Lesson Learned #13
We are well known by our clients for very large wall map presentations. Before the digital revolution these maps were extremely cumbersome to put together. Newly minted MBAs brought on board, eager to flex their management acumen, would be taught how to cut and paste charts and images on large strips of bristol board. A few understandably questioned why this wasn't mentioned in the interview process.
As the digital world took hold, PowerPoint presentations became very popular and even clients started to question whether these massive wall charts were not a little out of step with modern capabilities. So we adapted and tried doing our presentations with cutting edge slide shows. In the process we learned a couple of interesting things:
The most important thing we learned, however, was that once a slide is presented it disappears. Then another slide is presented and it too disappears. After a while people forget what was presented before hand and the continuity of the message disappears. The real power of the giant wall map was that it kept all the key points front and center and people could easily scan back to previous points. This allowed people to make the connections that are often so important to fully understanding how you get from A to B. It also stopped the endless debate of whether or not to hand out the slide deck before the presentation. If you handed it out people would invariably jump ahead and pay less attention to what you were saying. If you didn't hand it out, people would get slightly irritated that you were holding back information and sometimes felt they were being manipulated. With the wall map, everything was already in full view, you just needed to explain it.
In a change management process, understanding the connections between what you are going to change (process), how you are going to manage the new processes (management systems) and what you need to do differently (behavior) are critical. So we went back to using the wall maps, although they are now digital and we get fewer complaints from our new hires. We learned to use digital technology to support the method, rather than change the method to fit the technology.
Lesson Learned #12
In the early days of the company the founders had to figure out how to position the firm in the consulting market. They came from both strategy and operational backgrounds and from their experience felt there was an opening for a strategically oriented implementation firm. They believed the existing strategy consultants couldn't implement their ideas very well and the productivity consultants were too focused on labor cost and not on total business profitability.
So they came up with what they thought was a brilliant slogan, "Strategic Productivity."
They explained the meaning to one of their clients, a CEO of a fairly large transportation conglomerate, told him the slogan and then waited for his response. He thought about it for about two seconds and said, "I think you guys have taken two over-used words and created a meaningless phrase."
He added some useful advice, "Avoid jargon. It doesn't mean anything to anybody. If something can be explained in a multitude of ways, it doesn't mean anything. I could come up with five definitions of 'strategic productivity.' It just makes it sound like you are trying to impress someone. Think about what makes you appealing to potential clients and come up with a very simple slogan that says what you mean." Somewhat bitterly thanking the CEO for the advice, the founders went back to the drawing board and eventually came up with the slogan that continues today as the company's registered trademark, "Results Not Reports."
The lesson learned was a powerful one and became adopted into the culture of the company. Any use of jargon in presentations or even casual discussions is frowned upon which, not surprisingly, is universally appreciated by clients at all levels.
Lesson Learned #11
In some ways this lesson was learned similarly to the second one we wrote about, when we inexplicably chose a national trucking convention to criticize the trucking industry. When you are talking to a group of people it is very important to understand and appreciate their sensitivity to what you are saying, because what you mean, and what people hear can be very different things.
Each summer we have a company event held over a couple of days. It's a good way to get all our frequent flyers together and we use the occasion to hold a three hour company update meeting sometime on the first day. One particular company meeting we spent the full three hours going through tremendous detail about our positioning, performance and people strategies. Despite three long hours of presentation, all that was remembered (and is in fact still remembered to this day) is when the president of the company said, "The core of our people strategy this year is to improve our recruiting."
What he meant was that people are of course critical to a consulting firm and it is a good idea to try to improve how you can attract the best candidates. What people heard was, we need to improve the quality of our people (meaning find better staff than all of you here).
It was a fairly innocent comment but it caused a surprising amount of internal turmoil. It also caused any other key points from the meeting to be lost. The lesson we learned was to think through carefully what you say to a group and try to understand how the words will be interpreted. This also reinforced the importance of rehearsing your presentations in advance. Sometimes you need others to listen to your words because it is not easy to hear or interpret your own words other than the way you intended. When your job is to communicate ideas, which is a key responsibility of all managers, it's important that what you say and what people hear are the same thing.
