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”

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