The proud and powerful of ICI

Empowerment has delivered enthusiastic employees and huge financial benefits, says Ian Griffiths
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The Independent Online
The most intriguing line in chairman Sir Ronald Hampel's commentary on ICI's results last week read: "The value opportunity programme is on track and is being pursued with vigour."

The easy interpretation of the value opportunity programme is that it is little more than a glorified cost-cutting exercise which has yielded pounds 90 million in the first nine months of the year, putting ICI on track to deliver promised savings of pounds 400 million a year by the end of 1997.

Such an interpretation is, however, too glib and undervalues the complexity and importance of the programme, which is a quite sophisticated initiative to capitalise on an established company-wide philosophy, designed to improve the workforce's involvement with the management of the business.

In management speak this is known as employee empowerment. In hard economic terms it is the single most important factor in determining ICI's profits growth in the future.

The employee empowerment programme has been running at ICI in some shape or form for the last decade. It started with the Quality Journey initiative which was designed to get people to understand more clearly the basic company philosophy at a time of increasing competition across the industry. It has evolved into something much more fundamental.

ICI, in common with many corporations, has recognised that investment in human capital has become much more important than investment in physical capital. It sees that the easy cost savings from shedding large slabs of the workforce have already been harvested. The task before it now is to secure much higher productivity from the existing workforce.

This is not just a question of telling staff to work harder. ICI, with its history of progressive employee relationships, identifiedearly that a partnership approach to the issue was required.

Empowerment has been part of the language, directly or indirectly, for some years. One of its most successful manifestations is the annual Business Excellence Awards, run by the Chemicals and Polymers division. It is a competition designed to encourage staff at all levels to improve the business. Last year it attracted 280 entries from schemes involving 2,500 people and generating financial benefits of pounds 120 million.

The comprehensive programme is supported from shop floor to boardroom and addresses a range of practical problems.

At the awards ceremony, held at the Wilton plant on Teesside earlier this year, the shortlisted projects brought together teams which had been looking at everything from a community communications programme in New Jersey to an overhaul of the PTA chemical production process, yielding huge financial benefits.

The ideas were linked by a common enthusiasm for the awards scheme. There was also a tremendous pride within the team at what they had achieved.

This was empowerment in action and is mirrored across the ICI empire. At Fayetteville in North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg and to the ICI films business, there is a similar commitment to the concept.

Empowerment began in 1991 and is now an integral part of life at Fayetteville. The workers feel prouder, they are happier, they work harder and, most importantly, they look after their customers better.

What empowerment has done is create a clear link between the customer and job security. It is a brutal but relevant truth. The benefits in terms of job satisfaction and customer satisfaction are tangible.

One of the great attractions of ICI's empowerment is that it has aligned the interests of the workers with those of their bosses. That is in turn providing momentum for ICI to pursue its value opportunity programme. The intangible leads to the tangible.

A survey published last week showed that British employees are the least committed to the companies they work for. Their dissatisfaction stems from the way they are treated by their bosses. On that basis empowerment is not an option but a necessity.