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Archive for October 20th, 2009

Labor Relations

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Have you ever seen a worker walking a picket line with a sign saying “Give me more challenging work”? I am quite sure I never have. The signs they carry on the picket line tend to say things like “Better pay”, “No layoffs”, “We want health insurance”, “Don’t treat us like animals” etc. So what causes people to seek 3rd party representation and how would you build a warning indicator through the use of employee surveys to give the organization a wake-up call, that unless they take corrective action that they are on a path that will lead to their employees being organized?  

Without passing judgment on whether unions are a positive force or a negative force, there are conditions, that when they exist within the work environment, lead to workers seeking out 3rd party representation in the form of unions. (For our purposes here I will deal only with voluntary unions, where workers have an option to create and/or join a union and I will not be dealing with mandated or legislated unions that exist in some countries.) Very broadly when workers are dissatisfied about certain aspects of their job and feel powerless to do anything about it they are vulnerable to organizing attempts. When workers feel pleased about the working conditions and their treatment at work they are less vulnerable to organizing attempts. 

People who have joined unions will often report these reasons as to why they joined and hence those stores that receive lower scores in these areas are more vulnerable to higher levels of unionization activity.

  • Higher wages and more influence in the wage-setting process
  • Increased job security
  • Improved benefits (insurance, pensions, personal and sick time, vacations, work breaks etc.)
  • Improved working conditions (physical conditions, safety, work pace, etc.)
  • Clearer, fairer rules for job transfers, discipline, promotion and grievances
  • Greater self-control in the work place

Specifically, one study that was done regarding the propensity to vote for union representation (voting the union in) the following dimensions were the strongest predictors of the election outcome. These then are the dimensions that when workers are most displeased about, the likelihood of them seeking 3rd party representation is greatest, hence the negative correlations.

Dimension                               r

Job security -.42
Wages -.40
Overall Satisfaction -.36
Treatment issues -.34
Benefits -.31
Recognition -.30
Promotions -.30

(N=1000, .99 level of confidence)

Unions have existed for a long time and they have been fighting for what they believe their members want. In general through the use of negotiated wages, benefits and other working conditions they have increased the level of those attributes for their members (e.g. union members on average are paid more than non-members doing similar work). Do those increased levels have an effect on employee attitudes? Yes they do.  Union members are in general more positive about things like pay and benefits, things that unions have been fighting for since their inception.

Based on the information we have reviewed so far it would seem that a “labor relations” or “unionization” index would need to cover the following topics or areas to be as good of a warning indicator as possible:

  • Pay
  • Benefits
  • Job Security
  • Grievances
  • Supervision
  • Safety, Physical Working Conditions
  • Resources to do Job
  • Overall Satisfaction
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Pride
  • Respectful Treatment
  • Well-Being
  • Trust in Leadership
  • Recognition

And hence sample survey items to be used in a labor relations index could include:

  1. Overall, I am satisfied with my organization as a place to work.
  2. I am proud to work for my organization.
  3. I am paid fairly for the work I do.
  4. I am satisfied with the benefits I receive at this company.
  5. I currently feel confident that I will not be laid off from my job.
  6. Any complaints I have are heard fairly by the organization.
  7. My ideas and opinions count.
  8. My manager is a good supervisor, competent technically and from a human relations perspective.
  9. I trust the leadership of this company.
  10. I have the tools and equipment I need to do my job effectively.
  11. This is physically a safe place to work.
  12. Physical working conditions (space, lighting, noise, etc.) are good where I work.
  13. I enjoy my work, it is satisfying.
  14. My manager treats me with respect.
  15. My manager cares about my well-being.
  16. I receive appropriate recognition for the work I do.

