Posts Tagged ‘Organizational Performance’
Employee Engagement is often viewed as a magic bullet. All we have to do is increase our levels of employee engagement and all will be well. Is your engineering done poorly? That is because your engineering employees are not engaged enough. They would exceed your customer’s expectations if they were more engaged. Putting your stores in under-performing locations? That would not happen if your real estate people were more engaged. Are your customers unhappy with the quality of your products? If only you could make your sales people were more engaged. This kind of thinking is of course nonsense, but there is a deeper issue here.
Some, if not many organizations have bought into the notion that increasing employee engagement should be part of an organizations’ strategy. But that is like saying reducing an ill person’s fever should be the strategy to get them well, without addressing the underlying cause, like the tumor that is spreading rapidly in their pancreas. Maybe if we brought the fever under control that tumor would resolve itself? Not likely.
As we conduct employee surveys there are several distinct kinds of questions that are used to gage what is happening within an organization and how it is functioning. One question type is called an independent variable. These are items like “do you have the training you need to get your job done?” They are directly addressable if the response scores are low. Another question type is called a dependent variable, such as “I am proud to work for XYZ”. These kinds of questions are dependent on other things driving them high or low, such as, we were just caught up in a bribery scandal, so I am not so proud to work here. How would you address pride in that circumstance? While there may be other underlying issues, simplistically, you would address ethics in order to bring pride back to higher levels. There are other kinds of questions we use in surveys but discussing these two types will make my point.
Good strategy for an organization is strategy that is simply stated, easily understood and directly addressable. Good strategy could be thought of as independent variables. Is your engineering done poorly? Good strategy may be to upgrade or bring resources to your engineering group. Maybe you hire or maybe you acquire or maybe you outsource, but the hallmark of a good strategy is that you can directly address the improvement needed of the engineering function. The engineering employees will become engaged when they have what they need to do their jobs well, are treated in an equitable fashion, with respect etc.
A strategy that states, we will increase employee engagement as the strategy itself, is not directly addressable and does not give the management team any insight into specifically what needs to be done to accomplish that goal. Without insight into the direct strategic actions that must be taken you get warm and fuzzy words that are not directional and will be impossible to accomplish.
Having high levels of employee engagement is a good end result, but it is an end result of other strategic actions you take and is simply not strategic by itself.
© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: http://www.orgvitality.com
Have human ethical standards been fundamentally the same over the millennia?
“What would Zeus do?” Given the ethical abuses that we constantly read about in the news and now about the news, I have been thinking quite a bit about ethics and whether changing ethical standards have an impact on our societies and organizations. As you consider the relative constancy of ethical standards over time there are only two possibilities. One is that human ethical standards are constant and the behaviors that we witness which implies differing ethics over time are really an expression of changing standards, driven by societal levels of economic well-being, sophistication or technology as humans search for what the ancient Greeks felt was a major driver of human behavior, called eudaimonia or happiness. Or second, the possibility those fundamental ethical standards do indeed shift over time.
I would argue that at any moment of time, were you to objectively measure the level of ethical behavior shown by every individual person on the planet, that you would find a normal distribution of ethical behavior, with some behaving with the highest level of ethics (by my standards of course), others would be considered on the edge and still others would be behaving in quite an unethical manner. Further, I would argue that the distribution would be broad enough that you would find more variation in ethical behavior among people within any period of time than you would find across time periods. Those people who operate significantly below the mean or the norm, we call abnormal or criminal and attempt to stop their behavior. Now if we have a normal distribution that means that ½ of the human population is below the mean, so obviously we don’t lock away ½ of the human race, but what we do is to determine heuristically where to draw the cut score. At some point, maybe one standard deviation below the mean or perhaps two, we say that the behavior is sufficiently abnormal to be considered criminal and lock those people away or send them for treatment.
Historically, the Romans had the Coliseum in Rome and 200 other similar venues elsewhere, whose contests resulted in the deaths of millions of animals and the slaughter of uncounted numbers of people. Most of us today would find the killing of people for sport abhorrent, most but not all. But today we do have sporting events held in venues similar to a coliseum aimed at like outcomes, producing a winner and loser and entertaining the masses (or more cynically, providing an outlet for aggression not aimed at the powers that be). On the face of it they seem quite different, for instance after a baseball game rarely do you see the losing team impaled on stakes or fed to the lions. But underneath it all, are the two events playing to fundamentally the same principles in the human psyche, the need for competition, for a winner and loser to emerge, and the need to root for one’s “champion”? Is the popularity of some TV shows really due to nothing more than their nature as virtual Roman Coliseums, allowing us to peer into how people perform under stressful circumstance? Are some news shows that allow us to track crime investigations or court trials similar to the struggle for survival that the Romans so enjoyed viewing? (The normal distribution argument would imply that some Romans enjoyed the blood sport while others tolerated it and others still were perhaps appalled by it. Similarly today some are glued to their sets watching championship wrestling or reality TV shows, while others are not.)
