When engineering firm Booth Welsh took an innovative approach to staff engagement, it unleashed creative forces that transformed the company from within. 

Less than three years ago, Booth Welsh was a typical engineering firm striving to keep up with the relentless pace of change. Following a bold and dramatic transformation, the management team was invited to a recent industry event to tell its remarkable story of positive cultural change. 

While many of the speakers at the SMAS/Royal Bank of Scotland Future Fit Manufacturing Conference considered the impact of digitisation and artificial intelligence, the Booth Welsh team focused on workforce engagement. It was an unexpected take during a day of analytics, coding and technology. Poignant and frank, the presentation reminded those present that embracing Industry 4.0 is as much to do with human interaction as it is to do with data. 

Booth Welsh employs 250 people and generates a turnover of around £18m. The company, which is headquartered in Irvine, North Ayrshire, was acquired by the Clough group in 2014 in a deal that transferred ownership from the management team of this once family-owned business and signaled a change in the way the 25-year-old company was run. 

The activities that drive the business including process engineering, control systems, and electrical and instrumentation design and installation, all of which depend on technology and innovation. To maintain the company’s relevance, pursuing the latest technology trends would have been a reasonable strategy, although this would have done little to stimulate a top-to-bottom culture of innovation. Instead, the team took bold steps to address its cultural deficiencies. 

System reboot 

“Two years after the acquisition, we were trying to understand why we didn’t have as much innovation as we felt we should,” explains Martin Welsh, managing director of Booth Welsh. “When we looked at the reasons, it went back to that period when we became part of a much larger group and perhaps unintentionally more distant from our staff who had been with us from the family business days. Change was necessary to address a lack of engagement.” 

The tipping point came when only five members of staff signed up for a local fun run supported by the business, sounding alarm bells for the management team. What followed was a systematic assessment, dissection and reboot of the company, with impressive results. 

“We took a typical engineer’s approach and started by measuring engagement,” Welsh explains. “We did this in 2016 and found we were above the national average, but weren’t where we thought we should be. By the end of the process, we had improved that figure by 20%.” 

Engagement was measured through a simple staff survey, the findings of which formed the basis for the company’s renaissance. Key members of staff received guidance and training on people-centred change management and workplace innovation through government enterprise programmes, such as the Workplace Innovation Engagement Programme funded by Scottish Enterprise and delivered by Workplace Innovation Europe. A wider team was drawn together to develop the company’s mission, vision and values. 

The fast-track revitalisation of the business resulted in the number of engaged team members blossoming from 58% to 76%. Perhaps of even greater significance were the ideas that started to emerge from within the company. 

“We had uncorked a genie,” says Welsh. “We released this capacity within the whole team to help improve the business.” 

Vision, mission and values 

Previous efforts to convey strategy and encourage ideas had been inherently flawed because they had failed to involve sufficient numbers of staff early enough, says Welsh: “So, in February 2018, I decided that we would get more people involved in forming strategy than ever before. Instead of a tight, senior management team of just five people, we would involve over 20 people in a vision, mission and values session. This larger team also joined us to develop the strategy.” 

A wider body of staff had been engaged not only to devise a road map for the way forward but also to establish the company’s core values. It meant the number of people involved in developing Booth Welsh had grown threefold. 

Four strategy pillars were formed covering business performance, innovation and digitalisation, people and skills, and project excellence. Each was branded with a colour and drew upon a cross-functional team to deliver its objectives. “It meant people were exposed to areas of the business they would never have been exposed to before,” says Welsh. 

“We’re getting a lot more out of our employees and they are enjoying being at work. They’re not just doing their nine to five; they’re helping us deliver our strategy” 

Martin Welsh, managing director, Booth Welsh 

In total, we now have over 50 people involved in delivering the new business strategy, which has had a huge impact on how the business generates ideas and makes progress. Now, says Welsh, “they all have their shoulder to the wheel and understand the vision”. 

Environments such as a cafe and breakout areas were created to encourage creativity and promote connections. An internal departmental trade fair was launched for cross collaboration and idea forms were distributed, generating over 60 innovations. These have been in areas such as quality improvement, new products or services, business efficiency, health and safety, and strategy. 

“The innovations include the development of our Digital Advantage project, a digital workflow solution using digitalisation technology that has been built using combined expertise and knowledge from a number of engineering disciplines across the business,” Welsh says. “Our lights and heating are also now controlled through digital technology such as Alexa for energy efficiency. We also run regular site ‘business breakfasts’ where teams are able to ask openly about business information.” 

Intrapreneurship in action 

Booth Welsh’s approach is a good example of ‘intrapreneurship’ in action, where employees within a large organisation are given the freedom to innovate, helping to solve business challenges and being rewarded in the process. 

But the impact of this innovative approach goes much further. “More people in the business are prepared to go that extra mile because they understand the vision,” says Welsh. “They can do more and are willing to do more. We’re getting a lot more out of our employees and they are enjoying being at work. They’re not just doing their nine to five; they’re helping us deliver our strategy. 

“Companies that focus on culture when going through a digital transformation are five times more likely to achieve a breakthrough in performance,” continues Welsh. “I hate the phrase, but it is a bit of a no-brainer. The numbers stack up – focus on the culture and you’ll drive the change.” 

Welsh admits this kind of evolutionary change needs to be driven from the top, especially during the initial stages. “Buy-in from the CEO, business leader or site manager is crucial,” he says. “It is transformational and needs a lot of support at senior level initially.” 

Booth Welsh is a technology-driven company that prides itself on being a thought leader. To maintain that status, it took the brave decision to transform, and is reaping the rewards. 

“Today, it’s an exciting business with real prospects,” Welsh concludes. “We have an open and progressive culture at Booth Welsh where everybody’s voice is listened to, and that makes it an enjoyable place to work. This approach has become a real differentiator not only in our culture, but in how we approach change.”