These 16 items (some may use slightly more, some slightly fewer) cover topics that have been shown to be related to labor relations or unionization and can be averaged together   to form an index that would create an indicator of a deteriorating labor relations climate. Once the index has been created and data has been collected on the items, how do you know at which score to intervene? For warning indicators, the question becomes one of defining the trigger point at which an intervention should be mounted. If the percent favorable on the average of the 16 items is 50% does that trigger a warning? What about 65%? Do varying trigger points result in differing actions? A 50% favorable score may yield a closer follow-up and a 40% score yields an all-hands-on-deck intervention?  You can set your trigger points either higher or lower depending on the certainty you need that a location may be having labor relations issues and you can also set differing actions to kick in at varying trigger points.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 20, 2009 at 10:26 am

Results not Typical

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“I got this body while eating pizza, hamburgers”, and she then leans forward whispering into the camera “even chocolate!” Before and after pictures are displayed on the screen. While the shapely product promoter is telling you how she lost all that weight and became irresistible by eating the offered foods there is a line on the right-hand bottom corner of the screen, “Results not typical”.  I wonder what result was not typical. That people who use this product end up on TV promoting it? Or that people who use the product actually lose weight? Or that people who eat the advertised food actually think it is any good? Maybe “Results not typical” refers to all three. One has to wonder given the schlock nature of the ad just what warning their fine print is conveying.

Of course, sadly, the ad would not be running, and it has been around awhile, if it did not work in attracting people to use the product. We should all be aware of the weakness of the case study approach as well as approaches that claim success without appropriate experimental design. How would you evaluate the above statement if you treated her claim “eat this food and lose weight” as an organizational program or initiative and wanted to determine if in fact you could place any stock in those claims?

Program evaluation suffers a history of skepticism often due a history of poorly conceived evaluation methodologies. One of the most widely used designs for program evaluation is one in which 1). a single group is given a baseline measure, then 2.) the program is implemented and then 3.) a post implementation measurement is made to determine the effect of the program. This approach is fraught with problems. Let me illustrate. Let’s use the following statement as an example:

  • A school system wants to know if the investment it is making in advanced teacher training is improving educational attainment among its students.

In this example a baseline measure regarding standardized student achievement test scores is collected prior to the implementation of the new teacher training program. In addition surveys can be done of the students asking about their comfort and mastery with the subjects covered by the teacher training program. After the teachers receive their training and the next class of students comes through, the measurement process gets repeated. Students on average now report that they feel more comfortable with the targeted subjects and test score in fact are moving up. The teacher training program is determined to be a success and additional funds are poured into teacher training. What was not taken into consideration using this approach is the fact that the students got new textbooks with vastly improved course material and the class schedule was redesigned so that the students spent more time on the targeted subjects. What was thought to be an outcome of teacher training was actually better course material and more time spent devoted to the subject.

There are various approaches that could improve the ability of the school system to improve its evaluation. Here is one. If the above field experiment had been carried out as follows the results would have been much clearer. In this alternative approach the same setup is used, but only half the teachers in the first round receive the training. When the next round of students come through the program the students whose teachers received the training are compared to those whose teachers did not (a control group), holding everything else constant. Holding everything else constant in this case means that all students received the new texts and all students had their schedules changed. Now when we compare the students whose teachers received the training to those who did not, we might find that all student scores improved but the students whose teachers received the advanced training had even higher scores and felt even more comfortable regarding their mastery of the subject than those students whose teachers did not. In this case a more confident determination can be made that the advanced teacher training did help to improve test scores.

The criticism of this approach is that it is not right to withhold a potentially beneficial experience from those in the control group. And the answer to that is that in certain circumstance it is not right to withhold that potential benefit (experimental drugs being used in life threatening circumstances is one case). However in the above example it is truly unclear whether there is any benefit to the students whose teachers went through the advanced training vs. those who did not. And their certainly would be a long-term benefit to the school system by knowing the true impact of that training experience.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 20, 2009 at 10:20 am

Managing what you are not measuring

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There have been a large number of statements made in various textbooks and articles that are along the lines of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” or “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. It is a cute statement; one used to justify various management behaviors, and is quoted over and over ad nauseum. The only problem is that it is wrong. There are plenty of things that we don’t measure and yet manage quite well. The statement itself as it is commonly used is actually misquoted, with the original statement being “you can’t control what you can’t measure” taken from a text on software development.

