Monday, June 30, 2014

The VA: Blame or Engagement

The biggest passive-aggressive tar-pat known to humanity!  That’s what Robert McDonald will face if Congress approves his appointment to the Veteran’s Administration.  I wish him and his P&G private sector background all the best; but I plead with him to listen and learn before he trusts those private sector instincts.

I started my career in the mid-70’s as an analyst in the central resource allocation agency in the Government of Canada.  One of our jobs was to instill and constantly upgrade the quality of management in the government.  Often we were led by “fresh thinking from the private sector.”  Almost as often we were let down.  The reality is that “public accountability ain’t private accountability.” 

Mr. McDonald knows that he will find a VA that is broken because of: insufficient resources; outdated infrastructure - primarily IT; and management controls that are a labyrinth embedded in concrete.

Hopefully Mr. McDonald doesn’t turn his sights on the employees.  There has already been bloodletting beyond Shinseki; managers have been fired and bonuses have been rescinded.  These actions may have been justified but the blame should end – it will not bring the open and trusting culture that is needed at this time.

In my experience employees don’t come to work saying, “I really want to screw up today.”  Most employees want to do a good job.  Even beating the tune of customer centricity is a needless act of management arrogance.  Employees want to serve customers; it’s the organizations that don’t let them.

I don’t have first hand knowledge of the VA but I’ve consulted to enough mega organizations to know that they develop lives of their own.  Lives that are often based in careerism, managing upward, and risk avoidance.  These cultures extract a heavy toll in human capital and customer service with their insatiable demands for reports and blind obedience to anachronistic controls.

Mr. McDonald needs the front line employees; they know the answers to the front line customer issues.  Engaging the front line will keep him out of the tar pit.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Rot of Low Hanging Fruit

Be Careful

We hear it all the time in #changemanagement: “show progress; get quick wins; pick the low hanging fruit!”  Really?

Many years ago I presented this established wisdom to a client and they went ballistic.  The point was simple.  There should never be quick wins.  By definition this means there are easy fixes in plain sight.  Fixes that do not require a change in strategy or business plans.  All that is required is that someone takes action that is obvious.

This idea has stuck with me.  I see evidence of it all the time.  When I go to restaurants I see clip boards with checklists to be sure that windows are cleaned regularly.  Why is there a checklist?  Why should windows be dirty?  Isn’t it everyone’s responsibility to clean a window when it’s needed?

I just finished a major project to improve workflow – to get rid of non-value added transactions.  We found lots of low hanging fruit.  In one case there was a whole cottage industry built to comply with a process control that had long since lost its purpose.  Not respecting the control would have absolutely no impact. 

Seriously, there were dozens of people occupied in the work across many silos.  Although a lot of the paper flow had been automated the final approvals and plans were printed and filed along with an electronic copy for back-up.  Everyone knew the work was a waste of time – but it went on endlessly, and still goes on.

When this and other examples were brought to the senior team the answers were always the same: “Change is difficult because decision authority is fragmented, or it just isn’t worth the hassle to clean up the mess.”

I thought this was interesting.  Today’s managers talk endlessly about simplification and the need to effectively use scarce resources; yet when given the opportunity for quick wins the prize is often seen as not worth the effort.  In a cost-benefit sense this may be true, but what about the mindset it leaves behind?  What about the employees who learn to accept organizational dysfunction, put their heads down, and trudge on?

So, if you're a manager and you find low hanging fruit, remember the low hanging fruit isn’t your real problem – disaffected employees is!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Did Innovation Kill Wow!

Mont Saint Michel
When was the last time you said “wow?”  Had to think about it didn’t you.

I often ask this question to audiences – and a strange thing is happening.  Fewer and fewer people have a good answer.  In fact, there is a demarcation by age.  Experienced people enjoy the question and have fun with it; the younger crowd looks around quizzically or takes a brief time out to peak at their phone.

What’s going on here?  Well I’m not sure but I have an idea.  I think we have become so inundated with amazing innovations that we have lost the ability to be wowed.  Let me explain.

Not too long ago I was in the Customer Loyalty business.  As consultants our aiming point was to get customers to say: “wow!”  We believed this correlated to loyalty.  Not anymore.  Wow is simply the expected norm in our culture of constant stimulation and immediate gratification.

