All posts by Les Landes

Boosting Employee Engagement: Let Employees Hire the Boss

Manager employee relations can be challenging
Manager / employee relations can be challenging.

One of the main problems with the typical manager/employee relationship is that one person is the boss, and the other … well … isn’t.  Let’s face it, not many adults like being told what to do.  That’s true to some extent even when the boss is really great.  It’s especially true when employees don’t have the option to say no – or even to negotiate a mutual agreement.

Information Should Trump Rank

Aside from the interpersonal tension that kind of imbalance of power can produce, it isn’t optimal from a business standpoint either, particularly if you’re interested in effective continuous improvement and change management.  In the end, decision-making should be based not on who has the highest rank andmost authority, but who has the best information and greatest knowledge about the subject at hand – regardless of “status.” Good managers follow that principle as a matter of course, and it’s an integral part of how they tap into employee motivation. But not all managers are that good.  So the question is how to get it ingrained in the management culture throughout the company.

One way organizations try to “equalize the balance of power” in manager/employee relationships is with the 360-degree appraisal process. Others try to generate employee input through efforts like town hall meetings, employee luncheon roundtables, senior leader blogs, open-door policies and a host of other employee engagement activities.  While well-intentioned and occasionally effective, those efforts are typically pretty feeble in promoting a decision-making culture that’s systematically based on the “best information” rather than the “most authority.”

Give Employees Input into the Hiring Process

So how do you make sure decisions are based on knowledge instead of titles? Here’s one way to do it.  Let employees hire their boss.  “What?” you gasp. “You’ve got to be kidding, right?”  Maybe a little, but not much.  Here’s how it works.

When you’re ready to hire a new manager, you begin as usual with crafting the job description.  Instead of just having it reviewed by the manager’s manager, though, appoint a representative group of the employees who will be reporting to the new manager to look at it, too.  That way, you get their input on what it takes to manage the function effectively from a day-to-day operations perspective.  Then you go through the usual drill of selecting candidates and conducting interviews with qualified prospects.

After that, here’s where you do something radically different. Instead of picking just ONE person for the job, pick TWO or THREE who meet all of the qualifications that management has set for the position.  Then you let the employee representatives interview those top candidates, and THEY make the final selection of the person they feel is best suited for the position.

It’s a Win-Win All the Way Around

Crazy, right?  But think about it.  That way you get the best of both worlds – someone who makes the grade for management, as well as the “informed” people he or she will be managing.  What’s more, think about how it sets the tone for more balanced decision-making in the manager/employee relationship from day one.  It also sets the stage for more effective communication going forward.

Granted, the final decision and the ultimate responsibility for both performance and results on any team rests with the manager.  But how you get there matters.  If you want take full advantage of team insights in decision-making … and if you want employees who are willing to step up, take charge, and be held accountable for their performance … you have to treat them like adults who “have a say in the matter,” not children who “are to be seen and not heard.”

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A question of degree.

It’s rare these days to find a rational manager who doesn’t have at least a modest appreciation for the value of effective employee engagement.  It’s more a question of degree.  How much of it do you want … how much do you appreciate its impact on business outcomes … how far will you go to get it?

One company, OTTO, has set a standard that’s hard to beat.  What’s more, they’ve proven the kind of results it can produce on the bottom line.  Based in Carpentersville, Illinois, near Chicago, OTTO is a highly successful manufacturer of high-precision electrical controls and communication components.

Just how far has OTTO gone to engage people – inside and outside the company – to create that success?

Beginning with Basics
For starters, they offer employees an array of development opportunities including instruction in blueprint reading, math skills, GED preparation, English-as-a-second-language courses and more. They’ve also created a culture of idea generation among employees that produces a constant flow of product innovations.  For a lot progressive companies like OTTO, though, that’s just table stakes. 

Investing with Vision
Several years ago, the company did something extraordinary that raises engagement to a whole new level.  President, Tom Roeser, decided to invest in the housing and commercial real estate market – not as a speculator, but as a visionary.  His goal was to produce a three-pronged benefit for the business, for employees and for the community at large.  He saw an opportunity with the flood of foreclosures on the market, and the company purchased 80 homes and town houses.  Then they gut-renovated the houses and put them up for sale – many for their own employees.  Making it even easier for people, they also provide short-term financing, working with Kane County which provides interest-free loans up to $20,000 to help new homeowners get started.

