The Fundamental Benefit of Consistency for Organizations
“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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