Creating a Psychological Safe Workforce

I recently had the privilege of reviewing Dr. Timothy Clark’s book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. I was struck by how this book parallels my research into high performing organizations and how they approach the practice of leadership.

In the book, Dr. Clark argues convincingly that the path to innovation and employee engagement is not with short-term trinkets, recognition programs, and better benefits (although these certainly are important). Instead, he says, the path to innovation and employee engagement is a workforce that feels psychologically safe. This idea is a take-off from a significant Google study that concluded that the number one determinate in team performance was psychological safety.

For me, the defining statement in the book is this, “innovation is almost always a collaborative process and almost never a lightbulb moment of lone genius.

One of the subjects of my research was an innovative manufacturing firm called Kaas Tailored. They design and manufacture custom and retail furniture. They have fully implemented kaizen or the Americanized term lean, as their method of finding and eliminating waste. However, they do not “do” kaizen as much as they practice kaizen. But their success is more than a manufacturing technique. During my tour, I asked if there was an overriding or primary purpose to the way they approach leadership. Todd, the Production Manager, stood up, squared his shoulders, and with some authority, said, “we practice servant leadership.”

The result is a highly successful organization that engages every member of their workforce to find and eliminate waste in the design and manufacturing process. From my observation, they are a collaborative incubator that removes waste and replaces it with value. They are so good at it, that with 200 employees the employees generate 1,000 – 1,250 kaizens every year. Each one saves the company approximately $1,000, which is a lot like an annual dividend. To do this, employees must feel psychologically safe to identify and implement opportunities to remove waste and error. They are full contributors to the success of the company.

The employees are a great model of Dr. Clark’s framework:
• Inclusion safety. They are an ethnic melting pot, so they feel inclusion.
• Learning safety. Learning is a critical function of the organization, and training happens every day from 8:00-8:05 every morning. Yes, in five-minute increments.
• Contributor safety. From my observation, employees are fully engaged to contribute to the mission of Kaas Tailored.
• Challenger safety. From my tour, I witnessed employees who were encouraged to challenge standard processes if they saw a way to improve them.

As I write this, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 crises. Healthcare workers are on the verge of running out of essential healthcare equipment like face masks. Kaas Tailored has just announced a partnership with a major healthcare system to supply 1,000,000 faces masks. To do this, they are shifting their production as well as mobilizing individuals with a sowing machine. Why am I not surprised?

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