Committing to Community
Aside from making housing affordable for employees and others in the community, the initiative has stabilized neighborhoods and eliminated gangs that were squatting in abandoned houses.  But there’s more. Roeser also led an extensive effort to renovate the historic buildings where the company houses its manufacturing operations.  He made that decision even though he could’ve torn them down and put up a new factory for half the money. Then he took it a step further and renovated other historic structures near the downtown district.

Benefiting Business
Just a nice guy with a big heart bent on making people happy? Maybe a little.  But the main reason he does it is because it’s good business.  The company is marking its 50th anniversary this year, and they’ve got plenty to celebrate.  With a workforce of 530 employees, company sales this year will be near $100 million. What’s more, they’ve been profitable 49 of their 50 years in business.  The future looks just as bright as their storied past with longtime blue-chip customers lined up like Deere, Motorola, Caterpillar, the Secret Service and others.

Call it a coincidence, but to me it all adds up to one clear conclusion.  If you want people inside and outside the company to go the extra mile for your business, you need to take the lead by doing extraordinary things for them.  Or to put it another way, what goes around comes around – usually many times over.

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At Landes & Associates, we help companies align employee engagement and marketing communications with our unique approach.

Interested in learning more?  Send us an e-mail or call us today at 314-664-6497.

Not my job, man.

Are your employees clear about their responsibilities?
Are your employees clear about their responsibilities?

The beauty of a good job description is that it delineates who’s responsible for what, and it provides clarity on specifically what each employee is expected to do.  That’s also one of the “bad” things about a “good” job description.

When people get locked into narrowly defined duties and expectations, it can have a paralyzing effect on an organization:

  • Employees develop blinders to what’s going on outside their immediate scope of influence and responsibility.
  •  They become disconnected from the overall business and clueless about how their work fits into the big picture.
  • They keep their nose to the proverbial grindstone, and they rarely stray outside of their “box.”
  • It puts a damper on cross-functional teamwork, problem-solving and innovation.
  • When something goes wrong or someone needs help, people turn the other way or spout the classic bromide, “It’s not my job, man.”

Aside from the obvious negative impact on organizational performance, that kind of straight-jacket work environment also stifles business building opportunities.  If you think of effective sales and marketing as “relationship building,” the implications are clear. The “specialists” responsible for sales and marketing are just a fraction of the employees in an organization who have the ability and the opportunity to build the relationships that lead to more business.

Problem is, most people have been stuck in their job descriptions for so long, it’s hard for them to think about doing anything else.  Simply adding a sales and marketing task to everyone’s job duties will do little to change the mind-set of people in a hamstrung culture.  It takes a systemic shift in the way that people think about their work and the way they connect with the business.  Making that shift requires encouragement, support and clear direction on how to become effective company “ambassadors” – people who share the role and responsibility of building customer relationships and the business that flows from it.

In a recent post entitled “Engaging Teams in the Marketing Mission” on her e-newsletter “The Writer’s Desk,” my friend and colleague, Marie Casey of Casey Communications, offers a number of suggestions to help employees break through those barriers so they can play a more direct role in building the business.

Still think people should “stick to their knitting?”  As Marie says in her newsletter, “If any entrenched idea should have been extinguished by the Great Recession, it was this one.”  So take off the blinders, unlock the shackles and turn your entire workforce into a business-building machine.

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So can you or can’t you?

The inside-outside disconnect strikes again! Over the July 4th holiday, I was at my mother’s house reading the Chicago Sun-Times. Jumping off the page in a consumer complaint column called “The Fixer” was a classic story of how organizations send absurdly mixed signals to employees and customers.

Are you being clear with your customers?
Are you being clear with your customers?

The woman with the complaint explained that her aunt borrowed her car and drove out on the Indiana toll road. Her aunt didn’t know there was an I-PASS transponder in the car, so she paid the $3.50 toll in the cash lane. The woman found out later that they also had deducted her I-PASS account for the toll, so it was paid twice.

