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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for October 30th, 2009

Behavior Attitude or Attitude Behavior

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One consulting project took place in a very remote corner of South East Asia. We were there to do an employee survey whose aim was to improve organizational effectiveness. There were several thousand employees at this remote location and the employee base was a mixture of local tribes, tribes from other parts of South East Asia and American expatriates. This location was probably the closest I would ever come to living in a small American town circa 1950, as the company had reproduced a facsimile complete with schools, infirmary, bowling alleys, theater, golf course, grocery stores, and barber shop with a stripped pole in front, country club with Olympic sized pool and cafeteria/mess hall. There was street after palm tree lined street of bungalows in which families lived and there were guest bungalows for visitors. Each bungalow had a screened-in front porch in which you could rock in comfortable wicker chairs as the day winded down, cooling off and watch the world go by. There was also a hotel for short term visitors which reminded me of the days of Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn drive-up-to-your-door kind of places. The place was immaculate with a large gardening staff continually maintaining the grounds, trimming the fast growing tropical plants that seemed to thrive in the hot humid conditions and in general keeping things in top form. Occasionally a troop of monkeys could be seen meandering through a neighborhood.

The quaint, perfect American dream right? Well just as in the 1950’s the American dream was not so perfect, underneath the surface this place was not paradise for some of its residents either.  As it turned out the pool was for the use of “certain” residents on certain days (segregated by occupational level, which was also strongly related to which tribe you were from). The mess hall had a cinder block wall about 2 feet high running down the center. One side was carpeted the other cement and just like the pool certain groups were relegated to certain sides. (The food available to everyone was identical). Other conditions hinting at class distinctions abounded – seemingly driven to some extent by your tribal affiliation. I made many friendships that I still cherish during this period, but I was taken aback on more than one occasion when a local would give me some friendly advice about not getting too close to another person as they came from a group that as little as twenty years ago were cannibals. The previously cannibalistic tribe was at the bottom of the social structure. I developed a good friendship with one member of this tribe and I heard many jokes made at his expense about being careful if he wanted to have me over for dinner.  

As part of my work to get to understand this organization and to help develop the appropriate questions to use in an employee survey aimed at improving effectiveness, I along with my team, conducted focus groups with people from all areas and occupational levels of the company. To get to some of the focus groups, I vividly remember a ride I took in a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter with no doors during which I gazed at mile after mile of palm-oil plantations, covering a vast area that used to be tropical rain-forest. In general during the focus groups there was little to no mention of the class system that had developed in the organization. When I discussed this with the American expatriates (who were generally in management or very technical positions) they told me that advice given to them (typically by locals residing at the top of the social ladder) on how to sustain a harmonious environment was to allow the class distinctions to flourish – don’t rock the boat, the standards by which all employees expected this game to be played. Except it was not a game, it was real life. These standards had become ingrained enough that they were not often mentioned as discussions were held regarding how the organization could improve its performance. It seemed not to occur to employees that the social structure was something that could change.

I was in a bit of a quandary. I was retained to work on organization effectiveness. Do I try to improve the organization within the parameters, the conditions that they themselves have set and were used to or do I try to impose my own standards of conduct and attitudes that had developed from my own background? Did I have any right to try to impose my own convictions on others? And should I attempt to gather the data from the survey, using the data as a lever to try to change attitudes, how various groups perceive themselves being treated, or should I immediately suggest some changes in behavior? The immediate decision revolved around which approach would have more impact, try to change some attitudes and with that some resultant behaviors or should I try to immediately change some behaviors?

What comes first? Do attitudinal shifts lead to changes in behavior or can you have more of an impact on attitudes if you first change behavior? It was very clear to me that many in management were uncomfortable with the situation as it existed but were unsure at how best to proceed for their charge was the operation of a major installation for their company and not necessarily social engineering in a land and culture in which many of them were strangers (as was I). Could an argument be made that even though this operation was very successful by any standard that further success and efficiencies could be gained by beginning to change the social strictures by which they operated?  But again how should that be approached, through educational efforts aimed at changing attitudes or by going directly for behavior change?