There are layers upon layers to think through as this point is considered. Certainly ethical theories and the corresponding theories of justice have changed and have evolved over time, but the question I am posing is more fundamental. “Have humans changed?” Has our fundamental psychology changed over the last few thousand years causing our ethical standards to shift? Or are we still the same humans, psychologically, that strode the earth during Golden age of Greece, the epochs of the Pharaohs, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the age of Confucius or of the Buddha, or when the 10 Commandments first appeared?
I have to admit to some pre-determined bias, for when I look at the so-called “generational” differences that are supposed to exist among worker attitudes, regardless of what you read in the lay press, I can find no evidence in the data to support the notion that what the various generations want out of the world of work is different on a fundamental level. The differences that do exist are primarily driven by differing economic opportunity, life stage and technology rather than differences in human psychology. For instance you would be very hard pressed to find a worker who did not want to be treated with respect and dignity, have a sense of accomplishment or a sense of fairness of treatment and equity of any generation in any area of the world. And the workers today around the world who accept working conditions that you and I would find unacceptable do so out of economic necessity and for no other reason.
You may consider some ancient practices barbaric, but they were no worse than what people perpetrated on their fellows a mere 70 years ago during WWII. And today things are little better, with an estimated 12.5 million humans living in slavery with 2.5 million of those being bought and sold like cattle (Dahan 2011). Yet we could also point to progress that has been made in the USA over the last few decades with the abandonment of laws that created second class citizen status for many of our fellow humans, and the passage of laws giving equal rights to others.
Yet positively, sports like baseball can also have a helpful effect in bringing together people who can find common cause in their efforts, including those that go beyond the sport itself. In tsunami ravaged sections of Japan, baseball is providing an aura of normalcy at some schools allowing people to see beyond the day-to-day devastation they are dealing with (New York Times 7/10/11). So I want to be careful and not paint with too broad a brush in my statements about various activities.
Here is a statement for which I have no evidence, since I did not measure the attitude nor have I been able to find any organization or person who did, but never-the-less I would argue is accurate: “Slaves were never in favor of slavery”. Those who got the short end of the stick due to the unethical behavior of others were never pleased with their lot and why should they be? Humans have had an uncanny knack, an ability to take advantage of other humans for as long as we have been walking this planet. At the same time others give unselfishly of themselves to benefit the broader society of which they are part.
I recently got back from a trip to Costa Rica (go if you ever have an opportunity), and during the trip we stayed for a few days in a town of about 1500 people called Tortuguero. We went to this location which is accessible only by boat or plane, to see the Green Sea Turtle lay its eggs, during the start of the annual mating season. You need to have a permit to go onto the beach where the turtles aggregate and a registered guide needs to take you to make sure no damage is done to the turtles or their nests. Our guide happened to be a fellow named Fernando, who went by Don. It was truly an honor to spend a few days with him and to learn from him about the wild life and plants in the area. Don and I had several conversations over the course of a few days about how the town of Tortuguero is structured socially and politically. Tortuguero’s original residents were escaped slaves from Caribbean islands and from a slaving ship that had sunk. They chose to make a life, however hard, rather than return to slavery, they were searching for eudaimonia. Remember, “Slaves were never in favor of slavery”.
Interestingly, Tortuguero has no local government. There is a provincial police station manned by federal police, but there is no mayor, no elected officials, no one in authority to get things done. Over the last few years though cement walkways have begun to replace dirt paths in town, a major recycling facility has been built, in line with the theme of Tortuguero being an eco-vacation location and importantly creating jobs for residents, potable running water has been supplied to each house and other improvements have been made.
How do these things get done? Don indicated that a group of about 7 citizens who simply want to make things better get together regularly and figure out how to accomplish them. I asked if they were elected, but he said they were volunteers. My feeling is that they were volunteers that the other residents of the town greatly respected and willingly followed their lead in decision making, making life better for all. These volunteers in my opinion are operating with a great deal of ethical integrity attempting to improve life for all 1500 residents of the town (they are also likely acting with self-interest). And if anyone is listening, according to Don, what the town really needs next is a bank. A bank would give the residents a place to safely put their money, it would provide small businesses a place to borrow for startup costs, and it would make the town feel more substantial. Don indicated that a bank would give residents more confidence in the future of the town, with all of the corresponding benefits and is sorely needed.
