Does Your Attitude Matter?
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Does Your Attitude Matter? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine January 2005

As we enter into a new calendar year, many of us are beginning to execute the key actions associated with our new operating plans.  Whenever I see an organization’s or a site’s operating plan, I always wonder what process was used to create it.  Does this process lead to the creation of a plan that represents the key needs of the company as perceived only by the managers that created it, or does it lead to a plan that reflects the broader set of needs and concerns that the entire workforce has?  One quick way to answer this question is to ask “To what degree was a formal employee survey used to help identify the workplace needs and concerns that exist?”

I have worked in a variety of organizations over the years, and I have to say that one of the causes of my nomadic behavior was rooted in the fact that few of these companies actually used the employee survey as a tool to identify key employee concerns and to assess the degree to which its key management systems were functioning.  I’m not saying that they did not survey their people – I am questioning the manner in which such findings were used.  In fact, one of the main complaints that employees have about formal internal customer surveys is that they don’t lead to positive change.  To put it more bluntly, many employees feel that their company’s surveys are a waste of time.  What is your attitude?

As a Baldrige quality award examiner, I have found that the best performing companies consider their internal customer survey to be a key tool for identifying improvement needs and a key indicator of possible performance challenges and opportunities.  They operate from the perspective that higher levels of employee satisfaction lead to higher levels of quality, customer service, and in general, performance excellence.  These companies are much different in their management attitude than the majority of those that I have worked for, and unfortunately, I have witnessed the correlations that do exist between employee attitudes and other areas of organizational performance.

There are two main processes associated with any attitude survey effort, no matter how well or poorly they are executed.  First, there is the process of designing and administering the survey itself.  Second, there is the process that is used for taking the survey results and incorporating them into some form of improvement plan.  As with any process, the manner in which the steps of each process are executed, along with the design of the process itself, determines the degree of change that is possible from the time and money you invest in your survey efforts.

One quick way to tell if your survey process is well designed is to look at the response rate you get and to compare the demographics of your respondents against the demographics of the groups the survey was given to.  My experience has shown me that a low response rate is an indicator of survey process problems – the demographic comparison helps you identify ways to improve your survey effort so that you get a higher response rate the next time you execute the process.  Think about your site or organization – why don’t people complete their surveys and turn them in?  Like many apathetic registered voters, do they think that it is all of waste of time because their responses really won’t make a difference, or did they not complete a survey because they simply weren’t able to?

Instead of forming cross-functional project teams to address key areas of concern, or simply blending the survey findings and suggestions into the annual improvement plan, many leadership teams simply look over their colorful graphs and data tables, forming their own opinions about what needs to change.  In many cases, such an approach can result in the wrong concerns being addressed, and in turn, the creation of waste.  There are also lots of ways to waste time and money when you conduct an internal customer survey – create a survey that is too long or confusing, make it difficult for people to find time to complete the survey or turn it in, fail to share the results with all employees or involve them in the improvement effort, or fail to identify true systems changes that will actually shift attitudes in a positive way over time. How value added is your company’s survey process?

It is my belief that many organizations actually do more damage than good when they conduct a survey.  In some cases, a survey effort raises the expectations that something will change.  When it fails to do so, the resultant attitudes are even worse, and the amount of apathy towards the next survey effort is even higher.  In other cases, a survey effort reminds people of failures to ‘listen’ that have occurred in the past.  What is your personal reaction when you hear about an upcoming survey effort?  Do you look forward to it with positive anticipation, or would you just prefer that the company doesn’t waste the paper?

Most, if not all, of the readers of this magazine work with, and depend on, people each day in order to do their jobs.  Also in most cases, the attitudes of the people you work with affect the degree to which they are willing to help and cooperate with you.  If you understand and accept these conditions, you should be able to see how employee attitudes drive safety, quality, and cost performance.  That being said, I am amazed at the degree to which companies focus on measuring mechanical and task-based performance the ‘right’ way, only to significantly discount the manner in which they measure the influence of the mental contributions that their people make daily.  With today’s technologies, we could be gauging employee attitudes at a greater frequency than we used to, but instead, we tend to assess them to a lesser degree.  When was the last time someone tried to quantify how you really feel?  Would it matter if they did?

I really believe that most employees want to do a good job.  I also believe that they want to help make their workplaces better, both for the company and for themselves.  That said, I also unfortunately believe that most employees are not being heard, and that many have given up on trying to make work a better place. Are surveys truly used to make a difference in your company?  Is the survey process designed to allow all employees to voice their opinions and take a role in helping to improve their own attitudes, and the attitudes of their peers?  Is your leadership team incorporating their survey findings into your site’s improvement plans?  Does your attitude matter?

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