Do you measure your degree of hunger before putting some food in your stomach? Do you measure the length of your hair prior to getting a haircut? Do you measure your pleasure at attending a baseball game, a Broadway show, a concert, or a movie prior to deciding if you should attend another? Do you measure your likes and dislikes of various food choices before deciding what to have for dinner?  Do you measure the buildup of plaque on your teeth or the bacterial content of your mouth before deciding if it is time to brush those pearly whites? Do you contrast various aspects of your car’s performance by the gasoline brand, its miles per gallon, its horsepower etc. before deciding which brand of gasoline to fill your tank with? We make choices everyday in our lives that are not rigorously measured and we seem to manage many of those decisions just fine and to exert the appropriate amount of control over them.

Medical doctors use a variety of techniques, among them clinical judgment, in deciding a course of action for our various ills. This is often done without rigorous measurement of the presenting condition, but rather by looking at the panoply of signs and symptoms being displayed. And remarkably people get better every day. Teachers when reviewing essays from their students are using similar judgments in deciding whether a paper deserves an A+ or a C. Artists of various kinds also use judgments when deciding how to proceed on an artistic creation. Those judgments are based on their experiences and training as professionals in their respective fields.  The list of non-measured judgments with more often than not positive results could go on and on.

How do these non-measured judgments get made? And how do they get made in such a way as to lead to fairly consistent positive performance? How do these types of decisions differ from the kind that would benefit from more formal or rigorous evaluations? These decisions are based on rules-of-thumb or heuristics. Experience, training, logic, folk-wisdom, categorization including bias and bigotry are all used to generate rules that allow people to make decisions with less than complete knowledge of the situation. You can decide if you need a haircut without actually measuring the length of your hair by operating with certain rules-of-thumb. Maybe your trigger point for a haircut is calendar based – every 4-5 weeks. Or maybe it is when the hair on the sides of the head touches your ears or for some when there is any sign of stubble on an otherwise gleaming sphere. Some simply look in the mirror and “know” that it is time. Whatever the rule-of thumb is, you can apply it to the decision point regarding the need for a haircut without actually measuring the length of your hair.

Managers in organizations apply rules-of-thumb or heuristics daily in their jobs. There are oftentimes rule books and procedure manuals that can be referred to, formal information flows that can be queried, but with the large number and variety of decisions to be made including many times regarding the unforeseen, rules-of-thumb are often utilized. Some managers have a good set of rules-of-thumb that tend to yield positive results and others with poor sets or those that apply good rules inconsistently are more or less flying blind.

Value statements developed by organizations (and often hung on a wall), if actually utilized, can help frame-up the paradigm that should be used to determine or help guide decision making. For instance Google lists 10 things that they “have found to be true” including “#6. You can make money without doing evil.” Merck lists 5 values on their website including “#2. We are committed to the highest standards of ethics and integrity.” Citigroup talks about 3 shared responsibilities with the overall goal of being “the most respected global financial services company.” Many corporations have these Value statements and they represent core priorities of the culture, the overarching rules by which people would be expected to make decisions within the organization.

The downside of these rules-of-thumb is when stereotypical concepts or bias are the basis for their development and then those bias laden heuristics are employed when making decisions. Without having actual information, or in an attempt to quickly sort through or condense a large amount of information available, people have a tendency to base decisions on preconceived or stereotypical notions and sometimes those notions could be called erroneous at best, despicable at worst. Rules-of-thumb or heuristics though are not inherently bad and do not inherently lead to poor decisions, but when erroneous, biased, bigoted or just plain stupid rules-of-thumb are adopted poor decisions will follow.

