Now, more than ever, Corporate America is suffering from a growing lack of commitment, loyalty, creativity and ideas from its own employees. Called employee engagement, this unseen, unquantifiable and unbudgeted influence has long been a powerful contributor to American business success. Sadly, with more than 2,000,000 employees lost to downsizing in the last 18 months, Six Sigma leaders must address the fact that employee engagement is declining.

Six Sigma initiatives are at risk of losing the discretionary effort and intellectual capital that workers once supplied willingly. Discretionary effort is the amount of effort individuals’ expend over and above the minimum they need to do to keep their jobs. Intellectual capital, is knowledge and ideas that advance the organization’s ability to compete. Discretionary effort and intellectual capital drive innovation, product and service quality, customer satisfaction and ultimately, profitability.

The cumulative impact of downsizing, mergers, acquisitions, and corporate restructurings has created a growing “engagement gap” in Corporate America.

Organizations trying to improve operating performance through the use of methodologies such as Six Sigma are under even more critical pressure to close the engagement gap. Why? Because these initiatives are unsustainable unless a significant percentage of the workforce is “in the game.”

A Major Threat to Business Improvement Initiatives
Discretionary effort and intellectual capital are essential to successful business improvement. The risk of not getting more employees engaged to willingly provide discretionary effort and intellectual capital is to become one of the 7 out of 10 organizations whose initiatives have traditionally failed to deliver promised results.

Surveys of younger workers indicate they would rather work for themselves or a small company than a larger corporation. Aon Consulting reported in a research study of about 1,800 workers that employee commitment is declining in every industry, age group, income group and job classification. The Gallup organization also recently reported evidence of declining employee engagement in a major survey that found only 26% of employees consider themselves “actively engaged” in their work.

Have you noticed how many employees today are becoming increasingly cynical? The infamous “flavor of the month” business improvement initiative, always subject to employee skepticism, is now often openly dismissed. How can a company close the engagement gap and achieve a sustained commitment from its workforce so that Six Sigma, Lean or CQI business improvement strategies are successfully executed?

The solution is simple in theory but difficult in practice.

On an organizational level, a company must adopt human resource and management practices, which create a corporate culture that motivates workers to create long-term customer loyalty and shareholder value.

At the individual employee level, the fundamental driver of increasing employee engagement is whether people can fulfill personal values and goals through work. As people have less control over their work environments, they seek other ways to meet personal wants and needs.

The most prevalent values that impact employee engagement are: Empowerment, recognition, respect, self-development, creativity, achievement, advancement, economic security (or wealth), freedom, integrity, family happiness and enjoying co-worker relationships. Although many employees value job security, most no longer believe it’s a realistic expectation.

Ultimately, the more individuals perceive their top values being fulfilled through their work, the more “fully engaged” they are. This leads to giving discretionary effort and intellectual capital beyond the minimum requirements of the job.

A New Mandate for Six Sigma Deployment Leaders: Attention to Engagement
The engagement gap requires business leaders to recognize and embrace the importance of developing strategies to increase employee engagement. For Six Sigma deployment leaders, the need is even more urgent to integrate engagement-building strategies into their initiatives.

In order for a company to create the culture required to implement Six Sigma, deployment leaders must deal with the potential schism that can occur with the development of a caste system of “have” (i.e. “the Black Belts”) and “have-nots” (i.e., the rest of the employees). While “the Belts” may be fully engaged, they typically represent a small portion of the employee population. If the non-Belts are not equal contributors to the desired culture change, they will feel even less engaged than before.

The solution to this dilemma lies not in the Six Sigma methodologies used to solve problems but rather in the approaches used to implement solutions. The usual prescription of more Six Sigma training or communication is not the answer. The reason is simple: People get engaged in improvement efforts when they believe their participation is actually making a difference for themselves. Sitting through a class on Six Sigma doesn’t stimulate engagement. Nor does participating on a project team that drags on for months of analysis before solutions are considered.

Organizations can break the impasse on increasing employee engagement and get more of their people “off the sidelines” and into the improvement game by engineering their improvement strategies around a few core principles:

1) Simplify the Process!
Make it easy for employees to put their best ideas into action and easy for managers to support them. If it takes more than one meeting for employees to see how they can make a difference, it won’t happen.

2) Build Confidence to Take Action!
Employees and managers need a safety net to feel comfortable as they offer ideas that challenge the status quo. Small teams with defined, meaningful assignments and clear criteria for success gives employees freedom to innovate, while providing managers with a way to limit risks.

3) Motivate Employees with Faster Management Decision-Making!
Nothing creates disengagement more than indecisiveness and inaction by managers. Managers must be ready to make decisions quickly once the engagement spigot is turned on.

4) Speed Everything Up!
Motivation to change is perishable at all levels of an organization. Each individual must experience some personal gain to stay in the game. The faster real results are achieved, the more likely people will stay engaged.

Our observation in working with hundreds of organizations has been that most business improvement initiatives, including Six Sigma, have not adequately focused on developing effective tools to increase employee engagement.

All Six Sigma professionals should be mindful of the issue of employee engagement when asking a workforce to travel the extra mile. Not much in the way of improvement is likely to be achieved and sustained unless the employees are fully engaged with their organizations.

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