TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- The auto industry has a problem, and it doesn't involve curb weight, horsepower or machine efficiency.
Its people are unhappy, according to Rich Sheridan, CEO and "chief storyteller" of the Ann Arbor, Mich., software design and development firm Menlo Innovations.
Seventy to 80 percent of working people are disengaged from their job, and disengaged workers affect the bottom line, asserts Sheridan, Tuesday's opening keynote speaker here. His advice for the auto industry: Cut bureaucracy and encourage creativity and faster decisions.
Sheridan has built an identity around the southeastern Michigan auto belt of preaching a corporate gospel that joyful workplaces are the path to productive business. He has published two books that have found eager readers in the area — Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love and Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear.
Sheridan believes the message is resonating because industries, including automaking and software, are going through a stressful era.
"The auto industry has come to a table that the software industry has been at for a while," he told Automotive News. "And that is massive, disruptive change in a very short period of time. The industry has operated pretty much the same for 100 years, but now people are wondering: Is the entire business model changing?"
At his own company, there are no "bosses" among the 60-member staff. Software developers work in pairs, even sharing a computer.
On a wall in the casual office, near some jars of jelly beans, is the mission statement: "End human suffering in the world as it relates to technology."
Menlo has anthropologists on staff whose job is to make sure the company's software works for humans, not vice versa, he said.
"You know, the software industry has been famous for what I call a death-march culture," he said, "with programmers working around the clock 24/7 and often not getting a chance to work with pride. Our response to this pain was to create a culture, a joy-filled culture, in order to get back to what we believe is a goal we should have in any of our industries: to return joy to the work that we do."
Menlo has been attracting curiosity seekers as a result of the message and now welcomes public tours. It hosts 3,000 visitors a year.
"If you're in a place of high innovation, we have to get our human teams into their most human spot. The things that make us the most human are creativity, innovation, imagination, human energy, invention."