You can probably guess what happened when she called customer service to get her account credited for the double payment. “We can’t do that,” she was told. As the woman explained in her letter, the issue wasn’t the money – but the principle that made her mad. The tollway system is quick to catch violators through monitoring equipment and late fees, she said, “but they won’t credit a customer when credit is due.”

To top it off, the customer rep compounded the woman’s upset by citing other examples of when they WON’T credit customer accounts. Clearly, the rep’s main objective was to defend her position, not to address the customer’s concerns.

Here’s where the story gets juicy – and oh so classic.
The columnist contacted the Illinois Tollway spokesperson about the complaint. After that call, the Illinois people contacted their Indiana counterparts, and guess what? They were able to put the money back into the woman’s account. All of a sudden, the “can’t” turned to a “can,” which raises a bunch of curious questions:

  • Did the customer rep get in trouble for not giving the woman the credit she wanted? Did that person’s boss get called on the carpet for the rep’s action?
  • Now that the decision was overturned, are reps supposed to say “yes” or “no” the next time a customer asks for credit?
  • If a customer wants to talk with someone responsive, should they call the public relations department instead of customer service? Or do they have to call “The Fixer” to get satisfaction?
  • Is Illinois going to change its no-credit policy (assuming they have one), or was this a one-off response to a potentially embarrassing public relations problem?
  • How often do the customer service manager and the public relations people confer to make sure they’re on the same page?

And the list goes on …

What can customers expect from your company?
Setting aside potentially good reasons for not issuing the credit (e.g., Did she have a receipt to prove her aunt paid the toll?) – it’s HOW complaints are handled that matters as much the resolution. The International Customer Satisfaction Association has identified the following expectations that customers have for product/service performance and how their complaints are handled:

  • Reliability
  • Prompt attention
  • Solutions
  • Information
  • Value
  • Consistency
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Courtesy and friendliness
  • Honesty and trustworthiness

Beyond meeting those expectations, here’s a quick and memorable set of guidelines for taking the “HEAT” out of customer complaints:

  • Hear the customer out
  • Empathize with the person’s situation and feelings
  • Apologize if appropriate
  • Take responsibility for corrective action

To make any kind of customer communication work well, though, it has to start with the internal and the external folks being in synch with one another. Otherwise, it leaves everyone confused about what to do and what to expect – inside and out.

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Making culture a leading indicator.

What is your corporate culture?
What is your corporate culture?

Unless you’ve been holed up in a cave for the past few years, you’ve probably had some kind of brush with a quirky company called Zappos. You may be one of the millions of fanatically loyal customers who buy shoes from them over and over again. Or you may be a salivating investor who’s watched the company skyrocket from zero to over $1 billion in sales in less than 10 years. Or you may be like me – one of the lucky few who’ve had the rare opportunity to visit the corporate headquarters in Las Vegas and witness their wacky and wildly successful culture.

Whatever your experience with Zappos, the company is the real deal – a living tribute to the title of CEO Tony Hseih’s new book,“Delivering Happiness: A Path to Passion, Profits and Purpose.” During the past couples of years, I’ve read quite a bit about the company and watched reports and interviews with Hseih (pronounced shay) on numerous TV programs. But none of that quite prepared me for actually being there and seeing the business in action.

Why this Whimsical Workplace Works
Before I even entered the building, several “Zapponians” greeted our group of visitors outside with the kind of upbeat playfulness you’d only expect at someplace like Disneyland. (BTW, I’ve been to Disneyland, and they could learn a thing or two from Zappos).

When you get inside, you discover that the initial encounter with the greeters is just a glimpse of the craziness you find in every cubicle and corner of the business. People are wearing silly hats and glasses … blowing horns and whistles … playing arcade basketball and competing in pinewood derby races. To the conventional business person, it can seem over the top and a bit off-putting in its cult-like merriment. But if you look closely, you can see something else. Even though employees are marching to their own drumbeat, they’re also working in close synch with one another – and they’re intensely focused and engaged in the work they’re doing.

Despite the legendary tales of the raucous Zappos workplace, it’s not the wackiness that makes it work. It’s more about the absolute clarity and purpose in everything every person does, all being driven by one prevailing principle with two core tenets: create a work environment where employees have control and love their work – and you’ll produce a company culture where customers love doing business.

