April 2005

The Circles of Solidarity for Manufacturing Success

Part 3 - Empowerment

(Parts 1 and 2)

The last installment of this three-part series examines how communication impacts employee empowerment.

By Tom Dossenbach

I have found that a lack of solidarity exists within most troubled companies and that creates a serious threat to a company's future success. In the last two installments we discovered that a woodworking company with solidarity is one in which there is a union of interests, a purpose, a fellowship of responsibilities and a common feeling that all the employees are in the same boat.

Solidarity within a company can be illustrated by three circles: Communication, Integrity and Empowerment. We will concentrate on empowerment within the fictional Deep River Millwork (DRM) company this month. Remember, DRM is in financial straits and struggling for survival.

Thus far, we found that in the midst of its declining performance, DRM had a serious lack of communication throughout its operations and that Ken Crowson, the owner and president, had refused to take any responsibility. He started playing the blame game, which resulted in a lack of trust and respect among employees as the company continued to cut back its workforce.


After seeing that he was the ultimate loser in his blame game, Crowson looked for a way to turn things around. He knew if he didn't, his company would be doomed.

While playing his usual Saturday round of golf with his buddies, Crowson shared a golf cart with Ralph Dalton, the president of a large successful company that makes plastic parts for the automobile industry. Dalton could tell that something was bothering Crowson as he already had seven bogies and missed two 3-foot putts on the front nine.

"What's going on, Ken? You really seem uptight."

During the break after the ninth hole, Crowson told Dalton how he had not communicated his goals and objectives to his employees and how the company had been going downhill. He confessed the blunder of blaming everyone but himself for the fix they were in, and how no one would look him in the eye when he walked through the plant. He said he did not know how he was going to turn the company around, but he had to do it fast.

Dalton took a bite of his burger, sat there for a moment, and then cleared his throat. "Ken, there is no way you can turn your company around."

Crowson choked on his drink. "What? I would never expect to hear that from you!"

"Hold on, Ken. There is no way that you can turn your company around - but your employees can!"

Dalton said it sounded like Crowson had gotten into trouble by trying to run the company himself. He then asked an interesting question: "Who do you think is best qualified to determine what is wrong in the factory and how to fix it?"

Crowson replied, "Maybe our supervisors."

Dalton then asked, "Which employees are closest to the problems? Aren't they the ones who deal with them every day - who see and feel the consequences daily?"

"The workers," Crowson murmured under his breath. "It's the machine operators, materials handlers, supervisors - all of them."

As they headed to the 10th tee, Crowson felt as if a load had fallen off his shoulders. Maybe he did not have to handle all this alone - he could use all of his employees. But, would they help him - especially after the way he had treated them? How could he energize them? These issues kept going through his mind.


On the drive home, Crowson thought a lot about his past performance as owner and CEO of the company. He realized that as DRM grew, he failed to keep up with it. He tried hard to do it all as he had done when there were only six employees, but somewhere along the way, as the company grew to 100 employees, he got lost. He had hired supervisors and delegated the management of the factory to them, but something was still missing. His lack of communication within the organization had become evident during the last week, as had his finger pointing. It was obvious that discontent was running rampant throughout the company and most of it was focused on him.

Sunday evening, he observed his son and daughter arguing over what they were going to watch on TV. He told his son, Billy, that he could decide that night and his daughter could decide Monday night.

A few minutes later, Billy asked his dad if he had forgotten something. "I don't think so," Crowson said. "What?"

"The remote, Dad, the remote! If I can decide, give me the remote!"

Crowson suddenly realized that there was another element he had neglected. He had delegated responsibilities, but had not given permission or empowered his people to act on their own. He had held onto the remote so he could keep control.

The Turnaround Begins

On Monday, Crowson was up at 4 a.m. and at the plant at 5 a.m. He worked for two hours while waiting for the rest of the DRM employees to arrive. He called a supervisors' meeting first thing and told them about his revelation, that he knew he had not managed the company well during the past few years and that he was totally to blame for its current sad state. He apologized for his lack of communication. Solid direction from him would have enabled them to understand where the company should be going and where it had taken wrong turns.

He admitted he had been overly protective of vital financial and performance data which would have allowed them to do their jobs productively and apologized for blaming them for DRM's performance while they were kept in the dark. Crowson made an appeal to start down a new road with him, to re-engineer the company to fight the fierce competition they were experiencing.

He promised he would trust them and planned to lean on their many years of experience to quickly move the company forward.

He was so convinced they could do it that he was going to work with them to set some measurable goals and objectives and then empower them to do whatever they thought proper to make the necessary changes.

Now that Crowson had empowered the supervisors, he wanted to do the same for the rest of DRM's employees. He told his supervisors that he wanted to meet with all the employees at 9 a.m. in the break room to say the same to them.

As word spread about the meeting, tension began to build around the plant. Once the meeting began, tension turned to relief as Crowson told the employees about his revelation and new belief in the importance of solidarity through communication, integrity and empowerment.

When he finished his apologies, the supervisors handed out a TV remote control to each employee while Crowson relayed the story of Billy and his Sunday night without the family remote.

"I am thankful that I have seen the light. I want you to keep these remotes where you can see them when you come to work each day. I want you to know that you have the controls to our future and that I totally trust you with them! Let's build solidarity within Deep River Millwork so we can become No. 1 again!"

It should be noted that while Crowson empowered his employees, he kept information flowing both ways so everyone could tell if they were on track. As a result, DRM regained its competitive edge and leadership in its market.

Tom Dossenbach is the managing director of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or at www.dossenbach.com.


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