Years ago one of my clients purchased a company that manufactured small parts for carburetor repair kits. The business had been long established, was marginally profitable when acquired, but had significant employee issues.
The prior owners had simply ignored the employees. They were paid market rates, but the work was manual, tedious, and the owners let the plant and equipment run down. There were about 40 employees in manufacturing and shipping, mostly women.
My client wanted to improve productivity but attitudes were so poor, there was little hope, without a complete turnover in the labor force. But, he did not want to turnover the workforce.
The manufacturing process involved small table top presses. Brass, tin, and steel pieces were manually placed inside the small fixtures (the pieces were generally the size of a small ladies ring, so think tiny). They were inserted in the fixture one at a time. (This was before computer controlled mills, lathes, and so forth.) The employee then hit a foot pedal that triggered the hydraulic to punch the inserted metal piece. But, the piece rates had been set so high by the prior owners that oftentimes the women would hit the foot pedal without getting their fingers removed fast enough causing many cuts and smashed fingertips. (This was pre-OSHA as well).
My client’s rhetoric to the workers was that he wished to improve productivity and help the workers do a better job. But to them, they were just words. And there was lots of distrust left over from the history with prior owners.
My client did two things.
One: he fixed the restrooms. They had been filthy, unrepaired, moldy and rusted. He remodeled, expanded the ladies restroom, and made sure they were cleaned and restocked daily.
Two: he rewired the table top stamping machines. He had the electricians remove the foot pedal and installed two red buttons, one on each side of the tabletop stamping machine. Each button was about 10 inches away from the fixture where the metal pieces were placed to be stamped into the proper cut and size. The stamping machine would only trigger when both red buttons were pressed at the same time. So, the ladies had to place left hand and right hand apart, on the buttons, at the same time, to press them. No way could they get their fingers caught anymore.
Productivity soared, waste plummeted. All because attitudes changed to the positive, almost overnight.
The workers heard the words, but they saw the actions, and they responded.