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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for April 2010

Changing Times and Employee Engagement

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What concerns organizations during times of change? Since organizations are nothing more than an amalgamation of people, organizations themselves actually have no concerns; however people within those organizations, at differing levels, with differing responsibilities, can have widely differing concerns. And since organizations are made up of people, they have all of the foibles of people, the shortcomings that can become painfully obvious and even exaggerated during times of change.

Change, especially transformational change is always spoken about in positive terms by an organization’s management, for who would want to implement change in order to make things worse than they are? Our goals are ones of improvement, yet the act of change carries with it significant risk that the change will not work out and will instead degrade organizational performance. Depending on where you sit within the organization your views towards a change might be radically different. What may be viewed as a very successful change from the point of view of someone within finance may be viewed as a disaster from the point of view of a customer facing employee, struggling to meet customer needs.

Is there a way to help assure that all within the organization or at least most view the act and outcomes of change in as positive a light as possible? If you can keep people engaged throughout the change process and in the change process itself the answer might just be “yes”.

People are much more similar than they are different in terms of the fundamental needs they are looking for work to fulfill and the characteristics they desire from the working environment (I exclude those with psychopathology). These needs cut across industry, geography, ethnicity, gender, generation etc. They are uniform because underneath it all we are all human. For instance you would be hard pressed to find a worker anywhere on the planet who did not want to be treated with respect and dignity.  Likewise a worker desires a sense of equity, that in general they get a fair return for the effort expended. A worker also desires meaningfulness that they are accomplishing something and they want to have a sense of pride emanating from their efforts and pride in what their organization accomplishes. These are among the fundamentals that are part of who we are as human beings. And part of who we are comes from our evolution. Millions of years of evolution have created characteristics are not erased simply because we moved from the savannah to the suburbs, or simply because the younger generation has taken up snowboarding or freak dancing.

A worker in a developing country who submits to sweatshop like or other horrible conditions does not accept those conditions because fundamentally they are any different from you or me. They accept those conditions out of economic necessity. They have pressing needs that make them accept conditions that you or I would not currently tolerate, needs like feeding themselves and their families and putting a roof over their heads.  If placed in circumstances with similar opportunities that you or I have, they would make the same choices that we would.  Because these uniform fundamentals exist, there is a methodology that can be used to make organizational changes more positively viewed in general and to keep employees engaged during the process.

What about perceptions of differences by generation, by occupation, by public vs. private sector employment etc? Do these claims of uniformity fly in the face of the common wisdom, the common wisdom for instance that says that younger generation employees care less about job security than those of previous generations? No they do not. A younger generation employee who grew up during a period of high employment has less concern about job security because they simply have not experienced a time where unemployment was high. If unemployment soared to 11-12% like it was when I was in college or hit the levels it is at currently 9+%, this younger generation who cares not about job security finds that it is very important to them and suddenly matters. They are not fundamentally different than previous generations; they simply have had different experiences and economic opportunities available to them.           

Let’s examine a case where among other things, the equity equation got out of balance and engagement declined. As reported in the Wall Street Journal (February 9, 2007), prior to 9/11 the US Air Marshall Service had 33 agents covering 26,000 flights. After 9/11 in an effort to beef up airline security it was decided that somewhere between 2500 and 4000 new Air Marshalls were to be hired (the exact number is classified). Two hundred thousand people applied for these new positions. The number of applicants can be surmised to be so high because people were feeling a sense of patriotism after 9/11 and a desire to do something to be of service to their country. They came into these jobs excited about the prospect of doing something meaningful and with a strong desire to do a good job. They did not take these jobs expecting extraordinarily high wages, fair wages would suffice. After joining the Service they found themselves faced with what has been described as grueling schedules, a lack of advancement, onerous rules affecting ones ability to get job done, and a lack of identity protection, resulting in “many” (in the words of other Marshalls) quitting the Service, the ultimate act of a disengaged workforce. 

