Tag Archives: internal communications

A lesson for the ages.


Synergies result when teams work together
Synergies result when teams work together.

On April 1, a remarkable story in automotive history will come to an end. Well, not the story itself – it’s too good – but the 26-year-old “experiment” that created it will be a thing of the past.

It all began in 1984, when General Motors and Toyota decided to scratch one another’s proverbial backs with a joint venture called New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). The primary motivation for Toyota was to get a foothold for manufacturing automobiles in the U.S. – mainly to stem the public outcry over U.S. auto jobs going to Japan. As for GM, they wanted to learn how to make high-quality small cars that were profitable – which the Japanese proved they could do. As a bonus, GM would also learn how to apply Toyota techniques in other plants throughout their operations.

From Worst to First
Most companies taking on that kind of venture would try it in a plant where they had a strong foundation to build on. Instead, they picked the worst plant in the GM system – in Fremont, California. It was so bad that GM had to shut it down completely two years earlier. Relations between labor and management were incessantly contentious and hostile. Some say they spent more time filing and fighting grievances than making automobiles. What’s more, the product quality was laughable. Cars wound up with the wrong bumpers, steering wheels missing, scratches and dents everywhere. Then they had another crew at the end of the line to repair all the defects.

So when NUMMI was announced, few people thought it would succeed. Not only did they reopen the problem plant – they hired back the same people, believing as Deming always said, problems aren’t about the people, but the system. Before they started operating, though, a sizeable contingent of workers went to Japan to learn the legendary “Toyota way,” working side-by-side with their Japanese “brothers.” It was a landmark event that transformed people’s lives.

You can learn about the details from many sources, including a recent story that ran on National Public Radio.  But at the end of their time together in Japan, a lot of grizzled, hard-bitten workers were literally in tears during the celebration they held before heading back to launch the Fremont operation. They had been given something few of them had known before – a sense of pride and purpose – and the impact on employee engagement proved to be profound.

Marketing is More about What You Do than What You Say
When production started, results were meteoric. Almost immediately, quality and productivity reached levels that paralleled other Toyota plants. Everyone noticed … many cheered … but for reasons that are hard to believe yet easy to understand, little changed for many years elsewhere at the U.S. automaker – despite considerable effort from numerous people within GM. By the time quality became the rule rather than the exception throughout the company a few years ago, it was too late. Even aggressive marketing efforts that touted improved quality initially failed to convince potential customers – too many years of exaggerated claims and poor performance.  Then just when GM started to recover, the economy collapsed, and they had to ask for bailout money to stay afloat.

Fremont is shutting down this week for two main reasons: GM pulled out of the venture in 2009, and Toyota decided it can handle U.S. production in other plants across the country. Although many are sad to see the plant close, its legacy continues. Perhaps the simplest and biggest lesson from NUMMI is that employee engagement and cooperative systems aren’t just nice things to have. They’re the cornerstone of business success – and the most compelling force for effective marketing a company can pursue.

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Counting what counts.

Determining what matters can drive organizational focus
Determining what matters can drive organizational focus.

Measuring the value of communication has always been important. Today, it’s become something of an obsession, and it’s easy to understand why.  But instead of focusing on measuring the value of communications, communicators should concentrate on communicating about measures that people value.  Here’s an example of how a St. Louis-based winner of the Baldrige National Quality Award, Wainwright Industries, applied that principle.

Making data meaningful with “Mission Control.”
When they set their sites on the award, they knew they would have to collect a lot of data – and figure out how to share it throughout the organization.  The solution was inspired by NASA. The Wainwright team decided to post the data in a single room organized around priorities that came from input provided by employees. They called the room “Mission Control,” and it was designed to let all employees know how various aspects of the company’s performance are tracking at all times. Using color coded flags, the display provides instant awareness of emerging problem areas. What’s more, it activates a pre-set course of action if performance indicators fall below established benchmarks.

