Ask any leader and they will tell you that their people matter. Not just as instruments to produce business results, but as human beings. That their people come first, not profits.
Bob Chapman – the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller (along with his co-author Raj Sisodia) – asks us to take a step back and contemplate why we don’t act like it, and in the process create cultures that are toxic and counterproductive.
Chapman’s story and business is unique. It’s obvious even just by visiting their website, where you’ll encounter this description: “We’re more than just a successful capital equipment and technology solutions firm. We’re the kind of company at which you’d like your children to work.”
Here’s how they describe their primary purpose as a business:
At Barry-Wehmiller, our primary purpose is crystal clear to us: We’re in business so that all our team members can have meaningful and fulfilling lives.
This becomes even more surprising when you realize that this isn’t some startup with naive ideals – this is a business that was founded in 1885, has 11,000+ employees, and has $2.4 billion in annual sales.
This is a real business, and if this model of putting people first was going to fail, it would have failed a long time ago.
In fact, they’ve proven that it can work in any business. They’ve successfully acquired and integrated 80+ businesses since 1987, all of whom originally thought going into the merger that this was a crazy approach.
But for those of us who believe that making a difference in the lives of people is not only more important than the bottom line, but can help drive it, what follows should give us the courage to try and make our own businesses a little more human.
Let’s dig in.
The problem with leadership today
When you start referring to humans as capital – as an abstraction on a spreadsheet – bad things start happening.
You start to get people talking about replacing “B players” with “A players.” Jack Welch famously mandated that the leaders at General Electric fire the bottom 10 percent of their employees every year and replace them with better people.
Or, you get seemingly positive strategies like “getting the right people on the bus” – like Jim Collins asks us to do in his best-selling book Good To Great.
The team at Barry-Wehmiller believe that it’s far more important to have a safe bus.
And to make sure the person driving the bus (the leader) knows how to take the people to a better place. The goal isn’t to remove people from the bottom and replace them at the top, it’s to bring everybody up.
So the question the authors want us to think about is summed up perfectly in this quote from the book:
The questions we’re going to address are: “How can I make it happen in my organization? How can I change my profit-driven, product-focused, management-heavy, low-engagement business into one in which everybody matters, where success is measured by the impact we have on the lives of people, where nearly everyone is a leader and hardly anyone is a manager, where our people are passionate, committed, and inspired every single day, where office politics and petty gossip have given way to truly caring for every person as a precious human being, as well as recognizing and celebrating their innate goodness?”
Envisioning the Ideal Future
It should come as no surprise that a business like Barry-Wehmiller focuses on vision. Having a crystal clear direction they want to head is critical, especially when you are going to do things differently than 99% of the marketplace. It’s very easy for old habits to creep in.
This in itself isn’t unique. But what is unique is the process they use to keep their vision alive.
First, they do two different kinds of visioning – business visioning and cultural visioning.
Business visioning is probably what you think it is – dreaming about what the future of the business could look like, and creating a road map to get there.
The second type of visioning is cultural visioning, which is about their “why.” It’s dreaming about their values and behaviors. They ask themselves questions like “how should we treat each other so we can all go home truly fulfilled?”
This isn’t some workshop that’s run when morale is down, but a disciplined process that has been applied in areas like safety and continuous improvement. In other words, it’s treated very seriously.
Here are the four elements they have found to be critical for cultural visioning success:
1. Purposeful Preparation.
The pre-work is designed to inspire people ahead of time, and is done through videos, insightful readings, and giving people a chance to comment ahead of time. This gives people the opportunity to hit the ground running when the in-person process starts, and creates a sense of team.
2. A Wide Variety of Participants.
The vision isn’t created by the leaders, but by a cross-section of people in the organization. This allows them to harness the collective wisdom of their team so that no one voice dominates.
3. People Focus.
Most vision statements focus on products or services, but the visions at Barry-Wehmiller are about the impact they have on people’s lives.
4. Describe the Ideal State.
This is the critical piece, in my opinion. They don’t focus on who they think they are, but who they want to be. They encourage the people participating to think big, and paint the picture of the organization they would want to create if they could remove all constraints.
Here’s an example to bring this point home. At one point, there were a couple of serious accidents at their plants. It was clear that there were serious financial consequences to the company if these types of accidents continued to happen. But, rather than dealing with it strictly on a financial level, they held a visioning exercise to determine how they could do better.
They came up with a vision for safety, which they now call their Safety Covenant: “We commit to sending our team members home safely each day.”
The result? Worker’s compensation costs were cut in half, and have remained well below industry levels since. And they did it by inspiring safety by focusing on the human level – these our our team members, and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep them safe.
Focusing on the well-being of their people is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good business.
A New Way to Lead
When you put people first, you can’t just give it lip service – your actions need to change.
One of the best ways to ensure that actions change is to make a checklist. Which sounds like a simplistic approach. Cynical people might suggest that it’s not how you should treat a grown adult.
But consider the following. Peter Pronovost, an intensive-care specialist physician at Johns Hopkins came up with a simple, five-item checklist to remind physicians to do some pretty straight-forward things. Things any self-respecting physician would tell you that “of course” they do. Except they don’t.
In test-sites, the checklist dropped hospital-acquired infections from 2.7 per 1,000 patients to almost zero in three months. It saved 1,500 lives in Michigan over the first year and a half, saving the state $100 million. In fact, it is estimated that this simple idea has saved more lives than the work of any laboratory scientist over the last decade.