The head of the Service at the time called these complainers “disgruntled amateurs, insurgents, and organizational terrorists”. I don’t know about you but I get the feeling that calling someone who joined the Air Marshalls after 9/11 an organizational terrorist is probably the worst thing you could call them. With the work situation including the equity equation being out of balance the Marshalls responded to these working conditions by joining a union. The head of the Air Marshall’s service has since been replaced and the new head has begun to make changes such as loosening the dress code so the Air Marshalls blend in better with other passengers and taking other steps to protect their identities.  Clearly the change that the U.S. Air Marshall Service undertook, that of vastly expanding their ranks and providing additional security on airline flights can not yet be called a complete success story. 

Just as aspects of organizational culture are not binary conditions, the success or failure of change and people’s concerns about it should not be viewed as binary either. In other words people are not either concerned or unconcerned, change is not either successful or unsuccessful and employees are not either engaged or disengaged. Treating and speaking about such concepts in a binary fashion is far too simplistic. Change and concerns about it fall along a continuum. The degree of concern regarding change can vary from a great deal of concern to no concern, depending on the individual and the change itself can be viewed as a ranging from complete success to complete failure.

The fundamentals of creating a work environment where change can be positively implemented and employees engaged can be depicted in the Message Performance Future© (MPF©) model which has been successful used at describing organizational culture and working through change.

Message: Is there absolute clarity regarding what the organization is about, how it will operate and how each person contributes to delivering on those goals? Importantly are the organizational communications delivering that Message consistent throughout all the levels of the organization? Are policies and practices in-line with that Message? During times of change is it clear how the organization is changing, what the expected benefits of the change will be and what each person’s role in the change effort is?

Performance: Are people getting what they need (in the broadest sense) to be able to deliver on that Message – to get the job done? US Air Marshalls who could not blend in with the other passengers were handicapped in their ability to deliver on the Message, to provide increased security on flights. Performance should be thought of in the broadest sense, including such areas as teamwork, communications, decision making, training, equipment, resources, processes and procedures.  

Future: Do people feel like they have a Future and a sense of belonging, of being valued by the organization? Is there a reason for them to stick around for the long-term?

As stated earlier organizational cultures are not binary and every organization will have varying degrees of each of these being present. Those most successful at implementing change and keeping their employees engaged during change are those that are strong in all 3 areas during the process of change. For instance, one client had some employees who viewed the organization positively in all three areas and as an outcome that group had engagement scores in the mid 80s (on a percent favorable scale of 1-100). Within the same client those who did not view the organization as clearly Messaging, as providing what is needed to get the job done (Performance) and a sense of Future had engagement scores in the low teens. Ensuring that Messages about the change process get out regularly and consistently, and about people’s roles during and after the change is critical, as is providing people what they need to Perform and giving people a sense of Future after the change.

Sometimes change efforts impacting mission critical processes or change efforts involving critical processes can carry with it terrible consequences if the change effort were to fail. Failure for instance of a change process, when that process is one that protects the public’s safety or puts the life of an employee is at risk, is often times simply not an option. In those cases a change process that has multiple small steps with assurance check points along the way confirming that the change is working can be done. Another approach is to implement the change in an off-line fashion, running two processes in parallel, and not to implement the change in the “real-world” until it is assured that the newly changed process is functioning as planned.

Change is a never ending state of being as there is no such thing as a perfect organization, only a vision of perfection that one can strive for only to find that it is constantly somewhat out of reach.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 30, 2010 at 7:35 am

Cows, Chickens and Structure

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There is a farm not too far from me. Well, to call it a farm might be a bit generous. I think it is more like a tax ploy as agricultural land is taxed at a lower rate here then land zoned for other uses. This old estate is one of the most gorgeous farms you have ever seen with stone barns and manicured fields and upon its gently rolling pastureland there exists a herd of black cows, very well groomed, that look like they haven’t done a day of work in their lives. Or have they? It reminds me of a story I came across a while ago that went something like this.

Say you come upon this rural scene. Upon the grasses growing on the gently rolling hills of a farm there is a large herd of grazing dairy cows slowly meandering around, occasionally standing under the shade of the magnificent  trees scattered over the hillside, wandering over to get a drink at times from a water trough and then proceeding back to grazing upon the wondrously lush grasses. All is peaceful and the cows seem very content slowly chewing on their cud, letting the day pass them by. 