One application of these concepts comes about when voters are deciding whom to vote for in an election. An election can be thought of as a type of program evaluation. Each candidate develops a program (a campaign strategy) designed to get them elected. The candidate with the best program, the one that resonates most with the voters, receives a very clear evaluation, they get more votes and hence assume office (unless of course if you are in Zimbabwe). For the voter responsible for evaluating the candidate’s program two possible paths can be taken when deciding where to cast their ballot. One path, a rational approach, is to analyze the candidates on each of their positions and then to select the candidate that most closely matches your own views. The second possible path is to employ heuristics, general rules-of-thumb to allow you to select your candidate of choice without having to analyze each of their positions. It has been found that in mock elections, that voters who try to collect and analyze as much information about each and every candidate as they can make poorer decisions about whom to support. In other words they choose candidates who do not necessarily come closest to mirroring their own positions on issues. Those who use rules-of-thumb made better decisions. The rules-of-thumb employed included party affiliation, endorsements, position in political polls, even physical appearance. One conclusion of this work was that a typical voter uses party affiliation similarly to how consumers use brand loyalty as a short cut in the decision making process on which products and services to purchase.

You can manage what you are not measuring through various heuristics; the question is when does measurement add appreciably to your ability to make better judgments? And that will be a topic for later discussions.

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

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October 20, 2009 at 10:16 am

A Comedy of Communications

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There was a woman who accompanied her husband to the doctor. The doctor after running a number of tests and spending hours examining her husband called her into his office for a private conversation. “You husband is quite ill and is dying”, he said. “However, if you follow these instructions very carefully over the next year there is a chance that he will live and make a complete recovery”.  The woman asked the doctor what she had to do. He began, “He no longer will be able to take the garbage out, cut the lawn or wash dishes, he needs to be greeted each morning with a hot breakfast waiting for him at the table, the kids need to be smiling and cheerful to him in the morning, when he gets home from work you should greet him at the door with his favorite beverage and slippers, he needs to eat a home cooked meal for dinner every night, after dinner he will need to relax in front of the TV, his feet up without any interruptions, fresh linens should be on the bed each evening, and he will need a back message every night. After leaving the doctor’s office the man turned to his wife and asked, “What did the doctor say to you?” She replied, “He said you were going to die”.

Communication errors are common enough in of our lives that they have become part of the vocabulary of comedy. Was her reply because she only heard the parts she wanted to hear from the doctor? Or was it due to a conscious decision regarding how open and honest communications with her husband would be; only relaying part of the message? Was she trying to hide the truth because she found it unpleasant or simply trying to control the message? Or was it just as in the game telephone, as a message gets repeated it becomes more and more garbled? The option which makes this humorous is that she was intentionally misleading or miscommunicating to her husband.

Two good friends, Ralph and Fred, were out in the woods hunting for deer. After a long day of tramping through the woods they came to a steep hill. As they climbed the steep hill Ralph grasped his chest and falls over collapsing into unconsciousness. Fred was frantic, not knowing what to do. Finally he pulls out his cell phone and calls 911. He talks to the operator. “We are in the middle of the woods, out hunting and Ralph grasped his chest and collapsed. I think he is dead. I don’t know what to do.” The emergency operator assures Fred, “Relax, I can help you, just do as I say. The first thing we have to do is make sure he is really dead.” “Ok”, says Fred and he put the phone down. After a few minutes the operator hears the noise of a gunshot over the phone. Fred gets back on the line, “Now what?”           

Part of the reason these old jokes are funny is because they involve a common occurrence that we can all relate to and have experienced, miscommunication. They simply take it to an extreme which induces us to smile, if not laugh out loud. The first joke is funny because we perceive the message as being intentionally garbled by the wife so as to relay only the portion of the information of her choosing, the portion that she perceives as best serving her own interests. It also plays off the natural tensions that exist in any kind of relationship. The second joke is funny because it involves the misinterpretation of commonly used phrases or words. We can relate, but hope that we would never make the same error as it is only funny when it happens to someone else. There are also jokes that point out how communications can shape opinion without overt communications, affecting our subconsciousness. Sometimes what is funny in them is very subtle. Here is one that while politically incorrect drives home the point. 