We began with a little of both. First we put together a survey task force that consisted of about 50 people, while much more than we needed, allowed us to reach out to people from all areas of the company and to people with a diversity of backgrounds. We spent weeks over the course of the project with this group having them work together to accomplish jointly held goals, so that they got to know each other just a bit better. They were empowered to make decisions and they drove the project we simply advised along the way. Also management did away with the regulations at the swimming pool, the wall in the cafeteria was torn down and the entire place was made to look uniform. Superficial? Yes, but it was a start.  

If you can get people to immediately start behaving differently day-to-day in their interactions with others that will support your efforts around attitude change. And if you can change attitudes, behavior change (or additional behavior changes) can be easier to accomplish. If you don’t work on the attitudes though, even with changes in behavior, eventually the old behaviors will reassert themselves. And if all you do is work on attitudes without corresponding changes in behaviors the old attitudes are reinforced by the undesirable behaviors. We made a conscious decision to attack both the behaviors immediately and through the use of the survey/feedback tool the attitudes and then additional behaviors in our attempt to modify the way this organization operated.   

This project was repeated 3 times over the course of 4-5 years and each time actions were taken to improve organizational performance (e.g. they moved from a centralized support structure to a decentralized one more in tune with their geographic dispersion).

During each iteration of the project a different group of 50 project coordinators were chosen to help implement, striving for a large impact on people which we directly touched. Each manager receiving results received extensive training on discussing the results with their respective staffs and on change implementation to provide assistance to those whom we only indirectly touched. The implementation team tracked the actions and assisted managers with their efforts. At the end of that time the organization apparently was pleased with the changes that had been wrought.

Were imbedded prejudices or class distinctions erased by what we accomplished for this organization? I think it was unlikely that in the period of time that we were working there that we made changes that fundamental. However, did we move the dial a bit in the positive direction for this organization and the people living within? I certainly hope so.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 30, 2009 at 2:47 pm

The Ascent of Science

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Bumble bees can’t fly; so goes one of the urban legends that continually seems to float around, popping up here and there when someone wants to make a point and never seemingly to die the death that it should. Recently one presidential candidate likened their campaign to that urban legend. He said, “Well, I compare my success to the Bumblebee. Scientists maintain that, based on its wing-size & the size of its body, it is aerodynamically impossible for the Bumblebee to fly. But the Bumblebee, being ignorant of the science, flies anyways …” Bumblebees of course can fly and science has no problem with their aerodynamics.  While I would question the viability of a presidential candidate who can’t get the basic science right, for do I really want someone who can’t get the basics right making decisions on stem cell research, nuclear issues or global warming, I am more concerned with a bigger picture and that is the critical need for science to become ascendant in our societies. Our societies, organizations and the individuals within them need to make better more informed decisions based on real knowledge, not urban legends, pseudoscience or take-it-on-faith rationales. It is critical and rapidly becoming more important to our long-term well-being.

That quote from the presidential candidate illustrates an issue that is quite troubling and unfortunately fairly widely embraced. The notion that the Bumblebee flies anyway, in spite of the science is not only untrue, for while we as humans may be ignorant of the principles that allow the Bumblebee to fly, (which we are not) the fact the Bumblebee can fly is due to scientific principles and not in spite of them.

For a time in the USA as we reacted to Sputnik, the first rocket sent into space by the Soviets, science was ascendant. We were a society, however briefly, where science was front and center in our decision making. Children widely aspired to become scientists and engineers. More recently we have seemed to have lost our way with respect to science. My concern is that unless science once again becomes front and center in our decision making, becoming once again ascendant, including how our organizations operate we are running some very big risks. 

Here is an illustrative example. Pharmaceutical makers were once one of the most respected kinds of organizations that existed. They were trusted and when they put out a product is was pretty much a sure bet that it was a good product. In a report titled “Recapturing the Vision, Restoring trust in the Pharmaceutical Industry…”, PwC describes how that respect was lost and makes suggestions to the industry on how to recapture it.  