Standing by the edge of this field leaning on a fence you spy the owner of the farm. You met him at the local feed store and recognize him as the guy who told you he had moved out of the city looking to bring his management expertise to what he described as the inefficient upstate farms. You see him standing there gazing at the cows dressed in a nice business suit, balancing a laptop on the top edge of the fence, but instead of being soothed by this bucolic scene he looks agitated. You approach a little closer and can hear him yelling at the cows that are seemingly oblivious to his rant, “You lazy good for nothing cows, get to work or I’ll have you butchered!” The cows simply continue to chew. The farmer upon seeing you watching walks over and begins to describe his frustrations. “These dairy cows,” he said, “they don’t do anything all day, just stand around eating and drinking. I carefully measure their performance by how much milk they produce, and so to give them the opportunity to show some discretionary effort, to give more milk, I hook them up to the milking machine for long periods of time, but they won’t produce any extra milk. They are lazy slackers. Unless they start producing some more milk so I can increase my margins I will turn them into beef patties.”

The notion this farmer has of course is that all you have to do to get additional production from a dairy cow is to have them hooked up to a milking machine for a longer period of time. After all, that is how you get milk out of them, so in his mind that is when they are being productive. This new farmer views the time the cows spend in the field eating and chewing their cud, preparing to be milked, as wasteful. He does not understand that shouting at the cows, threatening to turn them into sausages will not cause them to produce milk any faster, that actually milking them is only one part of the larger production process. People, who are working hard, but perhaps just thinking, might be giving extraordinary amounts of discretionary effort while appearing to be doing nothing. On the other hand sometimes when someone appears to be doing nothing, that is exactly what they are doing and that is where the chickens come in.

Chickens are not known to be the brightest of animals and should you draw a line with a piece of chalk and then take a chicken and press their beaks to the line for a few minutes, then slowly remove your hands, the chicken will become fixated on the line and will not move from that position. There is no thinking going on, no insights being contemplated just a chicken which can’t seem to disengage from the activity of staring at the line or so to speak the chicken can’t seem to operate outside of its pre-programmed responses. When set upon this task the chicken sticks to it, regardless of whether it makes any sense. As this story goes, an employee too can become fixated upon a line – the company line. Writing in “The Giant Hairball”, Gordon Mackenzie describes the chicken staring at the line as similar to an employee becoming fixated upon the company line. “This is our history. This is our philosophy. These are our policy. These are our procedures. These are our politics. This is simply the way we are.” Pretty soon the employee can’t operate any other way for they have, like the chicken, become fixated. The uniqueness, the potential that each employee brings to their job is at risk potentially of becoming lost. Don’t lose your uniqueness; don’t become fixated upon a line.

Humans form a complex social web as they interact in organizations. There are formal organizational structures to which they adhere and each organization also has informal structures, which has been described as the way that the work actually gets done. Every organization has a formal structure and because the formal structure can’t capture all the nuances with respect to what it takes to accomplish complex tasks an informal structure arises as well. The work that was done on this concept goes back to the late 1800’s and is collectively called the Hawthorne studies. Almost everyone has heard of the Hawthorne studies as the placebo effect – that simply changing something in the workplace can increase productivity because of worker expectations that the change is being made to enhance performance, so simply because of that expectation, it does. But the Hawthorne series of experiments went on for quite a period of time and examined various things in the work environment including informal organizational structures.

According to these extended Hawthorne Studies these informal structures, from a positive perspective, help the organization accomplish its tasks but from a negative perspective informal structures created power cliques that had the following characteristics:

  • Clique membership/ostracism acted as a form of social control
  • Clique membership forced people to conform to group desires
  • Clique members would all stick together on stories, and would fudge reports so as to achieve uniform results
  • Cliques established norms regarding output, treatment of supervisor, reciprocity and other interpersonal relations
  • Clique members resisted change – especially those changes that challenged their informal power structures.

Their overall conclusion: “formal organizations are not as formal as they may seem, even if they are bureaucracies. When human beings interact with each other over a long period of time, they develop a social structure that is only partly based on the formal organizational structure. The informal social structure has as much to do with the way the organization runs as does the formal structure. The informal social structure may or may not work to the detriment of the organization.

Every organization has structure, both formal and informal, one is not necessarily better or worse than the other, but rather both are natural outcomes of how humans as social animals function. However, being overly dependent on a formal structure, and not recognizing the influence of the informal structure or depending on the informal structure while not acknowledging the strengths and shortcomings of your formal structure are both recipes for falling short of your desired organizational goals.