A classic example of how those two priorities come together is the company’s policy on handling customers. Employees have the freedom to do whatever they feel it will take to meet the customer’s needs – i.e., to make the customer HAPPY.  What’s more, there’s no limit on how much time a call center employee should spend on the phone with each customer.  Some employees have spent literally hours on a single call – all to fulfill their guiding principle that links employee happiness with customer happiness.

You Can’t Fake Culture
It’s easy and appealing to subscribe to that kind of philosophy – and lots of organizations claim to live by it. But for most, it’s a shallow charade that shows up like a short-term promotional event. At Zappos, it’s the true essence and heartbeat of everything they do – and it’s captured wonderfully in the company’s annual “Culture Book.” It’s their traditional collection of stories gathered each year from employees, customers and vendors about their experiences with the company. In the 300-page 2010 edition, Hsieh makes a point that illustrates the emphasis they place on culture as a conscious business strategy. The company is very clear about its brand, and as Hseih puts it, “The brand is simply a lagging indicator of the culture.”

The corollary, of course, is that the culture is a leading indicator of the brand. As quality improvement experts point out, it’s hard to control lagging indicators. They’re the outcomes that result from the actions you take – from the leading indicators you CAN control. Most organizations, though, are so fixated on outcomes and results that they fail to take the same disciplined approach in managing the indicators that lead to winning the game – like culture.

The math is simple. Employee happiness by itself doesn’t automatically equal business success. But it clearly adds up to a better customer experience – and as Zappos has proven, it also will put big smiles on the faces of happy investors.

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I want some control, dammit.

Giving employees some control gives them confidence.
Giving employees some control gives them confidence.

A couple of years ago, my sister found out she had cancer – the same kind that took the life of Farah Fawcett. It happened about the same time, so all the media coverage on Fawcett’s death made it that much scarier for my sister. At the risk of stating the obvious, her treatment wasn’t a pleasant experience. Everyone knows about the usual stuff – hair loss, nausea, etc. But that was only half the story for her. Because of where the cancer was located she had limited control over basic bodily functions throughout the six months that she underwent her treatment.

Trying to be a helpful big brother, I told her one day that I had found some high protein drinks that would help make sure she didn’t get too weak from insufficient nutrition.  When I told her, she said, “Make sure it’s not sweet.”  She’s one of these rare people who didn’t get the sweet-tooth gene.  “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.  “I know you don’t like sweet stuff, but your life is on the line. Get over it.”

She immediately shot back at me, saying that one of the worst things about her cancer was that she had no control – no control over what she did about it, no control over the treatment or the schedule for it, no control over the outcome, no control over anything.  Everyone was telling her what to do, and that made her feel helpless and angry.

“Don’t tell me to get over it,” she said.  “The enjoyment of food is very important to me.  Some people eat to get full.  I eat to savor good food, and if I can’t control anything else in my life right now, I’m not going to give up control of eating what I like, dammit.  So I’ll tell you again, make sure it’s not sweet, or I won’t eat it.  That’s at least one thing I can still have some control over in my life.”

Employees Without Control Can’t Take Responsibility
I was mad at myself for not being sensitive to her feelings from the beginning – partly because it relates to crucial counsel we give our clients.  Her reaction speaks volumes about what fosters employee engagement – and how that ultimately affects the way a company shows up in the marketplace.  Just like my sister, employees in many companies often feel powerless because they have little control over how they do their work. Unlike my sister, though, they rarely decide to take charge of a situation and go beyond explicitly what they’re told to do. They’re more intent on following directions and “doing their job” than taking responsibility for outcomes – and for good reason. Otherwise, they might lose their job – something most people aren’t willing to risk, especially in a tough economy.

When that kind of culture takes hold, the effects are predictable.  Employees pass by obvious problems that need to be fixed, and say “That’s not my job.”  Or they know there’s a way to make things work better, and they remain silent because “No one wants to hear my opinion.”  Or a project goes bad, and everyone points their fingers at “the other guy.”

Powerless Employees Can’t Serve Customers Well
Invariably, all of that denial in the workplace makes its way outside in the marketplace.  Frustrated customers can’t get their complaints resolved because customer relations employees say things like, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”  Then the company starts losing business, and who takes the heat?  The answer usually depends on who is most adept at dodging accountability, which becomes a higher priority than producing a good outcome.