Take for instance Vioxx, the pain reliever and Merck. Merck for a very long time was one of the most respected companies in one of the most respected industries; it was also one of the most profitable. Science was king and that science was by and large the source of that respect. If Merck said it or put it on the market you could count on it.  Historically, the founder of Merck, George W. Merck, created the flowing vision for the company.

“’Our shared vision is to discover, develop and deliver innovative pharmaceutical products that meet a true need and make a real difference to people’s lives.’

 

‘We strive to put medicine before profit and to continue to seek better ways of improving health and meeting our responsibilities as both a research-led company and a caring employer.’

‘We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered that, the larger they have been.’”- George W Merck, 1950

But in the case of Vioxx and Merck’s subsequent reaction to it a picture somewhat different from George Merck’s original vision emerges. “For years, evidence mounted that Vioxx might increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes. For years, its maker, Merck, disputed such findings. In many ways, the short but highly profitable history of Vioxx may prove to be a story about the triumph of marketing over science.” (NY Times October 1, 2004)

“At a fraction of the price that analysts initially estimated it would pay, Merck, one of the largest American drug makers, hopes to put one of the most troubling episodes in its history behind it. The settlement, $4.85 billion, represents only about nine months of profit for Merck… Two years ago, some analysts estimated that Merck would have to pay as much as $25 billion to settle Vioxx claims.” “Besides Merck, the biggest winner in the case may be the plaintiffs’ lawyers. They will split nearly $2 billion in fees and expenses…” (NY Times November 10, 2007).

The episode has been characterized as the triumph of marketing over science within Merck. Extremely damaged by the episode are the stroke and heart attack victims, the Vioxx users (who on average will get $120,000 before the lawyers take 40%) and the reputation of a once respected organization. One medical expert estimated that only 5-10% of the people who took Vioxx should have been on Vioxx but due to the exceptional marketing of the product that demand greatly increased. While hindsight is a wonderful thing, one can’t help but wonder if this would have happened if science was ascendant at Merck.

R. Barker Bausell a biostatistician at the University of Maryland reviews in his book “Snake Oil Science” what is called complementary and alternative medicine, which as he puts it is the scientific term for “something you heard about from your hairdresser, who thinks she saw it on Oprah”, (Newsweek, December 10, 2007) and includes in his review acupuncture, homeopathy, healing magnets and assorted herbs and supplements. All of these “treatments” are extremely popular today and have no evidence of actually benefiting, other than through the power of suggestion, those who partake of them.  People who are in need reach out to any source of comfort and begin to practice wishful or magical thinking. But what concerns me the most about the popularity of these treatments is their growing acceptance into the mainstream, using urban legends, pseudoscience or take- it-on-faith rationales to justify their use. The continual rise of pseudoscience or take-it-on-faith rationales is contributing to a decline in the use of real science in not only our health products but in our everyday personal and organizational lives and we should all be greatly concerned about this.

Repeatedly humanity has been challenged by threats or perceived threats to our existence. Malthus in his 1798 essay predicted that our population growth as a species would outrun our food supply. He did not foresee advances in agriculture including new fertilizers, technology that mechanized farming and vastly improved strains of food crops. Huxley in his 1938 novel “Brave New World” envisions a humanity that must give up it’s essence in order to live in his version of utopia. He did not foresee the new frontiers of space or deep water exploration or the other new challenges that we would make for ourselves, the new frontiers we would choose to explore. Explosive population growth, pollution, shortage of clean drinking water, disease, energy shortages, climate change, deforestation, desertification, sustainable development, the elimination of biodiversity, poverty, hunger, abuse, displaced populations, war and terrorism, we have an extensive list of challenges facing us today and unforeseen even more complex and more difficult challenges will arise in the future.

Our lives and our societies are rapidly getting much more complex and much more interconnected; our organizations are following the same trajectory. Decisions made in one place, one organization or in one area of specialty have wider ranging ripple effects than ever before. The multiple interconnections mean that many of our decisions will cut across social structures, industries, borders, economies and individuals like never before.

