ATC_American Transition-Co-web
Open spaces allow American Transmission Co. employees to easily share ideas and collaborate on projects. Courtesy American Transmission Co

How the Best Workplaces in Manufacturing are Practicing ‘Inclusive Industry’

Sep 11, 2018

Electricity distribution firm American Transmission Company is charging up its business with brain power.

The brain power of all its people.

ATC, which is headquartered in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and operates high-voltage lines in the Midwest, recently launched an effort to make it easier for its 620 employees to bring new ideas forward, celebrate success, and recognize that failure can be valuable.

The initiative came after a few successful ideas were submitted by employees, prompting ATC leaders to realize they probably weren’t tapping into the full creativity of the staff. This fall, an event is planned to bring all employees together to learn more about innovation and how to get involved.

See the 20 Best Workplaces in Manufacturing and Production list.

“If we can get people talking more about innovation, develop a means to capture new ideas and a system to review and share them, we will consider the initiative a success for this year,” says Jim Vespalec, director of asset planning and engineering, who is leading the innovation initiative team. “It will be even better to get some new ideas to support.”

ATC’s egalitarian innovation effort is part of a broader trend among leading manufacturing and production companies. My organization, people analytics and research firm Great Place to Work, just published the 2018 list of the Best Workplaces in Manufacturing and Production with our partner Fortune . ATC is one of the companies on this list, and one of several that are demonstrating what could be called “Inclusive Industry.”

These organizations are shattering the stereotype that blue-collar industries inevitably are marked by a stark division between brains and brawn—with front-line workers having to check their intelligence and inventiveness at the door.

Instead, ATC and others on this year’s list are including everyone to overcome the obstacles facing their organization and build a more welcoming culture.

It’s a wise approach, according to our latest research.

Great Place to Work has discovered that organizations that do the most effective job of tapping all employees’ ideas have 5.5 times the revenue growth of those that are less inclusive in their innovation activities. The leading “Innovation By All” cultures also benefit from increased productivity and score higher on indicators of agility and employee retention.

The concept of including everyone in moving the organization forward is familiar to Hilcorp, an oil and gas exploration and production firm that also earned a place on the Best Workplaces in Manufacturing and Production. “All employees challenge themselves to always ask, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ And, because employees are encouraged to act as owners, they feel the freedom to explore and propose new innovations,” a spokesperson at the Houston-based company told us in a statement. “We drive accountability and decision-making to the lowest possible levels within the organization to allow constant innovation to occur. Our success is based on thousands of decisions made by our employees each day, not a few strategic decisions made from the top.”

That company statement is backed up by what employees told us through our Trust Index Employee Survey. In particular, 82 percent of Hilcorp employees say that leaders genuinely seek and respond to suggestions and ideas. And nearly nine out of 10 say managers trust people to do a good job without watching over their shoulder.

JM Family Enterprises is another Best Workplace in Manufacturing and Production that crowdsources better ways of doing things from staffers. The Deerfield Beach, Florida-based company provides a range of automotive services, including the distribution of vehicles, parts and accessories to Toyota dealerships. The company’s vehicle processing centers, parts distribution center and trucking operations employ the “kaizen” continuous improvement process developed by Toyota.

“Kaizen empowers associates to identify inefficiencies in our processes and combine our collective talents to create a catalyst for progress,” says Kevin Fleeger, group vice president of Parts and Distribution at the Southeast Toyota Distributors unit. “Kaizen is part action plan and part philosophy. It’s about organizing events that improve specific areas within the company and also having a culture where associates are actively engaged in suggesting and implementing improvements.”

Indeed, 81 percent of JM Family associates told us that company leaders genuinely seek out and respond to suggestions. What’s more, 83 percent of staffers say the company celebrates people who try new and better ways of doing things, regardless of the outcome.

ATC practices a version of kaizen as well. Its “Good Catch Program” recognizes employees who help identify potential problems before they occur. The “Catches” can range from finding a faulty switch in an electric power substation to cleaning up a spill in a high-traffic office area. The company has used data from the Good Catch Program to improve safety, reliability and efficiency.

The program is of a piece with ATC’s new innovation initiative. And ATC leaders hope their more-inclusive approach to innovation will boost morale even as it charges up the bottom line. The company told us the new effort is based on the belief that “including all employees within the innovation process will not only produce greater results but strengthen our culture of inclusion and transparency.”

Ed Frauenheim is senior director of content at Great Place to Work, FORTUNE’s longtime research partner for Best Workplace lists, including the Best Workplaces for Manufacturing and Production. Ed also is co-author of the research paper Innovation By All.

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