I stood at the drugstore counter, annoyed that a 5-minute trip had just taken 20 minutes. Knowing that the frontline workers at a store are generally not the ones who make the stupid decisions, I asked the cashier as nicely as possible “do you know why they put the foot blister guards with the bananas?” I was running a marathon the next day and had almost given up on finding what I needed.

“I’m sorry. I know….it doesn’t make sense. We have no control over where the product is placed. They have someone from the outside do it, and sometimes the way they do it makes it hard for the customers to find it.”

I left the store, thinking of all the potential profit loss and how one small change could make a difference. The marathon I would be running the next day had over 30,000 participants. I knew that many, like myself, were hitting up the stores to make sure we had the necessities covered. I wondered how many other runners had given up and gone to a competing chain.

The simple switch? The chain could ask the product placement specialists to do a quick check-in with the cashiers. “Are there any items the customers seem to have difficulty finding? Are there any sections where they seem to be confused?”

To implement this simple change, one would need insight that the lowest-paid employees are often the closest to the customers and have valuable information that could help to move inventory.

Viewing employees as assets requires moving beyond the frustration and energy requirements that cause us to view them as liabilities. We need to see not only the value of their specific skill set, but the value of their observations and knowledge as well.

“I want to help.”

To be clear–the underutilization of employees is not limited to those at the lower end of the pay scale. Following are some comments that upper-level managers have made to me.

“I’m not sure why they have me here. They utilized my strengths when I came into the company, but now I just have a lot of different tasks that are unrelated to my skill set.”

“I’m bored. I’ve asked multiple times for more professional development and managerial opportunities. They keep promising that there could be options in the future. I know it’s not personal. The company tends to look a few yards in front of them instead of several miles down the road.”

“We know why this multi-million dollar project isn’t working, and we know how to fix it…but they don’t seem to care about our feedback.”

These statements always catch my attention because they reflect the willingness of a team member who truly wants to contribute to an organization’s success. They also indicate that the respective organizations are putting ceilings on their profits because they are not fully utilizing their human assets.

How does your company support curiosity, knowledge-sharing, and innovation? How do they reward dedication? Do the communication patterns reflect that the knowledge of employees is valued and needed?

Getting It Right

Here is an example of an organization doing it right. I was at a bank, making small talk with the person who was opening my account. I asked questions about her job satisfaction, as I often do, to gain information about her perspective of her work environment. “Our ideas matter here. It’s not like some places where they say they want your feedback, but they don’t do anything with it. We have a system for making suggestions to improve daily operations and customer service. The suggestions are reviewed monthly, and we often hear back directly from the CEO. They implement a lot of our suggestions–not all of them, but enough that we know they’ve read them and have truly considered them.”

I went to that bank because it has a great reputation for customer service. Now I know why.