Going the extra mile

Going the extra mile is an idiomatic metaphor for describing an extra effort to please a customer. It may sound like a management legend until experiencing it.

My little story could have been a scenario base for a Hollywood Christmas movie, but it was only my experience as a stranded Frenchman in Great Britain. With a happy ending, nevertheless.

It started with a traffic jam on one of the infamous British motorways, a late December afternoon, leading to miss my Eurostar train to get back home in Paris.

The taxi driver did his best to catch up, jeopardizing his driver’s licence and potentially our lives dashing on the heavy-traffic motorway and later in the narrower roads to the station. Despite all his efforts, he dropped me too late and… on the wrong side of the station.

When I managed to get out of the taxi at Ashford International station, my train had left very few minutes before. The last train stopping there that day.

In the hall, the Eurostar counter was closed and nobody in sight. While mentally searching for a solution a door opened and a lady in Eurostar uniform appeared. I briefly explained her my situation and the lady kindly accepted to help me, opening the closed counter and restarting a computer.

I immediately felt treated like a customer expects to be, but seldom is, more accustomed to see service providers, vendors and suppliers try to escape the chores, especially if they are not really supposed to do what you’re asking for.

My helping lady went through a seemingly painful IT process to exchange my ticket, which was a bit special, keeping her temper, positive mind and friendliness.

After getting my ticket for the next train the next morning, I asked if there was a hotel nearby. I prepared myself to ask the very same question one of the waiting taxi drivers, not really expecting this information from my helping lady.

To my surprise, not only did she recommend a nearby Bed & Breakfast, but offered to call them and check for vacancy and after this was done, took time and great care to explain me how to get there on foot, dragging my luggage. She even suggested me places to have a dinner!

That was customer care!

This lady indeed walked the extra mile and as we were not in a Hollywood Christmas movie, I assume she was truly engaged in her job.

I did get home eventually (that’s my happy end of the story) and hope the company recognizes the value of such engaged employees.

To this lady, again: my deepest gratitude.

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(At least) three reasons why you should not run your business with superheroes

Since I came across the quote of Fujio Cho* (Toyota chairman) about broken processes requiring extraordinary people, I keep wondering how many of the businesses I see are relying on superheroes. Superheroes are wonderwomen and supermen, those skilled and highly dedicated people who run processes or whole businesses ordinary people would not be able or willing to run.

*”We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes. We observe that our competition often gets average (or worse) results from brilliant people managing broken processes.”

They cope with situations others would just not start trying or give up quickly, because of broken processes, poor working conditions, work load or any combination of the like.

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Instead of fixing the processes or improving work conditions, so that they can be run by ordinary people, business owners or management invest tremendous efforts in recruiting superheroes.

Here are at least three reasons they should not.

1. Superheroes come in limited number

Superheroes aren’t common, otherwise they’d be ordinary people, not superheroes.

Hence finding the good fit takes time, costs money and efforts.

The same resources (time, money, efforts) could be allocated to fix the processes in order to be run by ordinary people.

For some strange reasons, management keeps searching for superheroes.

2. Superheroes get tired too

Sooner or later playing superheroes will exhaust them, or they get bored when the initial fun has gone.

Superheroes are aging as well, they may aspire to something else than running rubbish processes over time.

Because of 1 & 2, even with some longer lasting heroes coping with the mess, the organization will always be at least one short.

3. Superheroes have ambition or personal goals

a. Superheroes are likely to get promoted.

They are usually noticed and appreciated and their skills find many other applications elsewhere in or outside of the organization.
The trouble is once promoted, who will take care of the processes still in their same poor state?

b. Superheroes may leave the organization for personal reasons, getting married, change their career path, raise a family…

When Superheroes leave the organization, for any reason, they leave the broken processes.

Therefore and again, investing in fixing processes is more sustainable.

But for some strange reasons, management keeps searching for superheroes.

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Ten tricks to get things done

Many action plans share the same problems, they expand with additional todos but little gets done. Here are 10 tricks to change the wish list into real action plan that delivers.

1. accept only important and urgent actions

Setup a basic rule to filter out proposed actions or suggestions. A severe one would be for instance “anything that is not urgent nor important isn’t worth to be put on this type of action plan”. Give it some thinking. Unimportant and no urgent items will only clog the board.