No matter how much we may wish it, ethical issues and challenges, among business leaders, politicians, and others are not going to go away any time soon. Humans are not about to achieve some kind of breakthrough in our evolutionary pathway that will fundamentally change our behavior. But there are a large number of people, and I want to positively think, an increasingly larger number of people who are willing to do the right thing, not giving into the fears of our baser emotions in order to make life better for all as we each find our own personal form of eudaimonia.
Dahan, Y., Lerner, H., Milman-Sivan, F., 2011, Global Justice, Labor Standards and Responsibility, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, Vol. 12, 117-142.
Hursthouse, R, “Virtue Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/ethics-virtue/.
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
There is an old story from Eastern Europe about a ruler who gathers his advisors around him. A discussion ensued about a dramatic rise in madness among those in the population who consumed grain from the recent harvest. In the manner of many politicians or those with vested interests, the advisors told the ruler that they must put aside enough grain from pervious harvest so that they could preserve their own sanity while those around them went mad. The ruler objected, and using logic possible only among those with the inbred genes of hereditary rulers, stated that since they could not put aside enough grain for everyone, that they too must eat the fungus infected grain, for if everyone else was mad, acting similarly, those others will think us mad if we are different. We must be as mad as everyone else, acting like everyone else, believing in what they believe in order to be considered normal and blend in, to consolidate and not lose our positions of power.
Normal. It is very relative and time specific. Tattoos were once what happened to drunken sailors, piercings were limited to the earlobes of women, listening to rock and roll was going to send you to hell, voyeurism was a mental illness and not promoted on prime-time TV, books were printed on paper and much earlier reading those newfangled books called novels was viewed as immersing oneself in dangerous fantasy worlds, and each and every younger generation has been an enigma to the previous. The only thing certain about what is normal is that it is a moving target and subject to change over time. Trying to hold back the floodgates of change is and should be an exercise in futility. Ideologues, those who support a specific ideology frozen in some past moment, yearning to go back to the way things were are not only tilting at windmills, but are often at the root of much violent, disruptive and nonproductive behavior. However, what one person views as a positive shift in the value set that describes normal, another will view as negative. What is certain is that humanity is not a monolithic entity in our values and beliefs, and whatever “system” is put into place that governs us must be one that allows for those differences to enhance the mosaic of what constitutes humanity.
Are organizations any different? Do myths of what is normal exist within companies? There is a technique I like to use when analyzing an organization’s data. For want of a better name we call it a 9-box. The 9-box takes two questions from an organizational assessment and lays out the all possible responses to each, one along the x-axis and one along the y forming a 3×3 matrix. The 9 cells that are then created contain those responses from people who responded one of 9 different ways to the 2 questions. They could have been favorable on both questions, in which case they would be in the upper left box, they could have been negative on both questions, in which case they would be in the lower right hand box. All the other possible combinations are filled in (Favorable:Neutral, Neutral:Neutral, Negative:Neutral, etc.). Once the matrix has been completed we examine the outcome measure of interest for each cell. How, for instance, do the Favorable:Favorable people fare on turnover or measures of quality, customer satisfaction etc. We contrast that positive cell against the other cells within the matrix. And then it gets interesting.
We examine the demographic characteristic of the employees within the Positive:Positive cell and compare it against those in the other cells. In every single case where I have done this analysis organizational beliefs are exploded and shown to be myths. For instance it may be thought that the most positive employees within the organization would be the managers and the least positive would be the production workers. But when you examine the demographic breakdowns you typically find very similar percentages of employee types in each of the cells. It is not simply that employees are of different types that accounts for perceptual differences and performance differences within organizations, rather it is how each employee as an individual views their treatment, and that is independent of position and most of the common demographics tracked within organizations.
You see there is a bit of a conundrum at work. While we are free to have different beliefs and values we are all still human and each of us have most of the same hopes and desires as any of our fellow humans. We may all have different fingerprints, but we all have fingerprints. Those issues that arise within organizations that create the new normal, the current conditions in which everyone must function, affect all within the organization and whether they view their own situation in a positive or negative light is driven by a myriad of factors that impinge on them in their organizational existence. Some of those factors are driven by the competence, tone and actions created at the top of the organization, others are more career and personally oriented, others depend on perceptions of how the organization is positioned competitively. In sum, the perceptions of both the organization’s future and one’s personal future matter in determining the attitude and performance of employees of all types.
