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Employee Engagement by Hunting for Treasure

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To improve employee engagement (and save $110 million in recurring costs), GE sent employees hunting for treasure.

Over at GreenBiz.com, Gretchen Hancock explains the program:

By design, Energy Treasure Hunts start on a Sunday afternoon, when an operation is “sleeping.” We kick off by splitting participants—a cross-functional group of GE employees—into teams and training them to identify opportunities in the facility where energy and resources are needlessly in use: Lights that may be left on, equipment operating, pumps or motors running, and to quantify those opportunities for follow up during the rest of the event.

Employee Engagement: Found Generators and Wasted Power

© Flickr user Tim Door

The thought of a roving group of workers spending their weekend finding ways to reduce costs would delight many executives. Not only are these groups working overtime, they are doing it to save the company money. According to Hancock, the story unfolds over the next several days:

By the time teams return to the central location in the early evening, you can sense the buzz: Employees have seen opportunities for improvement, and are realizing how this whole process makes sense for the organization as a whole.

On Monday morning, teams interview facility employees about the opportunities identified for energy savings, a critical step to secure operator buy-in to the proposed change. Throughout the day, they continue to quantify their projects, getting cost and savings information from process experts, and ideas for operational change from the employees that run the operation. By Tuesday afternoon, each team has a list of at least 10 quantified ideas for energy savings— most notably, these projects on average have a simple payback of less than two years!

From these quotes alone, it might sound like GE is empowering stakeholders to transform the organization and granting them the power to make real change. However, selecting alternate passages from the article presents a different perspective:

GE employees solve problems. We improve Lean processes and quantify defects from our Six Sigma heritage, and we’re accustomed to teamwork and matrix organizations.

Employees generally don’t want to spend their Sunday afternoons at a facility, making measurements and taking detailed notes. Suffice it to say that most participants aren’t very excited when we first start a hunt, yet we’ve learned that it’s best to accept that and encourage them to “genchi genbutsu” (loosely translated as “go and see,” but what we refer to as “get your boots on”) and tackle wasted energy use.

This language makes GE sound like a top-down, command-and-control organization. A general-purpose job description cooked up in HR and marketing is applied to everyone at the company: “GE employees solve problems.” The copy cites Six Sigma and Lean, two change management practices which are often implemented using authority (“we’re going Lean”) and evaluation. The writer admits that most people approach Energy Treasure Hunts with trepidation, implying that organizers have to require participation. Are the employees actually leading this change or is this just another corporate directive cloaked in upbeat language?

Like many organizations, GE is likely struggling with blending traditional models of management with the incredible opportunity of stakeholder-driven change. Their internal assessment of energy usage is a form of bottom-up business process improvement, but limited to only analyzing resource waste. Efforts to design new programs, often envisioned by the teams themselves, match closely with how modern business consultants like AccelaWork help companies to change.

The most encouraging sentence from the article is buried near the end: “Through no central mandate, more than 250 GE locations globally have implemented the process and continue to do so because it makes economic and environmental sense.” This logic is applicable to organizations of any size. If your operation is ready to make changes that make sense, talk to our business improvement consultants today.

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