And the Survey Says ...
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-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


And the Survey Says ... by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine March 2005

What are your feelings about employee surveys?  Do you conduct one annually in your organization?  If you are like most people I know, the phrase ‘employee survey’ does not bring back a lot of fond memories.  Instead, the mention of these two words often reminds them of a one hour block of time spent in a meeting room where a bunch of circles were filled in, a few paragraphs of text were written, and then little else happened – either immediately following the survey or even after the results were shared (if they were).

I believe that employee surveys are one of the most important performance improvement tools that a company or team can use.  I hesitate to call them ‘attitude’ surveys, because in my experience, the best companies use them to measure and improve a lot more than just attitudes. I prefer to see these rituals as a key way to gauge the current effectiveness of your key management systems, including those that are used to compensate your people.  High performing companies use them to measure leadership effectiveness, strategic plan deployment, and work team excellence as well.  Unfortunately, most companies that conduct surveys on a regular basis don’t see them from this perspective.  There are also too many organizations out there that don’t systematically assess their management systems, or employee attitudes for that matter, at all.

I have worked in a variety of places over my career.  Perhaps the fact that I have worked for several employers says something about their less than best practices when it comes to collecting and using employee feedback.  In fact, of the seven places I have worked to-date in my life, only two still exist under the same name and ownership.  It just so happens that these two organizations were also the two that had the most effective employee survey processes.  In short, they consistently listened to their people and did something about those things that weren’t perceived as working that well.

One might argue that if managers and supervisors, along with the Human Resources department, are doing their jobs correctly, a need for conducting formal surveys should not exist.  After all, aren’t these people interfacing with their people on a consistent basis?  Aren’t they bringing the concerns of those they are responsible for to the regular leadership team meetings?  Doesn’t the HR department exist to make sure that the majority of the needs of each employee are met and that these people are compensated fairly?  I’ll let you answer those questions yourself as they pertain to your company.  I’ll let you determine for yourself if a formal, effective survey process would help your workforce perform at higher levels.

As with any process, when we don’t measure the effectiveness of our key management systems, we leave too much to chance.  How do you make sure that each, or at least the majority of, your leaders is consistently supporting the goals of the company?  How do you make sure that most of your employees know what the company is trying to accomplish, or that each of your work teams is working well together?  Sure, you can take a walk through the plant, or between the cubicles, and listen to conversations or soak up the auras, but is that a systematic way to monitor and improve performance?

It is possible that these questions reflect the reasons that the leaders in your company did decide to survey your peers on some sort of consistent basis.  Unfortunately, even in those companies where people are formally surveyed, there are far too many occasions where the right information is not asked for, where the survey results are not used as they should be, or where the survey effort actually creates more dissatisfaction that the amount that existed before the forms and pencils were handed out.  There has even been a bit of a trend in organizations as of late to survey people only once every two years.  The arguments I’ve heard for doing so are based on the beliefs that peoples’ opinions don’t change that much over a year, the surveys cost too much to give, or enough change can’t happen in one year’s time to make a significant difference in the survey results.  At the same time as I was hearing these arguments, I was witnessing the practice of surveying people quarterly, if not more frequent than that, in the high performance minded companies that were striving for the Baldrige national quality award.

It saddens me to see so many companies either not surveying their people at all, or scaling back their survey efforts, at a time when it is becoming more cost effective to collect this type of information.  In many companies, a majority of the workforce has an e-mail address, and intranets are being used more and more to share information on a daily basis as well.  With these systems in place, a few companies are taking advantage of the technology and surveying their people on a daily or weekly basis, similar to the manner in which your satisfaction might be gauged online when you purchase an airline ticket.  By asking two or three questions a week, the normal mix of forty or so questions can be asked four time a year each, or more.

These same companies recognize that their formal surveys can serve as a centerpiece for their annual planning efforts.  If you see this process as one that can measure the effectiveness of your key management systems, then you can probably also see the connection between collecting information about leadership effectiveness and deciding what courses will be built into next year’s training plan.  You can probably draw the parallel between the way meetings are used in your plant and the results about information sharing that were posted following the last employee survey.

We can debate all we want about how many questions should be on this year’s survey, whether the survey should be anonymous or not, or how each question should be worded, but these debates do not add near as much value as those about how we will use the information we collect.  Most companies that do survey their people collect the information, post some colorful charts in the break rooms, hold a meeting or two to go over the more serious results, and attempt to fix those things that seem to be offending their people the most.

The more effective alternative however is to see the collection of this type of information in the same manner that you see the performance data that comes from your front line production or service processes – as indications of how a system is behaving over time.  The attitudes of your people are being shaped in some manner every day.  Each interaction that an employee has with their manager or supervisor helps shape their perspective about what is important and what the organization is trying to accomplish.  Our key management systems however don’t tend to change as often, so if they are currently taking you in the wrong direction, don’t expect anything to shift you towards the positive in the near future.

We may have talked a lot about ‘dark factories’ twenty years ago, but here we are in the next century, and as far as I can tell, we still highly depend on our people to make a cost effective product in a safe manner or to provide our customers with superior quality or service.  We can delude ourselves into thinking that we are measuring enough of the right things to give our customers what the want, but if we aren’t keeping a regular and concerned tab on the perspectives of our people, we really are missing out on a lot of important information.  What do you think?

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