While it’s essentially a communication system, not many professional communicators would typically see it as part of their domain. Therein lies the proverbial rub – and the opportunity to be more relevant.


Measuring what matters to people.

When communicators measure their success in terms of functional indicators like media impressions, newsletter satisfaction ratings and similar measures, they’re not connecting with most employees who don’t care much about those measures.  Ultimately, the most vital function of organizational communications is to facilitate the exchange of data, information, and knowledge that support employees in doing their everyday jobs. That’s what most people care about – and that’s where communicators should focus much of their measurement efforts.

The first step is to ensure you’re focusing on relevant indicators.  Examples might be safety, employee learning and development, results of continuous improvement efforts, quality of products and services, defect and rework rates, results of employee opinion surveys, customer satisfaction, sales and margins, progress reports on employee profit-sharing and the like.

Sharing information so people see why it matters.

But all that data is useless without an effective system for sharing it.  In short, measurement needs to be supported with a communication system that spans the entire organization.  Communicators shouldn’t try to do it alone, though.  They should work closely with other key functions – human resources, organizational development, finance, quality, information technology, sales, marketing, customer service, etc.

The roles played by the people in this measurement and communication “orchestra” vary depending on numerous factors. Someone, though, has to take the lead and serve as the “conductor” who keeps the group operating in unison.  That role is ideally suited for communicators who can see their way out of their traditional boxes.

Regardless of who plays what role, several important elements have to be built into the design of an effective measurement and communication system:

  • Leading and lagging indicators
  • Frequent and timely
  • Simple
  • Visual
  • Relevant
  • Quantitative
  • Benchmarked
  • Action-based

Click here for a brief description of each of those elements.

It’s a big role to take on, but it’s worth it.  Beyond the merits of the system itself, communicators stand to be recognized more for the value of their work – and appreciated more for their contributions to the performance of the organization.

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They’re not your people.

Have you ever heard a manager ask, “How can I motivate my people?”  It’s a familiar lament, and the sentiment behind it is easy to understand.  After all, managers need to get the work done, and if “their people” aren’t motivated to do it, managers are up a creek – right?  Maybe so, but the answer to the question is not the answer to the problem.  In fact, the question reveals a basic misunderstanding of human nature in the workplace – on at least three levels.

People Have Brainpower – Use It
First, what managers typically mean when they ask that question is, “How can I get the people who work for me to do what I want them to do in the way I want them to do it?” One reason that kind of mentality can backfire is because it conveys the impression that managers have all the answers, and the job of employees is to do what they’re told. If there’s one clear lesson that came out of the quality movement, it’s that every body in the workplace also comes equipped with a brain. Any organization that fails to take full advantage of everyone’s heads and hearts as well as their hands is diminishing the potential of its employees to help the organization excel.

People Motivate From Within – Build on It
Second, people cannot be motivated.  That’s becausemotivation is intrinsic. You can give employees extrinsic incentives, but if those incentives don’t resonate with what people are already motivated by, they will have little effect.  That’s why managers have to tune in and respond to the uniquely motivating spark that exists within each person in order to produce optimal performance.

People Deserve Respect – Give It
Third, if you’re a manager, you need to understand that unless you’ve taken in slaves, or God has taken you in as a partner, employees are not “your people.”  They are independent, competent adults who expect respect, and they don’t respond well when they’re treated like children or chattel.

People Want Success – Count on It
Once managers come to terms with those basic ideas, then they can ask the more relevant and appropriate question: “How can I get the best that people are willing and able to contribute to the success of this organization?”  Here are some keys to achieving that goal:

  1. Make sure that a person’s aptitude matches the requirements of the job. In other words, don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole.
  2. Get clear alignment on responsibilities, goals and expectations.
  3. Offer meaningful rationale for decisions and actions that answers the ever-present question, “What’s in it for me?”
  4. Provide well-defined, functional processes and accessible resources that people need to do the work they are expected to do.
  5. Establish a “guidance system” with relevant, understandable metrics and a visible means of communicating about them.
  6. Use “constructive accountability” when things go wrong, and always approach people as the source of the solution rather than the cause of the problem.

