Pride in Product and Profits

FROM THE OCTOBER ISSUE: Managing employee morale requires offering opportunities for advancement and keeping employees informed about the companies’ successes.
By Tim Albrecht | September 05, 2018

Plant morale is about making sure employees feel involved and ensuring management has a proper understanding of every employee in an ethanol facility, says Danielle McCormick, principal for K·Coe Isom. If leaders are only looking to maintain morale, they’ve already lost the battle, she says. “It’s important to focus on growing morale.”

A big part of plant morale is ensuring leaders are connected to their individual employees—the employees feeling they work for a specific person versus the plant itself, McCormick says. “There’s a few things I typically recommend to leaders, such as having regular check-ins with the team to ask them how they’re doing and how they can help, or ensuring that recognition is based on the individual and it’s personalized. It’s about really understanding the team and understanding what will be the most meaningful to them.”

Jeff Zueger, CEO at Midwest AgEnergy Group LLC in Bismarck, North Dakota, would add that pride in the product and awareness of the company’s financial standing provide a crucial morale boost, too.
Creating Value
Plant morale begins with outlining goals and strategic direction. “We look at if they have a clearly defined strategic plan,” McCormick says. “With that, we want to make sure they have the right people in place to accomplish their goal or we’ll help them with a different kind of recruiting strategy.”
Richard Hanson, plant manager at Arkalon Ethanol LLC in Liberal, Kansas, which is part of Conestoga Energy Partners LLC, says hiring great candidates is a good place to start. Finding better candidates and keeping them involved helps morale, he adds.

K·Coe helps to ensure facilities’ training and talent development systems are well in place so their leaders are trained to be effective and employees have the proper opportunities to advance their skills. K·Coe even provides training for employees on site, McCormick says. “We also do a lot of executive coaching for leaders who might have been solid technical experts as they came up through the plant, but they didn’t necessarily know how to grow their people.”

Arkalon emphasizes additional training for its employees, sending operators to outside training provided by Lallemand, Novozymes and other vendors, Hanson says. “They come back with a lot of good ideas and they pass what they learned at the conferences along to the other operators. It helps by saying we’re reinvesting in them to get them more knowledge.

“We also have a full-time employee who does training,” Hanson adds. “So, a new person coming into the plant will spend seven to eight weeks with this operator going through the plant at a high level and then digging down into other areas to give them the knowledge and expertise to perform that job up to the expectation everyone has. That helps that employee not feel like they’ve just been thrown to the wolves.”

Zueger says Midwest AgEnergy handles employee advancement in a similar manner, creating growth opportunities. The program allows employees to advance in their field without attrition of coworkers, through multiple levels of qualifications, including operations, maintenance, yard operations or accounting. “Our viewpoint is, if everybody gets to the highest level in any of these areas, it’s good for our company,” he says. “We have higher-performing folks that are adding value so we’re compensating them for that.”

Midwest AgEnergy, the parent company of Dakota Spirit AgEnergy in Spiritwood, North Dakota, and Blue Flint Ethanol in Underwood, North Dakota, won Workplace of the Year in Ethanol Producer Magazine’s 2018 Ethanol Producer Awards.

Pillar of Positivity
For Zueger, creating a positive culture and work environment for employees is the pillar of plant morale. Midwest AgEnergy encourages employees to be “active participants in continuous improvement” via Kaizen team events, Zueger says.

“We empower our employees and we hold them accountable. They’re able to make real-time work decisions around their area of influence and if they have an idea they think would improve what they’re doing, we want them to submit a Kaizen or escalate one so we can evaluate that opportunity and implement it.”

Kaizen events are short-duration projects with a specific aim for improvement. Typically, they last a week and are led by an outside facilitator with the implementation team being predominantly members of the area in which the Kaizen event is being conducted, plus a few additional people from support areas and even management.

Midwest AgEnergy encourages point-to-point communication between employees and supervisors, Zueger says. “We want folks interacting directly with each other, giving each other both coaching and positive feedback on how they can get better and we can get better as a company. We want our employees to be empowered to be a part of our success.”

K·Coe can provide a consultation for a facility on how to improve morale, using specific tools and methods. One such tool is a behavioral assessment called DiSC, McCormick says. “It involves coming in and getting their leadership team and employees together to get a better understanding of their unique behavioral styles, so they can communicate more effectively with one another, which will help minimize conflict and speed everything up in building trust.”

DiSC stands for dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness, which represent the four different dimensions of behavior. It involves an individual assessment of employees that K·Coe then interprets in a group setting, McCormick says. “We use it as a coaching tool for people to become more self-aware of their natural tendencies.”

Another crucial part of creating a positive culture is ensuring morale is effectively managed from a labor perspective, including a safe work environment and appropriate staffing and shift lengths, McCormick says. “If people are constantly working overtime or they’re working six days in a row, they’re more likely to have fatigue or injuries, or just grow tired of what they’re doing.”

‘Spokespeople of Our Industry’
Zueger says ethanol plant employees might experience low morale for any number of reasons, including criticisms of the industry or the fuel itself. “Some of the press and opposition the ethanol industry faces is different than other industries. If you go to your family reunion and your uncle is badmouthing ethanol, that takes the pride out of it. We need to inform our employees, so they can talk with those family members and others in their community about the benefits of ethanol and not be afraid to speak up. We have to give them the tools to be spokespeople of our industry.”

If employees don’t understand how their goals and daily contributions can help drive the business, morale can sink quickly, Zueger says. “Having folks be proud of what they’re doing and talking a lot about the products we produce keeps them informed so they know we’re not standing still and we’re focusing on growth and diversification.

“We share all of our financials, forward business objectives, strategies, goals, company KPI’s (key performance indicators) with our employees directly,” he says. “They know our profitability levels, profitability objectives, all of our metrics that are important to our organization. We keep those in front of everybody. Having folks know what our objective was for today, tomorrow, next week and yesterday is very important to us.”

Sharing financials with employees does carry some potential pitfalls, though. During down times, the employees can see those declining numbers and they don’t have as much influence on the market opportunities the company is presented with, Zueger says. “So, they’re working just as hard and from a financial perspective, the company isn’t seeing the rewards of that effort. During those times, you need to do more work to ensure your employees are engaged, they know your strategy and they don’t feel threatened by a compression of margins, so they know we’re in this for the long haul.”

McCormick says culture is the critical component of morale during a down time. If leaders are in a space where they’re focused on positive culture, not just profits, morale will benefit, she says. “In a downturn, it comes down to a leadership commitment to always making sure culture is top of mind. Culture and morale need to be looked at just as heavily in order to maintain a good culture in good times and tough times.”

Author: Tim Albrecht
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine