Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for October 22nd, 2009

My Jeans are Irregulars

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There are many stories that get passed down through families of European origins regarding what members of the family did to escape, avoid or deal with the horrors of WWII.  One method that I have read about was how families struggled to obtain fake passports to be used in their attempts to flee. There is one story that takes place in Poland in the late 1930’s. In that story it is described how passports were forged by studying old passports from many different countries, their style and format were then copied creating new fake passports for those trying to escape.

One day a man, who was part of the underground, set out to collect old passports through whatever method he could. He was extremely successful and by the end of the day he had collected a large number. On the way back from his activities he was stopped by the Polish police, was asked for his papers, and then confronted when they discovered the large number of passports he was carrying. He was sure that they would take him to the police station, torture and then kill him as they tried to learn about the activities of the underground organization collecting the passports. The man thought about how troubled his family would be if they never saw him again without any explanation. But, it was near the end of the day and the police told the man to go home and then come to the station in the morning for questioning. The man was terrified. The police knew who he was and if he stayed home and did not show up the next day or if he tried to flee that night, they would simply go to his house and kill his family. If he showed up the next day at the police station they would torture him to obtain information and then kill him anyway. He did not know what to do. After much deliberation and consultations, he went to the police station the next morning and approached the policeman who had stopped him. The policeman asked him what he wanted and appeared not to remember the previous day’s incident. The man indicated that he had been stopped and a packet of passports had been taken from him and he was here to collect it. The policeman handed the man the packet of passports and told him to be on his way.

Saliency as a psychological concept deals with how central an event, object, fact or perception is to you or another person and may be the result of emotional, motivational or cognitive factors. To the man with the passports in the above story, being stopped by the police was extremely central to his very existence for it was quite literally life or death. To the policeman, the man was one of hundreds of people that he had stopped and questioned that day. The man who was stopped and questioned described the incident as a miracle, that his life and those of his family were spared. And from his perspective it certainly was, but what was the underlying mechanism of human perception that allowed that miracle to occur? Saliency.  To the policeman the incident was not nearly as salient, not nearly as memorable as it was to the passport procurer.

I don’t envy the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) officers who screen airport passengers, checking each one as they pass through metal detectors and x-ray their bags. They are faced with an unenviable task. They have to keep constant vigilance, maintaining the saliency of forbidden items in their consciousness as thousands of people pass in front of them in a steady stream.  As thousands of objects and people pass through your consciousness each day maintaining the saliency of each and every one, to eliminate errors that can creep in due to the repetitive nature of the work is difficult, and we read about how when tested objects that should not be getting through are, as their saliency decreases.

On a new job everyone else can remember who you are because they only have to remember one new person, for them you are very salient, the new object in their environment. But for you, you need to remember a large number of new people, making the task of remembering any specific one that much more difficult – unless something about them is extremely salient. The same holds true anytime whenever you are introduced into a pre-existing group. It is much easier for them to remember you as an individual then for you to remember each and every member of the new group. 

I have to admit something to you. Not being all that concerned about fashion, I buy irregular jeans. I grew up wearing jeans (one pair to wear while the other pair was being washed) and even today I am most comfortable pulling on a pair. I like to wear jeans. But I don’t like what jeans cost these days. So I go to a manufacturer’s outlet mall near me and I buy irregular blue jeans. As I pull each pair off the shelf and examine them I am usually hard pressed to determine why they are called irregular. I look for the obvious, for instance, does it have 3 legs? (Well I could always use a spare, in case I get a hole in one knee). And I usually just can’t find anything wrong with them. When I wear them, at least at the first, I wonder if what is not obvious to me, the irregularities, are likely very obvious to those around me and I am sure I can hear people pointing at me and laughing as I walk by. But maybe it is not the pair of jeans that brings on the laughter. But in reality no one is looking at my jeans, let alone looking for the defect in my irregulars. You may just think they are, at least for a moment, because the issue is more salient to you.  It is very much more salient to me that I am wearing irregulars, until I forget about it, but no one else cares. (Try using that logic on a teenager.)         

When a manager makes an off-hand comment to a worker about that worker’s performance or future, what may be perceived by the manager as a minor topic or issue, just above the threshold of consciousness, may be perceived quite differently by the employee. To the employee that comment might be indicative of whether or not they have a future with the organization, central to their very existence, while the manager might not even remember the comment the next day. How many cases of miscommunication in the workplace are derived from a comment that has very different levels of saliency to the various people who might be listening to it? Managers may use what they perceive as throw away lines, about “future opportunities” or “earnings potential” not really thinking about just how closely the employee is listening or just how salient those message might be to the listener. 