Historically solutions to these challenges have been technological and scientific in nature. As our societies and structures become more complex as our challenges become more intricate we must forego the pseudoscience, the take-it-on-faith approach that is so popular now and we must one again make science ascendant.

While these ideas are vast and cover a broad range of topics it may be helpful to take it down to the more mundane concept of the employee life-cycle within an organization to help illustrate the point of a more scientific approach to organizational decision making. The employee life-cycle is the total career time that an employee spends within an organization. Roughly the cycle consists of recruitment, assessment and selection, on-boarding, early-career, mid-career and late-career retention and finally either through the employee’s choice, the organization’s choice or nature’s choice, exiting. In the vast majority of organizations today these activities exist as unconnected, disjointed activities and events, and some organizations use nothing more than the seat-of-your-pants decision making to navigate these waters.

As organizations strive to compete in this ever more complex world, a competitive advantage will be gained by inter-connecting these employee life-cycle events through a rigorous scientific research program aimed at maximizing the organization’s performance at each stage. This life-cycle research can be greatly enhanced by utilizing the vastly improved information systems available today in organizations, for now you can actually track the same individual through these various stages, creating feedback loops from later stages back to earlier stages that enables organizations to improve methods, policies and procedures at each life-cycle stage to enhance performance. Organizations that do this first and do it well will find themselves outperforming their competitive laggards. This scientific approach to the employee life-cycle while perhaps illustrative is merely the very tip of the iceberg in terms of how science can become ascendant in our organizations.

More broadly, taking a rigorous data or fact-based approach to individual decisions, organizational decisions, and societal decisions will help us to literally better weather the storms that are approaching. There will always be some who will be tempted by the quick and dirty, or take-it-on-faith approach sold by others, but the real long-term winners organizationally will be those that do the hard work. And as interconnected societies we have no choice, we need to do the hard work associated with fact-based decision making, founded on scientific principles, not pseudoscience, in order to help assure our long-term success and survival.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 30, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Transparency and Organizational Success

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The key to long-term organizational and managerial success is transparency. It will sound somewhat contradictory to some, but transparency around processes, products, and procedures can take the organization to higher levels of performance than those organizations and managers that shroud their activities in mystery.

One challenge I often discuss with senior management groups is the necessity to pick and choose which aspects of performance they will excel upon. As a planning activity when responding to survey results, the organization should not simply have a knee-jerk reaction to the lower or more average rated items, and likewise they should not have a knee-jerk reaction to those items that are simply highly correlated to some outcome. Survey results are a snapshot of what is, at this moment in time, and senior management’s role is not only to manage for what is, but to put into place what can be, what needs to be, to achieve long-term organizational success. Surveys are really good at predicting the future only if the future is a static state – not a likely situation. However, surveys can give you a very good grounding as to where you are now and that forms a stepping off point into the future.   

No organization has infinite resources, so no organization can simply say that “we will be the best in the world at everything we do”. Organizations need to choose, for their market niche, for their industry, for their state of organizational evolution, what aspects of performance will give them a competitive advantage and enable them to succeed. Will we become the most customer focused, the most innovative, the highest quality, the best value, the most trusted, the most transparent? If you take a look at the top performers across a standard set of employee survey items, you will find a somewhat different list of top performers across the items, an indication that there is variance in the list of top performers by area, and one key to success is to pick the area(s), the thread that you will pull that will lead to across-the-board organizational success.    

I would argue that for many if not all organizations transparency is one of those keys. Transparency not only conveys confidence, fairness and quality, organizational transparency forces quality and fairness to occur and hence creates confidence in the organization and its management; transparency is a linchpin. When the organization operates in a fashion that clearly demonstrates that they have nothing to hide, the only path to long-term success is in fact to have nothing to hide. When your customers and your employees have the ability to look within your organization and to see how the work is getting done, how day-to-day processes are being handled, how decisions get made, in an open and clear fashion the organization is forced to do many good things regarding how it runs the various components and processes that make up its business.