A chicken will stare at a line not because of any social influences or informal structures pressuring them into this rather bizarre behavior, but because of internal limitations and cows can be putting forth mighty efforts at milk production while appearing to do nothing. The informal and formal structures can also either produce rather bizarre behavior, which can internally limit the potential of the organization or if well understood by the organization, these structures, while potentially appearing to do nothing can be greatly enhancing the potential of the organization.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 29, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Dakota Indian Tribal Wisdom

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A bunch of us conducted an educational session in DC last week. We had a packed house. The talk that I gave was titled “Transformational Change and the Employee”. In preparing for that talk I came across some Dakota Indian tribal lore that I felt was very insightful and so I decided to use it within my speech. In essence the Dakota Indians say that once a rider realizes that they are riding a dead horse, the best course of action that the rider can take is to dismount – get off that dead horse. The Archives of Humor (no author cited), elaborates on that a bit further and states that organizations prior to dismounting their dead horse will often first try other strategies, before coming to the realization that they are riding a dead horse. While I can not vouch for the authenticity of this information it was just too good to pass up. Here is the list – slightly edited by me.

  • Buy a stronger whip.
  • Change riders.
  • Say things like, “This is the way we have always ridden this horse.”
  • Appoint a committee to study the horse.
  • Arrange a benchmarking visit to see how others ride dead horses.
  • Increase the standards to ride dead horses.
  • Appoint a working group to revive the dead horse.
  • Create a training session to increase our riding ability.
  • Compare the state of dead horses in today’s environment.
  • Hire consultants to ride the dead horse for you.
  • Create a form to complete before you are allowed to ride that dead horse so that you ride better.
  • Harness several dead horses together for increased speed.
  • Provide additional funding to increase the horse’s performance.
  • Do an analysis to see if contractors can ride cheaper then employees.
  • Purchase a product to make dead horses run faster.
  • Declare the horse is “better, faster and cheaper” dead.
  • Form a cross functional group to find uses for dead horses.
  • Revisit the performance requirements for horses.
  • Promote the dead horse to an executive position.

(Modified from the Archives of Humor)

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm

My Socks are Diverse

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In 1999, seventy-six percent of all the socks sold in the USA were made in the USA. Today that number is twenty-four percent. The last ten years has seen tremendous change within the sock industry here in the USA. Not too long ago Fort Payne, Alabama had more than 150 sock factories, producing a good percentage of the socks people in the USA put on their feet each morning.

Socks manufacturers have either outsourced their production to China, Pakistan, Honduras and other low cost countries or have pulled out of manufacturing all together. The US employees of those firms have had to find other employment. Two-thirds of the sock manufacturers in Fort Payne have shut their doors. On store shelves you would be very hard pressed to find any socks produced in the USA.

One of the first managers I had in my professional career gave me some advice about socks when I had just left school. I can’t recall how we got on the topic in the first place, but I remember the advice well. He said in order to save time pairing and folding your socks, once each year take all the socks you own and simply throw them out. Doesn’t matter what kind of condition they were in, or if a certain pair was your favorite, just throw them all away. Then go out and buy new socks, making sure that each pair you buy is absolutely identical to the other pairs you are purchasing to replace the socks you just threw away. (Given the very conservative nature of the business we were both employed by, the unstated assumption was that black socks would fit the bill very nicely.) Now when you do wash, you do not need to pair and fold your socks, just throw them all in a drawer and any two you pull out will match. Simple, easy, a real time saver. No thinking necessary.

This was advice I never followed. First off, I was just getting out of graduate school and could not afford to annually replace my entire collection of socks even if I wanted to. Second, I tend to hang onto things that still work and I have some socks that are older than some of the people I used to work with. Third, a sock is not a sock is not a sock. My socks are specialized. I have dress socks that I wear with suits, broken into winter and summer weights (who wants cold toes), socks that are more casual that I can wear with jeans,  socks that are for hiking, even a few pair that I would characterize as athletic socks. I have never felt comfortable with those low rise socks, the kind that is just below the ankle, they always feel like they are falling off. In my world, one sock size does not fit all, nor should it in order to maximize the potential of my socks for best function and to best meet my needs.

