Is manufacturing meaningful? Are employees destined to feel like the cogs they install? Or can a company successfully show employees that they matter to the bigger picture?
One summer during college I got a job as a research assistant. I was hired to perform sociology field work at a manufacturing plant and to take notes on the employees’ satisfaction with their work. I was assigned to Golden Artist Colors, a paint factory in upstate New York.
An all-staff meeting happened to be held on my first day. The workers gathered in the break room and the new employees (mostly college kids on summer break) introduced themselves. Each said his or her name and hometown, and stated his or her favorite hue. One new employee, an art student, said she liked Payne’s gray best and the seasoned employees all chuckled knowingly. The president of the company said, “The artists always like Payne’s gray best, because it’s really blue.” The veterans nodded and smiled.
Wait! I thought. Why does everyone know that? Is everyone an artist but me?
No, they weren’t artists. Instead, everyone working at the factory, from the president to the workers hand-filling buckets of gesso, had a fascinating philosophy about the company. They weren’t making paint. They were making art. Photographs and prints of works made with the company’s products hung on the walls. Employees were encouraged to take home samples to try out. Every employee – eventually, even I – could name professional artists who used the products in their work.
I visited nearly everywhere in the plant: the manufacturing floor, filling room, marketing workshop, formulation lab, and rooms where employees hand-painted each color sample chart and paint-jar label. I interviewed as many people as I could about their jobs. Nearly everyone truly enjoyed working at the company, because they believed that making paint was making art, and art changes the world.
The company successfully fostered a sense that the employees’ work meant something. Paint wasn’t just paint; it was possibility, beauty, creativity. All it took was time and focus by the management team. The hard costs seemed minimal – some extra product, a few minutes’ extra worth of time in a staff meeting – and resulted in extraordinary staff loyalty, cutting down on turnover. The real trick was in the world view. Management encouraged employees to feel proud of their work at every opportunity.
Why isn’t everyone using this model? I still don’t know. It seems so simple: find the company’s greater purpose, and put employees’ work into that context.
To find the company’s greater purpose, look at the company as you would a Monet. Stand back from the pointillist details until a picture emerges. If you sell cheese, are you supporting mom-and-pop cheesemakers? Investing in organics? Enhancing sustainability? If you are a lawyer, are you helping to support investment in cutting-edge technologies? Protecting families? Creating a fresh start? What is the greater story, and how does it fit into the world?
Now that the picture is clear, make sure that every employee knows his or her role in creating it. Bringing in clients or customers to explain how the company helped their business shows workers how their labor changed things for the better, and at a minimal cost to the company. If workers get feedback that their work is useful and helpful, they are likely to become more invested in the company’s success. Implementing this process can set the company apart from its competitors in two key ways: by increasing employee satisfaction, and by sharply defining its mission.
In stepping back from the day-to-day of production and looking at the bigger picture, I saw firsthand the art of meaningful manufacturing. It took time and effort, but each dot and detail fostered a sense of greater purpose, leading to enhanced employee satisfaction.