Another example of a routine event taking on added saliency recently occurred in North Korea where the NY Philharmonic gave a performance. The final piece played was a traditional Korean folk song. At the conclusion of that piece the audience jumped to their feet and began a standing ovation of long duration. The audience and the performers began waving to each other, as though they were two ships passing in the night, ships who did not want the brief beacons of light shining from each ship and seen by the other to be extinguished.  Those brief beacons held all sorts of messages that the audience and performers wanted to pass to each other but were unable to expand upon in that setting. It was palpable. Messages that were saying “we are people too, don’t hate us” and “how can we get past the issues that our two countries face?”  Anyone who saw that could not help but be moved and could easily realize the saliency of the performance to those in attendance; it was not just another performance.  

Can a stimulus or event become salient to you if it is subliminal? The notion of something being “subliminal” is that it exists below the threshold at which you perceive it. There are some, however, that believe that a subliminal stimulus can actually effect behavior. I have to state that I am highly skeptical about this.  If a stimulus is truly subliminal, and not perceived by the individual, it is hard to imagine how it can affect behavior. There was enough concern surrounding this, however, that in the 1970’s, congressional hearings were held to probe the effects of subliminal advertising on the American population. If something can actually effect your perception then by definition it is not subliminal and your body in fact perceives it. Let’s put hair splitting aside for a moment; could an event because of its differing saliency to different individuals be subliminal to one and very salient to another? Have you ever sat next to a passenger on a plane who was extremely upset about bumps occurring during the flight, bumps that a frequent traveler fails to even notice?  

In the work environment similar occasions can arise and being sensitive to the differing levels of saliency that an event can hold for different people can make you more sensitive to those around you. This sensitivity will translate into increased empathy (for most) and in the long run better relations with those around you.

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 22, 2009 at 10:56 am

Red Cloud and Ronnie

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On the last full day of our family vacation my daughter was interested in going horse back riding. We got a recommendation from the concierge where we were staying and off we went. My wife had taken my daughter down the Alpine Slide the day before while I stayed with Grandma so it was my turn to have an experience with my seven year old.

I may have been on a horse once before in my life, but somehow it seems very vague and distant and my only conclusion is that it must have been a memory that I have suppressed. I wonder what happened on that ride that I have no memory of it. So I have to say it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we lined up on the porch of the horse ranch and the wrangler who was going to lead our expedition started asking each of us in our group of 11, who were going to ride, about our riding experience. When they asked my daughter, I jumped in and said that it was to be her first time on a horse, as I wanted to make sure she got a nice gentle steed. He asked her if she wanted to ride by herself or if she wanted to have someone lead her horse. She wanted to ride by herself, she answered without hesitation. The wrangler then turned to me and asked about my riding experience. I did not want to brag about my vast riding experience as I wanted a gentle horse as well, so I indicated to him that I had seen a horse once – in a picture, and if they would just tell me where to insert the ignition key, I am sure I would be just fine.  The wrangler, with a bit of a grin on his face, looked at me as though he had something in mind. “Ronnie for the sweet youngster”, he yelled into the barn, “and Red Cloud for her dad”.

Ronnie was the first to emerge from the barn. He looked like a nice, gentle horse, with a small saddle just the right size for a seven year old. My daughter jumped onto a stump that was there to give a boost up, and then in a blink of an eye she was sitting in the cat bird’s seat, with a big grin mixed in with a small look of concern on her face. Red Cloud came next. He was big, about the size of my Grand Cherokee, and about the same color too. I am sure I had a look of concern on my face as I thought about how in the world I was going to get on this animal. I wondered if I could just lead him on our walk. I am pretty sure I saw cowboys doing that in the movies, where in a tender moment of bonding they walked by their horses heads, having conversations about where the next watering hole might be.  But no, I was expected to perch on top. Without any shame, I decided to use the stump as well to help me get on the horse, as I wanted to make sure I avoided a groin injury, in case the Yankees called on me to pitch in the next home game.

