Monday, September 24, 2007

Why Don't They Do What I Want?!

Do you find it stressful or awkward to deal with someone who is not performing?

Do you have recurring employee productivity or performance issues?

Do you have high employee turnover? (Replace employees every 2 years or less)

Do you have to fire employees?

Did you know that all of the above issues are really symptoms?

Would you like to remove these symptoms from your work and improve your life?

The solution

Apply the “Systems” approach to solving personnel problems!

Many years ago I took on the challenge of opening a 24 hour call center. This was not just a 24 hour call center, it was a 365 day a year call center. It wasn’t just the continuous 365 day operation that was a challenge, it was also dealing with the fact that any mistake made by the staff could lead to client property loss or damage. The call center monitored our clients security, fire and environmental systems so I'd have to say they were very sensitive to failures in our systems.

As the person responsible for all operations I also supported, designed and implemented all the computer software and hardware for the company. Needless to say I carried a pager and rarely went on vacation.
Before we opened the call center I documented the processes or actions to be taken by our staff for all activity in our operation (the Operations Manual). Processes like, what to do if we received a Fire signal from our monitoring equipment at a client site etc…
Getting my staff up to speed was a challenge but since I had documented the processes I could ask them to review it many times over until they knew it by heart or review the manual before taking action. We asked them to commit to and be accountable to this Operations Manual and all of it’s defined processes. I also made it quite clear that failure in meeting this commitment resulted in disciplinary action and/or termination.
Of course, any time my staff was unclear as to the action required in a given situation they would call me, whether it was 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning. And this they did, wreaking havoc on my personal life.
As new questions arose I would ask the employee involved to update the process and to communicate the revised process to the next shift. The next day I would review the new process and then update the Operations Manual as well as make the rest of the staff aware of the changes. If someone asked a question that was covered in our operations manual I would not always be polite when pointing out that fact especially if I was woken up to answer it. This did not ingratiate me with my staff but it did create a basis for my staff to defend themselves against a superior. How many of us have been in a position where, due to lack of documentation, we have no basis to defend ourselves against a wrathful superior. The lack of documentation or poor documentation and communication are the symptoms of poor systems and consequently, management.

If questioned, my staff could always refer to our Operations Manual and know that it protected them at all times in any scenario. This was very reassuring to my staff and removed the ambiguity from their work. They always knew that if they followed the processes they were secure in their job and did not need to be concerned with office politics to keep their jobs or to move ahead within the organization. The procedures kept everyone focused on what was truly important. The outcome for our business was low staff turnover and a stable long term work force. Our procedures also allowed us to more easily quantify our individual productivity and effectiveness. In productivity reviews it was more likely that the staff member brought up their deficiencies for discussion. I also rarely had to fire someone because it did not take long for staff to figure out if their role was something they could be successful at and was worth committing to for the long term.
Also, I was always excited to bring on new staff as it gave me a chance to test our systems and to make them better. New staff always seemed to find a new take on a given situation creating gaps in our systems that needed to be filled. The documentation really shortened the training cycle and we saved money by having new employees review the operations manual at home on their own time. Along with that accountability I did not assume that the processes were perfect. All the staff knew that they could improve our processes and many took up the challenge themselves which breathed life into the operation manual. The processes were reviewed and updated as opposed to collecting dust in binders on a shelf somewhere.

Our documentation created a baseline of a standard accepted behavior that could easily be communicated and duplicated.
This documentation made organizing and communicating with my staff effortless and created a positive and relaxed work environment.
Our staff, armed with effective documented processes, were more easily able to deal with the security industries highly sensitive clients. This approach to people management removed the pain and stress typically associated in managing our employees.

So, what is the “Systems” approach to solving personnel problems?

When you adopt a systematic or “systems” approach to problem solving you effectively separate the personality (the person) from the problem.
Anything else is simply managing personalities in which very few succeed. Without systems most managers end up in an endless cycle of “Fighting Fires”.

It’s not the person who is causing the problem or failing to perform, it is the system that has failed. The system was not designed to incorporate the problem or that person’s personality hence you did not get the results you desire.

The focus shifts from the person, with all the inherent stress and emotion, to a System which can be applied despite the personalities concerned. Including your own!

Think about what this means? Your thought process changes from, “Why can’t he do this?” to, “What did he fail to learn and why, and what can I do so that anyone can learn this”.

The System is “How we do it here”

So what is a system and what are the benefits?

What is a System?

A system is a process or series of processes that are designed to effect an objective or result. E.g. The human arm muscle and it’s movements are processes of a system called the arm. Imagine if the muscles were not co-coordinated in movement, or without objective. It is a condition of harmonious, orderly interaction.