So if doctors need a checklist to remind themselves to wash their hands, we might need one to remind ourselves to act like leaders who care for their people.
Inspired by Provonost’s example, here’s the leadership checklist at Barry-Wehmiller which describes the essential actions that their leaders must take every day.
I accept the awesome responsibility of leadership.
The following statements describe my essential actions as a leader.
- I practice stewardship of the Guiding Principles of Leadership through my time, conversations, and personal development.
- I advocate safety and wellness through my actions and words.
- I reflect to lead my team in Achieving Principled Results on Purpose. I inspire passion, optimism, and purpose.
- My personal communication cultivates fulfilling relationships.
- I foster a team community in which we are committed to each other and to the pursuit of a common goal.
- I exercise responsible freedom, empowering each of us to achieve our potential.
- I proactively engage in the personal growth of individuals on my team.
- I facilitate meaningful group interactions.
- I set, coach to, and measure goals that define winning.
- I recognize and celebrate the greatness in others.
- I commit to daily continuous improvement.
When we engage our heads, hearts, and hands around these habits, extraordinary levels of trust and fulfillment will result.
Humanizing the Process
One of the things that becomes clear the more you learn about Bob Chapman’s leadership style is that in addition to making everything about the people, Barry-Wehmiller still uses rigorous business practices that are proven to generate results.
As they point out in the book, you can bring humanity and dignity back to the workplace by inviting people to participate and own the process. This doesn’t mean getting rid of the process entirely.
One place this becomes crystal clear is in their application of “Lean” – the manufacturing process designed to eliminate waste from the production process made famous by Toyota and brought to almost every manufacturing company on the planet.
The foundation of the program is 5S – which stands for “sort”, “straighten”, “shine”, “standardize” and “sustain.” Nowhere in the traditional program does it seem to contemplate that it relies on people to bring it to life.
So, in response to this, the team at Barry-Wehmiller added an additional two items – “safety” and “satisfaction.” Safety, to keep themselves in alignment with their Safety Covenant we discussed earlier, and satisfaction to ensure that the person whose job was impacted by the change created by the lean process is satisfied by the result.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, they took a business process proven to work around the world, and made it more human. All it required was making it a 7S process instead of a 5S process.
The lesson for me here is simple – you don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Keep the processes and strategies that work, but find ways to humanize the process.
Cultivating Responsible Freedom
In order to keep a vision of human leadership alive, you need people to act differently at all levels.
Empowerment is one of those buzzwords that became so buzzy that it lost all meaning. At Barry-Wehmiller, they realized that although the intent of empowerment is right, they needed something more concrete and tangible in order to bring it to life.
When they stumbled upon the term “responsible freedom” from the philosopher Peter Koestenbaum, they realized they they had found what they were looking for.
Responsible freedom means that you have the opportunity to exercise personal choice over your work and the decisions you make, and that choice is exercised with care and concern for other people and the requirements of the organization.
Chapman and the team at Barry-Wehmiller bring this freedom to life in two ways.
First, “freedom from” means freeing people from excessive rules and hierarchy. It’s the antithesis to the command-and-control management style that many companies impose in their people (or should I say their human capital.) The goal here is to eliminate as many of those constraints as possible.
But “freedom from” isn’t enough. You also need the second kind of freedom, which is “freedom to.” This kind of freedom provides opportunities for people to experiment and fail.
Of course, if you are going to implement this type of system, you need to have a bedrock of shared values and a shared vision for the future. Again, it’s not enough to be people focused – you still need to have everybody working in the same direction, using the best available business strategies available.
Putting this into action also requires a great deal of trust in both directions. The leaders need to trust their team, but even more importantly, the team needs to trust the leadership.
In order to do this, they use an approach for building trust that they call CCCI: compassion, competence, consistency, and integrity. Leaders must be seen to be compassionate, competent, and to have integrity.
But they also must be viewed as consistent, especially in transition periods. If you are start following this human approach one day, but slip back into your old ways of leading the next, it’s almost impossible to build the trust necessary for it to work.
People don’t arrive for work the first day at Barry-Wehmiller understanding exactly how to be the type of leader who thrives at a truly human organization.
So, just like in any other organization, they give their people training. But of course, the training at Barry-Wehmiller University (BWU) is different.
The first thing that’s different is that the first thing they did when creating BWU was to run a visioning session. They came up with a short vision that contained only two bullets:
- That the purpose of BWU is to is to develop an integrated, inspirational, and sustainable way of living our vision; and
- That they believe that they can use the power of business to dramatically impact the world in a positive way. That if they give people tools to enable them to use their gifts and talents every day, they will go home more fulfilled and interact with their families and commmunities in a more positive way.
They would be better parents, better spouses, and better community members.
The second thing that’s different about BWU is that they focus on “feeding the hungry.”
They fill their classes with people who want to be there. None of the training is mandated in an HR manual. In fact, if you want to go to one of the courses you need to fill out an application.
What comes out the other end of this process are a group of people who learn to become more human leaders together, who grow to care about one another more, who then go on to create the “connective tissue” of the organization.
Somewhere along the way we started looking at human beings as cogs in a machine. The team at Barry-Wehmiller is living proof that business doesn’t have to be de-humanizing, and that you can actually create a stronger business by focusing on helping people become better human beings.
It may or may not work for you, but one thing is for sure – it’s worth a shot.
The real question is – do you have the courage to try?