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How Emotionally Engaged Are YOU at Work? Meet the People Who Make Metal Cans

July 8, 2010

Updated July 27, 2011

When we read about employee engagement the literature leans to hyperbole, trying to make us feel that we need to save the world when it comes to our work and finding meaning in it. The reality is that the vast majority of people in organizations are doing regular work, simply trying to do their best in often chaotic, uncertain and stressful environments. What is so often absent is a vision of where the organization is going (nothing fancy here, just something that’s clear), a purpose of what it’s principal aims are, and leadership that creates spirit, energy and focused drive. It’s not rocket science.

I recently read about an innovative company in Brazil that does not produce anything terribly exciting or earth-shattering – they manufacture metal cans and pails for such uses as paints (big ones, medium-sized ones and little ones), aerosols, square cans for industrial uses, cans for dangerous products. Stuff like that.

Brasilata was created in 1955 (coincidentally the year I was born) in São Paulo. Back then it was producing tin plate used in cosmetics packaging. The company was bought by another firm in 1963 and shortly afterwards merged with another. Brasilata has grown steadily since 1970 and has become a world leader in chemical packaging. Diversification and expansions continued through the nineties, with a major plant expansion occurring in 2006.

So why is Brasilata so cool as a company? How could anyone get excited over paint cans and pails?

To begin with, it has won a long string of awards for its products, as unexciting as they may seem. Check out their web site for its very impressive list of awards. The company’s include such aspects as simplicity in design, ease of opening, improved shelf life for the food industry, longevity of its products, sustainability, and strength durability.

When new employees join Brasilata, they must sign what’s called an innovation contract. In fact, employees are referred to as inventors as a way to help stimulate creativity. This is in contrast to North America where many companies like to use the “associates” label. (How someone earning minimum wage can be called an associate is something I’ve never understood, especially when the term is used in the financial and legal industries. At least there you earn decent incomes.)

Brasilata wants employees to bring their brains to work. Imagine! So often in Canada and America we see employees park their brains at the door as they enter the bureaucratic labyrinth of mind-numbing, meaningless work. Saving the world means nothing unless you know what you’re saving and that you personally have the ability and responsibility to effect change. Other than that it’s a lot of management hot air and wasted effort on the part of everyone.

In 1985 Brasilata began a process using Japanese management techniques to improve employee participation, stimulate innovation and strengthen product quality. This became known as the “Simplification Project” in 1987, and since then hundreds of thousands of suggestions have been submitted by employees. These suggestions have not only improved product quality and work processes but plant working conditions as well. The foundation for this success is the company’s management approach.

Brasilata ranks near the top among Brazilian companies on the employee happiness index, especially with medium-size employers, and viewed as one of the best places to work in Brazil. The company commits to its 900 employees in its three plants by avoiding layoffs during economic slowdowns. For example, it recently involved employees in ways to address a drop in business through creative ways. Although 91% voted (in a secret ballot) in favor of these means (e.g., salary reduction, flexible shifts and time off), in the company was able to avoid implementing any of them. More recently, the company is looking at introducing a private pension plan and a program for retirement planning.

This is what we need in North America: companies that strive to involve employees in all aspect of the business and to especially insist that they use their brains. Brasilata fosters self-empowerment and creativity by establishing the right conditions, two sorely needed competencies in an age of globalization and discontinuous change.

Do you know of any Brasilatas in your country?

We create action for inaction, and the result is inertia. (Jim Taggart)

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Expat 21 permalink
    July 12, 2010 6:25 pm

    I enjoyed reading about this company. I know how I would feel working at a company where all employees were called inventors – I would feel VALUED.

    • July 12, 2010 6:28 pm

      Indeed. When people – employees – feel truly valued and are able to self-initiate great things happen, which produces more great things, in this case innovative products.

  2. July 11, 2010 5:29 pm

    I’ve seen lists like the one you mentioned of top 100 places to work here in Florida, and over the years I’ve gotten to know some of the winning companies well. I’m not sure what criteria is used to rank them, but let’s just say most would not receive my vote.

    • July 11, 2010 5:38 pm

      The “surveys” and statistical approaches used to determine who’s a “top employer” are very suspect and indeed open to abuse. Gen Y seeks employers who are participative in how employees are engaged, their commitment to the environment and sustainability issues, ethics, etc. Time will tell what the fallout is for companies that deceive; however, the economic situation in America is diverting attention from this topic.

  3. July 11, 2010 5:24 pm

    Thanks Susan. The truly great employers are few and far between, regardless of country. Too many organizations – public and provate – try to get themselves listed as a top employer. The irony is that in Canada, for example, it seems that almost every employer is in the top 100 best places to work — or so they like to claim. This is most unfortunate since it greatly dilutes what the truly excellent employers have achieving in engaging their employees.

  4. July 11, 2010 5:19 pm

    Brasilata sounds like an enlightened company reaping the rewards of its progressive management style. In my work experience, I have found many examples of poorly managed companies and only a select few that have found ways to bring out the best in their workforce. That’s a big part of the reason I’m self-employed.

    I hope plenty of managers read your posts, Jim. What they learn will help them build better companies and also make the world a nicer place.

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