I swung my leg over and was surprised to find myself in the saddle rather then on the ground on the other side of the horse. Well that wasn’t too bad, how hard could the rest be? Red Cloud turned his head to look and see who was sitting on his back. He gave me a look that seemed to indicate that he would appreciate it if I lost a few pounds. I scratched his neck in an effort to generate some good will. Red Cloud seemed to sense that I was a neophyte and decided to immediately take advantage. He took a few steps towards a mare that was standing by the fence. I thought that this other horse must be a friend and he was just going over to say hello. Like a couple of old neighbors who hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks, he was going over to chat about how their various rides had progressed. “Hey, how’s it going?” Red Cloud would whinny. “I’ve got this chubby New Yorker on my back; you have any interesting riders lately?” And she would whinny back, “No, not really”. One of the wranglers, jerked me back to reality, “Keep Red Cloud away from that other horse” she shouted, “he is just trying to get close to her and is annoying her. See how her ears are pinned back? She is about to throw him a kick.” “Just great”, I thought, I am going to be sitting on Red Cloud as he tries to mate with another horse. I had to ask what I should do to get Red Cloud to move away from his potential bride and she yelled over, “Pull on the reins!” After a few futile attempts a wrangler came over and led my horse away. So far so good, we were still in the yard, not having begun our ride yet. 

They lined us up; I was immediately behind my daughter who was beginning to look more and more comfortable in the saddle. We were second and third in line immediately after our guide and off we went. We took what looked to be a narrow dirt path up the side of the hill and began climbing towards the ridgeline of the mountain range we were on. I was expecting a nice tour for about an hour, but we began to climb through thickets and some wooden terrain. My daughter was now getting very comfortable, bouncing around in her saddle, yelling back to me to watch out for this obstacle or that one.

Red Cloud meanwhile had some other things on his mind – like eating grass at every opportunity. He knew who was boss and he knew that it wasn’t me. I began though to get the hang of rein management; how to hold the reins in order to get the horse to do what you wanted. Sometimes it worked.

I noticed something. The path we were on was significantly worn; in fact it was more like a rut. At some points the rut was 4 inches or so below the rest of the ground and at other points the rut was a good 12 inches below ground level. I thought to myself, “How many times have horses traveled this same path with tourists on their back?” I asked the guide at the head of the line if the horses could do the tour without any guide, given how many times they must have made the same trek. He answer affirmatively, he thought that most of the horses if turned loose would follow the script. Humm…I’ve got a horse so used to routine that it does not need a guide. What would happen if something out of the ordinary happened, how would the horse respond? Should I put it to the test?

Just then we broke out of the brush and found ourselves on the top of the ridgeline and were treated to expansive views of spectacular wide open plains with a stream meandering through, about 1000 feet or so below us. The guide yelled back that this was the National Elk Refuge that we were now seeing, winter home to 5,000 or so elk. The view was out of this world with abundant wild flowers around us, but the path was very narrow and should the horse fall, or just decide to brush me off, it was going to be a long way down. I decided it was time to come to some kind of understanding with Red Cloud. I indicated to him that if he kept me on his back and did not stumble on any of the rocks or tree roots that were in our path that I would not pull up on the reins the next time he wanted to stop for some grass. I thought that it was the least I could do for a horse that now had my life in his hands or on his hoofs as the case may be. Red Cloud turned his neck to look at me as I talked to him and I am pretty sure that I saw him wink in the affirmative. A Faustian bargain had been reached. 

We continued on our spectacular tour and I began to think about how organizations can get into ruts, running on autopilot in an extremely routine fashion. Along the way they might try to mate or merge with other organizations, they need sustenance in the form of products or services; both delivered to customers and received from suppliers. But even when operating in this fashion they have the potential of delivering some really spectacular results. But what happens when the non-routine occurs, I had to still test that out.

The wrangler at the end of our column broke me out of my thoughts, when he yelled out “Pull up on Red Clouds reins! Don’t let him eat grass! He is slowing down the whole group”. I apologized to Red Cloud and pulled him away from the grass he was contentedly munching upon as we continued upon our journey. Meanwhile, my daughter was having the time of her life, conducting a non-stop conversation with the guide regarding a whole host of nature related questions, including what animals he had seen on this trail. He indicated to her that in addition to sage grouse, elk, and antelope, that just the other day he had seen a moose. A moose! He now had my full attention.