Humans though have a tendency to have secrets, to keep some information close to the vest, as it is often viewed as giving a competitive advantage, even if it is only for the short-term. For instance, we build many of our games around just such thought processes. Having a “poker face” means that you don’t telegraph the cards you are holding in your hand to your opponents. Football teams don’t shout out what they are going to do on the next play, they huddle to share that information in secret. The pitcher on the mound during a baseball game will give the barest of nods to the catcher, as signals between the two get secretly shared regarding what the next pitch to be thrown will be, or if the pitcher should throw over to first base instead of home plate. How good does a pitcher have to be though to be able to say, “here comes my fastball or slider, just try to hit it”. If you are a really good pitcher you might get away with that, the more average ones can not. Will your organization step up to the plate and be really good, saying to the competition “here is what we are doing, just try to do it as good as us”, or will it settle for average? The natural tendency of course is to be secretive.

Going beyond our games, other examples abound. Lawyers and prosecutors will stake out positions prior to a trial regarding what sort of plea deal would be acceptable to a defendant or to the state, treating the court room as a version of a high-stakes poker game, trying to get the best “deal” for their client or for the state. They stake out almost absurd positions at times in an attempt to get the most advantageous result. (A comedic interpretation of this can be found in “Liar, Liar” a film in which Jim Carrey plays a lawyer who can not function when he is forced to tell the truth, to be transparent, for 24 hours). Businesspeople behave in a similar fashion when negotiating with suppliers or customers, during an acquisition or when two organizations decide to merge together, behavior that does not lead to long-term trust and relationship building.  Purchasing agents from the company side and sales people from the supplier side have made lack-of-transparency into an art form. There is a tension that arises from keeping secrets, from hiding things a bit. From the world of fashion it is well known that a woman who desires to dress somewhat provocatively, realizes that is often more effective and provocative to cover some things up, to keep some things hidden.

It may be viewed, regardless of whether you are an organization, manager, lawyer, prosecutor, pitcher, quarterback, sales person, or purchasing agent, that you need to keep secrets, because the other side is keeping secrets and you will be at a disadvantage unless you compete in the same fashion. So now we regress to the lowest common denominator. Is that what being human is all about? Is that the noble end state to which we should strive? 

Magic black boxes that have secret processes and information contained within abound all around us, but I am not a black box kind of guy. For instance, when I present survey results back into an organization, I want to point out in the data what is intuitively obvious to any thinking person, what they themselves could easily see if they knew to look at the data in a certain fashion, in other words to be transparent. When I buy a product at a store, I want to know where it was made, what it is made of and what it will do, not simply relying on the marketing information splashed across the label in advertising-like fashion.

I find that a lack of transparency in organizations is often a cover up for lack of robust, high quality processes. The logic is something like “I can’t show you how something is actually done because then I might have to justify why it is done that way, that it is not arbitrary, and that is something I can not do”. I find I have to bite my tongue in meetings when someone says “we have a terrific way of doing this, or figuring out that, better than anyone else has”, but they are often very short on details – details that would point out that in reality they are simply flying by the seat of their pants.

Scam artists play on the natural human tendency of some to trust the word of others. Trust me, take it on faith, believe me, or believe in me…this week in the Wall Street Journal there was an article that described how some organizations are getting around the national “Do not call” list by sending out flyers to the elderly that have a scary warning about how they could lose their house and that they should send away for more information on how to avoid this potential tragedy, a card that is designed to look like it is coming from a federal agency is included. By sending in the card the elderly are opening themselves up to all sorts of sales gimmicks by those they should trust the least – something that is conveniently not mentioned in the flyers sent out. This lack of transparency will last only for a short while, as these organizations operating in this fashion will be ferreted out and stopped. They have nothing real, nothing of value, and nothing substantial to offer people and hence need to rely on a lack of transparency for their short-term survival. Others however will soon rise to repalce them for there is no shortage of dishonest or scheming people out there.   