One thing is certain. You can’t get maximal performance out of all of the employees of an organization by hanging onto myths and false beliefs that emphasize non-existent differences while at the same time ignoring those issues that actually matter.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
A bunch of us conducted an educational session in DC last week. We had a packed house. The talk that I gave was titled “Transformational Change and the Employee”. In preparing for that talk I came across some Dakota Indian tribal lore that I felt was very insightful and so I decided to use it within my speech. In essence the Dakota Indians say that once a rider realizes that they are riding a dead horse, the best course of action that the rider can take is to dismount – get off that dead horse. The Archives of Humor (no author cited), elaborates on that a bit further and states that organizations prior to dismounting their dead horse will often first try other strategies, before coming to the realization that they are riding a dead horse. While I can not vouch for the authenticity of this information it was just too good to pass up. Here is the list – slightly edited by me.
- Buy a stronger whip.
- Change riders.
- Say things like, “This is the way we have always ridden this horse.”
- Appoint a committee to study the horse.
- Arrange a benchmarking visit to see how others ride dead horses.
- Increase the standards to ride dead horses.
- Appoint a working group to revive the dead horse.
- Create a training session to increase our riding ability.
- Compare the state of dead horses in today’s environment.
- Hire consultants to ride the dead horse for you.
- Create a form to complete before you are allowed to ride that dead horse so that you ride better.
- Harness several dead horses together for increased speed.
- Provide additional funding to increase the horse’s performance.
- Do an analysis to see if contractors can ride cheaper then employees.
- Purchase a product to make dead horses run faster.
- Declare the horse is “better, faster and cheaper” dead.
- Form a cross functional group to find uses for dead horses.
- Revisit the performance requirements for horses.
- Promote the dead horse to an executive position.
(Modified from the Archives of Humor)
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
In 1999, seventy-six percent of all the socks sold in the USA were made in the USA. Today that number is twenty-four percent. The last ten years has seen tremendous change within the sock industry here in the USA. Not too long ago Fort Payne, Alabama had more than 150 sock factories, producing a good percentage of the socks people in the USA put on their feet each morning.
Socks manufacturers have either outsourced their production to China, Pakistan, Honduras and other low cost countries or have pulled out of manufacturing all together. The US employees of those firms have had to find other employment. Two-thirds of the sock manufacturers in Fort Payne have shut their doors. On store shelves you would be very hard pressed to find any socks produced in the USA.
One of the first managers I had in my professional career gave me some advice about socks when I had just left school. I can’t recall how we got on the topic in the first place, but I remember the advice well. He said in order to save time pairing and folding your socks, once each year take all the socks you own and simply throw them out. Doesn’t matter what kind of condition they were in, or if a certain pair was your favorite, just throw them all away. Then go out and buy new socks, making sure that each pair you buy is absolutely identical to the other pairs you are purchasing to replace the socks you just threw away. (Given the very conservative nature of the business we were both employed by, the unstated assumption was that black socks would fit the bill very nicely.) Now when you do wash, you do not need to pair and fold your socks, just throw them all in a drawer and any two you pull out will match. Simple, easy, a real time saver. No thinking necessary.
This was advice I never followed. First off, I was just getting out of graduate school and could not afford to annually replace my entire collection of socks even if I wanted to. Second, I tend to hang onto things that still work and I have some socks that are older than some of the people I used to work with. Third, a sock is not a sock is not a sock. My socks are specialized. I have dress socks that I wear with suits, broken into winter and summer weights (who wants cold toes), socks that are more casual that I can wear with jeans, socks that are for hiking, even a few pair that I would characterize as athletic socks. I have never felt comfortable with those low rise socks, the kind that is just below the ankle, they always feel like they are falling off. In my world, one sock size does not fit all, nor should it in order to maximize the potential of my socks for best function and to best meet my needs.
Yet other people I know follow that advice, for on the face of it, it sounds expeditious. How easy it would be if all the components of our wardrobe were completely interchangeable. You wake up in the morning and it simply would not matter which shirt, suit, tie, shoes, pants, socks, etc. you pulled on, they would all match and all be appropriate for that day’s activities. That would simplify our lives. It would also simplify what we look like and how we would be able to function. It would eliminate the diversity that brings uniqueness, pleasure and maximizes performance.
