Bob Chapman’s Everybody Matters received much critical praise after it was published in 2015. Chapman, CEO of the $1.7-billion manufacturer Barry-Wehmiller, argued that workers are not just pawns to be controlled with carrots and sticks, but instead individuals who should be treated as if they’re family.
“Everyone wants to do better,” Chapman wrote. “Trust them. Leaders are everywhere. Find them. People achieve good things, big and small, every day. Celebrate them. Some people wish things were different. Listen to them. Everybody matters. Show them.”
Chapman’s thesis was that if management stops treating workers like line-item costs and more like human beings, those people will step up as internal leaders and use their talents toward a shared future for the company, rather than counting the minutes until it’s time to go home. As Lippert Components CEO Jason Lippert was reading Chapman’s book, he realized that his company had a cultural problem.
“At the time, we were expanding through acquisitions from a 2,000-person company to a company with 5,000 workers,” says Lippert, whose firm is headquartered in Indiana. “Attrition was weighing heavily on our business. Our employee turnover was similar to other businesses in Elkhart, at about 100 percent. People were moving from one company to the next in a matter of months. We’d have to hire 5,000 workers per year.”
That insight, Lippert says, was a light-bulb moment. “We realized we weren’t leading well at the front lines of our business,” he says. “We asked ourselves, What is going to create better leaders across the company? And how can we create a business where we keep workers so that our levels of quality, safety and efficiency will improve?”
Lippert consulted Chapman, who explained what he had done to boost morale and retain workers at Barry-Wehmiller. Under the tagline “Everyone Matters,” Lippert reinvented his company’s culture, focusing it around these core values: passion about winning; team play with trust, honesty, integrity and candor; caring about people; and a positive attitude.
“It took a lot of focus and dedication — and still does — to implement the program,” Lippert says. “We also realized that we needed to live out the values from the top. We knew our managers had to be consistent and do what they say they’re going to do. You can’t just put values up on a wall and expect it to work. If everyone isn’t aligned, the program isn’t going happen.”
Part of the program was to create leaders on the front lines of production across the corporation, which has grown to 11,000 employees with acquisitions of marine companies including Taylor Made, Signature Seating and others. Lippert created a small army of leaders, each responsible for managing 15 to 22 people. Those leaders report to group leaders, who report to a plant supervisor. The front-line leaders typically work on the production lines beside the other workers.
Amber Selking, who has a Ph.D. in applied sport and human performance psychology, was brought in as Lippert’s director of people performance. She created a program that would work with a traditional manufacturing footprint to better align the new culture with the existing infrastructure.
Selking increased the number of leadership development coaches on her team. They work with executives and team leaders in Lippert’s production facilities. “They help coach our leaders in leadership behavior,” she says. “Their job is to also work side by side with these folks on the production lines as business partners, emphasizing our core values in every business decision.”
“Soft and Fluffy” Equals Effective
While Jason Lippert admits the “Everyone Matters” concept sounds “soft and fluffy” — managers are now only referred to as leaders and employees as team members — the impact on business has been significant.
“We’ve seen turnover drop from more than 100 percent down to 30 percent,” Lippert says. “And when you fix that problem, the quality, efficiency and safety go up. Those are your profit indicators. After all, someone who has worked with the company for five years will be much more efficient than someone who is there 90 days.”
Vice presidents, including John Ries, have been responsible for translating the “Everyone Matters” philosophy to the production lines. Ries, who has worked for different manufacturers during a 30-year career, says the unorthodox approach interested him from the start.
“It’s really about engaging people in a different way,” says Ries, who is responsible for 1,750 workers across four facilities. “It’s not just about telling the workers we need 100 pieces by 2 o’clock today, but getting to know them in a much deeper way.”
Ries says that when he first came to Lippert five years ago, standard work practices such as performance reviews were nonexistent. “Our people have to build parts on a very typical assembly line,” he says. “If you have 100 people and someone is having a bad day, it’s going to slow down the other 99. There was a lot of tension on the lines when I got here. Most people never thought of helping each other out to make the workflow better. They just said it wasn’t their job.”
Since “Everyone Matters” was implemented, Ries says, the production lines function as teams. “Now if someone’s having a bad day, other people jump in to help. They’re hooking each other up and want to win,” he says. “We’re hitting our goals every day. It has totally transformed the workplace.”
Ries says the team mentality translates to life outside the workplace, as well. A young man on one of the production teams lost his baby son recently. “He was new to town and didn’t know many people,” Ries says. “Instead of having nobody at the funeral to support him, his whole team came in at 2:30 a.m. and worked their shift so they could be at the funeral at noon. More than 100 of his co-workers were there to support him.”
The facilities that Ries oversees now include 260 line and group leaders who work with teams on the production lines. “All of our functions now have these leaders,” he says. “I don’t think we even knew who these leaders were before because there was no system in place that would let them be seen.”
Ries says he knows the first names of about half of the workers in his facilities, having recently assumed responsibility for two additional plants. He has worked side by side with workers on Lippert’s Acts of Service project, which provides 100,000 hours of community service to the Elkhart area.
He recalls one project in which Lippert employees and their families cleaned up four local parks. “It was amazing, doing the work and then hanging out together,” he says. “It was another way to engage. Any conversation is easier if you get to know a person as a person.”
Many families are living paycheck to paycheck, Lippert says, but most employers expect employees to leave their personal problems at home. “If someone has a family member going through a health crisis, or they’re going through financial issues, it’s pretty much impossible to do that,” he says. “The truth is that they may not have someone to talk to about it. Sometimes we can help them find the right direction.”
The company also launched a Dream Achiever program, in which 800 employees work with personal development coaches to fulfill an aspiration, from quitting smoking to returning to college to buying a new car. “Most of us don’t take time to dream about our futures, and when we ask them, most of our people say they never really thought about it,” Lippert says. “They’re just too busy with their lives.”
Daring to Dream
One longtime employee hadn’t taken a vacation in more than 15 years, and her dream was to do an archaeological dig. “She was able to find a way to do that through her coach’s help,” Ries says. “Another man had wanted to return to college for three years but couldn’t afford it. He found a way. The stories are amazing.”
So are the workplace results. The turnover rate among Lippert’s Dream Achievers is 8 percent. “Once you help people take steps toward their goals and dreams, which is something deep and personal, they’re probably going to stay with you,” Lippert says. “They’ll feel more compelled to give you their all because they sense the company cares. We not only help with goals, but also stressors. Sometimes we can even help them find the right direction for their lives.”
Ries says the leadership component of the business is ongoing, with daily meetings to keep positive momentum on the production lines. “The goal is not just to achieve our goal of manufacturing, but to make it a better day at work,” he says.
The leadership teams are now recording video of meetings and offering critiques of the leaders. “We tell people how they can improve their presence because maybe not everyone is paying attention,” Ries says. “One woman who recently started as a leader is all about business. We told her, ‘You just jumped into it. Say good afternoon first.’ ”
The success of the Act of Service program has prompted other companies in the Elkhart area to join the umbrella organization, to commit time to service projects. Lippert assigned one of the coaches to work with other companies that want to create an “Everyone Matters” culture.
Selking has launched a Diversity and Inclusion team for Hispanic, African-American and Burmese employees, who comprise about a third of the workforce. “These programs are helping us translate the mind-set of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” she says. “If people have a different kind of work experience, they’re going to go home healthier and happier. If businesses understand they can have a huge impact on people’s lives, they can have a significant impact on the world.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.