The Potential of Energized Workers

In our book, Unleashing Human Energy through Culture Change, we describe one of the more unusual changes that took place at the Tonawanda Engine Plant: involving the plant’s employees in selling cars. Management offered workers the opportunity to refer friends and relatives to a local Chevrolet dealership. Every employee was issued business cards that, when presented at the dealership, initiated VIP treatment toward the purchase of a new car. Not only did this inspire workers to sell cars but it led to record-setting sales at the dealership.

How do we account for worker enthusiasm to sell cars? They were not paid to sell cars. It was not part of their job description. And, it was done on their own time, not during work hours. It is clear to us that workers really wanted the company to succeed, and they were energized to do their part toward this success. 

This could never have happened at the Tonawanda Plant—with its long history of hostility between workers, their union leaders, and management—if it had not gone through a major culture change. Prior to this change, work grievances were common. Attempts to gain cooperation from workers with management requests were met with resistance. Work rules negotiated through collective bargaining further restricted cooperation by placing limits on management discretion to manage operations.

There is little doubt that culture change energized the workforce to sell the products they produced. This was made possible when the leadership of the plant offered a true and transparent partnership with the United Auto Workers union. Union leaders became actively involved in major decisions, including changes to the work culture. Union workers were involved in purchases of capital equipment and decisions on how this equipment would be integrated into production systems. There was also a major shift in how management related to workers. Bullying and autocratic decision making were no longer tolerated. Management leadership became committed to a work culture based on believing in its workers, trusting them, and treating them with respect.

The program of selling cars led to two unexpected consequences. First, the success of the program was so strong that word of it got out to other General Motors factories. These facilities copied the Tonawanda Engine Plant sales program with some success but nowhere near that of the Tonawanda plant. Paddock Chevrolet, the local dealership that agreed to offer VIP treatment to customers referred by plant workers, was soon given the honor of being the number one Chevrolet dealership in the entire U.S., an honor it has held for many years. The second consequence was the transfer of energy from the sales program to other programs. One example was an annual car show on factory property. This show attracted cars with Chevrolet engines to be shown from all over the country. Thousands of people came to the factory grounds every summer to see these cars on display, hoods open so everyone could see their engines.

In summary, by involving union leaders and workers in decision making and changing the way managers treated workers, trust and mutual respect grew. Running the plant was viewed as a partnership involving all participants. Workers not only embraced this partnership; they thrived in it. Their contribution was critical to the overall success of the plant. The energy released not only drove improvements in productivity and quality but spilled over to the sales of the automobiles that were powered by the engines they manufactured.  

We have often referred to the Golden Rule of Management as the essence of culture change. The combination of treating employees with faith, trust, and respect, while tapping into their desire to be part of a winning team, will transform an organization’s culture and release human energy. Amazing things happen when positive energy is released.    

Purchase Unleashing Human Energy through Culture Change, here: http://tinyurl.com/y69nn5d2.

Marie Pazych