Some time ago I found myself in a workshop listening to and observing that which was occurring. As time flowed onwards and my existence kept ebbing away, i found myself sad, deflated. Here were a group of intelligent people who were charged with charting the future of their organisation. And that future included the label of ‘a customer-centric organisation’. There was much talk about customer obsession, trust, customer experience innovation etc.
So how is that I found myself sad and deflated? I found myself present to that which did not appear to show up for the rest of the team. What was I present to? The following says it as well as it can be said:
We construct realities and then forget we were the ones that constructed them. When our relationship with reality has a kind of “is-ness”or “fixed-ness” to it, – it limits what’s possible and allows only for options like explaining, trying to fix, resisting or accepting. The answer to the question, what does it mean to be human, gets looked at only through that lens. The movie The Matrix says it well: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”
- Gale LeGassick, Landmark Education
Time and again, I find myself in meetings and workshops where the talk is lofty yet where the course of action is merely reasonable. What magnitude of possibility lies in a reasonable course of action? Reasonable possibility. What kind of possibility is that? More of the same and results which are merely reasonable. What is another word for reasonable? Average.
The access to new realms of possibility and the generating of extraordinary results lies in the unreasonable. Unreasonable given the taken for granted “is-ness” yet not at all unreasonable when one lets go of the cage of “is-ness”. It occurs to me that if there was a master of ‘reality distortion’ it was Steve Jobs. Which may explain why it was that he was the source of new worlds of possibility and extraordinary accomplishment.
It occurs to me that the deeper reason that so few organisations innovate – in any dimension – is that the folks who are doing the innovating are reasonable folks taking reasonable courses of action. What is more reasonable than going for the ‘low hanging fruit’? Or sticking to the proven methods? Or involving only the people that have proven themselves to be good team players and safe pair of hands?
Innovation is not simply a matter of process / methodology. Nor is it a matter of tools and techniques. At its heart innovation, and that is just another word for transformation, is a matter of being: the being of the folks in the organisation, and the being of the organisation as a whole. Only those whose being is ‘unreasonable’ have access to generating innovation and transforming business.
Put simply: plodders do not cause innovation or transformation, they simply plod along no matter what tools and techniques you put in their hands.
The accessing to innovation / transformation? Leaders: those who are ‘unreasonable’ enough in their being to put their very being at stake to bring forth, into the world, the ‘unreasonable’: new worlds of possibility.
This conversation follows on from where the previous conversation left off. Specifically, I intend to share with you the theory behind the shaping the work context approach to changes organisational behaviour. And the limitations of using the traditional tools: hard and soft. Let’s begin.
It occurs to me that the fundamental assumption is that human behaviour is always functional. Which is to say that there is correlation between the human behaviour that occurs in a work context and how that work context shows up for the human beings who find themselves there in that context. Put differently, there is an ongoing dance between context and behaviour: each is influenced by the other on an ongoing basis. From this flows the following ‘advice’ from the authors of Six Simple Rules:
1. Human Beings As Purposeful Actors Making Use Of Resources And Dealing With Constraints
Human behaviour can be understood in terms of three elements. First, the goal/s, the towards-which the human being ‘moves’. Second, the resources-tools that are at hand to help ‘move’ towards the goal. Third, that which shows up as an obstacles-hindrance. Collectively, these three elements in their unity (as one) constitute the work context as lived-experienced. Here is what the authors say:
Understanding what people do and why they do what they do is so utterly fundamental that it is our simple rule. Before you, as a manager, do anything to solve a performance problem, you can save yourself a lot of time and money by first applying this rule.
2. Understand How The Organisational Elements Affect-Shape The Work Context
Do organisational structures, processes, procedures, and systems matter? Do they affect-shape human behaviour? Yes, they do affect behaviour and performance. But not in the simplistic way that most of us assume. According to the authors (bolding is my work):
Their impact depends on how they combine with each other to shape the goals, resources and constraints to which people adjust their behaviours.
If you do any cooking you will get that the impact that any one ingredient has depends on the other ingredients that constitute the recipe. If you manage stocks you will understand that it is not the risk of the individual stock that primarily matters – it is the impact of that stock on the risk profile of your portfolio. Hopefully you get the idea.
3. Be Wary of Taking The Hard (Scientific Management) And Soft (Human Relations) Approaches To Improving Organisational Performance
Let’s consider each of these approaches to understand why it is that the authors advise caution in automatically and mindlessly adopting one or both of these approaches as the silver bullet for dealing with organisational challenges.