If unimportant and no urgent ideas or suggestions are worth giving a later consideration, prepare a separate list.

2. accept only actions people can carry out themselves

As a manager, accept only actions people can carry out themselves. This means they have authority to get them done or the skills and resources – including time – to carry out the actions. If they haven’t but actions are necessary nevertheless, start a different action plan under the responsibility of someone having authority. These actions will have to be carried out by someone else, like maintenance  or support team, a subcontractor, etc.

3. limit the capacity of action plan

In order to prevent team members writing long wish lists, limit the capacity of the action plan. 3, 5 or maximum 10 lines is best.  This doesn’t mean the management refuses to hear problems or improvement suggestions, but as the plan capacity is limited, it is obvious that only meaningful actions will find their way onto the plan and actions need to be carried out quickly in order to free space for new ones.

4. every action has someone accountable for

Every action must have someone who takes ownership and accountability. This does not mean this person has to do it him/herself, but make sure action is taken by someone and objectives will be met on due date.
Do not accept orphans, that is actions without owners. There is a saying: “giving to all is giving to nobody”, in other terms if you wait for someone to spontaneously pick up the action you may wait a long time.

5. place the action plan in full sight of everybody

With action plan in full sight of everybody, Anybody can monitor the progress, hence the pride of actions’ owners and accountables will get some extra motivation. People that depend or suffer from a situation that needs solution or improvement may be demanding and challenge the ones in charge.

6. review plan every day

Such plans are suitable for Management in Short Interval, ideally everyday. Besides, urgent and important things require close-loop management. Daily reviews encourage real action as constant attention is kept. People usually want to succeed in their undertakings and constant attention gives extra motivation.

7. accept solutions not excuses

When actions get delayed or face difficulties, people in charge should propose alternate solutions or due dates, not excuses.

Make this rule clear from the beginning and stick to it firmly.

8. if plan is full, a new action needs an older one to be dumped

Another important rule is to keep the plan’s limitation. If there is no place left but a new action should be taken into account, there are only 2 options:

  1. wait until one action is completed and leaves the plan
  2. remove one action which wasn’t completed so far. Maybe it was not that urgent and important after all?

9. planned actions are perishable: out after ten days!

Linked to the previous trick, consider actions as something perishable. If one action could not be completed within 10 days (2 working weeks), it wasn’t probably urgent nor important. Dump it and free space for a new one. This rule will add some pressure to the group and help keep momentum.

10. escalate

The last trick is to escalate actions judged important and urgent but couldn’t be accomplished within the 10 days. Find sponsorship with somebody that has authority to allocate additional skills or resources. Let this option remain an exception, otherwise it would be too easy to push things to others.

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The catalyst

I like this word “catalyst” when talking about “a person whose talk, enthusiasm, or energy causes others to be more friendly, enthusiastic, or energetic”.

We don’t use it currently in French even so the meaning is the same, we’ll talk about “moderator”, “facilitator” or “coach” instead.

Yet “catalyst” is much more how I felt recently with a small group of participants in a workshop. It was expected by my client to be a kind of kaizen event with a clear goal and limited time: in three days design the layout of a future streamlined assembly line.

It took me the first morning to get basic knowledge about current operations, difficulties and stakes of a company and a business I was discovering.

Being the alien, I asked many questions the insiders kindly answered. Those questions had a double benefit:

  1. give me the minimum necessary insight
  2. force the ops guys working with me to reflect about my questions

When we returned to the nearby office, I organized my new “knowledge” on several sheet of paper in order to summarize, memorize and understand as well as let the participants check my understanding.

During the shopfloor tour and my summing up, some of them had questions and surprises, which found their place on a paper sheet as well.

During the two and half days left, I asked many more questions, made some suggestions and did what I am good at (say my colleagues): sort out and arrange all the popping ideas and scattered data and facts to get a simple and clear understanding of the situation.

Doing so, the participants found most of the time themselves what to do next and how to do it. From time to time, some direction in form of question or suggestion from my side restarted again the stuck team.