Two beggars were sitting on the sidewalk in Ireland. One is holding a large Cross and the other a Star of David. Both are holding out hats to collect contributions. As people walk by, they ignore the guy holding the Star of David but drop money in the other guy’s hat. Soon one hat is nearly full while the other is empty. A priest watches and then approaches the men. Trying to be helpful, he turns to the guy with the Star of David and says, “Don’t you realize that this is a Christian nation? You will never get any contributions in this country holding a Star of David.” The guy holding the Star of David turns to the guy holding the Cross and says, “Moishe, look who is trying to teach us marketing.”  

The joke is funny when you realize that the beggars, who you did not automatically relate to each other, are both Jewish as Moishe is a common name among Jews of a certain generation, and that they have set up the contrast of charity options on purpose. Second, the implication is that if only one beggar had been sitting there with a Cross, the money offered by passersby would have been less. The contrast between the two is what led to the greater financial gain. This is the same contrast that is commonly used by those trying to convince us to take one course of action over another. For instance, a restaurant will put more expensive options on the menu, so that it can sell more of the moderately priced ones and not solely the lowest priced items, intentionally trying to shape our decision making. Third, the helpful priest is funny because he missed what to the beggars was an obvious strategy to maximize their success, gentle fun is being poked. While perhaps unintentional, this joke is perfectly laying out some important concepts of human decision making and how subtle communications can be.

These jokes were not created in a lab full of graduate students studying underlying human behaviors, but by comedians who intuitively knew how aspects of the human condition work. We can learn a lot by simply paying attention to what is going on around us and how society commonly expresses itself through its communications, even when or perhaps especially so, when those communications are jokes. 

There was an examination of comedy that aired on PBS recently. It looked at the forms that comedy took during different economic periods. During economic down-cycles comedy tended towards the nonsensical, making people feel good while overlooking the severity of the situation. Abbott and Costello’s nonsensical routine of “Who’s on First?” became popular during the first great depression. It made people laugh while not reminding them of the troubles of the day. During healthy economic times, poking fun at leaders, political and otherwise, was deemed as more acceptable, and funny, partly as a way of ensuring that they did not get too full of themselves.  And during wars, comedy tends to be outwardly focused, poking fun at the outside world and peddling softly any issues at home. Comedy is, as are many other aspects of our lives simply a reflection of the times and pressures in which we live.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 20, 2009 at 10:06 am

Blinded by Performance

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“In my own little corner in my own little chair I can be whatever I want to be.”

Richard Rogers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) in Cinderella.

In the fairy tale, Cinderella is reacting to her life of cruel servitude at the hands of her step-mother and step-sisters as she dreams of being in a better place and time where her current trials and tribulations vanish. Humans have the ability, we don’t know if it is unique to us but I suspect not, to dream of better places and better times, sometimes with incredible intensity. But we also have the ability, in fact we are somewhat hardwired to be susceptible to illusion and misdirection. And it appears that the better we are at dreaming of lofty goals, that better place and time, we do not necessarily perceive all that is currently happening around us.   

Can anyone dispute that the brain is susceptible to misdirection and to misinterpretation of incoming information? One study that drives home that point was done when neuroscientists teamed up with magicians in order to understand more precisely what magicians have known for very long time, the brain can be subject to misdirection. Exactly how that is done is only now coming to light (Nov. 2008, Nature Reviews Neuroscience). Within the brain there are two distinct groups of cells that come into play when one is concentrating on a matter at hand. One group of cells helps the individual focus on what is being paid attention to, while the other group suppresses interest in everything else. The skillful magician is able to focus your attention to where he wants it so that the “magic” can happen where you are not focusing. As is turns out the magic is helped by the wiring of the brain which suppressing incoming information from where you are not focusing. The scientists in this study are hoping to move the research from the lab into the classroom to help children and others with attention deficit, autism and traumatic brain injury, all those who have trouble focusing on just one thing.