We eventually ended up back at the ranch and as we entered the yard, the horses that we thought we were now confidently in control of, decided that they would wander to what ever point of interest there was for them. Once they got out of their rut they exhibited a good deal of free expression. Luckily for me the mare was no where in sight.  We got back into our car, after purchasing the obligatory horse riding photos, and my daughter stated very firmly that she could live here.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 22, 2009 at 10:48 am

Somewhere Else on the Continuum

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Normal. What is it? Webster defines normal as: 2 a: according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b: conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. Some make fun of others being “normal”, others make fun of people for not being normal, some work diligently to be different, praising their abnormality as a virtue, yet being “normal”, however that is viewed by their peers, and the acceptance that flows from that, is what every adolescent inwardly strives for – even if they don’t really know what it is.

Rod Serling’s series The Twilight Zone aired an episode on November 11, 1960, called “Eye of the Beholder”.  The short story depicts a horribly disfigured woman who has had operation after operation in a desperate attempt to make herself beautiful, or at least not horribly misshapen. This is her last attempt and she waits impatiently in her hospital room until it is time to take the bandages off. Finally the appointed time arrives and as the bandages fall away she gazes into a mirror to see a stunningly beautiful face. A moment later she screams horribly and collapses into an inconsolable heap on the floor. The camera pans around the room to reveal that everyone else in this “Twilight Zone” is, according to our standards, horribly misshapen, and that here being misshapen is in fact “normal”.  But being normal is not really that simple.

Most things in life are not binary. You are not simply rich or poor, tall or short, fat or thin, beautiful or misshapen, sane or insane. You typically fall somewhere in the middle of a continuum, and most of us typically fall in the “fat” part of the normal distribution curve and are hence dubbed “normal”. What is abnormal though? Is abnormal one standard deviation from the mean, two standard deviations, or three?  And what we define as abnormal has broad implications for those dubbed so.  The New York Times in an article titled “States Face Decisions on Who Is Mentally Fit to Vote” (June 19, 2007), describes two inmates, who by reason of insanity, were found innocent of murder and yet historically have been allowed to vote in elections. They were far enough out on the distribution (classified as abnormal) not to be held accountable for their crimes and yet are not far enough out on the distribution (classified as normal) to be prevented from voting. I could make a joke here but I will bite my tongue. There is an implication here that is worth mentioning. Namely, the implication is that you can be considered normal, (within a certain distance from the mean), on one aspect of who you are and can be considered abnormal in another. If we were all sociopathic killers, then being a sociopathic killer would be normal, as difficult as it is for us to think that way.

The continuum of normal runs in both directions from the mean. Think for instance of cleanliness. Most of us are just average when it come to our compulsiveness for cleanliness within our lives. However, some of us are exceedingly sloppy, at the lower end of the continuum and others of us are exceedingly fastidious, at the upper end of the continuum. Abnormality comes in two flavors, too much or too little of a characteristic.

Being classified as normal or abnormal does not just pertain to the individual level but also to the various levels of organizational units that we humans create. When one culture defines a specific degree or a certain aspect of their society (an organizational unit) as normal and a different culture defines that same degree or aspect as abnormal there exists the potential for an explosive mix. For instance, the circumcision of women is considered abnormal in western culture and is often described as mutilation. Yet in other cultures it is considered normal. Many in western cultures feel so strongly about this point and its damage to women that we attempt to promulgate our standards of normalcy onto other cultures. We find it difficult to understand why there is resistance to the common sense notion that mutilating women is wrong. While this extreme example make it easier for us to say what is right and what is wrong (according to our perspective), sometimes the choices we have to make are not so starkly clear. Tattoos were once considered abnormal and something that happened only to sailors when they got drunk. Our society however has changed the definition of what is normal when it comes to self-mutilation and tattoos as well as other body piercing are now much more commonly accepted. In Slack, I examine the pressures within society to conform to the norm and follow the crowd.

There is another aspect to normal that affects organizations and needs to be examined. Does normal infer mediocrity? If you are like every other organization out there, an also ran, how do you standout form the crowd, how do you differentiate your product or service? So in the case of organizational performance is it good to be abnormal, at the high end of the distribution? I would argue so, but I would also argue that no organization has the resources, the time, energy, people, money etc., to be an abnormally high performer in all aspect of their performance, and that one critical strategic issue for organizations to deal with is to decide which aspects of their performance do they need to be abnormal upon, or if we want to be politically correct, world-class performers upon. Additionally, being at the high end of the distribution on certain aspects of performance negates the ability to be high on other aspects of performance. For instance, if the organization is to be the most customer focused, highest quality, most innovative, it is quite difficult to be the lowest cost provider. It is in essence a contradiction, to be the lowest cost you would need to sacrifice services in order to meet that goal, sacrifices that would be sure to affect your ability to be the most customer focused, most innovative and highest quality.