A typical management response is that employees have a “bad attitude.”  And guess what?  They’re right – but only about the behavior, not the source.  They lay the blame on employees – just short of senior management’s door where it belongs.  Truth is, crap really does roll downhill.  If attitudes stink at the bottom, it’s usually because of what got shoveled down from the top.  And if the problem is pervasive, it’s not because employees are lazy or uncaring.  It’s because taking control and “breaking the rules” to do the right thing gets punished more often than rewarded.

Managers in companies like that typically live by the old bromide that if you give employees too much control, the “inmates” will wind up running the “asylum.”  In the end, though, employees don’t want their organizations to operate like a free-for-all anymore than management does.  For the most part, they just want enough personal control over what they do and how they do it to be able to do “the right thing” when they feel it’s in everyone’s best interest.

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Getting an A in development.

Prepared employees can completely satisfy customers
Prepared employees can completely satisfy customers.

Many people aren’t aware that Ken Blanchard, author of the classic business fable The One-Minute Manager, was a university professor before he became a renowned author and consultant. It’s not unusual for people from academia to find their way into the business world. What IS unusual, though, is how Blanchard taught his students – or rather how he tested them – and how his educational philosophy has been applied by many organizations in their employee learning and development programs.

It helps to appreciate Blanchard’s thinking if you recall the typical education that most people experienced from their earliest days in grade school. To put it simply, the teacher taught and gave homework assignments along with periodic tests. Then at the end of the year, you took the dreaded “final exam” to see how well you learned the material.

Beginning with an “A” in Mind
Blanchard thought that approach was backwards. He felt it was his duty to ensure the success of his students, and he decided the best way to do that was to give them the final exam at the beginning of the year – and then teach them what they needed to know to ace it at the end. His academic colleagues protested vehemently, but he never relented. Eventually, he left the university and took his way of thinking into the world of business.

One of his business “students” was Garry Ridge, the CEO of WD-40 Company. Ridge was so smitten with Blanchard’s philosophy that he not only adopted it in the development practices at his company – he also co-authored a book with Blanchard on the subject called Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A.”

Like Blanchard, Ridge feels strongly that it is a manager’s duty to help every employee get A’s in their development programs. Both men are adamantly opposed to the all-too-common practice of force-fitting employees into a “normal” distribution curve when it comes time for the workplace equivalent of the final exam – the equally dreaded “annual performance review.”  As Ridge puts it, the development process suffers when “managers are forced to sort out their people into a few winners, a few losers, and a lot of average performers. Even worse is when they have to rank-order their people from first to last.”

When People Get A’s, so do their Companies
In the “Helping People …” book, Ridge lays out his approach to development which is not only highly systematic, but also grounded in meaningful human values. One of his priorities is “caring,” which for him means that “I am more interested in serving people than in having them serve me. As a result, I do anything I can to help (people) see and achieve their personal A and, in the process, realize their magnificence.”

That may sound a bit too soft and sugary for a CEO who is responsible for generating bottom line results and shareholder returns. Even though the merits of his development model should be self-evident, it’s still nice to see what it’s done for financial performance, right? So just what kind of impact has his approach had on the business? Ridge reports that since he implemented the A-based performance review method, sales have more than tripled. In that time, WD-40 Company revenues have grown from $100 million to $339 million in 2008 with an astonishing $1.1 million in sales per employee.

Part of that success comes from the dramatic impact that their development efforts have had on employee engagement – and ultimately on customer relations. In the final paragraph of their book, Blanchard and Ridge sum it up this way. “If you help your people get A’s, your performance management system will ignite them to blow away your customers with outstanding service. Why? Because people who feel good about themselves want to return the favor.”

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The power of organization and ownership.

Sometimes, getting the workplace organized and orderly can have a bigger impact on performance than most people realize.  Recently, a team in the upholstery department of a client in the aircraft service industry took on the task of “cleaning up their act” and reorganizing their shop.  Part of the reason for the change was the increasing number of Corrective Action Reports they had been receiving.   Here are the “before” pictures:

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They started by learning the principles and practices of “5S” – sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain.  By the time the project was completed about three months later, every inch of the space and assembly process was changed around, producing results that surpassed everyone’s expectations.  Before the change, processes were highly irregular.  Now, the entire flow from sewing … to assembly … to gluing … to the foam area … is precise and consistent – and people aren’t stepping on top of one another anymore.

