Brains on Ice

Brains on Ice

Some high-performing enterprises are rethinking employee empowerment. Are they on to something?

By Davin Wilfrid, Director of Content Marketing

Published on July 20, 2020

When former SAP CEO Jim Hagerman Snabe learned that his company’s employees were measured on 50,000 different key performance indicators (KPIs), he was shocked.  

“We were trying to run the company by remote control. We had all this amazing talent, but we had asked them to put their brains on ice,” he told Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, authors of Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them

In the most recent issue of Harvard Business Review, Hamel and Zanini explore how global tire manufacturer Michelin has empowered employees by decentralizing authority on many key decisions such as production targets and training development. They found that not only has the employee empowerment program developed at Michelin, called responsabilisation, delivered a better workplace experience but also bottom-line results. 

For example, at the company’s Homburg, Germany plant, workers struggled with daily production targets and a “finicky” new assembly machine. By empowering workers to take more ownership over staffing and production planning, the responsibilisation program yielded large gains in a short amount of time. 

“By the end of the year, the effects on productivity and engagement were remarkable. The Homburg team, for instance, had seen defects on some popular tires decline from 7% of units produced to 1.5%, while productivity increased by 10% and absenteeism dropped from 5% to virtually zero. Teams in other plants reported similar gains,” Hamel and Zanini write. 

The success of several pilot programs emboldened Michelin leaders to expand the program more broadly, leading to gains in engagement, productivity, and the organization’s ability to upskill workers into new roles. 

So what is happening at Michelin? 

Like many of the highest-performing enterprises today, Michelin is discovering that the convergence of strategic objectives, work, and resources is key to improving performance. The responsibilisation team actively gathered insights from its various pilot programs, and broke them down into six key areas:

  • Developing a shared mission and objectives
  • Organizing work
  • Developing competencies
  • Driving innovation
  • Coordinating with others
  • Managing performance

“Critically,” according to the authors, “it was not a theoretical construct produced by HR staffers or consultants but a detailed menu of what actually worked on the ground.”


Empowerment and Accountability

Many leaders fear empowering their employees not because they don’t trust them or think they’re incapable, but because they fear losing control over outcomes. If empowered employees start calling their own plays, they think, how will we ever execute on our most important objectives? 

The answer is understanding that the alignment that matters most is not between business unit heads or functional executives, but between the organization’s strategic objectives, work, and resources. If the organization can create a system in which employees understand their objectives, how their work contributes, and how to dynamically staff key projects, they are in a position to succeed. 

At Catalant, we’ve seen this play out with our own customers. We work with more than 30% of the Fortune 100 to help them improve their ability to get the right people on the right work at the right time and track their progress against strategic objectives. Within our own customer base, we’ve seen how top performing organizations are working to better connect their people to the right opportunities.

At Royal Dutch Shell, for example, a strategic focus on digital innovation meant rethinking the way work was allocated

We realized we needed to do a lot more commercial innovation, and started to look at what that meant. And we realized that meant a lot of experimentation, digital innovation, incubating ideas. We recognized pretty quickly we were not set up with the resources and talent to actually drive that.” 

Caroline Missen, Business Advisor to the Downstream Director at Shell

Using Catalant as a platform for tracking and organizing projects as well as the skills and interests of its employees, the Downstream Commercial business started by encouraging people to use their discretionary time (about 20% of their total work time) to work on projects throughout the organization. The “Opportunity Hub,” as Shell calls it, has already started to pay dividends. In one case, Missen says, an employee in Houston was able to produce real results on an eight week supply chain sustainability project after locating an employee with the right skill set working in a manufacturing plant near Cairo, Egypt.

“We absolutely believe this is one of the things that’s going to change our company,” says Missen. 

Other examples of how Catalant customers are driving employee empowerment and accountability include:

  • A Fortune 100 financial services company that is strengthening its own digital transformation capabilities by using Catalant to track how transformation workstreams of a large business unit align with strategic objectives. 
  • A global brewing leader using Catalant to improve agility with dynamic allocation of both internal and external resources. 
  • A global mining & metals company using Catalant to get visibility into the knowledge, skills, experience, and capacity of subject-matter experts within the company’s 10,000-person technical Center of Excellence (COE).

Ultimately, improving employee engagement is about more than better office snacks and management training. Organizations that provide employees with a direct connection between the work they do and the success of the business will reap the benefits of improved productivity and retention, as well as bottom-line value.

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