How Herman Miller Has Designed Employee Loyalty

Those famous Herman Miller chairs are comfortable—and apparently working for the company is too. The average Herman Miller employee has 14 years of service. Last year turnover was only 3.5 percent—and even that was inflated by Herman Miller standards due to a recent buyout. What makes people stick around? In this Q&A, CEO Brian Walker explains the company's unique approach to leadership, why openness breeds loyalty, and why good stewardship makes good business. He also explains how an accountant wound up at the helm of a creative design firm.

Brian WalkerKermit Pattison: Herman Miller often makes lists of best employers. Why is it considered such an employee-friendly place?

Brian Walker: People feel like they can bring their whole person to Herman Miller. Combine that with a creative culture that always seems to be trying to reinvent itself in almost anything that it does. People find it's exciting from that standpoint—it always feels like a place that's becoming something.

What do you mean by employees bringing their whole person to work?

Our ultimate goal is to create a better world around you, whether you're an employee, customer, dealer, or part of the neighborhood in which we live. If you have great carpentry skills, you can find yourself building a home for Habitat for Humanity for two weeks. In that case, you may actually be the leader telling somebody from senior management to lift that bag of cement. The next day, maybe you're working back on the line or working in engineering and that same person is now your leader. We try very hard to let people bring their passions to work.

What's an example of Herman Miller's creative culture reinventing itself?

We often talk about our work in lean manufacturing. Herman Miller wasn't really thought of as great manufacturer 15 years ago. We used many of the same design principles that helped us create great products to rethink how we actually ran the business day in and day out. Today, manufacturing folks are as involved in everyday problem solving as much as building products. That keeps them excited, rejuvenated and rethinking what they're going to do in the future.

How does Herman Miller think differently about its human assets compared to mainstream companies?

All of our people have gifts and talents and are capable of doing more than their job classification. Our constant drive is to figure out how to mine that hidden talent and capability so we can use it to its fullest and so our people get the greatest enjoyment out of what they do.

Does that ethos go back to the earliest days of the company?

Absolutely. That really started with founder D.J. De Pree. Henry Ford said, "Bring us your hands and you can leave everything else at home." D.J. rejected that idea and said completely the opposite: "I want all of you here. I want the whole person." There's an old story in our history about a millwright who died. D.J. went to visit his widow and she began reading some poetry. D.J. asked, "Wow, this is beautiful poetry, whose was it?" She said it was her husband's, the millwright. D.J. said from that day on he completely changed his view of labor. He believed there were always things people did inside and outside of work and we often didn't see all their talents. If we could recognize and grab all those talents, we would all go much further.

How do you justify that approach from a business point of view?

To me, it's really simple. If I can have 5,000 or 6,000 people who are passionate about what they do, using every bit of their capabilities in solving problems and finding solutions to our customers' problems, I'm going to be much better off than if I leave that to 10 percent of that population who tell the other people what to do. It's like a sports team: you can have one or two guys who play well, but if you can get 50 guys on a team all playing at a very high level, you're very tough to beat. That's always been our philosophy. We're not as much about superstars as having a collective of 6,000 people who are very passionate about what they do and trying to bring all their gifts and talents to it.

How does the company develop leaders and managers?

Folks often get an opportunity to lead in varied situations and on a regular basis. We're big believers in putting together teams, often ad hoc teams, to solve problems. Because of that, lots of people get an opportunity to lead throughout their career. We're very willing to move folks around between departments and not believe that your education and training will ultimately determine the spot you lead from. We also are open to pulling together ad hoc teams and watching leaders arise from within those ad hoc teams.

You're a financial guy by training. How did an accountant wind up leading a creative design company?

I always had a passion for learning. I was fortunate, especially early in my career that I worked for some of our smaller business units and got connected with leaders who were willing to do what Herman Miller is known for, which is giving me a lot of opportunities to get involved in areas beyond my functional job title. That nurtured my personal passion for learning.