Systems are documented procedures or processes that are designed to achieve a specific result.
In other words it is a set of written procedures which defines what someone is expected to do or accomplish every day, week, month and year. It can be very detailed or very loose (a framework) depending on the job responsibilities and accountability.

Why a system?

People just feel more comfortable and are more productive when they truly understand what is expected of them. It removes the unknowns, the ambiguity from their job. It is a reference tool that teaches. It reduces or removes unnecessary communication which lowers support calls and more importantly returns time for you to do more productive things.
It is a tool used to organize any business operation which is the primary role of management.

What will a System do for me?

A good System will accomplish all of the following objectives:

  • Improve staff and client interaction and relationships
  • Introduce staff/management accountability
  • Ensure quality – repeatable products & services
  • Effectively delegate responsibility
  • Measure productivity
  • Facilitate growth
  • Facilitate change management
  • Reduce employee turnover by building trust and loyalty
  • Ensure corporate strategy, standards and values
  • Can be used as training material for new hires freeing up your time

With systems in place the communication with your staff becomes about how the processes they are accountable for are working, and how you both are working towards improving them. This is in stark contrast to the typical communications where business improvement issues are rarely expressed.
This takes the pressure off you and your staff when it comes to productivity and activity discussions. You staff will be able to use the documentation to justify their daily activity and you will be able to use it to quantify their productivity. When you include a process to change the system the system becomes dynamic in that it can be changed by anyone to meet internal or external clients needs. This guarantees innovation. Your staff starts thinking about how they can serve the client better and how they now need to build a business case to prove that there is a better way. This will stop all those meetings around ideas that never result in action.

The creative types, the ones that like change, will have an opportunity to make their jobs better and will feel like they have a vested interest in the success of the organization. The steadfast types who feel more comfortable with standards and processes will be eased into change and the goal oriented types will know how and by what standards their goals must be achieved.

A simple form of a change management system is the "suggestion box". It is what you do with the suggestions that makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.

If your employees are trained on each others processes (cross training) they will have a deeper understanding and appreciation of each others roles and responsibilities. An added benefit is that, with good systems (documentation), anyone should be able to learn a new position with much shorter training cycles. Even your own!

But I want things to be fluid, dynamic?

Systems can be intrusive, constraining or even debilitating if not designed properly. Systems can also impose restraints that ensure repeated failures.

So how do you avoid system failure?

  • Include accountability – Someone owns the system
  • Include a change management process – How do we change it to meet client needs
  • Include your corporate strategies, standards and values in every system
  • Audit your systems – at least quarterly

Systems as Sales tools?

There are a number of ways you can use your systems as sales tools. If your client facing systems are effective your clients will appreciate them and will prefer to use you over others because they know what to expect no matter who they interact with. You can also sell the fact that your systems guarantee that the first product or service will be the same as the next and so on building in quality assurance. Another option would be to promote your system as a methodology or best practice and offer to teach it to others within your industry.
Imagine that! Your systems themselves could be a center for revenue generation.
This is a great way to differentiate your company in the marketplace.

Where do I start?

Start by defining strategic objectives, standards and values for the organization. “If you don’t know where you are going, anywhere is fine”. Communicate the benefits of documentation and systems to your employees. Provide them with a template and ask them to start filling it out, documenting what they do as they do it. Meet with them weekly initially to go over their accountabilities and talk about how they accomplish tasks and why. Ask "what if" types of questions to make sure they are thinking about improving the system. This is a proactive approach to problem solving.
When an employee comes to you with a question don’t answer it directly. Think about what system is involved and how they could change the system to solve the problem. You’ll find that your staff will stop asking questions and start offering solutions. This is guaranteed to boost your own productivity. (more rounds of golf!)
Your success as a manager or business leader depends on your management and leadership skills. You are accountable and responsible for the effectiveness of everyone you manage and lead. The buck stops with you!
Start blaming failures on that dang operations manual and not that person you hired or inherited. And then change the manual to fix the problem.

Dave Soteros is President of Alrym Consulting. He will teach you how to create systems that deliver your corporate strategic objectives as well as coach you on how to communicate those systems to your staff, your customers and your affiliates. We provide executive coaching, business coaching, management consulting and HR consulting.

“This is how we do it”

Friday, September 14, 2007

Leadership or Abdication

Recently I was reading a letter to the editor in a business publication directed at small business owners. The letter, from a business owner, stated that he had two principals, a CFO and VP who seemed to always be at odds. He was concerned over the disruption in his business even though these two individuals were very productive.

