By Jim Cory. The job's in mid-progress. A laborer, assigned to detail, discovers a leak. He calls every plumber in the company's sub base, then on its reference list. No one's available. What next?

At many companies, that laborer would have returned to, or called, the office. At Atlanta-based SawHorse, that's not what happened. "He got out the Yellow Pages, called a plumber and made an executive decision to pay $175 to get it fixed," says Norman Joss, vice president/production. Joss says the responsibility of managers at the $6.2 million design/build firm is to "focus on procedures, research best practices," then put those in writing so all employees have the tools they need to do their jobs.

About three years ago, management, recognizing that many of those best practices originated among carpenters and laborers in the field, began soliciting their input and inviting them to planning meetings. Joss explains that attitudes begin from the top down but that managers "need to acknowledge that stuff can happen from the bottom up."

Recently, for instance, the company had a problem. "We could never find the right can of paint when we went to do warranty work," he says. Company carpenters came up with the idea of putting a color label on the bottom of the can. That way, if paint spills down the side or if the lid gets switched, the label is still readable and correct.

Leadership, Joss points out, "is defined not by your title, but by taking an action." Encouraging employees to take initiative has contributed, he says, to the company's excellent retention rate. In the past two years, only one person on a staff of 38 has left.