Occasionally I hear a pair-matching sock phobic complain, “Why could one sock not look like or perform like another?” It is a bit more work to match up socks after washing them and then to pick the appropriate pair to wear for the day’s activities. But you know, by customizing my sock choices to my needs I think I make more effective use of the socks I have. That manager who gave me the tip to eliminate all diversity in my socks was the head of HR. I can’t help but wonder if any of that philosophy rubbed off into other areas.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
There are those who think only they know best when it comes to organizational decision making. And while it is perfectly ok to have strongly held opinions, it also behooves one to know when to listen to the wisdom of the crowd. Assuming that you have crossed the Rubicon and are ready to heed or at least consider the advice of those who are usually more than willing to share some, there are some guidelines that if followed can make the process not too overwhelming and perhaps increase the probability of success. This is a quick summary and the highlighted links will point you to more detailed discussions on each topic.
- Don’t try to do too much. If every manager within an organization once a year picked one meaningful thing that went above and beyond and actually made it happen, significant positive change would occur. If two things were chosen, one should support an overall organization-wide initiative and one should focus on local conditions. By limiting the number you also eliminate excuse-making. You either did it or did not. Reference: The One Thing.
- Every organization has strengths. Sometimes picking actions that build off of and are natural extension of the strengths, the skills and talents already in place will be more successful than actions that come out of left field. If you are trying something new as an action and do not know how to accomplish it, set a learning goal – how you will learn more about and develop the skills that enable you to succeed on the action. If you are very familiar with how to improve on a particular issue then set a specific measurable goal. Reference: Increasing the Wealth of Organizations.
- People are people. We can spend our time searching for the differences between us, but when it comes to the world of work and what people fundamentally want and expect out of the work environment we are all much more similar than we are different. We all more or less want the same things. Find me a person on this planet, of any age, of any gender, of any ethnicity for instance, that does not want to be treated with respect and dignity. (I exclude those with pathology). Think about how the actions you are considering can help fulfill these basic universal needs. Reference: People at work: or it is Life and Searching for a gang in Nebraska.
- There are no magic bullets – success, most of the time, boils down to some brain power, hard work and a dose of being in the right place at the right time. Those who spend their lives searching for magic bullets, elixirs, quick fixes will spend their lives searching in vain. Reference: Models, Representations of Reality
- Don’t prematurely shut down the creative process. Create a lot of good ideas in a brain storming mode. On a second or third pass through the ideas generated, narrow the field. Pick the one thread that can be most leveraged, the thread that could unravel or hold together the whole organizational tapestry. Reference 40:1
- Your actions are at risk for failure. As you plan them out, understanding common reasons why actions fail can help you avoid pitfalls. Actions can fail because of a. lack of knowledge/training, b. lack of correct business processes, c. lack of desire/support. Reference: Errors
- It can be good to measure, to create metrics to measure your progress, but just because you are not measuring does not mean what you are doing is not good. Where you can create metrics, do so. Reference: Managing what you are not measuring, and Measuring what you are Managing.
- You will make mistakes. It is a given. Mistakes and errors will occur as you pick and execute on your action plans. Don’t be so consumed with making the absolute right decision that you make no decisions or miss opportunities because of decision delays. Reference: Peanut Butter Anyone?
- Change happens- look forward not back. Reference: Well I Guess that is not Going to Grow Back.
- Openness and transparency regarding what you are doing is the best policy. If you cannot be open and transparent about it ask yourself if you should be doing it. Reference: Transparency and Organizational Success.
- Aim High. Reference: Abnormal Change.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
There is a magic bullet available for companies struggling with their performance. Available by prescription only, the engagement pill will give your company an immediate performance boost, while a slow release caplet can provide a performance boost for up to 36 hours. You never know when the moment is right for employee engagement, and now with the new 36 hour slow release caplet you can take advantage of spontaneous moments where employee engagement can be enhanced.
No more need for having a clear vision and effective leadership, informing people how they contribute, how they fit into the larger picture and making them feel valued. No reason to provide people what they need in order to perform their jobs with high quality, in a fashion which creates pride. With the engagement pill, performance feedback is not necessary nor is the need for recognition for a job well done. Developing people so that they can perform better? Don’t worry about it. Planning for and communicating about the future? It is a thing of the past. Innovation and risk taking? Why take a chance?
Don’t be fooled by knock off engagement pills or generics that you can buy through the internet. Only actual engagement pills, with the prescription available from your engagement specialist, will have the lasting desired effect you and your organization have been searching for. Before taking engagement pills, make sure you ask your doctor if you and your organization are healthy enough to begin a regimen of sustained engagement.