The magazine editor quoted an HR consultant whose response was that many times the owner’s behavior or lack of leadership helps to create infighting. She then referred to a study stating that most employees blame conflicts on line managers and that there are some common reasons for infighting like compensation, jealousy, and advancement opportunities. Her solution was what she describes as management tactics like reasoning, pleading and threatening. This is where she lost me. She had the research that pointed to a lack of management and leadership skills but instead of recommending training for the owner she suggested tactics that only would continue to excuse the owner from the problem. The editor goes on to quote a University professor who concedes that the business owner may have to let go one of the employees for the sake of harmony within the organization and that these types of situations can undermine the whole organization. I certainly agree that the infighting can undermine the organization but to blame the employee for the problem is a complete and total abdication of the owner's responsibility.

So, the experts had the research and understood the risks but instead of offering a solution, which would be some leadership and management training for the owner, they suggested that the owner direct his attention externally and blame the executives.

Going through the process of letting someone go, especially someone who is productive and has a stake in the company, can be very painful emotionally and financially.

Imagine firing one of your productive senior managers. Many times the company not only loses a leader and the associated revenue and productivity but also loses the people, emotionally and/or physically, who worked under and alongside this individual. The financial costs are great as conservative estimates for replacing an employee are 1.5 times the exiting employees salary. (cost of severance + recruiting + hiring + training + loss of productivity etc...)

Employees with leadership skills are sometimes seen as a threat to their peers because they try to set goals and evangelize their vision for the future. Being goal oriented is a personality characteristic that has obvious value in any organization unless, of course, the individual goals do not coincide with those of the boss. Sometimes the leader will not make any decisions at all. This enables the leader to deny any involvement and be able to blame an employee who does make a poor decision. Actually the decision can be the right one but without support from coworkers the employee will be hung out to dry. Without a corporate vision (direction), objectives (goals), standards and values, the employees are left to enact their own personal objectives, perceptions, beliefs, values, etc. Companies that lack leadership tend to be wastelands for people who are goal oriented. Even the overachievers are left to overachieve in so many directions that they burn out or give up.

Employees in an organization without a clear vision and objectives learn not to spend too much time or energy on any one objective as the objective can change at any moment depending on the whim of the boss. They learn that when there is no direction, any direction will do as long as it's the direction the boss is going in at that moment. They learn not to stick their neck out and offer solutions because even if you did get approval they would not likely be given the time or resources to complete it as there are seemingly always new problems to fix which take priority. Managers learn that it is easier and best just to say "NO" when asked about new opportunities or possible changes. A "Yes" one day from the boss will undoubtedly be a "No" on another day and the manager will be blamed for any decision. The status quo becomes the objective.

How do you know you are in this type of organization?

  • Recurring problems and issues
  • Employee conflict
  • Inconsistent product and/or service delivery and support
  • A lack of employee accountability and responsibility
  • A culture of "NO"
  • Slow or no growth
  • High employee turnover
  • High client and partner turnover
  • High failure rates
What do employees learn?
  • Not to stick their neck out
  • Band-Aid it and continue on
  • Do enough to get by
  • Bide their time until another opportunity comes along
Companies without effective leadership typically have employees who have no real responsibility or accountability at all. The most basic decisions are made by the leader and sometimes decisions are just avoided to maintain the status quo. If this sounds like your company you can be reassured knowing that many companies share the same symptoms.

I've personally been in an organization that had 7 layers of management, none of which was accountable as the person at the top made all the decisions. The managers could only point fingers up and down the line and the employees who were ultimately held responsible for any problems were the front line staff. The turnover rate for front line staff was over 40% and senior managers seemed proud of that fact. The statistic justified their belief that they just couldn't find good people. None of the 7 layers of management recognized that high staff turnover was a symptom of poor management. The managers were only accountable to being liked by their leader.

So how can you become an effective leader? Define how big, how much and where you want your business to go and what values and standards you want your business to embrace and deliver. The answer to these questions will become the corporate vision and objectives that you communicate to your staff.

To better understand this let’s separate the role of leader from the role of manager and the tactical or technical roles. The leader's role is to communicate a bold and compelling vision of the future, spotting opportunities and threats, considering "what if" scenarios and ensuring the company’s future viability. The manager’s role is to organize and coordinate, building the systems and processes to achieve the vision and objectives.

Many business owners and managers state that having control over decisions was a primary reason for starting their business or taking management positions in the first place. When they finally create that opportunity for themselves, meaning their own business or attaining a leadership position, they realize that control over decisions or direction is too overwhelming or that they are unprepared for the responsibility. Effective leadership is apparent as the followers are simply following. The followers all move in the same direction at once creating a dynamic that is exponentially greater than any individual. These productive people typically are passionate about, and believe in, what they are doing. The passion comes from a belief in where they are going and what they are achieving together collectively .

So, to answer the question posed by the CEO, I would recommend that the CEO has 3 options:
  • Learn how to be an effective leader

  • Hire an effective leader

  • Promote one of the 2 productive employees to leader

All other solutions will lead to continued problems in the organization.