In the evening of day two, the line was not only designed, it was 60% installed thanks to all spare furniture and equipment we scavenged. Two weeks later the first assemblies went out of the new line.

This result was unexpected according to the CEO and the group participants, as turning ideas into actions always was difficult in this company.

This was achieved by the subject matter experts themselves, I was “only” their catalyst which helped to unleash and focus their potential talents.

A role that fits me.

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Goal Tree chronicles – The hamster and the tree

Companies in nowadays competition need proactive and engaged people, yesteryear managers are expected to turn into leaders. Despite this general truth and the logical demonstration of required change, some managers just stick to their cosy routine: the hamsters.

In this post:

  • How a “hamster” manager refuses to embrace change required by robust logical analysis
  • At a certain point, dictating the next step is mandatory for company’s sake
  • The Goal Tree is hierarchy independent

The hamster

The scene takes place in a company in which I’ve spent a lot of time to carefully prepare the policy deployment with top management.

As so often, CEO and his C-suite had a clear overall idea where to drive the company for the five years to come, but they had only a vague slogan – and calling it slogan is a compliment – and a few numeral objectives ready. Nothing to overwhelm the lower level employees with confidence and motivation, on the contrary it’ll have all looked scary if communicated as it was.

First we (the consultants team) reworked the slogan and worked out details. I deliberately imposed the Goal Tree as structuring tool, first to my consultant staff, second to the client.

We started to clarify and restate the Goal. That exercise showed the C-suite how unprepared they were to communicate their plans. We spent a (long) time defining the Critical Success Factors and despite my insistence to keep only five or six of these high level objectives, the C-suite insisted on ten.

Once this was done, a presentation was made to management staff, and we (the consultants) went to see the next level of management to further explain the Goal Tree’s logic and ask managers to select the Necessary Conditions they knew/felt which needed improvement so they turn Green in my color status system (i.e. condition is constantly fulfilled).

I personally met one guy with a relatively high position and a long experience in the company. He was credited to be one of the company’s experts and one of the company’s pillars and probably among the opinion leaders.

During our face-to-face, what puzzled me most was his imperviousness towards the Goal Tree, or call it Policy Deployment / Hoshin Kanri principle. He managed to escape proposing anything, sticking to his “good soldier” posture and kept saying: just tell me what to do, I’ll adjust to it.

What a hamster he was!

The hamster is a category of employee as described in the BlessingWhite model of employee engagement.

>Learn more about “hamsters” >Learn more about “BlessingWhite model

This hamster (read manager) was typically enjoying the cosy comfort of his nest (read office) and saw no reason to add any annoyance to his routine. His position granted him some importance and the feeling that he was irreplaceable. While making believe he totally understood the threat of raising competition, all his attitude showed he didn’t care or expected to remain unscathed.

Yet he could not openly fight against the project, therefore he played obedient soldier even not wholeheartedly. “Just tell me what to do, I’ll adjust to it“. So disappointing from a manager at this level.

Not negotiable

The policy deployment was not an option and as it was obviously not possible to win this manager to the engaged camp, I made him clear what the next step was:

  • He had to explain to his staff the global project’s aim and background as well as the top of the Goal Tree (the company’s Goal and the top most objectives supporting its achievement)
  • As he couldn’t (didn’t want to) set contributing objectives for his department, he had to pass the ball directly to the next level and ask for meaningful contributions to achieve the Critical Success Factors directly linked to the department’s activity
  • These proposals must be filed into a standard format and will be reviewed by project’s steering committee for global alignment
  • He as manager was de facto accountable for the carrying out of the approved actions
  • One of the consultant will be present to facilitate the whole thing

This is not negotiable!

It may not be the best example of how to engage people, but in some conditions showing muscles and speaking in harsher tone is simply more effective and adequate.

At that moment I was the boss, empowered by the CEO and legitimate by my position as project leader on the consultant’s side.

The Goal Tree is hierarchy independent

Things went on as planned and the Goal Tree proved once again a robust and hierarchy-independent tool.

Even so the manager in charge of the department did not proactively (“reluctantly” would better fit the reality) support the cascading or “policy deployment”, the staff understood all the Goal Tree’s logic demonstrated, accepted the challenge and proposed relevant improvements.