The Hard Approach And Its Limitations
Why is there is much emphasis in the hard approach on clarity – clearly specifying the rules of the game, the roles and responsibilities of the actors, the boundaries, the rewards and punishments….? Is it because the hard approach takes it for granted that performance is a direct consequence of what people are instructed and rewarded-punished for doing? Let’s listen to the authors:
Structure defines the role, processes instruct how to perform it, and incentives motivate the right per on in the right role to do it. From this perspective, if there is a performance problem, then it must be because some key organisational element is missing or not detailed enough. So companies jump straight from identifying a performance problem to deploying new structures, processes or systems to resolve it. This error dumps a first layer of complicatedness into the organisation.
Let’s make this real by revisiting InterLodge. What did management do at the beginning? Did it not resort to restructuring and reengineering without actually looking into the work context that shaped behaviour? And when management did look at the front line what did it conclude?
Receptionists were not selling rooms to latecomers. They were not engaging the customers in a way that made customers satisfied. They were not charging the right room rate.
If you focus on what your people are not doing does this help you understand what it is that they are doing and what leads them to do what they do? Clearly not. So the authors advise the following (bolding is my work):
Performance is what it is, because people do what they do, not because of what they don’t do. People do what they do precisely because of the organisational elements already in place (not because of the ones that are missing)……
The authors go on to provide what I consider the most valuable and most neglected insight into human behaviour in organisational contexts (bolding is my work):
Organisational elements do not combine with each other in the abstract, based on their supposed intrinsic pros and cons.…. It is only by considering the work context, and their effect in this context, the organisational elements can be appropriately analysed and designed. The effect …….. depends on how people deal with these elements as resources or constraints.
What did the receptionists do with the “guest engagement” skills that they honed during the mandated training course? They used these skills as a resource. But a resource for what? A resource for their goal: avoiding stressful encounters with angry customers:
… they used their skills not to meet the target price point but to proactively offer rebates and refunds. What’s more, their new skills combined with their clarified roles in an unexpected way that also provided new resources to the receptionists……: some receptionists used their newfound interaction skills to explain clearly to guests that their responsibilities stopped at the front desk and did not include back-office activities…
Now you know why I am not a fan of worshipping at the altar of lean, six sigma, process and reengineering. And in the world of consulting, the anal retentive fixation on methodology. I learned the hard way: spending years doing it and seeing the meagre and often counterproductive results.
The Soft Approach And Its Limitations
As this post is already long I recommend that you get hold of a copy of the Six Rules for a fuller-deeper picture. For my part I leave you with the following:
…. the soft approach views performance as a by-product of good interpersonal relationships. But this view confuses people getting along with genuinely productive cooperation. Real cooperation is not fun and games….. it always involved adjustment costs.
Indeed, the better the feelings among individuals in a group, the more people are likely to avoid straining the relationship by bearing adjustments costs themselves or by imposing them on others …. So they will avoid cooperation and make third parties bear the consequences, or they will compensate with extra resources to remove interdependencies… the extra resources teak the form of …. excess inventory stocks, time delays, interfaces and committees, and customer requirements unmet….
Here I draw your attention to the never ending challenge that almost every large organisation has in getting just the folks in marketing (advertising, website, email, direct…) to work together – cooperate. Or the bigger challenge of getting the folks in marketing, sales and service to cooperate to generate a joined up and attractive customer experience.
If you wish to learn more but do not wish to read the book then I recommend the following TED Talk by one of the authors of the Six Simple Rules:
Imagine that you are the CEO of InterLodge. You face a big problem: your share price has been falling for some time. You need to do something to deal with the issues of high costs and low profitability. You find that the occupancy rate and the average price point per room are too low. And the surveys suggest that Interlodge’s customer satisfaction levels are well below where they should be.
Over to you. What are you going to do about this? What approach will you take? What levers will you use to address the issues?
What Did The Top Management Team Do?
The management team did what most management teams do? It restructured and reengineered. Specifically:
- It created a shared service initiative to serve groups of hotels by region. Why? To cut costs and drive up quality.
It redefined roles & responsibilities of hotel employees. Why? To improve productivity and focus resources on driving up quality.
It rolled out a new computerised yield management system. Why? To improve the occupancy rate.