But there is a special case here, a situation that if the organization can create will cause substantial rewards to accrue and that is the control of the definition of normalcy. What is defined as normal is a moving target. What was once abnormal can be shifted in perception and made part of the mainstream, part of normalcy. If an organization that is operating in a normal fashion can successful implement a transformational change, redefining not only itself but the definition of what is normal from a product or process perspective it can control the market for that service or product. FedEx redefined the speed at which a package can be delivered and controlled the market, it created a new definition of normal, the standard by which everyone else gets judged. I no longer had to wait 2-3 days for my package; I could get it there overnight.   Apple created a new definition of the normal way in which we bought and listened to music. Ford created a new definition of affordability of the automobile, creating a new normal regarding who could own a car. The Japanese car companies can along much later and redefined what “normal” quality levels were.  We are not simply talking about innovation here. We are talking about the kind of innovation that redefines a market that causes a shift in definition, the definition of what is normal. Unfortunately, many companies are not up to the challenge, (see We are Currently Experiencing Unusually High Call Volumes), but for those who can change that definition, establishing a new normal, the potential rewards are enormous.

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

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Garden Paths and Organizational Memory

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“How fair is a garden amid the toils and passions of existence”.

Benjamin Disraeli

Dick Cavett the TV talk show host from the 70’s has been writing a column for the NY Times recently. In one of his columns Dick described an incident where a guest died during the taping of one of his shows. The guest, a health food expert, died in front of the cameras but because the show was taped the episode never aired. Yet Mr. Cavett indicates that about 20 times per year he has a conversation that goes something like this: (from his article)

““Hey, Dick, I’ll never forget the look on your face when that guy died on your show.”

I’m never sure exactly how to answer. Let’s call the speaker Don. Usually it goes on:

Don: I’ll never forget that.

D.C.: Ah, you were in the audience?

Don: No, I saw it.

D.C. (uneasy): Well, you see that show never aired.

Don: C’mon, you’re kiddin’ me.

D.C.: It’s true. And you’re just one of a lot of people who are so sure that they saw it that they could pass a polygraph test.

Don: How did I see it then?

D.C.: I hate to spoil your fun, but the only way you might have seen it is if you knew a couple of ABC engineers who ran off a copy that night to take home to spook their wives and girlfriends.

Don (with an expression that says, “Why are you pretending I didn’t see it?”): But I just know I saw it.

D.C. (now trying to comfort poor Don who has had a cherished memory threatened): Maybe I described it so vividly the next night that you thought you actually saw it … and it was in all the papers and on the late news shows.”

What do we remember and why? How accurate are our recollections? Saying that human memory is a very complicated thing makes me guilty of gross understatement. One aspect of the ability to recall a memory is thought to be related to the number of cross references to that memory that exists within your brain. If you think of the brain as a vast filing system with hyperlinks, the more locations where you can come across a hyperlink directing you to where more information can be found about a memory the easier it is to recall that memory in detail. If a memory is isolated with no or few cross references it is more difficult to recall. Other senses can help evoke memory recall as well, as part of that cross reference system. A certain smell, taste or a touch of a familiar object for instance can trigger vivid recall of an incident from long ago. (If only organizations could get you to smell their freshness and touch their innovativeness, it would be easier and more likely that you would recall those characteristics when thinking of them). And if you think of the brain as a muscle, regular mental exercise, it has been shown, can help it work better.      

How do organizations remember things? Is there such a thing as organizational memory stored in the organizational brain? What mental exercises can an organization do to keep its brain and its memories sharp, preventing them from fading into oblivion? If we think of the individual people within the organization as neurons, then the collective group of individuals within the organization is the brain. The sum total of knowledge, skills and ability that these individuals possess represent the organization’s knowledge and its memory. The organization on its own, stripped of its neurons has no innate ability, it only has a frame in which its component parts can exist. The employees of an organization, who breathe life into the organization also represent the logic, feelings and emotions of the organization and organizational surveys can be thought of as a tool or a sensory organ allowing us to see inside, just as an MRI does for human brains, the intricate organizational brain. Surveys give us only one view however, just as our eyes can see visible light but are blind to other wave lengths in the electromagnetic spectrum. Unfortunately some of the things that our eyes can’t see, such as radiation or an untrustworthy executive out for only personal gain, can kill you.