While employees are not “your people,” most of them want the same thing the company does – success.  Organizations that treat employees like partners rather than property in a common effort to succeed are more likely to get there.

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Play, Work and Hell

If you believe the essence of good marketing is “relationship building” – both inside and outside the organization – here’s something to think about.  I’ve written before about a communication giant and former colleague named David Berlo.  He used to say that all activity in the workplace can be classified into one of three categories – play, work or hell.

Play is the stuff that people love to do – the things they enjoy so much they’d do it without pay if they didn’t need the money.   Work is the stuff that’s not great fun, but it’s acceptable enough that people will do it if they get something in exchange that they want and don’t have.  That’s why we call it “compensation.”   Hell is the stuff that no one wants to do, and you can’t pay them enough to do it.

So how do you optimize performance?
First, whenever possible put people where they can have “fun” – not frivolous or silly things, but the kind of work that people find genuinely enjoyable.  In part, that means finding out what gets people tuned in and turned on, and then creating a culture that lets people find the work that suits them best.  You can almost always count on people to do their best on the things they enjoy most.

Second, when it comes to run-of-the-mill work, it’s pretty basic – compensate people fairly, and the vast majority will give you a fair day’s effort in return.

Finally, for the stuff that makes work feel like hell.  Start by asking yourself if it really needs to be done.  A lot of crappy work exists only because it’s been hanging around forever, and no one ever asks why.  If the answer is no, stop doing it.  If the work does need to be done, ask yourself if it can be done another way.  If it can, change it so it’s not unbearable.  If it can’t be changed, and it still needs to be done, and you can’t pay people enough to do it, you play “Let’s make a deal.”  Ask employees what they would need in return if they’d be willing to do it.  Then negotiate until you get to a place that works for both of you.  If you can’t come to a mutual agreement, you better give it up.

There’s always one more option.
You could resort to the traditional management method of just forcing people, telling them they have to do it or there’ll be – of course – hell to pay.  In fact, the question “How can I motivate my people” is often a cover-up for the question, “How can I tell employees to go through hell, and make them like it.”  If you do decide to take that approach, be sure to prepare yourself for the resulting decline in employee engagement and the quality of customer relationships.  Hmmm … on second thought, what were those other options again?

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Getting the most from your “discretionary effort system.”

One of the most popular definitions for employee engagement is discretionary effort. But when you ask the question – “Discretionary effort for what?” – the answers can go in a lot of different directions, and they’re often not very strategically targeted. Asking yourself a few key questions will help you leverage employee engagement for things that matter most to the organization and employees alike:

1. What do we want people to do?
Determine your priorities, and communicate frequently and consistently with employees on where you want them to focus their discretionary effort.

2. How do we want them to do it?
Give employees a mechanism for taking action and initiative based on what we call the 4-S principles. No, I didn’t miss one from the 5-S “lean” system. These are different – simple, streamlined, supportive and systemic.

3. How do we get them tuned in and turned on?
Explain to employees how their individual efforts to “go the extra mile” can boost company performance, and give them a stake in the outcomes with modest incentives and bonuses.

4. How do we keep it alive?
Make continuous improvement part of the daily routine by putting it in everyone’s job description, and discuss it in regular group meetings and one-on-one conversations.

5. How well are we doing it?
Monitor and measure the level of discretionary effort employees put into making improvements in your top priorities, and show them the impact it’s having on critical performance indicators.

6. How are we reinforcing it?
Recognize people’s contributions frequently and sincerely with simple yet meaningful expressions of acknowledgment and appreciation.

The actual design of your “discretionary effort system” will vary depending on a lot of factors such as type of business, size of the organization, number and locations of operations, communication tools. . .and plain old culture. But answering those questions is a great starting point for any organization to ensure that they get the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to employee engagement.

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