Imagine a fawn bending its head downward at the edge of a pond in order to sip a cool drink of water. Suddenly the leaves on the edge of the pond, a short distance away from the fawn, rustle. The fawn bolts and runs away from what it perceives as a potential threat. The fawn did not know if that rustling was simply the wind or a coyote looking for its next meal. But by making the assumption that it was a coyote or similar threat, the fawn, while missing out on its drink, helps to assure that it lives to see another day. This assumption by the fawn of intelligent intent by something that may simply be the wind has evolved as a survival mechanism and exists in humans as well. I have a picture that shows a gorilla holding a book in its hands in a position that any human would use if we were reading that book. When I show that picture to an audience, they are drawn immediately to the conclusion, at least momentarily, of intelligent intent or purpose behind the gorilla holding that book in such a fashion. It is only upon further reflection (maybe only a second or two later) that one realizes that gorillas can’t read. By the way the title of the book that the gorilla seems to be reading is “The Origins of Man”. The point here is that when humans find themselves in situations where there is a black box, a lack of transparency regarding how things work or what is going on, there are plenty of mechanisms available to help us fill in the blanks and many times what we come up with on our own will not necessarily reflect reality.    

In The New York Times (October 28th), there is a story about how everyday Russians are taking on the local traffic police because of seemingly arbitrary stops as they drive around. These stops are characterized as done by police who are actually looking for bribes rather than for any real infraction of the traffic laws. One citizen who has repeatedly pointed out the law to the police and refused to pay the bribe was hauled away and beaten to the point where for the next several months he will be in the hospital. While there are a multitude of causative problems, such as the low pay for the police force, the fundamental lack of transparency as to how they enforce the law and why they are enforcing the law in the fashion they are, is indicative of severe systemic underlying issues that will eventually come to a head. Meanwhile confidence and trust in the system is eroded, the sense that the system protects the average citizen, and citizens should work through the system is nonexistent. The lack of transparency of the system is creating conditions whereby unless rectified, the system itself can collapse.  

Sarbanes-Oxley was initiated in direct response to a lack of transparency on the part of organizational processes and procedures, a lack of transparency that was felt to be so severe as to require a legislative remedy. However, Sarbanes-Oxley is just scratching the surface of what an organization can be transparent about. Sarbanes-Oxley is viewed as very onerous and costly by many organizations, so what is the benefit of this increased transparency to the organization?  How about long-term success. The real benefit to the organization will occur when they can be transparent in such a way that it is not burdensome to the organization, but rather enhances organizational functioning. Image for instance, if a client for a professional services firm could see their work progress through its various stages, in real time, throughout the organization. How much more attractive would that be to other potential customers? Imagine if you could track the history of the items you buy from source to store, so that you knew exactly what it contained, how it was handled and whether it had any defects. The list could go on and on. 

In addition to the above there is another force that is making transparency so key to future organizational success. And in one word that is information; the amount of information that is available to us is growing at a phenomenal rate. In one study it is estimated that the amount of information we humans produce is growing at 50% per year! (I am making no judgments on the quality of that information). With the amount of information available and with people more and more used to using tools that allow them to access that information in a comprehensible fashion, it will become much more common for people to expect more information about the organizations they interact with, and about the products and services that they purchase.  Those products and services couched in mystery, those organizations with obtuse practices and procedures will become less and less attractive entities with which to interact either as an employee or as a customer. Those organizations that continue to operate in mysterious fashion will be less likely to survive and hence organizational evolution as to the normal standards for transparency will occur.

The question is do you want your organization to be ahead of the curve? So throw me your best pitch.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 30, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Errors

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“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” – Mark Twain

We all make errors, it is part of life. I have made more than a few, and some of them were big ones. When an error occurs by an employee inside an organization, there can be a concern on the part of the employee that the over-riding motivation on the part of management when investigating the error is not simply to learn from the error and put into place corrective actions, but that there will be some form of retribution taken against the employee. This can often be the case no matter what words are coming out of the organization regarding their motivation to find the cause of the errors, and to learn from mistakes so that they don’t reoccur.

