Monday, August 27, 2012


The comment about Culture prompted me to think more about various experiences with employees and how those were colored by the prevailing culture.  Here are some anecdotes with notes on how they relate to the ambient culture.

SUGGESTION BOXES.  Do you have one?  Employees or customers can write a note and put it in the slot, but then what?  I have worked in two organizations where the suggestion boxes were never utilized.  When I asked employees about this, here are the answers:
1.      “Gee, Dr. Burney.  If I have an idea, I just tell my supervisor, and it’s done.  Why should I write it down?”
2.      “We’re afraid we’d be fired.”  (This was a government office where it’s really hard to fire someone, and impossible to do so on the basis of a comment.  Still, the prevailing culture was fear and intimidation.)
Which organization got more suggestions from employees?  One year later, which could demonstrate positive changes in the way things were done as a result of employee input?  Where would you like to work?

LISTENING.  The nurse was almost standing on my toes as she spoke earnestly about why a decision I had announced was wrong.  After listening for a bit, I decided she was right, and when she took a breath, I said, “OK.  You’re right.  We’ll do it your way, starting tomorrow.”  It was a small thing for the organization but a big thing for this nurse.  Next time, it may be important for everyone, and she will feel empowered to speak again.  Employees need to be heard; to feel that their opinions count. 

EMPOWERMENT.  This is where innovation begins.  It is the freedom to try something new and the permission to fail.  There are even companies that give awards for failure on the theory that if you’re afraid of failing, you’ll never try anything new.  Here’s a quote attributed to George Patton: “Tell them what you want done, but don’t tell them how to do it.  They will amaze you with their ingenuity.”  How much money can you spend without asking permission? 

HIRING. How do you hire “good” employees?  The answer, of course, is that you don’t. You hire competent individuals and make them good employees by the way you treat them.  Some argue that you should “hire attitude and teach aptitude.”  True for some positions.  You don’t want the shy, retiring wall flower to be your receptionist. I visited my alma mater a few years ago, shortly after they had installed a new president.  One of the professors told me, “No one would ever leave here to work somewhere else!”  That was probably an exaggeration, but did indicate his respect for the new president and his dedication to the new culture at the university.  New employees will come into that culture and acquire those same values. 

MAINTENANCE.  OK.  This employee has been working for you for a year.  How does s/he feel about the organization now?  Do you know?  Notice that I didn’t ask how you feel about her!  That would bring up the subject of annual evaluations.  Deming has written eloquently about why this is a bad idea.  Read his stuff.  Yes, employees need feedback, but they need it every day, not just once a year.  It needn’t be a formal process.  Here are some useful words and phrases:  “Nice job.  Well done.  Thanks for taking care of that.  I support Mary’s thoughts on this.  Yes!  Good.  Take care of this problem for me.  Put this on letterhead for the boss’s signature.”  You get the idea.  Constant and repetitive affirmation of your confidence and approval.  Awards are nice, but only if the award process is credible.  If awards are given for frivolous reasons or to people who don’t deserve them, it cheapens the whole process.  If you do an annual written assessment, nothing there should be a surprise.  (These are required in the Civil Service.)  As Deming has said, evaluations should never be linked to money.  One thing I like about the Civil Service system is that step increases come at predictable intervals, unrelated to evaluations.  (Unless Congress decrees there won’t be any!  By the way, read carefully.  All those bonuses you read about went to political appointees.  Rank and file Civil Service employees got nothing.)

FIRING. But what if it doesn’t work.  What if you make a mistake?  First, admit that this was a failure of your hiring process.  Fix it.  Then, see if there’s another position where this employee would flourish.  See if something in their personal life is coloring their attitude at work.  I once had a grumpy that no one wanted to work with.  We had a long talk, after which I gave her a substantial raise and added to her duties.  She became an outstanding performer and justified my confidence in her basic abilities. 
However, there are always those who just don’t fit.  Wish them well and bid farewell, but do it quickly.  Yes, it’s hard, but it’s even harder a year later.

IN SUM.  There you have it.  A new set of Robert’s Rules.  These are not new ideas and certainly not mine.  But they work.  The size and complexity of your organization will affect implementation, but the principles are valid everywhere.   

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Creating a Quality Culture

Before you can do this, you’ll have to define both quality and culture. Quality is really a slang term in that it has many different definitions in different settings.  For any given organization, quality is what the CEO says it is, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that his definition should reflect the opinions of his customers.  Of course, he also better have the board behind him on the direction he has defined for the company.  His next job is to convince his employees about his definition of quality.  We’re not talking about an intellectual discussion or mere aquiessence.  This is passion, dedication, & commitment.  The task for the CEO is to inspire a passion for his definition of quality among his employees.

Which brings us to culture.  My favorite definition of culture is “the shared beliefs of a defined group of people.”  We all belong to various groups and share different beliefs, depending on what group we’re with at the time.  Our surgery center had a picnic.  There was a young woman from our billing department who volunteered as leader of a volley ball team.  Nice person.  Good worker.  You would never suspect she would become take-no-prisoners aggressive on the volley ball court.  “I’m from California, and we take volleyball seriously out there.”  She had brought that ruthless competitive culture to our picnic.  I wanted her on my team!  

So what’s the poor CEO to do?  How does he instill this passion for quality?  First, is communication with employees, and you have to do that “every chance that you get; every way that you can.”  But that’s not enough.  You also have to demonstrate that you believe in your own definition—passionately.  Demonstrate this in little ways also, and do it every day.  That’s credibility.  After awhile, the employees will believe you, and they will share your passion, because it’s contagious but only from a credible source.

Part of our culture was for each employee to do their job better than anyone, anywhere.  The corollary was that the organization would provide them the tools and training to do so.  When a nurse identified a need for a rocking chair in the recovery room, the response was “Buy two.” 
When a nurse said, “I read an article about a better way of doing . . . .”  The response was “We’ll start tomorrow, and you’re in charge of making that happen.”

In the State Department, we are registered to ISO 9001.  It took two years to achieve registration but another 5 years to establish ISO as part of our culture.  We’re there now.  This is the way we do business.  Employees believe that it’s a good thing.  (We ask them, so I know.)  This took a lot of talking and training and visiting and celebrating success and public confirmations by the Medical Director.  Actually, we’re not there.  You’re never there.  Just like marriage, any culture requires daily tune ups and affirmations.

Paul Borawski mentioned “feelings,” and that triggered a memory of taking my Lexus in for repairs.  It was leaking a little oil, and I wanted it fixed.  The next day, I got a phone call from the service manager: “We found some other problems, and that $300 estimate I gave you is now up to $1,100,” he said.  “So, how do you feel about that?”  When your tagline is “The relentless pursuit of perfection,” you better include customer feelings in your definition of quality.  To a large extent, customers inherit the feelings of employees.  This Friday, I’m flying on Southwest Airlines, and I’m looking forward to it.  Their employees obviously enjoy their work, and I will enjoy flying with them.  Last month, I flew on United—a totally different culture, and it shows.  Feelings among employees are the result of the culture.  Customers can see through fake feelings.  How about the recorded message: “You call is important to us.”  Well, if it’s important, answer the phone.