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How Semco Introduced It’s Participatory Culture

Often, in big companies, employees feel sidelined. Yes, they have jobs and tasks on a daily basis but don’t feel inspired or empowered enough to go out of their way and accomplish bigger things. This is because the decision-making power in companies usually rests with a very small number of people, who don’t like sharing their power.

Managers often feel like their employees aren’t ready enough to make important decisions. When Semco realized that employees feel empowered only by empowering themselves, they planned to open up the space for others to make decisions on behalf of the company. When they decided to do this, they did not involve the managers and supervisors in the process because they knew that these people would be the first to protest.

Opening Up Participation In Small Ways

So they decided to imagine situations where everyone could be involved - irrespective of the level of an employee. Of course this was a huge challenge to accomplish, but with the leadership willing to make the effort, it did happen. They decided not to structure a very official, formal program and implement it in a top-down manner, but instead, look at every opportunity in their real life situations at work and try to add some level of participative decision-making to promote more bottom-up decisions.

They also decided to start with very simple things, because Semco was at the base a manufacturing company and most of the employees were factory employees. So for the program to take off, it needed to be very simple. And the results they reaped over this little effort was incredible. The important lesson to take from the following examples is that employees like challenges and want to feel like ‘partners’ rather than people who ‘work’ in a company.

Involving them in decision-making opens up the company in a way where people are treated equally and feel motivated to do better. They understand that their opinions matter, and so, in the process of finding answers for the company, they grow too.

Case Study 1: Semco’s First Cafeteria Committee

Clovis Bojikian from SEMCO’s Human Resources department was around when the company first began delegating decision making processes. He recalls there being a great interest in transforming the workplace, at that time, from a place of obligation and rules to one that had joy and great positive energy.

Bojikian remembers Ricardo Semler pointing out something that he’d noticed as well: “People come here sort of crushed - as though they were carrying some weight. They sit on a table and keep performing tasks, counting the minutes until lunch time; and then counting the minutes until it’s time for them to leave. And when they leave, it’s over. I don’t feel any vibe. I suppose these people have much more to give than what they are giving. So we need to discover ways to make this situation change and to reverse it,” Ricardo observed.

He feels that it’s not possible to motivate someone. The only way that was going to happen is if it came from within. “It has to come from within if it has to last,” he says. Knowing this, SEMCO began to create spaces where people could feel motivated. “So we decided to establish the following: Let’s enjoy everyday situations and try to exercise participation. Let’s start with the simple things,” says Bojikian.

Simplicity was key since most employees involved in the decision making worked in the factories. “So, everything had to be viable, in terms of workers at the factory floor level,” he says, adding that they decided to take advantage of simple problems first.

One of the problems was the constant complaints the HR department received about the cafeteria. As much as they tried to resolve the issues, there was a huge list of complaints about certain foods that people didn’t like. The HR department was tired of handling complaints about the cafeteria and it was decided that the next time someone complained about something, the department will no longer promise to fix the issue.

Instead, Bojikian asked the person who came to complain what their suggestion to improve things was. The complainant was speechless and so, a group of employees was created and asked for ideas. They were invited to come up with a plan that they would implement if they ran the cafeteria.

After a few days and some discussion, the group came back to Bojikian with a plan. However, he asked them to revise their suggestion because it didn’t include any inputs from the kitchen staff at the cafeteria.

The group roped in a few kitchen staff members and they came back to Bojikian with a plan that could very well be implemented. When he told them to go ahead, they were once again taken aback. “So, I told them they’d be part of the first cafeteria committee of SEMCO, which will be in operation for a year. And, within a year, we planned to choose another committee,” he says.

So, from then onwards, SEMCO never ran the company cafeteria again because every year a new employee committee was elected.

Case Study 2: The Bridge Days-Off Formula

It’s unfair but managers and coordinators knew exactly when they could travel and compensate their days-off. For example, let’s say the Easter holiday is coming up and there’s a Friday in between the holiday and the weekend. So they would take the Friday off and plan their trip and they would compensate the day-off two weeks later on one Saturday.

That was planned in advance in their personal calendars but they informed their teams about their plans only a few days before they actually took off. So that meant, the employees didn’t have margin or any option but to agree and to compensate this holiday on that specific Saturday allocated by the manager. And this kind of top-down decision created two kinds of problems:

Employees were informed last-minute and so they couldn’t organize themselves or make use of that extra day to travel or get things done. The second problem was that they hated working on Saturdays (as instructed by their managers) because they had family, religious and social commitments.

This created a lot of tension between the employees and managers. One day, the managers gathered all employees and asked them how they would handle the situation. The employees asked the managers to entrust them with finding a solution.

After that, the employees discussed among themselves and with the HR department to come up with a formula to compensate these bridge-days-off. It stated that they needn’t compromise every Saturday like before, but instead they’d have six years to compensate all these bridge-days-off.

This formula gave employees six years to compensate these days off with some specific implication on remuneration as well. It took into consideration that different years had different number of holidays. So employees could compensate within the year and make it even before the year ended.

But, if there were two days that needed to be rolled over to the next year, there was space to do that as well within this new formula. So the employees along with inputs from the HR department, came up with this jointly-decided solution. Once they implemented this formula, they never had any issues or complaints about these compensatory days.

Case Study 3: The Uniform Democracy

Once, SEMCO realized that their uniform stock was very low and that they needed to order fresh uniforms. But this time, before placing the order, the company leadership thought it was a good opportunity to ask the employees if they liked the uniform and what colour uniform they wanted and so on.

So they created a questionnaire with the following questions:

1. Would you like to use the current uniform?
2. What was the preferred color?
3. What was the preferred model?

They displayed different samples of uniforms on the factory walls to help people decide. It was the first time all employees in Semco’s five factories voted upon anything, with some of the employees voting for the first ever time in their life for anything. So, it was quite a significant moment for the employees.

After the voting, it became clear that 98% of the employees would like to use the current uniform. But there was no clear consensus about the color. All the different color options received different number of votes. It was complicated because the uniform had to be just one color and it couldn’t be a rainbow in the factory. So they needed to somehow settle upon one single colour. And it was the employees who proposed, “Why not take the two most popular colors and hold another round of voting between these two colours alone?” So this time, 81% voted for one color and the matter was settled.

The impact of this exercise in choice was completely irrelevant for the business because the color of the uniforms made no difference to the bottom line. But the process was very important to the employees and the company because it made people feel like they had some power and a vote to exercise - like a real democracy and that they had a say in something that they’d be using everyday.

Turning Employees Into Partners

Employees need to feel empowered so that they continue to give their best to the company. This can’t happen just through workshops and lectures but also by letting them feel like they’re important to the company. When there is a space for them to express their opinions and be involved in the decision making process, they feel like they are partners in the business and take more interest in it.

This makes sure the organization is a positive, transparent place that provides a space for everyone to be part of the important decisions. In turn, employees are motivated to become better people, to grow and achieve bigger goals.

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