I think this has been caused by our quest for Innovation facilitated by the Internet.  We are all working from the same database of winners as selected by the Internet.  The Internet has narrowed our base for Innovation, not widened it.  In addition, the Internet alerts us of Ideas and Innovations in the pipeline.  Who is surprised that Google is working on driverless cars?

Is this a tragedy?  Should we stop Innovating?  Of course not!  I still like the wow I get from my new car because I never have to take the key out of my pocket.  But a car key in your pocket will never wow my grand daughter.  She doesn’t even relate to phones; here preferred style is video chat.

I think that’s the sadness of our hyper-innovation society.  We’re losing our ability to be excited.  But wait, maybe there’s an answer.  Maybe we need to start spending time with the younger people in the audience to show them how to access ideas at the source rather than through RSS feeds.  Maybe it’s time to spend time in nature and museums to see what is truly remarkable.  And maybe it’s time to stand in awe of some of the great achievement of humans – I just visited Le Mont Saint Michel where no one was looking at their smartphone.

Maybe there is an answer in “retro.”  Maybe returning to diversity in experience and thought will bring us some new ideas.  Ones that will make us go WOW!

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Timeliness of Organization Renewal

Renewal Isn't a Fad
I’m a big believer that organizations must constantly renew themselves if they are to remain healthy and relevant.  I never shy away from the “fad of the month” allegation.  People may complain but it is these perceived fads, when used properly as levers, that keep energy, inspiration, and thinking in organizations. 

Organizations need ideas from everyone, everywhere if they are to remain sharp.  The toolbox to do this has become an expansive cornucopia.  But what are the origins and limits to this cornucopia?  Has it become a Hydra?

I got thinking about this a few weeks ago when a good friend of mine retired.  He’d been a senior finance executive and through his career he went to many “executive development” programs.  He was kind enough to sort through his papers and give me a file of some of the premier courses he’d attended.  Wow!  What an eye opener.

The documents in the file went back to the late 1970’s.  The contents spanned all the usual suspects: change, employee involvement, customer focus, and systems thinking.  My favorite is the HBR article of 1985 titled: Managing Innovation: controlled chaos. 

In reviewing the file I was shocked at how the basic concepts haven’t changed.  You could present the content of these courses to executives today if you genuflect to Apple rather than Kodak and Christensen rather than McGregor.

I was intrigued so I dug deeper into my own files.  Among other things I found a 1970’s Manual for Planning, Programming, and Budgeting .  This was a field guide for one of my first jobs.  It sprung from Robert McNamara’s time at the US-DOT.   As I reviewed the manual I realized that it contained most of what I know about planning and financial systems in large complex organization.

So, what’s my point in our new world where we’ve transitioned from paper to digital files; and where face to face sharing has given way to Webinars, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Tweeted hash tags?  Well, I’m concerned that we learn less because we have more.  Let me explain.

We have access to an incredible richness of thinking and practice in management science; however, we tend to select and refine our knowledge within functional silos.  As we drift further from the seminal source of an insight we get multiple interpretations of it cloaked in a myriad of case studies to support a single purpose.  There comes a point of unintelligible background noise that numbs the senses. 

For example, the concept of “jobs to be done” is attributed to Clay Christiansen, as a way to deeply understand the unarticulated needs of customers.  Recently the Human Resource community has taken this engaging concept and interpreted it into improved job descriptions.  Not to be outdone, Simplification professionals now use it to explain organizational roles.  We now have one concept living in three silos that can’t talk with one another.

It seems to me that “confusing the client” can’t be the purpose of all of this rich information and thinking.  We can do better.  Here’s a modest proposal: maybe organizations should have a designated center of “renewal” to regularize the organization’s point of view on the discipline of management science.  What are the organization’s consistent set of principles, definitions, practices, and methods that make sense out of the “fad of the month?”

I have consulted in several organizations that do this.  For example, I lead a Customer Loyalty project at Whirlpool when it was also engaged in a global initiative to build Innovation capability.  My team was “required” to learn and use Whirlpool’s accredited innovation toolbox for ideation, opportunity elaboration, and rapid experimentation as we worked with client teams to improve Whirlpool’s customer experience.

I know the flaw in this proposal: how do you control information flow in a world of free flowing information?  Well maybe technology doesn’t have to be a bane to management science; maybe it can solve this challenge.  I’d certainly prefer effort in this direction as opposed to what I see today where the “fad of the month” is stalled and resisted under the slogan: “if we stand still long enough we’ll be in the lead.”