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Employee participation works

One of my favorite companies is Herman Miller. They are very successful with innovation, customer service and profitability. Their products, such as the Aeron chair, are considered some of the best in the world. One of the secrets to their success is that they get everyone involved in the company's business. They do this by making participation an important company principle that is encouraged, nurtured and rewarded for the benefit of everyone. 

What makes Herman Miller unique

Originally begun as the Star Furniture Company in the early twentieth century, Herman Miller helped his son-in-law purchase the Michigan company in 1923. D. J. De Pree then changed the name of the company to honor his father-in-law Mr. Miller whom he respected. Since that time, the company has grown in size, scope and reputation. In 2010, they were among a small group of companies that received these three honors:

  • Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For"
  • Fortune's "Most Admired"
  • Fast Company's "Fast 50" Most innovative

These honors were achieved through a culture that gets people involved in making the company great through a formal program of participative management, encouraging  employee commitment to problem-solving design, uncompromising quality, and customer satisfaction. In 1983, employees became owners in Herman Miller through an employee stock ownership program.

Max De Pree, son of the founder, himself an innovator of leadership principles and author of several books (Leadership is an Art, etc.), decided that the company needed a "Vice President for People" instead of a Vice President of Human Resources. In his words, " “People ought not to be regarded as human resources. Money, facilities and equipment are resources; people are the heart and soul of this company.” The focus on people, innovation and participation has paid off. All stakeholders--customers, stockholders, communities and vendors have been the beneficiaries.

Ways to make employee participation one of your company principles

1. Embrace broadly. Participation needs to be supported by everyone in the organization. This is especially true of those in leadership positions. The only way to make people feel comfortable participating in problem-solving and making things better for customers and others is by inviting them to be part of the processes. In that sense, leaders are 'gatekeepers' that allow others to become involved.

Owners are involved and make these types of decisions every day. If we want people to act like owners, we need to treat them like owners and welcome and value their input. Think about ways that could work in your organization to embrace participation.

2. Model. All of us relate best to how someone acts rather than to what he or she says. Leaders are role models for others and can show how participation works best and others will follow their example. This is called 'Walking the walk' as opposed to just 'Talking the talk.' Alan Deutschman, author of  Walk the Walk, the #1 Rule for Real Leaders shares his observations. “When you walk the walk" Deutschman states, "you share the struggle and the risk”.

All of us have probably seen examples of leaders who 'Walk the walk' and teach others by their observed behavior. A month after I started my first job out of college, the company had a strike which reduced the work force by more sixty per cent. Each of us still working took on other jobs to keep the company operational until the labor dispute got settled. As a non-manager, I was helping out in a production area along with my peers from sales and marketing. One of our top leaders came by daily to spend a few hours helping us in production. While we understood that he had larger responsibilities, the fact that he pitched in made us proud of our leadership. He walked the walk for us.

3. Educate.  Learning how to participate means learning how to participate as a team within the organization's culture. This requires skill development for most of us since organizations often have accepted ways that people are to act as members of a team or task force. Not only can we model this behavior, but we can also teach it by having those who do it well, show others through trial and error, how best to participate.

Having handouts and other learning materials that can be accessed by everyone can make this a fun learning process. We can enhance learning by making it non-confrontational and fun, too. Think about ways that might work best in your organization's culture.

4. Daily routine. It's been my experience that the most successful organizational changes are those that become part of the daily routine, and this definitely goes for broad employee participation. While we don't want or need everyone involved in every decision because that wastes time and talent, we do want people involved in helping address the issues that take place in their own areas of responsibility.  

When employees are focused on things they know best and have the authority to access information they need and encouragement to suggest and/or make changes for the better, everyone benefits. By pushing decision-making to the lowest effective levels, others can focus on things they know best. This saves time and makes for a better organization all around. That's how Herman Miller and others who have embraced participation do it.

5. Share what people need. In addition to sharing information that people need to make good decisions in their own areas, we need to share the results of how things went or are going. These are often the things management sees, but non-management are not privy to. Without information, it's like watching a sports game with our knowing the score.

Finally, like Herman Miller, participation is enhanced by sharing the rewards. As I learned a long time ago, it takes everyone working together to make a company successful. And, it makes sense to share the rewards with everyone who helped.

Sid Scott is president of Scott Consultants in Dubuque, Iowa. You may contact him by e-mailing