Innovative companies across the country are embracing a new form of competitive advantage in the marketplace – the power of diversity and inclusion to improve business results. Disability advocates have implored businesses for decades to hire people with disabilities simply because it is the right thing to do, as if inclusion is a reluctant compromise made in the admirable spirit of giving back to the community.
But our experience at Northwest Center suggests that we have been looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope. What we have found is that the harder we work to build, nurture, and leverage a Neurodiverse workforce, the more successful our businesses are. Coincidence? We don’t think so.
For one thing, we find the same correlation between inclusion and business performance in each of our businesses.
The effect is constant. From integrated facility services to hospital grade commercial laundry, from assembly and packaging for demanding national brands to the manufacture of precision magnetic components used in medical devices, inclusion makes our company better. Quality, on-time delivery, productivity, and customer satisfaction have reached all-time highs. And despite these uncertain economic times, our company’s financial performance has improved in direct proportion to our commitment to inclusion.
It’s not just Northwest Center. A number of major corporations like Walgreens, Procter & Gamble, Glaxo Smith Kline, and IBM that first began hiring people with disabilities as a matter of corporate social responsibility are now integrating their workforces as fast as they can for bottom line economic reasons. Walgreens experienced 20% more efficiency in their Anderson, South Carolina distribution center after adapting it for “disability employment.” Based on that success, they plan to roll out a Retail Employees with Disabilities program nationwide by the end of this year. They have experienced the same effects of productivity, quality, and profit improvement that Northwest Center has, and they want more. How does this work?
Three key perspectives emerge when you turn the telescope around. The first is that the word “disability” itself often distracts us from the real issue. At Northwest Center we have learned to see conditions like autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and so on not as problems to be solved but as qualities to be leveraged – qualities that often include extraordinary focus and obsession with detail. The unique capabilities of our workforce have become a critical strategic advantage in product design, manufacturing, and quality that our competitors can’t touch.
A second key perspective is that employing people who experience the world differently forces us to pay exquisite attention to work flows, processes, innovation, and even assumptions about “best practices.” We have been taught over and over again by our employees that the way we see the work may be inefficient or even ponderous. We have learned to make clear what the customer needs, then include our integrated work teams in designing the best way to do it. Sound familiar? It is an underlying principle of lean manufacturing worldwide, and it works beautifully with a Neurodiverse workforce.
A third key perspective is that diversity evokes surprising qualities in everyone else. We expect the person with a disability to benefit from having a job. But employers who embrace diversity are frequently astonished at how the rest of the workforce is enhanced. Having coworkers who love their job, who can focus obsessively on production and quality, who love pleasing the customer and being part of a team doing important things, is contagious and makes the whole group better.
The Puget Sound region is a global hub of innovation. Embracing diversity and inclusion on a regional scale would unlock vast reserves of untapped human potential that would keep Puget Sound at the forefront for decades to come. Inclusion improves the bottom line performance of our company. Let’s talk about how it can improve yours.
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