him to improve the work process. When I asked him about the changes, he responded, “I’ve started a basic structure to organize all the [materials] in the warehouse. It’s a huge start…. Also, we have a smoother route, where I’m not bouncing around. I’m not pulling [material] from different areas. Now I have a set route.” He then described the two-bin replenishment system that they’d implemented, ending the need for the manual inventory counts that had not only taken time but only he could do. “Each department [now] has a tag system associated with every item. And when an item is fully depleted, [a technician] will put the kanban card in a mailbox. That indicates I need to replenish the item.”
He understands the what, why, and how of this new system because he helped create it!
What’s more, his time away from work can actually feel like time away from work. Before the change, his unique tribal knowledge of where material lived, how to order it, and how much to order had required keeping his laptop and phone nearby for emergency calls on weekends and during vacation. Also, thanks to the changes, a job that management estimated took six months to train can now be done nearly without explanation. The worker explained, “I can take a day off or all week off and not worry about [materials] because I know they’ll be taken care of.”
And he has no intention of slowing down, saying, “We can improve the system more. We’re not done yet.”
We all talk about the “customer experience.” But what about the “worker experience?” If a company asked customers to wrestle with a broken e-commerce checkout or balance boxes through a maze (unless it’s IKEA), we’d expect them to quit shopping there. So, it’s worth considering how awful work experiences might be causing workers to quit and go elsewhere. Then consider how offering a better work experience could help you attract and retain workers.
As a leader, take some time to go to the frontline and observe the work.
As a leader, take some time to go to the frontline and observe the work. Put yourself in a worker’s shoes and ask yourself, “How long would I be willing to do this job for this wage?” Ask, “Would I feel proud telling my family what I do for a living?”
Or would you take the job and shove it?