Employee engagement is the Holy Grail because when it improves so does the customer experience, productivity and revenue. Also when it moves up, costs, absenteeism, turnover, theft, accidents, and defects go down. In the search to drive up employee engagement there have been many alluring paths to explore. Over the years most organizations have jumped at dozens of programs to boost the degree to which people, their most valuable asset, take initiative and go the extra mile to make improvements.

However, not only has employee engagement NOT improved in the past 25 years, it has actually declined according to research by Gallup. Today in the typical company less than 30 percent of employees do anything more than the minimum required.

Our hunger to engage people creates an unrelenting appetite for anything and everything that might help. We hope the Balanced Scorecard will transform engagement. Maybe if we just emulate the Good to Great companies we can pull it off. Or if we can get past the Five Dysfunctions of a Team or if we all just practice The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People our employees would finally be more fully engaged. Then there is the promise that lean, six sigma, Kaizen, the whole world of process improvement, certainly must be the path to true engagement. Right?

Unfortunately, programs and tools like these do NOT transform employee engagement. Every one of the great books I mentioned and the very powerful world of process improvement all support engaging employees. Yet, supporting employee engagement does not create transformation.

Take lean as an example. You can engage employees in a project to take the waste out of a given process. But projects of this nature are almost always special sanctuaries where the over-riding norms of the organization are temporarily set aside. What that means is the improvement effort is a special event during which employees actually have a voice and are highly engaged.

For these reasons, there is no doubt that lean is a good thing. But the problem is we hope that if we just keep repeating these projects we will transform the underlying behaviors, expectations and routines of the organization in such a way that results in a highly engaged workforce. It’s like remodeling a 1,200 square foot track home one room at a time and hoping when you are done you have a 8,000 square foot mansion.

Repeating a good practice, no matter how much we hope it does, can’t transform an organization. As Einstein put it, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

In reality, employee engagement is driven by the underlying system of management, the logic that organizes and runs the business. That logic is often unseen and unconscious, and it is that logic that creates organizational culture and behaviors.

Learn about our exciting results by reading Business at the Speed of Now.

Every so often we will publish something special featuring our friends and families. This time it’s a “horse story.” I know … you are so surprised!

Skylar, our 3-year old granddaughter went to her first horse show this weekend. She rode a wonderful pony named Claire and won a blue ribbon 1st place in her Leadline Class. They even showed in the BIG ring at Bridle Trails equestrian center. Of course, Vanessa (mom) was very excited as she lead Skylar through the class. Meanwhile, sister Madison (1 year old) looked on and seemed very interested too. All in all, a truly proud moment for all.

Don’t forget to tell us about your proud moments too!

I’m starting to feel like the old Jay Leno skit. You know the one called “Jay Walking.” Here’s another CEO’s story about being very stuck with no game plan for addressing growth. All I did was listen.

“The Great Recession has made me very cautious about ramping things back up. At times during it I felt like our survival was in serious question and I am being extremely cautious about ramping up headcount and we are watching our spending like crazy. More than ever I want to make sure we have some cushion in our balance sheet in case we hit another bump—I don’t EVER want to go through what we just survived again!

One thing I am really noticing is the changes we are seeing in the workforce. The younger talent we have hired and need to keep our business relevant are sure demanding and impatient. I like the energy and enthusiasm but it feels like they are playing by a different set of rules; they no don’t settle for “we’re doing it this way because I say so.” While we have had a lean/six sigma program going for a couple of years now, honestly, it has not delivered on its promises specifically with regards to the savings I had believed it would bring us. It seems to keep going only because there are a handful of people who won’t let it die, but it has not built the groundswell of improvement I had hoped it would. I really don’t understand what I need to do to make it better. It feels like another failed attempt dying a slow death.”

Are you finding leaders who don’t know what to do next? What are they saying about the future?

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with a CEO friend of mine. He was very frustrated so I asked him to “just talk” and let me make notes. Here’s the highlights of what he said in his voice:

“It is increasingly difficult to keep up with the competitive demands of the markets we serve and I worry about it constantly. I feel pressure from my competitors, pressure from my customers, pressure from my shareholders and pressure from my employees. They all seem to have an insatiable appetite for my company to do better and it has me constantly on the lookout for solutions. I look for solutions constantly but move cautiously to bring in new programs (yes, we have a lean/six sigma initiative that has been running for a couple of years).

We have started experimenting with social media inside the company and it makes me nervous because any moves I make (anything I say or write about) subject to extreme scrutiny which makes me reluctant; I am confused about how I use this new stuff to strengthen my business. I remain hungry for better ways of doing things and some peace of mind that I am doing everything I can to run the business in a way that it will be successful. Right now I feel like I am at best treading water, and at times I am barely able to keep my head above water.”

What do you think? Ever been there?

In modern organizational life, invention is the engine of competitiveness. Multi-year on-going Research by The Gallup Organization and Towers Perrin proves that organizations that effectively engage their employees out-earn their competitive peers by 20-28 percent. Some research has shown the numbers can be even higher. These organizations out- earn their peers because they out -invent them. IT IS THAT SIMPLE.

The employees are creating value by delivering superior products relative to price, and the quality of the product and the cost to deliver it are all driven by micro inventions–little bitty improvements. Therefore, he who drives the most micro improvements wins over time. This seems so obvious. Yet few leaders capitalize on this approach. Why is this the case? Do you agree?

The possibility of having a graphic designer in Indonesia and your sister-in-law, who may live down the street from you, in competition for your business is real and its implications are profound. This new reality, enabled by the internet, sets in motion a competitive whirlwind that could easily be seen by any local designer as incredibly unfair, and stirs anger among the traditionalists as to a means to obtain image counsel. While there is certainly merit in the argument, low cost and speed are attractive lures for the consumer. No place for IBM to go for council, but the new realtor opening doors down the street doesn’t need high-end expertise. (more…)