Practical Tips for Fostering a Committed and Environmentally Conscious Workforce
[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles based on interviews from experts in the field who will be speaking at the Environmental Leader 2016 Conference in June.]
Environmental management initiatives reach their goals and become successful more easily when employees are engaged and enthusiastic, General Motors has found. The automaker, which has 130 landfill-free sites and has reduced carbon and energy intensity by 11% each between 2010 and 2014, incorporates sustainability directly into its business plan, identifies key metrics, and sets out goals not only for the company as a whole but for each division within the company and for each individual employee.
“We start at the top with the key objectives; then, the people on the plant floor have their own set of goals, the plant manager has his goals, and that goes on to the head of manufacturing, to the vice president, and beyond,” says Mari Kay Scott, Executive Director of Global Environmental Compliance and Sustainability for GM. “And these include personal goals as well as goals for the organization.”
Currently, GM’s biggest goal is to achieve zero waste at its plants. Its landfill-free facilities – 75% of which are manufacturing plants – recycle, reuse or convert to energy all waste from daily operations, turning waste streams into revenue streams. For example, GM says, it has generated as much as $1 billion in recent years from recycling. And much of this success can be attributed to employee engagement.
Scott offered several suggestions for companies on a similar journey on how to engage employees in environmental management efforts to improve the bottom line:
Tip #1: Look at management differently.
Once the workers on a plant floor are engaged in a project, they tend to be the ones who have the ideas and know how to implement them, Scott says. “So instead of the plant manager being ‘on top’ and everyone else under him, the workers are at the top and everyone else in management is underneath them, supporting them and helping them achieve their goals,” she says.
“You have to show them that you support them, that you can help them with the problems they have,” says Scott. “Then, when that problem is solved, you’ve gained their buy-in to work together on the next project.”
Tip #2: Form teams.
At GM’s plants, employees form teams of five to six people. Each team has a team leader, and the team as a whole has goals, which are built into their salaries as incentives. When people work as a team, they begin to share enthusiasm, which feeds upon itself and grows exponentially.
Tip #3: Empower employees (but first tell them why).
Let employees make decisions and execute plans. While executives at GM come up with the overarching goals, and the main decisions on how to get there, employees themselves more fully understand the place in which they work, explains Scott. “They’ll figure out how to execute our plans. They have great ideas and they do it better than us.”
But be sure to tell them why they should do what you ask of them. “If you explain the project and why you want to make it happen, then ask how they can help make it work, they’re more engaged and enthused,” says Scott. “They’re implementing their own ideas rather than just coming in and doing what we tell them. That makes it fun rather than tedious.”
Additionally, give employees the opportunities to identify and solve problems themselves. If a project isn’t working, the teams must address the problem in the same way that people in sales would ask themselves, for example, why a particular product wasn’t selling in India. One plant was getting a lot of cross-contamination in the bins, so the teams questioned why the project wasn’t working. They decided to assign people to walk the floor and make sure recycling was separated properly. As they monitored recycling activity, they discovered that some of the bins were placed in an area that was used by other departments as a shortcut to the cafeteria. Those people, unfamiliar with the recycling project, were tossing things in the wrong bin as they passed. The simple solution? “They just moved the bin and the cross-contamination problem was solved,” says Scott. “They were engaged, enthused and interested. They’re the ones making it happen.”
Tip #4: When challenged, unlock enthusiasm.
What happens when teams are not engaged and enthusiastic? “Sometimes we have challenges where it’s not really working. We look at our systems: do we have a good communication system in place? Do they understand the importance of what they are doing?” says Scott.
Then, she says, identify those who are already on board and excited, and build the partnership around that person. The natural leaders – and they may not be those you would expect in the hierarchical order of things – can help the negative people change their minds. “And then enthusiasm leads to success,” she says.
Tip #5: Measure success in “soft” metrics as well as hard.
It’s important to measure hard metrics to discover the relative success of a project: how close is a plant getting to landfill-free? How much are they reducing energy use? What groups are investigating/implementing renewables?
But success can also be measured by employee engagement. “I went with the global environmental team to three plants that were showing success. The plants use visuals that show their various progress towards certain metrics. As we looked at the board, a worker approached and said, ‘Let me tell you about my board.’” He told them about a contest they were holding, about successes they had enjoyed, about measures and countermeasures they put into place, and about how the board, updated regularly, kept everyone up to date on their goals.
“It wasn’t, ‘Let me tell you about the team leader’s board,’ or ‘the plant’s board.’ It was his board. We could walk through the plant and tell that people were working together,” Scott says. “But when you walk through the plant and see that nobody has updated the board in several days, you can tell they’re doing it simply because someone told them to do it.” That’s when you can predict initiatives likely won’t be successful, and can step in to help find solutions.
Tip #6: Collaborate and share successes with other facilities.
Back around 2008 and 2009, GM’s culture was difficult. It was a challenging time with little collaboration between Union and management, Scott explains. But when the company began to focus on its safety record, both sides recognized that in order to improve, they had to work cooperate. Now the two groups create goals together.
Collaboration allows more open communication between all areas of an organization. Now, says Scott, when one plant becomes landfill-free, other plant managers will call and ask, “How’d you do that?” Success breeds success, Scott says.
Mari Kay Scott will be speaking about this and other environmental management topics at the Environmental Leader 2016 Conference in June.
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