One clue that brings you to this conclusion is seen in emails that inform everyone that an error has been discovered where the identity of the person who committed the error is kept secret. A sure sign that not everyone is operating, or has everyone else convinced that the organization is operating with a no retribution lets learn from our mistakes kind of philosophy.

It seems like some organizations are constantly trying to learn from the same kind of mistakes over and over again. It is like having 1 year of experience 20 times. One approach that can get organizations out of that rut is to employ an organizing framework. An organizing framework allows errors to be examined systematically within that framework and for conclusions to be drawn regarding what needs to change to prevent the error from occurring once again. But, it is however like the old joke – “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.” Organizations when they examine and properly conclude the causes of their errors still have to really want to change. Knowledge of the cause, in and of itself, does not fix the problem. (See Is Grandpa going to be ok, for a discussion about the role of wishful thinking and organizational change).

First there is the issue of whether the employees are capable of doing the job from a basic knowledge skills and ability standpoint. That issue is a selection issue and for our immediate purposes lets put that aside and assume that the people who have been put into the job, if the conditions were right, could actually perform it. (See There is Something Fishy about Employee Selection). With the framework that I use there are then just a few questions that help get at the heart of the matter.

First do the employees know how to do a good job?

A failing grade on this first question could be due to issues of messaging within the organization or perhaps performance. From a messaging standpoint has it been made clear what the definition is of a good job? Do the employees know what criteria levels are defined as good or error free? From a performance perspective have employees been given the training they need so that they know how to perform in an error-free fashion?  

Second question: Do the employees have the resources needed to do a good job?

The best messaging is for naught if employees don’t have the resources they need to perform error free. Resources can be thought of very broadly in three main categories.

  1. Information
  2. Physical Environment
  3. Processes

Information includes knowledge about how to do the job, including the relevant training; it also includes information flows that enable a job to be performed correctly. For instance a production report is an information flow that allows an employee to predict accurately when an item might be shipped.

Physical Environment includes the needed equipment, staffing levels, organizational structure etc. If one person is put on a 3 person job you can be pretty sure it will have problems. Or if one person is simply not given the appropriate amount of time to do a good job it just won’t happen. Likewise if needed computer equipment, or other equipment is not provided it is difficult to get the job done. Remember the old adage – the right tool for the right job.

Processes cover administrative issues, engineering and science. Administratively for instance, can a bill be sent out correctly and within an acceptable period of time. When a customer calls can they get through to someone, preferable someone who can help them? From an engineering perspective are the business and manufacturing or service processes ones that make sense, do they optimize resources? What kind of person with what background and skill set do you have doing what job? Does the work flow make sense? Are needless processes eliminated?  Etc. From a science standpoint, are the basic business products or processes based on sound science. For instance, if you are in the oil industry but you can’t get the geology right and hence keep digging in the wrong spot, the rest doesn’t matter.  

Third question: Do the employees care enough to do a good job?

The appropriate information and resources may be in place but if the individual employee just does not care, or is rewarded for the wrong behavior then it is again unlikely that you will achieve the desired outcome. We all know you get what you reward so examine what you are rewarding. If you are rewarding X don’t expect A.

The other aspect of just not caring is potentially one of the most complex. It involves the entire culture that the organization has set up and that is why it can give an organization an unbeatable edge. Processes and products can be reverse engineered, prices can be even more easily matched, but duplicating a culture and the resultant ways the individuals within your culture interact with your customers and care about their work can be very difficult to match to a successful competitor.  It involves the whole gestalt of how the organization is viewed by the employee (is the place effectively managed, does the organization really care about its people, do people get a fair shake here etc.) and at the individual level what is in it for me? Why should I stick around this place? And do people have a sense of future that if they stick around good things can happen for them.

When errors occur, systematically working through these questions can help the organization determine the correct course of action so the organization can implement lasting improvement, thereby reducing the number of errors and to learn from its history.     

“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”

-Orlando A. Battista

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 30, 2009 at 2:31 pm

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