Dave Soteros provides executive coaching services to start-ups and fortune 500 companies.

For more on Leadership and Management insights please stop by his blog at

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Art of Your Business

Recently I was asked what is the art and the science of business. The answer to this question is often surprising and compelling.

When we think of art we think of creativity and limitless boundaries where time is not relative. We think of freedom and having control over our own life and it's destination. We think of those "artsy" people who always show up late, are always daydreaming, lack focus and can't seem to get anything done on time. It's unfortunate that the word "art" is a part of the word artsy because art has really nothing to do their behavior. What the "artsy" people create is the art, their behavior is not. Creating art can return those feelings of limitless boundaries, freedom and control and I'll tell you how.

Artists have to follow "systems" that are made up of objectives, rules, processes, procedures, techniques, frameworks, standards etc. to create their art. Hey, does that sound familiar to you?

A great photographer has to be an expert in many areas including lighting and shutter speed and has to be able to frame the subject to reach a desired effect. We see the photograph and say "that is art", but we don't usually think about the many regimented and defined tasks that went into creating that photograph - unless, of course, you are another photographer yourself.

And how do we judge artists? We judge their work based on how well they used their systems and processes to deliver the result. Artist who use unique systems often are the ones who set trends and can even change what we accept as art.

The truth is that art has constraints, limits and boundaries. It is about creating something, building something, something that is understood, can be translated and repeated. The "scientific method", for instance, is art.

The creation of "systems" and their processes is art.

A system is made up of defined processes that are designed to meet an overall objective. The human arm is a system that is designed to achieve set objectives. Each of the arms movements are processes that are all a part of the overall system.

Systems create common repeatable actions which should ensure that objectives are met. The science (qualification and quantification) will prove the systems are truly meeting their designed objective.

So what about science in Business?

The science of business is the numbers. The numbers are what we use to quantify the systems and the processes to ensure that the system is returning a desired result or is meeting a planned objective. The science for a photographer may be the number of photos sold versus the number of photos made. A high ratio would mean that the photographer would only need to create a few photos to generate more sales. A low ratio would mean that the photographer may have to spend most of their time taking masses of photographs in order to generate enough sales. I think you will agree that the photographer who can sell most of what they produce has a better system . This is quantification and that is the science of business.

Another example would be a beautiful building designed to please anyone experiencing it. The art may be pleasing and enticing but without good science, like the science that predicts stresses and other forces on building materials, the structure may be no more than a hazard to anyone that comes near it. Failures are common within new organizations and can even fell established organizations if they fail to create or maintain art and/or fail to maintain and apply good science. Enron is a good example of compelling art supported by junk science.

So, how do I start creating art in my work or my organization?

What I recommend to clients is to have everyone start documenting their existing daily, weekly and monthly actions. These are reviewed and added to an operations manual. When you document your processes and amalgamate them into a central repository you will have created a system, and that is art. It may not be beautiful but it will free your time to spend in the creative process of building better systems. Better systems will include quantifiable objectives (numbers) so that you will be able to track the effectiveness of your systems. This will be the science of your organization. Numbers like, how many calls, how many positive customer responses, how fast, how many failures, how much profit or loss etc...

Every time I have clients go through this process the initial response from managers is that the daily questions from staff slow and eventually stop. The documentation provides a resource and reference for staff which frees up time for managers to be creative, improving their systems and their results. After all, the role of any manager is to organize and systems (art) facilitates this. The answers to questions posed by staff or clients become new opportunities to improve processes that improve the overall system. Managers will start looking for questions and comments from clients (internal or external) which will drive innovation within your organization. Managers will relish a chance to solve a new problem as opposed to being knee deep in them. One problem turns into a new solution, a new process, that can be followed by anyone at any time (one to many). The organization will start to exceed or more easily meet objectives. Managers will even start looking forward to new hires as the new hires will challenge their systems in ways they hadn't dreamed of. It changes the whole way managers deal with staff. The question goes from "why can't he do this the way I want?" to "what has failed in our system and how can it be improved so that anyone can do this?".

The transition from ad-hock management to systems based management is typically the first major plateau for any manager or growing organization and typically the glass ceiling for companies that don't systematize. After all, it is impossible to manage groups of people without very good systems in place. Everything has to be organized (managed) or the group will quickly splinter into many factions that don't work with each other.

Systems work best when the objectives or vision are shared amongst all the the participants and the people who deliver the systems also participate in the perfection of them.

You don't have to be a photographer, painter or an actor to be an artist. Art is everywhere and you can make it a part of your profession and your life.

Give it a try!

Dave Soteros is President of Alrym Consulting which is focused on teaching the art and science of business to leaders and managers.