Some areas of our brain and our organizations have specialized functions that if damaged, can be taken over by other areas of the brain over time, and some if damaged beyond repair represent simply lost functionality. 

Organizations work very hard at helping customers remember them – branding is very important for an organization that is trying to be easily remembered. But what about things the organization itself needs to remember. Things like who it is, what it stands for, what principles will guide it, how it will operate and how it will treat employees? Internal branding can go a long way towards helping the organizational members remember what the organization is about and how it should operate. But can organizations have faulty memories, like the people who are so sure they saw that person die on Dick Cavett, or is that just faulty perceptional organs?  

One way to help the organizational members more easily remember is to cross reference, the same process that our brain uses. In this case what we are cross referencing are all of the policies and practices that the organization has stated it will operate under and making sure that they all match up with the stated internal brand. The more that polices and practices, each and every one of them, are congruent with stated objectives, the more cross references exist. This organization stands for safety or quality or customer service and if that is the case, to help the organization remember that, all of the policies and practices need to be aligned to allow the employees to perform in a quality fashion, or safely, or in a customer focused fashion congruent to those objectives. Many organizations will state one thing and then by its practices, send a different message to employees, destroying its ability to have an organizational memory.

One finding that I find somewhat remarkable in survey research is how consistent some organizational cultures can be, even organizations that are experiencing more than 100% turnover per year. How can it be that in organizations where essentially every year there is 100% turnover that the culture remains consistent? First of all there is the error in how the turnover is measured. In these organizations there is not 100% turnover, representing a change out of all staff, but rather there may be 200 or more percent turnover among certain job categories (maybe an entry level position), and other categories such as management may have much lower turnover providing a source of cultural consistency for the organization. Second there is the organizational framework, the strategies, polices and practices that the organization adopts. For instance, an organization that is a low-wage paying organization, paying well below market, does not all of a sudden change it’s pay strategy because of turnover (although if the pain of losing good people, defined as the opportunity cost of turnover becoming greater than the perceived benefit of low wages, it may reconsider its strategy).  Given that the framework is consistent and in place for a low wage environment the next set of employees entering the organization experience the same culture as the ones that just left. And given what we know about people being people they will eventually make the same decisions as those who came before them if subjected to the same environment (if external environmental factors are held constant).

So far it seems that organizational memory is a combination of the strategies, polices and practices that the organization adopts as well as the collective memory of those living within the organization. There is at least one more component to organizational memory that differentiates an average organization from the truly exceptional one and that is what leads us down the Garden Path.

“Gardening requires lots of water — most of it in the form of perspiration”.

Lou Erickson

The best garden paths are ones that contain pleasant experiences around each gentle curve. You wander  down a pleasant path, looking at plantings on both sides and then upon rounding a bend you find yourself in a spot that contains a unique flowering bush, a welcoming bench or a enchanting piece of art, it is even better if those experiences occur in the most unexpected of places. While it might seem like an aesthetic piece of art, dependent on the skill of a talented artist, the formula for determining what makes for a pleasant garden path is a well known quantity, and it is not too difficult if you know the formula and know how to apply it in differing circumstances (even I have been known to create an interesting pathway every now and again).  The formula for knowledge capture within organizations may feel as elusive to some as the techniques for designing garden paths, but just like garden paths it is possible to apply technique to knowledge capture as well.

Smaller, fast growing organizations tend to rely on individuals with expert information in order to accomplish their tasks. “How do you do this? So and so in department zebra knows how to do that, see them”. But what happens when that person in department zebra is no longer there? That knowledge, that piece of organizational memory might be forever lost.  Systematic knowledge capture and the accessibility of that knowledge to others in the organization is one critical component of organizational memory, if an organization wants to prosper and grow. It is the difference between going to the local bakery, where the proprietor can make wonderful donuts, 12 at a time in one location, and rolling out a Dunkin Donuts chain world-wide.