 

Organization Pays Off Big
Part of the resulting benefit has been faster, easier access to the tools and materials that everyone needs to do their jobs.  In the old layout, tools were scattered, and it was hard to find what people needed.  Not surprisingly, when they started pulling all the tools out of various places to get them organized, they found some they didn’t even know they had. Now all tools are in lockers with shadow boxes, and the team uses the sign-out/sign-in sheet whenever a tool is taken out or replaced.

The same approach is used for parts and materials that had been spread around and tossed into cardboard boxes before the redesign. Now everything is orderly, and items are placed in clearly marked, transparent plastic bins that are staged to minimize the time to access what people need.  Here are the “after” pictures:

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The results of the change have been nothing short of amazing. According to one person on the team, it used to take her a week to do four chairs.  Now she can complete the same work in two days. Another employee claims that it’s improved efficiency by 50% or more.  Productivity gains of that magnitude are almost unthinkable in most organizations – and that’s only half the story of this project.

In addition to dramatically faster production times, quality has improved, as well.  Before the change, foreign particles sometimes got inside the seats, and the team had to rip them open and start over.  That problem has been virtually eliminated, and they’ve cut down a lot of rework.

Ownership Pays Off Even Bigger
Aside from the tangible improvements in quality and productivity, the project has had a noticeable effect on the pride and professionalism of the team. It’s too early yet to determine the ultimate impact on long-term sales, but the effect on marketing is clear.  When customers and prospects visit the facility now, the upholstery area is always showcased on the inspection tour, and the team is making a highly favorable impression.

The director of manufacturing engineering, who provided support for the project, says that 5S gave the team valuable tools, but their success came mainly from one thing – ownership.  She told the team from the outset this was an opportunity to create a work space exactly the way they wanted – in a way that would be beneficial for them and their work.

At least three important lessons come from this project.  First, when employees are given a chance to create their own work space, and they’re given the tools to do the job right, their level of dedication and performance can be truly amazing.  Second, no one knows the details of a particular system or process – and what its potential might be – better than the people who work with it every day.  Third, no traditional marketing tool can surpass the impact of proud, fully engaged employees in making an impression on prospective customers.

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Would you like to produce similar gains in quality and productivity?  Give us a call, or send an e-mail and we’ll show you how we can help.

When improvement gets personal.

In a recent team meeting at an organization that’s beginning to implement our ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System, we reaffirmed a basic truism about human nature in the workplace: if you want to get employees seriously engaged in continuous improvement efforts, it helps to make it personal.

We build that principle into the system from the outset when we do orientation and training.   In one exercise, we get very personal by asking employees to lay out the details of their “get-up-in-the-morning-and-get-ready-for-work” process.  People have varied reactions, of course, ranging from chuckles and jokes… to earnest reflection… to shrugs and puzzled looks about why they’re being asked to do something so simple and silly.

We help them take a systematic approach by giving them Post-It Notes to use so they can describe the process step-by-step.  Among other things, the sticky notes help them insert details they miss along the way and rearrange steps to get them in the right order.

Challenging the Routine

By the end of the exercise, most people get pretty serious, and it opens up into a rich conversation about what it takes to improve entrenched daily processes in the workplace.  We talk about core ideas from the exercise, such as:

  • Most of the time we’re on automatic pilot with our daily processes, and we’re clueless about what’s working well, what’s not working and what could work better.
  • The real knowledge expert of any process is the person who’s doing it every day.
  • Most substantive and sustained improvement comes from the cumulative effect of addressing a multitude of small details rather than launching massive wholesale change.

Those are just a few key concepts that get addressed.  Sometimes – as it did with this particular client – a number of people also have a personal epiphany, and they decide that their “get-up-in-the-morning-and-get-ready-for-work” process needs considerable adjustment.