Warning: If your engaged workforce lasts for more than 4 hours please seek out immediate assistance to prevent long-term negative effects. Side effects may include setting engagement score goals simply for the sake of having a measurement rather than actually using the potential of engagement to achieve organizational goals and blurred vision, which can include a loss of focus.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
The legend of the fountain of youth or variations upon that theme occurs in many cultures going back centuries. It is said to yield magical water that can restore and maintain your youthful self. Ah….to be young again. But maybe it is not all that it is cracked up to be or maybe it is? One aspect often associated with youthfulness is a sense of optimism about the future, an inherent sense of immortality and that nothing can strand in your way. No mountain is too high, no river too wide… no wait that was Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel in 1966. Anyway, is there any evidence to support the notion that youthfulness brings with it a sense of optimism about the future?
In measuring Employee Confidence in the workplace, I contrasted younger (18-29 year olds) vs. older (50+ year old) workers on the levels of Employee Confidence they have in the workplace. A few observations.
- The 12 largest economies were studied (USA, UK, Canada, China, India, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, Japan, Spain), and Employee Confidence among the younger crowd was relatively stronger as of March 2009, with the exception of Japan where the youths were a few points lower on Employee Confidence than the older folks. In most countries the benefit of youthfulness is between 5 and 15 percentage points. So in general, yes, there is youthful optimism or at least higher levels of youthful Employee Confidence. There are a few other interesting patterns that emerge.
- In both Spain and particularly in China in June of 2008 the older folks were expressing higher levels of Employee Confidence than the younger and by March of 2009 both of those positions are reversed with the youths now being more confident.
- As of March 2009, the largest gap between the younger workers and the older ones, with the youths being more positive, is found in Russia followed by Italy and the UK.
- As of March 2009, the smallest gaps between the younger and older workers was in Brazil followed by Japan.
A high level of Employee Confidence is achieved when an employee perceives their organization as being effectively managed with good business processes, competitively positioned with attractive products and believe they have a promising future with their organization, job security and if needed skills that would be attractive to other employers. Employee Confidence influences individual behavior and has implications for organizational performance and more broadly macro-economic conditions.
Should you desire more information about Employee Confidence please feel free to contact me at JeffreySaltzman@OrgVitality.com.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle
The other day I tried to track down the origins of the joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” My recollection of the response was “Practice, Practice, Practice”. I had thought that it was an old Jack Benny joke. To my surprise I found many different potential origins to that joke but the one I liked and settled upon was the version that had violinist Jascha Heifitz being hailed by a man on a New York street. The man asks Heifitz, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” And Heifitz replies, without missing a beat, “Practice!”
There are two important components to the response of “Practice”. One aspect of practicing is that you know the piece and can play it correctly. The better violinists can also play with emotion, giving the piece “life”. A second component of “Practice”—one much less talked about—is that you deliver the piece in a consistent manner time after time. When the audience lays down the dollars to see you play at Carnegie Hall they get what they pay for. Again, from Heifitz: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. If I don’t practice two days, my critics know it. If I don’t practice for three days, everyone knows it.”
The need for consistency
The need for consistency is pervasive. People are looking for consistency in their personal lives; organizations are looking for consistency as they deal with other organizations. Customers are looking for consistency as they interact and purchase either products or services. The attainment of consistency is a very powerful organizational tool—a tool that can greatly increase organizational performance; a tool that I believe is underutilized.
The philosophy of consistency is at a unique crossroads. It is one place where personality theory and organizational theory merge. Let me explain. There has been much effort expended on trying to understand people—what makes them tick. How do we classify their personality and abilities, from a personnel standpoint how do we select for certain characteristics that are more likely to lead to success on the job, how to develop them, etc. The desire for consistency is a characteristic that can be used to describe people. In fact, a Consistency Theory dating back to the 1950s utilizes a concept called cognitive dissonance. (“The discomfort of cognitive dissonance occurs when things fall out of alignment, which leads us to try to achieve a maximum practical level of consistency in our world” – Festinger 1957). The theory states that people have a strong innate desire for consistency.
Organizations have a strong need for consistency as well—after all organizations are nothing more than a group of people. An organization that makes maximal use of consistency in its performance from a product standpoint (uniformity of product—zero defects), from a customer service standpoint (customers have a similar experience each and every time they interact with your organization), and from an employee management standpoint will outperform the competition. At the same time, consistency is not some magical elixir that will solve all our problems. We live in a real world which is complex and has many critical, complex interactions for us to deal with and no single solution works for all problems. Consistency, though, when viewed correctly can become part of a larger whole, a piece of the puzzle that helps organizations maximize performance.
Managers within organizations are constantly faced with challenges. Oftentimes they need to produce more with fewer resources while maintaining quality. This requires a constant evaluation of processes and procedures to increase efficiency. (One coping mechanism that some managers use is to simply put in more hours. While this may work for the short term, over the long term real efficiency will only be obtained by rethinking processes and procedures.) What is a manager to do within an organization when faced with the real need to constantly change, to innovate in order to stay competitive in today’s fast changing world—especially when the natural tendency of many is toward consistency”?
