Companies that get positive press for their great cultures are usually in cutting-edge industries like Google and Apple, or high profile companies like Southwest Airlines and Container Store. Who would think that a very large manufacturing company could build a people-centric culture when most of their employees are assembly-line workers? Finding such a company convinces me again that any company can build a positive, perform-enhancing culture.
The book that inspired me is Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for your People like Family by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia1. This book documents the journey of Barry-Wehmiller, a capital equipment and engineering consulting firm that was close to shutting down in the mid 1970’s when Bob Chapman became CEO. Within a year of his taking the reins, the company turned a profit and hasn’t looked back since. Through multiple acquisitions, it has grown to be a global player in large equipment manufacturing. Key to their success is their culture, summed up in the statement, “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.” Commitment to their people inspired a leadership style called Truly Human Leadership. Growth has not changed their people-centric culture. Indeed, they have created a system to replicate great culture in every company they acquire.
There are 5 lessons that I’d like to share with you from this company’s system of building and maintaining an excellent culture:
Lesson 1: Treat Employees like Family
CEO Bob Chapman says that went things get tough for a family, everyone has to sacrifice and pitch in to help. Caring for employees like family means that you avoid lay-offs during bad economic times, with the faith that the market pendulum will swing back in your favor. For example, in the Great Recession of 2008-2009, Barry-Wehmiller was in deep financial trouble. Instead of laying off workers, which most other companies did, management asked people to take unpaid furloughs of 4 weeks, suspended bonuses and 401(K) contributions and reduced travel expenses - but not training! And, the CEO reduced
his salary to $10,000 to show that he was making a similar sacrifice. After 9 months, the business rebounded, and management again treated all employees like family members: they not only called everyone back to full-time work, but also over-paid the match on each person’s 401(K) to make up the retirement savings lost during the downturn.
Lesson 2: Process is the backbone of culture
Barry-Wehmiller embraced Lean manufacturing methods, not to eliminate waste in the production cycle, as is common in other companies, but in order to eliminate employee frustration. The company incorporated compassion into the Lean methodology and renamed the customized process L3, for Living Legacy of Leadership. It involved employees in process re-design with the goal of improving the worker’s satisfaction with the job itself. Management listened to their people! As a consultant, I’ve maintained that employees doing the work know best how to redesign processes, and Barry-Wehmiller
agrees. Process improvements are the foundation of reviving a culture, because process is what people do on a daily basis: If the workflow is frustrating, wasteful or ill-conceived, employees become demoralized and check out.
Lesson 3: There are no bad employees, just bad leaders
This company has great patience with people. “It’s all about the process, not short term results,” they tell employees in newly-acquired companies. They are willing to wait for results, because they believe in their culture and the positive outcomes it invariably creates. I read numerous stories in the book about formerly disgruntled employees who transformed themselves from gripers to enthusiasts. One story described a worker who used to fall asleep on the job, but after months of being listened to and respected, became a leader on the L3 (or Lean) team that revised the manufacturing process at his
plant. Managers in acquired companies are also treated with patient optimism, because the company expects them to change their leadership styles as they assimilate into the new culture.
Lesson 4: Provide training, even in bad times
Barry-Wehmiller University is an important engine of the company’s culture. Staffed entirely by employees who have grown up through the ranks, B-W University focuses on personal growth experiences that embed the people-centric culture and inspirational leadership style. Remember about treating employees like family? That’s what the company did during the recent recession, asking everyone to sacrifice for the good of the whole. However, training at B-W University was not cut because of its importance in perpetuating the culture.
Lesson 5: Recognize employee’s contributions in unique and visible ways.
The most prestigious recognition award is won by a person in each business unit who has succeeded in touching the lives of others. Nominated by peers, the winners are celebrated at an elaborate ceremony that their family members attend, and are given keys to a unique vehicle that they can drive for a week. Originally the vehicle was a yellow Chevrolet SSR (for Super Sport Roadster), a sports car/pickup truck combination; hence the award’s name is the SSR award.
What can you learn from Barry-Wehmiller? For more information, visit their website at www.barrywehmiller.com or pick up the book I’ve reviewed at Amazon.
1 Bob Chapman & Raj Sisodia, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for your People like Family, (New York: Penguin, 2015).
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