Summing up

What does this story tell us?

  • (Goal Tree’s) Pure logic and rationality are sometimes powerless when facing emotional or cultural biases, often called “resistance to change”
  • Change management does not imply accepting any opposition as valid and trying to convert every opponent. At some point, “I am the boss” is an appropriate option
  • (Goal Tree’s) Pure logic and rationality often help to convert the mass to embrace the necessary change, even if some opinion leaders fight against it

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Tales from the Pyramid – Head first

Imagine a bold general in front of his troops, commanding the assault against the enemy.
Spurring his horse to assault he dashed.
His troops didn’t move.

It’s more or less how some top executives must feel, when confident about the tactical moves and their overall strategy, they order the decisive manoeuvre but the bulk of the forces does not follow.

In organizations and companies, giving orders and dictating rules and procedures doesn’t guarantee they will be carried out, applied and followed.

Employees nowadays are less obedient than the previous generations were. Today employees want to be associates in every meaning of the word, not only pawns on the big chessboard.

Management turned employees into intrapreneurs, rewarded individual performance, turned many of them into bounty hunters and mercenaries.
The latter go to battle heartily when success is easy and reward alluring, but may stay put or even run away otherwise.

Other internal forces may play against the big plan, like labor unions for example or some influential managers not sharing the chiefs’ beliefs.

Another factor for the mass to move or not is the speed the instructions, explanations or invitation cascade down the pyramid. The larger the organization, the slower usually the diffusion and the greater the risk of distortion as the messages are passed along.

Or it looks like another flavor-of-the-month idea/program/project. Disillusioned staff just waits for the next big idea and goes on like usual, unimpressed by the top fuss.

There are many reasons the mass will not move on, top managers like generals better check about all possible hindrances before throwing themselves head first into the big fight.

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Tales from the pyramid – the ivory tower

In some organization, top management is cut from its base, managing from remote offices and linked to operations and organization’s real life through reports, dashboards and KPIs.

I’ve met some of those managers brilliantly talking the talk but seldom, if ever, walking it. If they would – this is what they did with me – they would understand that:

  • Their talk is wishful thinking
  • Procedures and instructions are not always applied/carried out and if they are, maybe not in expected way
  • Opportunities for deviations are as numerous as opportunities for improvement
  • People on shop floor resent a boss not showing up from time to time

Keeping secluded in their ivory tower, these managers don’t know what is really going on in the lower levels.

There, people try to overcome their difficulties with available means. They are usually positive-minded and seeking solutions to issues. Yet their options are sometimes dangerous, devious, threatening quality or customer satisfaction, costly or not in line with objectives.

Nevertheless, the management is confident in the talk and convinced that instructions given through a chain of command will reach the lower levels and be applied immediately and thoroughly.

This is, if there is no hole in the pyramid!

Rules are also set by procedures and work instructions, passed by the same chain of command or by e-mail. There is a strong belief that lower levels personnels will read (!) and act accordingly.

The best proof the loop is left open is when you spot obsolete instructions on yellow-old paper forms, forgotten on some information panel nobody ever go see.

Middle managers and team leaders probably dutifully pass the instructions, but as no one cares if they are turned into actions, the loop remains open.

Besides, none of what comes down include alternatives in case of problems, as problems are not supposed to occur.

I remember a seasoned foreman complaining about the issues with final assembly he had to cope with because the engineer in charge of the design would not come downstairs to check his design and help the assembly team.

The foreman was not welcome upstairs either.

In order to improve things, a young rookie engineer was hired to serve as liaison officer. He went up and down the stairs and waited impatiently to have enough seniority to be delivered from the chore…

This is how things can go wrong, when lower levels are forced to decide and act by themselves, with the limited information and understanding they have.

Living in a kind of perfect world, the cut-off manager often faces shameful reality when touring the shop floor with somebody able to spot it at once. It happened numerous times during my plant tours.

I also witnessed workers cynically joking about the manager they very seldom see. One wished his boss touring me around a great new year. It was end of march and a perfect occasion for the worker to show his discontent in a mischievous but somewhat effective way…

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Tales from the Pyramid – What versus how

Newly promoted team leaders or even managers do not always know how to behave in their new role, especially those climbing up the ladder from operations and technical backgrounds.