Yet other people I know follow that advice, for on the face of it, it sounds expeditious. How easy it would be if all the components of our wardrobe were completely interchangeable. You wake up in the morning and it simply would not matter which shirt, suit, tie, shoes, pants, socks, etc. you pulled on, they would all match and all be appropriate for that day’s activities. That would simplify our lives. It would also simplify what we look like and how we would be able to function. It would eliminate the diversity that brings uniqueness, pleasure and maximizes performance.

Occasionally I hear a pair-matching sock phobic complain, “Why could one sock not look like or perform like another?” It is a bit more work to match up socks after washing them and then to pick the appropriate pair to wear for the day’s activities. But you know, by customizing my sock choices to my needs I think I make more effective use of the socks I have. That manager who gave me the tip to eliminate all diversity in my socks was the head of HR. I can’t help but wonder if any of that philosophy rubbed off into other areas.    

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 18, 2010 at 7:23 am

Acting on Employee Opinion

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There are those who think only they know best when it comes to organizational decision making. And while it is perfectly ok to have strongly held opinions, it also behooves one to know when to listen to the wisdom of the crowd. Assuming that you have crossed the Rubicon and are ready to heed or at least consider the advice of those who are usually more than willing to share some, there are some guidelines that if followed can make the process not too overwhelming and perhaps increase the probability of success. This is a quick summary and the highlighted links will point you to more detailed discussions on each topic.

  1. Don’t try to do too much. If every manager within an organization once a year picked one meaningful thing that went above and beyond and actually made it happen, significant positive change would occur. If two things were chosen, one should support an overall organization-wide initiative and one should focus on local conditions. By limiting the number you also eliminate excuse-making. You either did it or did not. Reference: The One Thing.
  2. Every organization has strengths. Sometimes picking actions that build off of and are natural extension of the strengths, the skills and talents already in place will be more successful than actions that come out of left field. If you are trying something new as an action and do not know how to accomplish it, set a learning goal – how you will learn more about and develop the skills that enable you to succeed on the action. If you are very familiar with how to improve on a particular issue then set a specific measurable goal. Reference: Increasing the Wealth of Organizations.
  3. People are people. We can spend our time searching for the differences between us, but when it comes to the world of work and what people fundamentally want and expect out of the work environment we are all much more similar than we are different. We all more or less want the same things. Find me a person on this planet, of any age, of any gender, of any ethnicity for instance, that does not want to be treated with respect and dignity. (I exclude those with pathology). Think about how the actions you are considering can help fulfill these basic universal needs. Reference: People at work: or it is Life and Searching for a gang in Nebraska.
  4. There are no magic bullets – success, most of the time, boils down to some brain power, hard work and a dose of being in the right place at the right time. Those who spend their lives searching for magic bullets, elixirs, quick fixes will spend their lives searching in vain. Reference: Models, Representations of Reality
  5. Don’t prematurely shut down the creative process. Create a lot of good ideas in a brain storming mode. On a second or third pass through the ideas generated, narrow the field. Pick the one thread that can be most leveraged, the thread that could unravel or hold together the whole organizational tapestry. Reference 40:1
  6. Your actions are at risk for failure. As you plan them out, understanding common reasons why actions fail can help you avoid pitfalls. Actions can fail because of a. lack of knowledge/training, b. lack of correct business processes, c. lack of desire/support. Reference: Errors
  7. It can be good to measure, to create metrics to measure your progress, but just because you are not measuring does not mean what you are doing is not good. Where you can create metrics, do so. Reference: Managing what you are not measuring, and Measuring what you are Managing.
  8. You will make mistakes. It is a given. Mistakes and errors will occur as you pick and execute on your action plans. Don’t be so consumed with making the absolute right decision that you make no decisions or miss opportunities because of decision delays. Reference: Peanut Butter Anyone?
  9. Change happens- look forward not back. Reference: Well I Guess that is not Going to Grow Back.
  10. Openness and transparency regarding what you are doing is the best policy. If you cannot be open and transparent about it ask yourself if you should be doing it. Reference: Transparency and Organizational Success.
  11. Aim High. Reference: Abnormal Change.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

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