Yet too often this systematic collection of information also results in more mass produced mediocre products and for the sake of expediency and often profit the enchanting garden pathway becomes a straight concrete walkway though a grass lawn. (The internal logic going on might be, “It is easier to take care of, lasts longer, costs less to build and has a host of other wonderful qualities”.) And consumers, both end users and business to business often look at this end state and are unhappy. How did that artesian bread that was so wonderful turn into that mass produced loaf of fluffy air with no real taste (but fortified with essential vitamins and minerals)? 

Organizations have choices to make and the hard work associated with the systematic retention and dissemination of knowledge, memories is one of those choices. As organizations grow and prosper it is necessary for the organization to systematize this process if it is to survive. However during the systematization of the process care must be taken not to lose the site of what made the garden pathway of interest in the first place. Your customers want do deal with an organization that seems tailored to and anticipates their individual needs, yielding pleasant experiences as they round that gentle curve setting their eyes on that wonderful piece of sculpture you put there knowing that they will be walking down that path. Your delighted customer will come back and visit the garden often.  

“Too old to plant trees for my own gratification, I shall do it for my posterity”.

Thomas Jefferson

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 22, 2009 at 10:40 am

What Would MacGyver do?

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There is an old folk tale that describes a young man, mentioned as somewhat of a fool, who upon getting married was given a dowry by his father-in-law and told that he should become a merchant, in order to provide for his new wife.  Upon being swindled in his first transaction, he comes to the realization that if he could read he would stand a chance at perhaps being somewhat more successful as a merchant, and less likely to get swindled in his next transaction. He heads off to the nearest large town in order to take reading lessons, lessons which he was told would take between 6 month and 1 year to make him proficient in reading. Upon entering town on the cobblestone streets, he comes across a spectacle shop in an alley and with the door to the small ancient looking shop open he overhears the proprietor asking a customer, as he adjusts her new glasses, “Can you read now”? To which the customer replies, “Yes, that is much better, I can read now”. The newly-wed and newly minted merchant of course must enter the shop, and ask the proprietor for glasses for he too is having trouble reading. How wonderful, he thought, rather than spend 6 months to 1 year working hard at learning how to read all he would have to do to become proficient at reading is put on a pair of glasses! The proprietor after trying pair after pair of glasses comes to the realization that the reason this new customer can’t read has nothing to do with his eyesight. Upon stating that conclusion to his customer, his customer complains that the glasses worked for that other organization …ops… I meant person, so why wouldn’t they work for him as well?

Correct diagnosis of a situation is critical to successful problem solving implementation. What works for one organization may not work for another and the magic silver bullet fixes that organizations often seize upon may offer no better organizational reading ability than where they are today.  While the tools of choice may vary depending upon your specialty, comprehensive, customized organizational surveys for me have been the method of choice, along with focus groups and interviews to obtain the information necessary for a correct diagnosis on issues surrounding organizational culture and its ability to impede or enhance performance. Sometimes even if you correctly diagnose the situation though and know what has to be done to implement change, provide service to a customer, help a fellow employee or maybe even save a life, established procedures, authorizations, bureaucracy, silo thinking, inertia and organizational entropy get in the way of a successful resolution. Persistence or sometimes just flouting the system sometimes does pay off – especially when you know you are right.

I know a surgeon who was describing to me a particularly tough operation he had the other week. He was removing part of the colon of a person with colon cancer. There is a vein that runs through the pelvis which can get cut during this procedure and upon the severing of this vein, just as a band under tension retracts upon being cut, this vein will sometimes retract into the porous surface of the pelvis, with blood upwelling from multiple small openings in the boney surface. This is a life threatening situation, and patients have been known to bleed to death on the table when this happens. He spent a great deal of time trying to stem the flow of the blood. Clamping doesn’t work as there is nothing to clamp. The blood is just seeping up through the bone. He tried a type of surgical epoxy glue, covering the surface of a portion of the pelvis, he tried cauterization, staples, the blood kept oozing. He then thought of a technique that he had seen as a resident. He asked the OR staff if there were any stainless steel surgical thumbtacks available. The staff said no, that they were not standard equipment kept for surgical procedures. He sent people to scour the bulletin boards of the hospital to see if they held any stainless steel thumbtacks. They did and the OR staff began collecting them. As they were running them through the sterilizer the surgeon had to get approval to use the thumbtacks in the operating room. Not standard he was told, not according to procedure. You could fill out a form and seek approval, I guess, but there were long odds against the patient living that long while forms were approved by the powers that be. A partner in the surgical practice was called upon to see a hospital administrator and explain the necessary reasons for violating established protocol. Meanwhile for an hour and a half, the patient lay on the table and had utilized 6 units of blood as the bleeding continued. Approval was given to use the thumbtacks and the surgeon push about 10 of them into the pelvis, in the area surrounding the upwelling blood. About 10 minutes latter the bleeding stopped. The thumbtacks will be a part of this person for the rest of their life, which thanks to a surgeon willing to go outside the box, will hopefully be a long one, but I bet the patient woke up with a very sore back.

