I just returned from a strategic planning session with a client last week and it absolutely hit me over the head just how much that company’s employees knew but weren’t sharing. It dawned on me this was in no way a unique and isolated scenario and that just about every company would benefit from the essence of this experience and how it can translate into a major breakthrough for you.

During part of the planning process with this client, I asked him to gather up a mixed team of both management level and first line, customer level employees. The company was primarily in wholesale fuels and lubes, so the mix included drivers. As I engaged the team in the various pieces of the planning process, the tankwagon driver mentioned how long it was taking to load at two of the company’s bulk plant locations. The corporate headquarters staff seemed to realize and acknowledge there was a problem, but the thought was that overhauling two old bulk plants was more of a capital project than anyone wanted at this time. The comments went noticed but not acted on.

By the next day, further into the planning process, the driver again talked about the wait times, but with encouragement took it one step further, he told them how little it would take to fix the problem. He wasn’t talking entire bulk plant or rack re-work, it was a matter of changing out some pumps, hose sizes, etc….in other words, simple and easy fixes!

Now, I wish you could have seen the looks on the headquarters staff. First there was the delight that something costing the company dearly in efficiency (and payroll) could be fixed so easily. But I also saw the recognition of “gee, why couldn’t we have known this a year ago!” The ROI on this project will likely end up to be recouped in less than three months!

Now check in with your reaction to this story. Did you:

  1. Wonder what costs, inefficiencies and holes are lurking hidden in your business?
  2. Just have the realization there may be wisdom hiding at the bottom of your pyramid?
  3. Think to yourself “that could never happen to us.

First let me deal with number three. My experience with the smartest execs I know is that they are always seeking improvement, no matter how small. If you are in the fortunate position of having an incredibly efficient business, think of what I’m about to explore with you as simply “fine-tuning” your race car’s engine.

If you thought #1 or #2, first let me reassure you that you are in the majority! And more importantly, there are things you can do.

So here are ways you can tap into the knowledge and experience of your front line:

  • Get personally out to the front line. As your company’s leader, there is nothing more vital than rubbing elbows with the people that are face to face with your customers day in and day out and doing it on their turf. Ideally, if you can do their job, jump in there and do it occasionally to more fully understand. If you can’t do their job, be along side them – for example, take a day to ride with a tankwagon driver to see what he goes through during his day from the truck safety inspection in the morning, to loading to his deliveries and paperwork. How long has it been since you were at the rack to see what goes on?
  • Periodically take top front line personnel for a one-on-one thank you meal. This should be a one on one time to sit down with a great employee and draw out their feedback as well as recognize their effort. Take them to a restaurant where they will be comfortable (not your Private Club!) Find out about their family, their goals, and then how you can make their job easier. The smartest leaders I know make this a monthly habit, with equal importance to their monthly manager meeting.
  • Involve front line personnel in meetings and strategic decisions. Thinking of new software, new systems, new sites, new capital improvements? Invite front line employees to the planning meetings and involve them in the purchase decisions. You’ll get valuable, practical feedback and already have buy-in when it comes time for implementation. When I go on-site with a company for my two-day planning sessions, I insist on including front-line workers in the strategic team. It’s amazing the value and perspective they bring to the planning process.
  • Pay cash for great ideas. Are you paying employees cold hard cash for great ideas? Consider what could happen if, for instance, you paid a 5% cash bonus for great revenue producing and cash saving ideas?   Yes, this is a “program” and yes, it needs administration – good ways to get ideas, a team to review ideas monthly and determine profit impact, but think of what you might discover! And some companies get further leverage by paying the Good Idea Bonus in two increments, one at the time of implementation, and the other a year later based on profit produced after one year which encourages retention.
  • Model, support and endorse continuing education.  There is nothing that sparks motivation and creativity (for yourself and your troops!) than getting away from work and in a learning environment, sharing ideas with people from other companies and even other industries.   Model your education commitment by attending thought-provoking education. Check out www.bestpetroevent.com for video of owners and CFOs who attended one of my company’s learning events and their discoveries.

Just as important as what you should do is what not to do. Here are just two that I’ve seen kill employee idea involvement:

1. Don’t be the inspector.   Some execs think face to face interaction with front lines means showing up at periodic inspections of sites or stores. Exec inspections are usually counter-productive. If an inspection is preannounced, everyone cleans up their place and is on best behavior. Worse yet, you are seen as the bad guy looking for what is wrong rather than the good guy trying to make things easier for them. The solution is to use other staff or outsiders for inspectors or mystery shoppers, keeping your main goal SERVING your employees, not inspecting them.

2. Don’t use a typical suggestion box. Why? Most times they flat out don’t work. People don’t input, and when they do, there is no mechanism for feedback. Even if a company gets a few great ideas, if the submitting employee doesn’t see their suggestion implemented quickly, they think it’s being ignored. After this happens a few times, employees quit making suggestions.

The “take home” message is simple – thriving in today’s business environment of constant change requires an entire team effort. If you are serious about serving your customers, then get even more serious about tapping into the needs and ideas of your front line. I love what Mac Anderson, founder of Simple Truths and Successories, Inc. said, “Stand with them, not above them”  and Ben Franklin when he said, “To be humble to superiors is duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.” May we all discover more nobleness in our quest for building better companies.

PetroAnswers What Your Employees Aren’t Telling You