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Sweeping Employee Training and Management

Bossing Less, Managing More

Make every employee a member of the management team.

by Bob Fein Bob Fein

This marks the 25th year of operation for Stone Construction Equipment. The 30 million dollar company designs and manufactures light construction equipment, mixing equipment, dirt and asphalt rollers, and different types of concrete finishing equipment. In 1991 the 100% employee-owned company was named as one of the ten best American manufacturers by Industry Week. Stone is also a benchmark company for the National Center for Employee Ownership and the Association of Manufacturing Excellence. On a continuing basis the company holds symposiums for senior managers of major U.S. companies.

Bob Fien, company CEO, credits his company's success to an innovative management approach that contradicts how most companies in the U.S. are operated. Fien has been asked to work, along with a number of other CEO's, with the Department of Labor to flesh out and expand on some of the concepts that follow, as well as to find ways in which the government can encourage businesses to begin to focus on this area. This article has been excerpted from a conversation that American Sweeper's editor, Ranger Kidwell-Ross, had with Bob Fien at Stone's offices in Honeoye, New York.

To remain competitive, I propose, the United States needs to change. The following are some new and important management concepts that some businesses are now using, and which a lot more businesses will begin to use over time. Manufacturers, in particular, need to search out and implement these new ideas, but they are equally applicable to employers with one or two people working for them, and to the employee(s) as well. They are valid for both private companies and government agencies.

As people read and hear about these concepts, both through this interview and elsewhere, I encourage them to try to relate them to their own company or organizational structure. A wonderful way to expose yourself to new management ideas is through networking. Use it to find out what innovative ideas other very successful companies, similar to yours, are using. By doing that you will be better able to appreciate how these concepts can make your own little company in your own little town - or your large municipal agency in your major metropolis - more competitive and more effective.

Management - whether we're talking about sweeping a parking lot or doing some kind of pavement patch work - too often thinks that if a job doesn't come out right it's the workers fault. We're used to saying, "This product is bad, therefore the American worker is lazy." I think that this whole mentality is wrong, not just the standard by which we judge how well something has been done. It's not always the guy doing the job; the reality is, it's more often the environment that management has created, and within which the worker is working. That is what, in very large measure, dictates the way the employee is going to apply him or herself to the work.

Managers need to re-examine the way they manage, in order to ensure that their particular style, or management technique, will optimize the positive attitude of a worker versus a so-so or 'I don't give a damn' attitude. That's what I would encourage people to think about as I develop the following focus on four general areas:

First is the environment of people participation. The whole trick in any organization - whether it be composed of two people or twenty thousand - is to create a continuing culture that encourages people to want to step forward and improve the way in which they do things. If I'm head of a company that's going to sweep a parking lot, or pave it, or whatever, I want to have that job done the best way possible. No matter how hard I try to do this, however, the reality is, of course, that there are always going to be ways to do it even better. And the people who know how to do it better are the people who are actually out there doing the work.

What we need to do, as managers, is to find a way for these people to suggest those better ways, and to do so in a manner that allows the good ideas to be implemented. Then everyone benefits: the organization will become more effective, productivity will go up and, over time, employees will develop a much better sense of self-contribution and self-fulfillment. This, in itself, improves productivity and the quality of work. It's important to stay practical, but the psychological stuff, something that many businesses have overlooked in the past, is a key to strengthening an organization.

The first thing you need to do is develop an environment of respect, one person to another. It's one thing to say we respect each other, but from an organizational standpoint there are certain things that can stand in the way of respect. For instance, some companies have privileged parking. Every company, even if it's a very small company, has status symbols that convey and communicate that one individual is better or more important than another.

Whenever that happens, employees subconsciously begin to believe this as fact and it deteriorates their level of respect. I challenge everyone to stop for a moment and think of their organizations, whether they're running it or just a part of it, and to search out where those status symbols are and figure out ways to eliminate them.

I feel strongly that the strength of our company and the reason we're so good is because we're doing a lot of very innovative things, and a significant amount are coming from our people on the floor. It all started a couple of years ago when manufacturing management searched out and came up with some improvement programs. One in particular was really good, an eight week course to be held two days a week in four hour segments. When they presented it to me I asked, "Who's going to go through this?" And they said, "Well, the managers." I asked, "Why not the employees?"

It was very funny to watch the expression on their faces! They were falling all over each other and saying, "Well, they're probably not ready to do that, etc." They didn't think the employees were smart enough to understand the improvement concepts. But I feel that if we hadn't gone ahead and exposed them to this particular program we would have missed a golden opportunity. Stereotyping, no matter how big or small you are, stands in the way of productivity, quality and all the rest.

Secondly, I develop the whole idea of trust. You've got to trust people, and that means you've got to allow people to make mistakes. I talk a lot about signs of mistrust. Take time clocks for example. What a time clock tells an individual is, "We don't trust you to put in the correct time; we think you're going to cheat, so we'll keep track of your time." Or, "We don't trust you enough to make a mark with a pen when you come in, so a mechanical device does it."

Then there are those bells that tell a person when to take a break. Those types of things in any company, big or small, are signs of mistrust. And when that happens, you've drawn a line between management and the employees and, therefore, since you've reduced the power of your people they're just not going to respond as well.

When I thought we'd developed our work environment to the point where we could get rid of the bells that told employees when to take breaks, I was told by every supervisor I talked to that it would be a big mistake. They said, "People will take advantage of you. They'll take longer breaks, they'll leave early, they'll come back from breaks later, etc." Well, we did it, and what really happened was that a lot of people began to skip their breaks because they were busy working and didn't want to be interrupted. And a lot of folks came back from break early because they had things they wanted to get done. So the exact opposite happened!

The message is that it is very important to convey to your people that you respect and trust them. If someone does take advantage and take longer breaks, I predict that you'll find the problem to be self-policing. That's because the rest of the workers appreciate the trust and freedom, and will make things plain to those who abuse the privilege. It's amazing what the response is when you treat people like they're mature adults.

The third subject is the whole idea of continuing development. For example, I congratulate the people who come to the NPME [the Aberdeen Group's National Pavement Maintenance Exposition] whether they run a business or work for a business. That's because they're focused on the right stuff; that is, learning and developing all the modern techniques and new ideas they can. They're a cut above the rest just for wanting to do that. Improvement programs abound in most every community: management seminars, community colleges, technical schools, vendor trainings and more. Take advantage of these.

Lastly, is the importance of communication. There is a real need to communicate, to make sure people understand the 'what and why' of the way things are being done.

Stone Construction Co.

Armed with that understanding, people will tend to give more effort, and to recognize that they are a vital part of what is taking place. Only through that understanding are people able to become key elements in the business. It's easy to lose sight of the human factor, but when you deal with people with integrity and honesty, they will, in turn, be enthusiastic, optimistic, and want to do the job right.

This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, v3n2 1994.

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