But I found myself going in the opposite direction, contemplating the impact of those brain structures on human decision making and those whose focus is primarily only on just one thing, or a very small number of things as they consider decisions. Magic is playing off the tendency that people have to assume cause and effect, a cause (I saw it with my own eyes) and an effect (a sense of wonder and surprise). What goes unnoticed to a magician is just as important as what gets noticed. At SUNY College of Optometry in NYC (where else would you study illusions?), it has been found that “when you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases and your attention to everything else decreases”. Information that is deemed irrelevant by the brain is not only ignored it is not even perceived. Presto-chango magic has occurred. 

“I can make a 10% return on my investment, year-in and year-out? Why that would be magical.” And so we can speculate on some of the mechanisms that caused investors to focus on the benefits of investing with Bernie Maddoff while not perceiving how unlikely that return on investment actually was by examining other factors.  Did their sharp focus on returns blind them to other signs that all was not right? It is unlikely that was only mechanism at play, in fact there were many other mechanism at play as well (e.g. exclusivity, personal charisma) but one has to wonder if the brain itself, the way we function had a part as well.

Growth was the magic formula of Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco International Ltd., and former Tyco finance chief Mark Swartz. Were investors and Wall Street so completely focused on the historical record of acquisitions and top-line growth that they could not see that the leveraging that was going on and the debt that was accumulating was not serviceable? Did they overlook the stock options that enriched Mr. Kozlowski and his inner circle because other things were being focused upon and those other things were then deemed irrelevant information, largely ignored? And in the context of brain systems do we have a tendency to ignore that which we are not paying close attention to, because our focus is held elsewhere?

Bay-of-Pigs thinking, often described as when there is pressure to conform to the group, so as not to be branded an outcast or disloyal, got its name after the geographic location in Cuba that was the site of a failed invasion. Bay-of-Pigs thinking has come to epitomize everything that is wrong with group decision-making and there have been very deliberate methodologies developed to avoid Bay-of-Pigs type thinking in corporate decision-making. But perhaps there was another characteristic at play as well during deliberations of whether or not to invade Cuba. That the group was so intent on their goal that they could not perceive, or give adequate weight to the evidence that was right in front of them, that the invasion would most likely fail? That other evidence was not focused upon, and so perhaps it ended up being ignored by the decision-makers.

In a more routine office environment when a manager or management team has made up its mind on a topic or goal and begins to concentrate on the topic at hand perhaps some of the same mechanisms take over, intense concentration on one issue causing the exclusion or disregarding of other relevant information.  And just as the magician’s trick becomes easily explainable when you can see behind the smoke and mirrors, organization decision-making can be vastly improved by following some relatively simple guidelines.

  • Respectful treatment. Each person involved in the decision-making will have different viewpoints, partially driven by differences in their world-view and perspectives. Rather than disregarding those who might be different from the majority view, you should embrace the diversity of thought represented.
  • People involved in the decision are able to give independent judgments that are based on inclusivity of participation not exclusivity.
  • Informed decision-making. Those asked to make decisions have available as much relevant information as possible in order to make informed decisions. 
  • During deliberations each person invited to contribute to the decision-making process should have an equal weight or ability to influence the outcome. The decision should not rest simply on one person’s viewpoint at this stage of the process.
  • Flexibility should be designed into the process to accommodate a changing environment.
  • Decision-makers should be held accountable not only to the organization for their decisions but also to the decision-making process agreed upon.
  • Decisions should be time bound, not simply an aspiration of something that should happen sometime in the future.  Realistic deadlines are necessary throughout the process.
  • While goals arising from decisions should be challenging they need to be perceived as achievable with a clear plan of how to move from the current condition to the desired state.

We are all products of our environment and of our natural state or evolution. By understanding how the environment and our physiology affects us, how we will respond to its various stimuli, we are in a much better position to understand the magical properties of that species called homo sapiens sapiens. Dreaming of better places and times is part of what has moved us over the eons out of the savannah and into the suburbs, and while we may not be able to completely control our physiology and in many instances it may not be in our best interests to do so, neither should we blindly react to the environmental stimuli that impinges on us, perhaps with illusion or misdirection.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 20, 2009 at 9:59 am

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