The customer viewpoint
If you examine some of the most successful organizations, one thing stands out very clearly— their customers get what they expect. Consistency of performance helps drive that success. Some of these organizations even work it into their slogans and sales mantras—having, consistently, the lowest prices in a retail environment, or in a hotel chain having the same comfortable bed in each room have become mainstays of advertising campaigns. For other organizations it simply becomes part of what customers expect. People don’t go to some of the fast food shops for exquisite cuisine, they go because they know what they are going to get—fast food at a good price. The philosophy of “location, location, location” is critical in the retail (and many other) environments but you could add to that “consistency, consistency, consistency”
This is not only true at the end user consumer level but is also true for business to business customers. Can you imagine if an airplane manufacturer turned out planes of the same model that performed inconsistently? Some flew better at 5000 feet and some flew better at 30,000 feet? Or if a chemical plant could not deliver a consistent chemical composition to their product?
People and organizations are not only looking for consistency of performance to help deal with the world in which we live; it is crucial for success. Consistency is closely tied to predictability, and predictability is what organizations depend upon and what helps individuals cope in a complex world. This is the whole crux of the billions of dollars that have been spent on quality programs over the years. Six-Sigma has focused on the removal of variance from our products and from work processes, making them more consistent. The consistency of a product or the employment situation also helps organizations build trust, the trust of the customer and the trust of the employee.
The principles of Six-Sigma can be applied successfully to help improve organizational culture, creating a more performance oriented culture. In order to know if the performance of the organization is indeed consistent it helps tremendously to have consistent performance measures and to aggregate those performance measures in a consistent fashion across geographies and business units. Displaying that information in a consistent fashion to help in corporate decision making is also very powerful and can be a challenging effort.
The employee at work
So what about the employee at work? Do these concepts of consistency hold within the working environment? I would argue that they do.
What if you walked into your place of employment each day and were met by inconsistency—a quantum mechanics of unpredictable behavior if you will. One day being late was measured by being at work at 5 minutes past the hour, the next day it was 1 minute. One day you walk in and your boss is helpful in all aspects, helping you manage your workload and the next day the boss is extremely difficult to deal with. One day your job is to perform task A by procedure B and the next day it changes to procedure C, only to change back to B the following day for no apparent reason. What is an employee to do? Any attempt by employees to develop coping mechanisms to deal with what is expected of them would be futile and because of the changing standards by definition they would end up failing. In a situation like this trust would also fall by the wayside.
I am not advocating the blind adherence to a rigid set of rules for organizational decision making. That would be a disaster. Good decision making may require setting up systems that allows managers to be consistently flexible (often within a framework), rather than adherence to a set of fixed rules. The consistency here is that managers are allowed to exercise their judgment, and given the appropriate tools so that good decisions can be made. As the environment changes (and it will need to change), employees need to be brought along—informed as to the rationale behind the decisions—and the consistency of the decision processes and outcomes desired need to be pointed out.
Is everyone really looking for consistency? What about dare devil thrill seekers? Certainly they are not looking for consistency or boring routine. Well in fact they are. Take for instance bungee jumping. One aspect of what they desire is the adrenaline rush, the thrill, associated with jumping, even though most of us would be more than a little reluctant to try it. If they lost the adrenaline rush my guess is that they would move on to other activities. They have different needs than many of us, a different threshold for what they are looking for—to satisfy those needs, but it does not mean they are not looking for consistency in those more dangerous pursuits.
Psychologists have relatively recently created a theory of personality called “The Big 5”. It consists of five dimensions of personality that are supposed to be overarching in describing people and their personality. One of those dimensions is “openness to new experiences”. A group of people, if you measure them on this trait, would differ on where they fall along the scale of being complex and open to new experiences to being conventional and uncreative. I am not implying in this work that people are not different. People are different and selecting the best fit for the various positions within your organization is critical. However, taking into consideration the various differences between people, there will be a fairly strong tendency for people to look for situations that delivers to them consistency—the consistency that they need.
Don’t fall into the trap, though, of thinking that consistency of performance means stagnation—little growth, no innovation, no increase in organizational effectiveness. That is absolutely not true. To be successful a company can be, needs to be consistently innovative and nimble (among other things) and organizations can absolutely create an environment allowing that to occur.
