Why Are They Leaving?

Why Are They Leaving?

Solving a turnover problem by asking the right questions.

By David Sturt

Why Are They Leaving?

Image courtesy of Getty Images


David Sturt is an executive vice president of the O.C. Tanner Co., an employee-recognition consultancy based in Salt Lake City. From Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love (McGraw-Hill). ©2013

There’s stuff going on all around us that just isn’t working quite right: products, processes, and services. Maybe your organization’s sales are down, or maybe your customers are dissatisfied. Maybe a team member isn’t performing or a procedure isn’t working.

Whatever it is that’s flawed, busted, infuriating, or otherwise counterproductive, take a moment and ask the right question. What would be cooler? Better? More enjoyable? And, perhaps most of all, unexpected? The problems that send our stress through the roof are often loaded with difference-making opportunities. When you begin to see problems as road signs that say “great work possibility—turn here,” you’re on your way.

Mike had a problem. His company, Shizuki Electric Co., had built a brand-new, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Guadalajara, Mexico. In its first two years of operation, the company hadn’t been able to hang on to its employees for more than sixty to ninety days. That would be a hair-raising dilemma for any company. But it was particularly unnerving for Shizuki because the new plant had everything an employee could possibly want. The pay was higher than average; the campus was breathtaking inside and out; it provided an in-house cafeteria, a doctor’s office on-site, transportation to and from work, a weekly grocery allowance, English classes, karate classes, cooking classes. Compared to other plants in the region (in fact, compared to its own sibling plants in the United States), there wasn’t a more desirable place to work. Most of the employees were young women—ages 17 to 22, single, living at home, and helping to support their families. Good jobs were in high demand and were essential to family survival. Yet, like clockwork, every sixty to ninety days, the new hires would quit.

Shizuki was in the business of manufacturing tiny capacitors—the energy storage devices that go into just about every electronic device we use. If a speck of dust can destroy a capacitor, you can only imagine what a speck of incompetence could do. Given the high turnover, everything was suffering: production, testing, packaging, shipping, cost, quality, and delivery. Mike, the vice president and general manager at the time, remembers, “The young women weren't staying long enough to get fully trained, to acquire skills, or to master processes. Employees on the floor were always green. Training was a revolving door.”

Mike and his team were so stumped about what was broken that they turned to neighboring manufacturing plants in the region, asking if they had been in the same predicament. They had. Their advice was to stick it out, saying that it would take a good eight to nine years to develop a solid employee base. But Shizuki didn't have eight to nine years. The company had to crack the problem or close the plant.

Mike and his team circled the issue for months, trying to figure out how the company was failing these young women. “Is it our managers? Are we handling disagreements poorly? Do we need more perks and benefits? What about better training?” It was baffling and exasperating. Then the team had a moment of insight: “Maybe we’re trying to guess at solutions without knowing what’s broken in the first place. What if it’s not about something we’re doing wrong? Maybe there’s just something we don’t understand about what these young women want from us.”

And there it was: the pause to ask the right question.


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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.