More than 20 years ago, hourly production associates at Milliken's Gilliland plant in Laurens, S.C., concretely demonstrated the fact that heightened engagement contributed to a dramatic reduction in the Total Incident Rate (TIR). The two decades that followed witnessed the replication of Gilliland's process of engagement across the company.

This year, a Hay Group survey of Milliken's 7,000 associates worldwide found 80 percent positive engagement levels, as determined by responses to a series of questions related to each associate's commitment, pride in the company and discretionary efforts. This engagement is strongly related to the company's overall performance and has contributed to Milliken's incredible success as a global innovation company with 39 high-performing manufacturing facilities. This reason alone might account for the staggering 154 percent increase in companies visiting the Johnston plant between 2011 and 2012, hoping to replicate both the strategies and tactics behind Milliken's engagement levels.

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An analysis of the events, processes, and strategies that transpired at Milliken's plants is instructive to those interested in boosting plant-wide engagement to meet real-life challenges, fully illustrating the effectiveness of Milliken's Safety Way system.

A Leap of Faith

Long-tenured Milliken leaders maintain a vivid memory of Feb. 22, 1992. Prepared to hear another marquee speaker typical of the annual meeting they were attending, the nearly 400-member audience instead met a panel of nine, hourly production associates from the company's Gilliland Plant. Gilliland's 1992 safety and engagement results pleasantly surprised Milliken's top leadership. The audience peppered the panel with questions.

Their answers would spark a company-wide cultural transformation focused on improving safety, which resulted in the total company incident rate of 2.0 being reduced by one full point in just 1 year. Further, Milliken has averaged a TIIR of .63 for the past decade. No easy task.

It was a leap of faith. Nine Gilliland associates owned the safety process because key plant leaders had been willing to relinquish an appropriate amount of control.

"The plant manager told us we might make mistakes," says Joe Lyons, a Milliken maintenance specialist for the past 44 years and a member of Gilliland's original associate-led safety committee. "But he told us mistakes are a part of life."

Lyons added: "He always said if we could take care of our home, we could take care of our plant."
Safety ownership and concern allowed Milliken to attain true associate engagement – a catalyst that positively affected all areas of safety and performance.  The entire plant population became trusted partners in running a business.