That’s what happened with Martha, one team member who realized that her morning routine was “a mess.”  It was chaotic and stressful, and it needed to get fixed.  She decided to get her daughter to help, starting out by asking her to lay out the process as she saw it.  Like Martha, her daughter first thought it sounded silly and simple.  “Just try it,” she urged.  As they went through the process, she discovered it was more complicated and revealing than she thought.  More importantly, they were able to isolate and remedy some basic problems in the process.  “It’s still not perfect, but it’s so much better,” said Martha.  “The stress level is way down, and it’s improving every day.”

Nice added value, right?  But it gets better.

Martha told the story to her co-worker, Rita, who had a similar problem – her “pick-up-the-grandkids-after-school-and-get-them-to-sports-practice” process.  Rita scoffed initially at the notion of getting her grandkids to help her fix it, but Martha urged her to give it a try.  “I couldn’t believe it,” said Rita.  “When we got the process all laid out, everyone realized how much grandma was doing and what each person could do to help.”  Could they have come to the same conclusion without laying out details of the process on sticky notes?  Probably – but the graphic display of all the steps involved made an impact on the grandkids that just barking orders or pleading with them was unlikely to accomplish.

Not surprisingly, Martha and Rita have gotten immersed in the ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System, and they’re already implementing improvements on the job that are making a meaningful difference to them and the team.   And it’s not just because they’re being asked to help improve the workplace, but because they’re focusing on things that matter to them in their own areas of responsibility.  Or to put it more simply – it’s gotten personal.

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What do you think?  Please share your comments below.

The value of trust.

Building trust is essential
Building trust is essential to building a strong team.

If you’ve ever wondered how vital trust is to people in the workplace, here’s some insight from a cultural assessment we conducted recently with the middle managers of a new client. It was the first step in implementing our ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System at that organization.  The assessment tool is simple to use and highly revealing.  It provides a statistical snapshot of how a group of people ranks a set of 40 value statements in comparing their current culture with the target culture they would prefer.

One of the value statements in the assessment is Demonstrate trust in and respect for others.”  While there is usually a gap in how that statement is ranked between the current and the target cultures with every client, it was especially striking with this one.  Participants ranked it 30th among the 40 statements in the current culture – and number one in the target culture.  We also calculate the mean scores to assess how the group rates the prominence of each value statement for both current and target cultures – 1.0 is the lowest possible score and 7.0 is the highest.  On this statement, the mean score for this group was 3.25 for the current culture and 5.94 for the target culture.

Sending the Wrong Message
That’s a big gap, and the current low level of trust was evident in a later discussion we had with the senior managers.  A core feature of the ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System is the focus on giving front-line and middle managers the authority to approve smaller improvement ideas from employees – rather than going through a suggestion committee or senior management review.  The reason is partly to get more decisions made closer to the where the action is.  It also helps managers develop leadership skills in guiding and coaching people who report to them.

Well, these senior managers didn’t want employees to go through their supervisors with their ideas.  Why?  Because they felt the supervisors would turn down too many potential improvements, and they wanted employees to be able to submit ideas directly into the improvement database.

That approach may sound reasonable on the surface, but the message it sends is unmistakable – “We don’t trust you to be fair to employees or make sound judgments about their ideas.”  Of course, that attitude typifies what the assessment revealed about the disparity between their current and target cultures.

We eventually reached a compromise that gets all ideas from employees recorded – and still allows supervisors to provide coaching and guidance.  The larger issue, though, is how to bridge the current trust gap between upper and lower levels of management.

Taking the First Step
One key to resolving that dilemma can be drawn from Henry Stimson, who was one of the great U.S. statesmen in the first half of the 20th century.  He once said, “The only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.”  The implications of those words are clear for organizations like this one facing a crisis in trust.  While there is truth in the old adage that trust is a two-way street, someone has to take the first step – and it needs to be senior management.

For leaders who choose to ignore Stimson’s advice and withhold their trust, there’s one thing they can count on.  They will rarely be disappointed – because they’re sure to find plenty of people who live up to (or down to) the low expectations they hold of people.  If they choose instead to take that first step in granting trust, they will surely be disappointed once in a while.  But the payoff in performance and loyalty that they will get from the vast majority of employees far outweighs the risks of putting faith in people who feel trusted to do the right thing.

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