Lesson Learned #10
During a project with Heinz, we had a very bright client who taught us a great deal about managing variances and why that was so important for continuous improvement. He did it in a fairly combative way: he threatened to shut down the project. He told us if we published production schedule "targets" on the area performance visibility boards, he would march us out the doors.
His logic was insightful, "leave the averages for the people who look at averages... how am I supposed to instill a culture of continuous improvement if my managers are not measuring 100% of the variation?" He continued, "...it is the responsibility of the leads and supervisors to understand all of the variation, not just the variation to a target - a target is just some average that we made up with spreadsheets."
To explain this a little, all schedules or plans have some variances built into them because it is virtually impossible to operate without occasional problems. So you may plan to perform at 90% of what you are capable of doing (without any problems). If a manager uses the 90% as a base and performs at 85%, he or she will account for a 5% variance, when in fact there is actually a 15% variance.
It was an epiphany for the project team and contributed to an extraordinarily successful project. One of the many obstacles that we needed to overcome was the reality that areas would rarely hit "perfection", and that condition might lead to lower morale. Through hard work on communication and leadership development, the local managers were able to coach and show their operators that success at the point of execution was identifying the waste - not achieving 100%. This understanding also helped define and clarify the role of the leads, supervisors and managers; waste reduction was their priority and they had to work together.
When we began the engagement the factory ran with 40% waste in the process. We finished the project at 30%. Five years later we were invited back to the same factory with a new mandate; they had managed to reduce waste further to 20% but needed some help to break through to 15%. It may be the best example of continuous improvement we have ever seen. They kept improving in part because of the drive of the client and the skill of the people, but in large part because they refused to manage to an average.
Lesson Learned #9
One of our clients was the chief operating officer of a large international container shipping company. He made a name for himself for taking over newly acquired companies and making them more successful, no small feat when you consider how common it is for acquisitions to fail. One of our partners worked with him over a number of years and was fascinated by what appeared to be a formula for his success. So he asked the client if he in fact had a methodology. The client told him fairly matter of fact, "Yes. We call it 'product innovation'. You have to improve the product in a meaningful way. "
The reason, he explained was that by focusing on the product it forced him to really understand what customers wanted most, how well the company delivered those things, and how the company differentiated itself from competitors. If they could figure out how to tweak the product (or in this case service) and make it better it had a number of key benefits:
It gave the company's salesforce new inspiration and a reason to sell. It also gave customers and prospects a reason to take a sales meeting.
It gave the company a fresh platform to market their service offering.
It also provided a reason to market internally to energize the employees.
He hired us a few times to speak to his customers and to compare his company's performance against competitors on key attributes that influenced the customer's buying decision, as well as determine how easy or difficult it would be for customers to switch suppliers. From this information he would examine which attributes were important but not "owned" by any single competitor. He'd then see if they could modify their service to capture and own that particular attribute, and then build the company's delivery and marketing around it.
Obviously a little trickier to do in practice than it is to write about it, but the underlying concept is very useful. If you can figure out an under-serviced attribute that is important to your customers, and you can modify what you do to "own" that attribute in the mind of your customers, you can create a powerful competitive position as well as energize your organization.
Lesson Learned #8
When we work for an organization we always look closely at how managers plan, execute the plan and then report on the results. We've learned over time that the one area where there is never a shortage of information is in the reporting. Planning can be hit and miss, execution is pretty adhoc or missing (as we've discussed before), but there is rarely a shortage of reports. In many cases there are too many reports.
We aren't exactly sure why this is the case but we suspect it is because it's much easier to create a report than it is to eliminate a report. Many new managers will create or modify a report for their own purposes but they are reluctant to kill off existing reports for fear that someone, somewhere, needs the information. Distributions lists are often quite wide and sometimes there are a few pieces of information on each report that is useful so it's ultimately easier to simply add to the pile. It can also sometimes be easier to build a new report than to navigate a request through the IT work queue. Over time this creates an obvious problem as there is simply too much information.
We see a few key common problems with reports:
Many reports are "status" reports. They tell a manager the current status of something but they aren't very helpful in causing the manager to do anything about it. This is often the case when managers are copied on a distribution list but don't really need the information to do their own job effectively.