I don't believe that my job is to lead design at Herman Miller. My job is to make sure we have great design leaders, continue to listen and try to learn from them along the way. My job is not to be the creative guy; my job is to create a culture that allows and promotes creativity. When you're a business based on innovation and creativity, you're going to have to take risks. It's not all going to work. You have to be able to tell people great job on things that didn't work.

The Herman Miller design process is known for deliberately creating tension. How do you mange it?

First of all, we get the majority of our design inspiration from out external creative network. Our job is to define a problem that needs to be solved, canvass our creative network for ideas on how to solve that and surround the best idea with people from Herman Miller who can help bring that idea to life. Our job in some ways is like being a conductor for a jazz orchestra. How do you bring all of those individual players together so you create music and not noise?

The tension often comes when you put together a cross functional team that includes manufacturing people, finance people, research folks, ergonomists, marketing and salespeople. The manufacturing guys want something they know they can make easily and fits their processes. The salespeople want what their customers have been asking for. The tension comes from finding the right balance, being willing to follow those creative leaps to the new place and convincing the organization that that it's worth the risk and effort to go there.

It takes humility. You have to be willing to follow someone on the outside who is your partner. Most of the folks in our creative network would also say Herman Miller often makes their original ideas better than what they originally brought to us.

Herman Miller has gone through some painful periods of economic contraction in recent years. What did that experience teach you about leadership?

There have been a couple of those, unfortunately. In 2001, we faced a dramatic drop in the business and we learned that the more open and vulnerable we got as leaders, the more people followed where we needed them to go. There's an old saying a Herman Miller: the first thing you have to do make sure you tell folks thank you. The second thing is you have to tell them what day it is. Then you have to give them a picture of where you're going so they have hope and do the work necessary to get to the other side. You will often be surprised by the resiliency and the ability of people to deal with that.

When the global economy took the recent set of hits, we felt it in fairly big way. We saw the emerging signs of trouble in housing and banking and actually were able to talk earlier, even though, to be frank, it caused us some consternation because the economy hadn't fallen yet. The entire management team stood up and said, "Look, we understand it's going to be difficult for everyone. We probably can't do all of this with employment reductions." We did short work weeks, we took salary reductions at all levels of the company and we did all kinds of things that were rather unusual. But I think they saw leadership doing those things first and that gave people confidence that we had plan of how to get to the other side.

Herman Miller is known for initiatives like social responsibility and being green. How do you think about leadership beyond the walls of your company?

To me, it's about attracting great people. Great people want to work for organizations that make a difference. A lot of what we do is put together things that enable our folks to feel like we're touching their soul, that they're creating something that will live beyond them, and has a purpose beyond simply trading dollars and cents.

We strive to be a leader in the sense that people look to us as a company who leads by doing well and by doing what's right. We don't necessarily try to lead in social responsibility; I don't think D.J. De Pree knew what green was in 1953. On the other hand, he believed that if he did the right thing it would stand the test of time and ultimately create a great business. That's really the underpinning of Herman Miller.

Ultimately, our responsibility is to make sure this business is here 100 years from now. The underpinning of almost everything Herman Miller thinks about is stewardship—stewardship of the environment, of people, of communities, and stewardship in the broader society. We believe if we stay on that course, ultimately we will find great things and be a good business.

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4 Comments

  • Dan Auwerda

    Mr. Walker needs to do an "Undercover Boss" type of thing & find out how employees REALLY feel. Are you seeing this Mr. Walker? I challenge you to come work 3rd shift on the paint line in Spring Lake!!!

  • andy_mcf

    Good business sense combined with passionate people must be a recipe for success. I suggest the "Great Game of Business" for those who are interested in melding the two together. The idea that we must force a person into a job is an insult to employee talents and a waste to the business.

    In process of starting a mini-series of blogs on "employee engagement"... why important, how to improve, etc. Here's a taste: http://bit.ly/ahxIt4 Subscribe to receive updates.

    http://pivotpointsolutions.net...

  • Isobel Kramen

    Herman Miller was a pioneer in using a psychologist to help design workstations. They brought design firms to seminars together, fostering friendships among competitors. But never let us forget the basics upon which their entire line rests--developed by Charles and Ray Eames.