How to create consistency in the work environment
There are many things companies can do to create that environment. For instance, some of the data I have seen over the years strongly suggests companies with stronger diversity programs are able to deliver more consistently on business outcomes such as innovation, customer service and other performance metrics. It seems that the very act of organizations being diverse and allowing diverse people to feel that they have equal opportunity to excel and achieve allows for greater differences in thinking to occur and hence spurs innovation. It does not mean that your product or service is delivered to your customers in an inconsistent fashion. If that is occurring it has nothing to do with diversity, but rather poor process control – inconsistency.
Another aspect I have studied over the years is whether there are generational differences in what employees are looking for out of the employment situation. While the entire answer of what employees are looking for is somewhat complex, the bottom line is that there are larger intra-generational differences than inter-generational differences. In other words, within any particular generation you will find a range of people with differing desires and those differences within generations are larger than cross generational differences.
The fundamentals of what people are looking for in the employment situation are extremely consistent. How you deliver on those fundamentals is what may change. I have looked at this from gender, geographic, ethnic, cultural and generational perspectives and always come to the same conclusion.
However what I have also seen is that there are no magic silver bullets. Simply putting in a diversity program or a Six-Sigma program, or any other program in a vacuum, standardizing it regardless of the situation, without looking at what is going on in the organization as a whole is another recipe for disaster. You are likely not to address root causes and are likely telling your managers “here is the silver bullet – the magic” (at least for the next 6 months until it fades away).
There are additional sound practices that can be followed and implemented by organizations that can greatly help them achieve consistency. Let me focus on a few elements, the elements that I believe are most critical.
The fundamentals of creating consistency for employees in the work environment first centers around content and consistency of “organizational message”, describing for employees what the organization is about and their role in achieving that goal and then sticking to that message. I am making the assumption that the organization gets that original message right. This is critical. You don’t want to stick to the wrong message.
I am not talking about mission, vision and value statements, though at times those can help, I am talking about strategy and goals, but I mean strategy and goals not only at the corporate level but also down at the personal level. What do I need to do in order that my department, division, BU etc. be successful? (Together these 5 components are often called an organizational charter.) The organization needs to understand who it is and what will make it successful in its market, and needs to convey that to its employees in a way that makes them feel like they are doing meaningful work. Secondly, the organization needs to provide the employee what they need to get their own jobs done – done in congruence with the organizational goals. Thirdly, the employee needs to feel appreciated for what they have accomplished and see a future for themselves within the organization. Message, Performance, Future (MPF) is an action focused framework that can be used to guide organizations. Three questions should be kept in mind as a manager thinks through this framework:
- Message: Am I sending the right message in a consistent fashion throughout my organization?
- Performance: Are people getting what they need (in the broadest sense) to be able to deliver on that message – to get the job done?
- Future: Do people feel recognized and feel like they have a future with this organization?
I recall presenting the results of a culture survey to a high level executive of a very large firm. In comparison after comparison to other firms on similar items, his company was scoring well above average and in fact was benchmark on a number of items, until we got to pay. When I went over the pay items with him the results for the organization were rather average. He was perplexed about how his organization, which scored highly on many items could be so average on pay. I asked “what is your pay strategy”? The response was without hesitation “to pay about average”.
The point is that you get what you work towards and if you looked at a list of the top performing organizations on different aspects of performance and culture, you would be looking at lists of different organizations. Who is the most innovative, the most nimble, provides the fastest service, the best customer service, who has the best prices, the highest quality, the most dedicated employees? No organization has the resources, the time or the energy to do everything at the level of “the best in the world”. Management may feel it is a requirement to strive for that, but it is simply not realistic. Mission critical then for each individual organization is to figure out what it needs to excel upon, to be first in its industry upon, the “best in the world” and to concentrate on those objectives.
Organizations need to do most things at a minimally acceptable level, to be competent (the price of admission) and I would argue that the minimally acceptable level can be a changing target over a relatively short period of time. You need to get the “engineering” right, to have good products, you need to be able to send out bills correctly, provide good customer service, you need to have effective sales and marketing etc.
Picking the items to be the best in the world at, constantly improving your delivery on those items, monitoring your performance so you know how you are performing is what will give an organization an unbeatable competitive advantage.
Delivering on that list of “we will be the best at….” requires that you get all of your business processes focused on those objectives, making sure that they are in alignment. All processes that effect all constituents should be examined, the processes that impact your customers, your suppliers, and those that affect your employees. It will require that the organization create and managers can work in a consistent environment. That environment can be consistently creative, nimble, innovative, diverse, customer focused, etc. I have seen organizations and managers operate this way successfully and you can too, but it will require plenty of “practice, practice, practice”.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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