Many reports are too late after-the-fact. Managers are very busy people generally and the longer it takes to get them information, the less useful the information is to them. It's simply hard to back track when there are new and present problems and issues that need attention.
Many reports have too much information. Reports often don't "cut-to-the-chase" quick enough and really focus on the few key indicators that a manager is supposed to manage. - Ideally a report highlights a variance to a plan of some kind. The value to the manager is that the variance provides a focus for problem solving. If the plan isn't solid or bought into, then the variance loses it's usefulness and doesn't trigger any response or action on the part of the manager.
A manager's time is a valuable commodity in any business or organization. Reports can be very time consuming, and as discussed they can cause a lot of valuable time to be wasted or to be used ineffectively. It's worth periodically reviewing the value of the reports that get generated. In our experience, you usually need fewer, more focused and more timely reports. The benefit for managers is that is will reduce clutter, free up time, and make the reporting far more useful.
Lesson Learned #7
The idea of benchmarking your processes against other divisions, other firms or other industries to drive innovation or develop new performance targets has long been appealing. Unfortunately, what we have learned is that it can be very costly and it just doesn't work very well in practice. Trying to benchmark a company's processes against other companies (or even divisions) presents three basic problems:
(1) It's very difficult to define the parameters of a process carefully enough so you are actually making meaningful comparisons.(2) Processes never operate in isolation. To study them you also need to look at the corresponding management systems and organizational behaviors. And (3) because of #1 and #2, it can be a very expensive and time consuming exercise to do properly.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that even if you get by the problems mentioned above, managers, who ultimately determine whether the benchmarking information is useful or not, have a tendency to agree with positive variances and dismiss negative ones. Favorable variances reinforce current practices and actually can create complacency. Negative variances can be all too easily challenged because the business environments being compared are inevitably different in some way. It's often too easy for managers to use different cultures, systems, people, customers, and facilities to diminish the validity of a benchmarking exercise. Very often the last comment you hear is the inevitable "apples and oranges" analogy.
Some businesses use benchmarking to inspire and energize their managers, almost like a form of industrial tourism. This may be perfectly valid and certainly gives managers a chance to see how others tackle certain common issues. We actually use a form of benchmarking extensively on projects but we only benchmark processes against themselves. We will look at a process and see how well it has been accomplished in the past. This creates a "best demonstrated" benchmark against which we can measure and study the reasons for variances. If we (and the area managers) can figure out what helped create the "best demonstrated" performance, we can try to re-create those circumstances or conditions on a more regular basis. The advantage of this approach is that managers are striving to replicate something they have already achieved with their own cultures, systems, people, customers, and facilities.
Lesson Learned #6
Early in the company's history we decided to be an implementation firm rather than a typical "consulting" firm. We did that because in order to sell anything we had to demonstrate a financial return for our services because nobody knew who we were and therefore weren't inclined to pay us just for advice. That decision has had lasting implications in how we work and what we focus on, and in many ways has brought us closer to understanding how truly difficult it is to be a manager or to get people to change their behaviors. While we don't pretend to be clinical experts in the study of behavior(1), we have learned from observation and repetition over close to twenty years a few things that may be helpful for managers when they have to deal with behavior change. One of the most important lessons we have learned is that you don't change people's behaviors by simply telling them to do something different, you have to change or re-shape the consequences that occur when they do things.
We think of behavior in three parts. There is some kind of directive or guideline, then there is the actual behavior, and finally there are consequences for doing what was directed (or for not doing what was directed). The consequences, positive or negative or neutral, reinforce whatever behavior was observed. To change someone's behavior, you usually need to re-shape the environment and modify the consequences. Managers try to do this all the time, particularly with compensation arrangements and incentives. The trouble with relying on compensation to drive behavior is that it only really works if the person sees a direct correlation between the incentive reward and the behavior. The further the consequence is from the direct behavior, the less influence it has. Most smokers would probably quit if they knew the very next cigarette would actually kill them.