This surgeon has a track record of being able to go outside the box as evidenced by the OR staff giving him a tee shirt with the words “What would MacGuyver do?” emblazoned on the chest, in reference to the TV show popular a number of years ago.  He also sometimes sports another tee shirt that supports the use of duct tape for a variety of uses, but that is another story.

Correct diagnosis of issues, whether it is the need for glasses, or a more fundamental lack of reading ability, or reasons that prevent employees from getting their jobs done easily while providing exceptional customer service, or producing high quality products are important to uncover. Making assumptions on the causes, especially assumptions based upon what has worked or not worked elsewhere are often misguided. Additionally though organizations need flexibility, to be innovative and to get things done in ways that are not always according to protocol – and hopefully done before the patient or organization dies. Folk tales were originally designed to teach us lessons (in addition to scaring little children) and many of their messages are still relevant today. And lessons can also be learned from an environment were most people do not expect or think that innovation is happening in real time – the operating theatre. But innovation is needed in everything thing we do, it is how humans progress and cope with changing environmental circumstances. Lack of innovation or lack of innovation on the correct issues is to seal your fate into organizational oblivion.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 22, 2009 at 10:33 am

We Are Currently Experiencing Unusually High Call Volumes

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4:33 minutes and waiting: “We are currently experiencing unusually high call volumes” is a phrase that anyone who calls a help line for a large organization has heard over and over again. Have you ever heard “we are experiencing calls volumes as expected and have staffed appropriately so you don’t have to wait”? Or have you heard “Our call volumes are extraordinary low today so you will have an unexpectedly short wait”? I don’t think I ever have. Are they intentionally understaffing but thinking that they can get away with it by putting in a soothing yet contrived “we are experiencing unusually high call volumes?” Frustrating isn’t it. How do you want your organization to be known?

10:26 minutes and waiting: Are homes builders who advertise “bonus rooms” in houses saying that buyers do not have to pay for this space? That this “unexpected” room, this “bonus” is free, or are they charging for it, but that you should simply be happy about this unexpected, almost decadent space? If they are charging for it, it is no bonus but rather simply square footage that you are paying for.

15:44 minutes and waiting:  Oh, you wanted the “good” engine with that car, metallic paint you say – that will be extra. I expect that all you can eat salad bars are priced for the amount of food that they would expect an average person to eat, but what would happen if you sat around all day and slowly noshed on the entire contents of the salad bar – maybe you bring War and Peace with you and settle into a nice snack. Would they throw you out?  I suspect that they would. Want free drink refills with that salad?

20:27 minutes and waiting: One survey that was done a while back asked customers how many times a phone should ring before an operator picked it up. The customers said no more than 4 rings. The company came up with a novel approach to meeting that requirement. Rather then having enough operators to answer all calls by the 4th ring, they increased the time interval between rings to give the operators more time to pick up the call by the 4th ring.

21:30 minutes and waiting: Ever try to read the fine print on a credit card application? One professor had her class of about to graduate lawyers, about 30 of them, spend the entire class time trying to understand the fine print and determine what interest rate a card holder would actually pay. They couldn’t. How do you want your company to be known?

23:55 minutes and waiting: One manufacturer was concerned that the customers were complaining on a survey about product delivery times. They did not understand. They almost always got the product delivered when promised. They never asked the customer however, when the customers needed it. They were focused on internal processes rather than on external needs.

24:30 minutes and waiting: In linkage study after linkage study it has been shown that employee attitudes affect customer attitudes and that employee and customer attitudes have an impact on organizational performance and success, including financial performance. So why do these organizations behave the way they do? Ways that are sure to frustrate their customers. I think many of these organizations survive simply because the competition is having worse or just as bad execution problems.

25:45 minutes and got to go, just got the operator. Anyone want to add to the list?

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved. Visit OV:

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 22, 2009 at 10:30 am

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