How Lehman’s Puts People First

Many companies say they value their employees, but Lehman’s, a purveyor of hardware, home goods, and gifts, shows it. “Our company culture is such that people care for each other, look out for each other, go to church together, and see each other in the supermarket,” says Bruce Breckbill, vice president of direct sales. Lehman’s employs 107 people in Kidron, OH — population 7,300 — and its corporate culture reflects the small-town values of its location.

At Lehman’s, people are clearly as important as technology. Companies often lavish money and energy developing technology and systems, only to overlook the indispensable role that people play, Breckbill says, and “if you have great systems but lousy employees, you haven’t accomplished much.”

Paying higher wages than competitors can help attract and retain workers. So does offering a strong 401(k) program and good healthcare benefits, as Lehman’s does. But that alone doesn’t explain why Lehman’s not only manages to attract and keep strong staffers, but also finds that employees who have left sometimes end up coming back because they enjoyed working at Lehman’s.

Another reason Lehman’s inspires such loyalty among its employees is its “bottom up” business climate, based on employees’ input and with their best interests in mind, rather than a traditional “top down” structure, where plans and policies are dictated from the executive office. Through daily communication and periodic company-wide meetings and post-mortems, supervisors empower employees throughout the organization to make suggestions about how to improve their jobs and processes. These ideas are taken seriously and often implemented, which boosts the morale of employees, who feel a sense of ownership in the business.

For example, when Lehman’s recently switched order entry software, the customer service representatives (CSRs) were extremely involved in the project, offering suggestions about how the screens should function and where icons should be placed. This feedback greatly improved the development of the software and ultimately made the CSRs more efficient.

In another case, the merchant’s warehouse employees offered valuable advice on receiving and moving product through the warehouse. The result was a classic win-win scenario: The processes became more efficient, and the employees gained satisfaction from receiving positive feedback on their ideas.

This sense of empowerment results in employees’ having the flexibility they need to do a good job. “We don’t script out what employees should say; we allow their personalities to be part of their job,” says Breckbill. Staffers thrive in a relaxed environment in which they enjoy having the responsibility to solve problems on their own and aren’t afraid to make a mistake. “I don’t think anyone here feels they will be fired if they make a mistake,” says Breckbill, adding that when the company hands over the reins to workers, they often surprise him with better solutions than the executive staff could have come up with on their own. “These ideas can be a goldmine if you tap into it,” he declares.

Showing employees that they are valued requires persistence, follow-through, and consistent, daily communication. “You need to know people’s names and to really listen when they talk — even if the conversation isn’t 100% work-related — so that they can have confidence in you,” says Breckbill. When supervisors let employees know that what they say and contribute is valued, they will work for the company, not against it. In fact, supervisors are encouraged to strike up conversations with employees, asking them, “What can I do to make your job easier?” Often an unanticipated comment or request contains a “kernel of truth,” he says.

In addition to caring about employees, company supervisors also need to have enough self-awareness to know how they come across to workers. “You can’t be a good supervisor if you are just sitting behind a desk,” Breckbill notes.

Bruce Breckbill will present “It’s Not the Systems — It’s the People” on Monday, April 30, during the 17th annual National Conference on Operations & Fulfillment in Schaumburg, IL.

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