The other mistake is to assume that the person can in fact control the behavior. Often we find the environment causes people to do things. Someone completes a customer's order by taking items that were planned for a later order. The negative consequences of missing the order are more immediate and certain than the future consequences of potentially missing a later order. The person who did the behavior may have no way of making sure all items are ready when they are needed. Even more confusing, the person may be celebrated for getting the order out on time, a positive reinforcement of the wrong behavior.
Of all the areas where we work, behavior is the hardest to analyze and change. It's helpful if you take something somewhat nebulous like "behavior" and make it more specific. A behavior must be something you can count and measure, like a sales person cancelling meetings. A behavior can't be vague like an attitude (e.g. being arrogant). If you can measure the behavior then you can study it and you can try to understand what drives the behavior (fortunately there are studies and techniques that are useful to do this - see side bar download). The key however is to focus on the consequences and see if you can modify the environment or the actual consequences themselves.
(1) For a more advanced discussion and analysis on human behavior you may wish to read "Science and Human Behavior" by B. F. Skinner.
One of the more intriguing things we've learned working across industries and across functional areas is that the actual point where work physically gets done, what we call the "point of execution," is the least managed part of a business or organization. Managers spend a lot of time planning on what needs to happen and then reporting on what did happen, but not much time managing the point where things actually happen.
The biggest problem with this is that things always happen that weren't in the plan (e.g. information is missing, machines aren't available, etc.). It's not always obvious because employees don't stop working, they work around or bandage the problem as best they can or they move onto doing something else. So managers often don't see or even know about these problems. The problems become accepted by employees as part of the work day. Reporting is often too long after-the-fact with the result being that recurring problems eventually just get built into the plan, further obscuring them from management.
So why don't managers spend more time at the point of execution? One of the main reasons is that managers don't like following up on their people. Managers and employees often don't feel comfortable with the concept of "following up" (this is particularly true in office environments and especially in professional areas such as engineering). They both misinterpret the purpose of following up and often wrongly label it "micro-management."
The real purpose of following up is for the manager to see how well the area or individual is achieving what was planned. This is very important in order to coordinate all the moving parts that exist in any business or organization. Following up in real-time allows the manager to identify problems as they occur and make changes to get back on plan. It is not to "police" employees or to "micro-manage" them. In order to follow up effectively you need a good schedule that tells you where you should be through the day or week, not simply a sequence of activities or "hot list" of things to do.
So while planning and reporting are important functions of good management, much can be gained by improving how work is scheduled and making sure the manager helps remove obstacles that interfere with the flow of work. We know from experience that if you can get to the point where the follow up is meaningful and actually helpful for employees, both the manager and employees will adopt the routine and enjoy working together to get things accomplished.
One of the key things clients expect in a performance improvement project is that their managers will take ownership of the changes that are required to improve performance. That's not always an easy thing to do because often not every manager is bought into the actual need to change. We have a number of steps in our methodology that are designed to help managers take ownership of the project but, one of the best came to us from a senior executive at a division of H.J. Heinz.
Before the middle of a project we have a key meeting that we call the Focus Meeting. Like the name implies it is designed to "focus" both us and the managers who are working with us. Often there are many good ideas but you have to pare them down into specific things that you can accomplish in a reasonable time frame. The Focus Meeting is a fairly big deal where the current state is presented and critiqued and the changes required to get to a better state are visually displayed. For years we would work through the night creating these big displays and then our own consultants would present them to senior executives while the managers looked on. One year, the day before the Focus Meeting we dropped in to see the senior executive who had hired us and gave him a quick overview of what to expect the next day.
After we finished he said, "It sounds great, but I don't want you presenting this to me. I don't really care what you think. I only care about what my managers think. I'd like them to present this tomorrow." We mumbled something like "of course" and left the room, trying not to let the client see the panic in our eyes. It very quickly dawned on us that he was right, and our approach was wrong. It wasn't important what we thought. The only thing that mattered was whether or not managers believed they could improve.
We worried that we hadn't properly engaged the managers to the point where they would be comfortable presenting to their boss. Fortunately we were working with very strong managers at the time who embraced the chance to speak for themselves and the meeting was successful.
From that project forward, client managers always present the Focus Meeting and we say very little unless asked. It forced us to reengineer the front end of our projects to ensure managers were properly engaged from the opening meetings.