At Bombardier, Tough Guys Find Employee Engagement Does Work

If you don’t believe that employee engagement forms an indispensable foundation for becoming a world-class organization, I have a story for you that should make you reconsider, courtesy of management consultancy McKinsey and Co.

Bombardier Aerospace, a division of the Canadian airplane and train manufacturer, committed to using employee engagement as the core of a huge initiative to change the company’s culture. The shock of the events of September 2001, which were devastating to the airline industry, provided the motivation, and they stuck to it over the next decade in the face of a lot of resistance from their engineers and production workers. This case study is a great lesson in the tremendous boost to long-term productivity, innovation and competitiveness that comes from truly committing to fostering a culture of full employee engagement.

(Full disclosure: Bombardier is not a client of mine, but I am very impressed with their commitment and results. I will be using it as an example with any client that struggles with the long-term commitment full employee engagement demands.)

The challenge the Bombardier CEO, Pierre Beaudoin, described in this study could apply to a host of companies. Here are just two excerpts:

“In 2001, we had an organization that was very proud of being number one and had all kinds of metrics to measure why we were very good. But when we talked to our customers, they were saying we weren’t very good. (When we surveyed our employees) they were telling us that we’re very focused on hardware. But I knew that the customer doesn’t really care about the hardware; he cares about his flight…We needed employees to understand we were flying people, not planes.”

“Our employees also said it was very hard for them to support where the company was going because they didn’t know what we really valued as an organization. In fact, we’d asked our employees what objectives they thought we valued, and although we had very big strategic plans, nobody could answer the question.”

Beaudoin’s description of his leadership problems should also sound familiar to anyone who has dealt with employee engagement issues:

  • The culture was about avoiding putting facts on the table.
  • All the goals were defined so that management would feel pretty good about its performance.
  • Not facing up to issues, of blaming another department.
  • There were a lot of silos. People were focused on their own tasks.
  • We valued the “firefighter,” the person who would step on everybody but get the job done in a crisis.
  • There was very little teamwork.

Beaudoin realized that traditional top-down directives were not going to make Bombardier a leaner, more innovative, customer-focused organization. So, he chose to focus on much better employee engagement, and an overhaul of leadership skills.

In crafting solutions, I think Bombardier took exactly the right approach: Boil the challenge down to essential tasks, and focus on only some of them to start.

They specified three priorities, and four leadership skills needed to address them:

Priorities:

  • Creating a rewarding and safe workplace
  • Providing superior customer service
  • Reducing waste in everything we do

Leadership skills:

  • People first
  • Teamwork
  • Continuous improvement
  • Drive for results

Overarching corporate goal:

  • Becoming world class in all of their operations

Not surprisingly, Beaudoin had issues in getting leaders to buy into changing their management approach. They had to shift some people to new roles, and let some good people go who would not adapt.

“At the beginning, there were a lot of people who resisted, who said this organization will never be successful again because there aren’t enough hard goals and there’s too much softness within the goals. You can imagine a crowd of very technical people asking, “Why do you care about a rewarding workplace? This is just going to become a really nice place where we’re all nice to each other, but we won’t get the work done.”

The goal was to really enable the front line to take a lot more initiative. We didn’t get it done rapidly; you don’t change a culture rapidly. When you have 30,000 employees, it takes time.”

Eventually, Bombardier formalized their approach into an “achieving-excellence system” that moves employees “from where they are today, wherever that is, to being part of a fully engaged, world-class company.”

Just to be clear: Bombardier had a financial goal in mind that the culture shift had to achieve: Moving from an EBIT3 margin of 2 or 3 percent to 8 percent, a $500 million improvement. “And we achieved that goal,” said Beaudoin.

“What I like most…is that we now have an organization that wants to get better. Andthat’s the key. We always talk about why we’re not there yet; we’re on a journey-how close are we to those world-class metrics? We used to make excuses for why our performance was good enough. Today we say, “What will it take to get to world class?” That is what has changed.”

And then Beaudoin hit a topic that I think more companies should stress: Involve your outside suppliers in this engagement initiative, building trust that will lead to further innovative improvements.

“Part of that transformation was getting trust back from our suppliers, who had sometimes felt that they got burned in our fast-growth period. The CSeries (a new airplane in development) is a great example of how we were able to get our suppliers on board, getting them to invest and to trust that we’ll give them the information and coaching they need to progress.”

Information is power, but shared information multiplies its power exponentially. Only engaged employees and partners who trust the organization will fully share that information and allow it to be fully utilized. Bombardier managed to build that trust, and that foundation has helped them come through the recent economic turmoil with very little damage to their financial performance, or their future prospects, according to Beaudoin.

All of us in employee development will agree that engaging engineers and other technical people is not easy. Adopting better interpersonal skills takes time, guidance and practice. But it works when the company is truly committed to it. (Bombardier is also making it work worldwide, in India and other production locations.)

The bottom line:

Employee engagement is not a touchy-feely, nice-to-have concept. It is not about feeling good, it is about working smarter. It forms the foundation for becoming a best-in-class company in your industry. Without full engagement, you won’t get there. If your senior managers don’t get that, give them this article about Bombardier. Or use examples of some of our own work at Bovo-Tighe with hard-bitten, practical types like oil rig workers and insurance salespeople.

Everyone wants to be valued for their skills and contributions, and everyone has an idea about how to better achieve shared goals. That’s a universal truth that organizations must take advantage of!

Here is a link to the McKinsey study about Bombardier (free registration may be required to access it.)

Info coming soon my friend!!

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