What these new managers do not always understand is the sudden switch from orders to carry out to empowerment with more autonomy and decisions to take.

What versus how

The lower the position in the hierarchical pyramid, the more job execution is dictated. Procedures, instructions, work guides, worksheets detail the “how” to do, in what order, with what means and so on, letting little freedom to do differently.
This is particularly true in industry with high standardization.

Lego_018aWhat can appear as fearsome alienation is often a cozy non-commitment execution role, depleted from any responsibility and further stress. As long as you stick to the instructions, as stupid as they may be, you are safe from reproaches.

Conversely, the higher to the top of the hierarchical pyramid, the more autonomy is granted, with increasing demand about engagement and self-management. higher positions are given goals and objectives, the “what” to achieve, without specifying how. The choice of “how” is left to the discretion of the subordinates.

Thus the former line leaders, technicians or skilled workers, used to receive and to execute instructions are often somewhat confused when making their leap onto managerial functions.

They are now in charge and must learn to translate the “what” they are assigned into “how” to their own subordinates. Of course, most of the time the transition is sharp-edged, there is seldom training or coaching to help the newly promoted to find ways into their new role.

Digging the hole into the pyramid

Some find their way by trial-and-error, a long and sometimes painful process with former pals being the less forgiving in case of error.

Some may regret their former comfort of mindless execution and some never really embrace their new role. The latter fill the ranks of the “good workers gone poor managers”.

Among them, many will fill their positions without delivering expecting results nor behaviors. They create what I call the hole in the pyramid.

But this is the next story.

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Aon Hewitt’s employee engagement model

Aon Hewitt’s model has six main drivers which shapes the experience within the company, “Engagement Drivers.”

These are the areas over which management has a great deal of control—the action areas. Our extensive research formed the six major categories of the work experience that include the work people do, the people they work with, opportunities, total rewards, company practices and general quality of life.

source: http://www.aon.com/attachments/human-capital-consulting/2013_Trends_in_Global_Employee_Engagement_Highlights.pdf

Aon Hewwitt defines engagement through three attributes that include the extent to which employees:

  • Say — speak positively about the organization to co-workers, potential employees and customers
  • Stay — have an intense sense of belonging and desire to be a part of the organization
  • Strive — are motivated and exert effort toward success in their job and for the company

Employees need all three of these elements to be fully engaged.



The credit for the model of employee engagement goes to Aon Hewitt.
I have no connections to Aon Hewitt. Opinon, analysis and testimonies are all mine.

Faking empoyee engagement?

Employee engagement models provide nice tools to assess and pigeonhole employees into categories. The most praised category is the engaged employees’ for engaged people finding satisfaction and the organization their best performers. The models and studies state that engaged employees contribute more to the organization’s goals than lesser engaged employees.

Yet I wonder if the boundaries between employee categories are that clear and engagement assessment that reliable.

The case I am thinking about is a manager who works hard, has success, is loved by team and seemingly dedicated to the company. Within the organization, he is often praised as an example to follow.

On several casual occasions he said loving his job and having fun, and his dedication is noticeable when he speaks to customers.

According to Aon Hewitt’s model, he “Says, Stays and Strives” (fig.), so he should be engaged.

source: Aon Hewitt, www.aon.com

On some other occasions, remote from other ears, the story had a more bitter taste. As a successful and reliable workhorse, this manager was attracting a bit more workload and more often than ordinary, some delicate problems to solve.

Occasionally I even could hear him say things like “unfortunately I haven’t enough time to find a new job” or sharp criticism about top management, reservation about relationships among the company.

What? This brilliant manager is not that happy with his job nor very confident with a long term commitment? But every sign so far depicted the happy engaged employee!

Therefore my own reservation about trying to assess employees’ engagement through the signs. Among the employees, some may fake their engagement, camouflage their real feelings and thoughts, waiting the best moment for their “coming out”.

I don’t mean to distrust inquiries and studies, this example demonstrates that such assessments need to be done through third parties, with private interviews and anonymous results in order to grasp the true mood and see past apparent postures among an organization.

Comments welcomes.