Did the desired outcomes show up? No. The authors of Six Simple Rules state:
A year later, none of these changes had produced any of the improvements the management team sought …… The share price continued to slide.
What Did Top Management Do Next?
Top management took a bold step. InterLodge’s management committed, via a public announcement, to doubling its share price within three years. Why did management do this? Clearly to support-boost the share price and at the same time to energize the hotel employees. Did it work? The authors say that it had a powerful effect on InterLodge employees. The opposite of what management intended: terrified rather than energised. Why?
Because these hotel managers were expected to increase occupancy rates, raise the average price point, and improve customer satisfaction whilst working within the parameters set by the centralised yield management system, the shared services offer, the organisational design and staffing levels set by the centre.
So the hotel managers acted on the one measure that they felt they could make an impact on: customer satisfaction levels. They acted on the hotel receptionists. Why? Because they came to the conclusion that: the hotel receptionists were young and didn’t care about doing a good job; they lacked the right customer handling skills; and they were not selling rooms to travellers who arrived late in the day even when rooms were available.
So what did the hotel management do? Three things. One, they clarified roles, processes and scorecards. Two, they put the receptionists through a soft skills training course to improve their communication and guest engagement. Third, they set up an incentive plan to motivate the receptionists to sell more rooms and increase the occupancy rate.
Did it work? Here’s what the authors of Six Simple Rules say:
Six months later, however, the problems remained. In fact things had gotten worse. The occupancy rate had dropped further. Average price point was down. Customer surveys showed lower levels of satisfaction. Receptionist turnover had risen.
So what did management do next? It looks like they hired a bunch of smart consultants. What did these smart consultants do.
First, Seek To Understand The Work Context At The Concrete (Lived-Experienced) Level
The consultants sought to understand the work context of the receptionists at InterLodge. Please note that the work context is not the objective situation. By work context I am pointing at the work-context as experienced-lived. How does one get to terms with the work context? In this case, the consultant spend a month observing and talking with receptionists at various hotels. What did the consultants uncover?
- The most difficult, most unpleasant, part of the job for the receptionists was dealing with angry customers;
The receptionists had to deal with angry customers on their own – by the time customer’s rang down to complain the maintenance folks had gone home; and
The maids cleaning the rooms were best placed to spot problems and alert maintenance. Yet, they did not do so due to the silo based performance metrics to which they were held accountable – productivity in cleaning rooms.
What is the insight that eventually hit the consultants? Here it is in their words:
the goal of the receptionists was not to earn a financial incentive by improving the occupancy rate. No, the goal of the receptionists was to avoid the unpleasantness of dealing with unhappy customers.
How did the receptionists deal with the situation that they found themselves in?
- The younger receptionist sought to fix the problem themselves. This meant they found themselves running back and forth between their front desk and the problem rooms. This behaviour didn’t work for the customers who arrived at the front desk and found nobody there. And so had to wait.
They kept rooms in reserve so that they could placate customers. Why? Because even if the new room wasn’t so much better, angry customers appreciated the receptionist who went out of his/her way to help.
They adjusted the room rate downwards. The customer harnessed their new found guest engagement skills to negotiate a refund, rebate, or voucher to deal with angry customers.
What Can We Learn From This Understanding of The Work Context?
The authors have something powerful to say and I urge you to listen, really listen:
… the young receptionists were forced to bear the adjustment cost caused by the behaviour of the back-office functions [Housekeeping, Maintenance]. They had little choice in the matter, somehow, they had to deal with the angry customers. The adjustment costs they suffered were simultaneously financial (they didn’t achieve their bonus), emotional (they were blamed by both managers and customers), and professional (at a certain point they would become so burned out that they would quit….).
But customers were also bearing adjustment costs in the form of poor hotel experience. And of course, so were the shareholders in the form of declining returns….
Receptionists could never fully compensate for what the back-office functions [Housekeeping, Maintenance] could have achieved had they been cooperating with each other…
Once the management team took time to understand the context of the work in its hotels, it came to realise that the problem was not that the receptionists were badly trained, or had some psychological issue or attitude problem, or needed more incentives. Rather, their behaviours were rational solutions to the problems they faced.
What actions did the InterLodge management take to shift-shape-transform the work context? And what kind of results showed up? I will share these with you in the next post.
What Is The Weak Point Of Many Organisations?
In a few days I had grasped the main principles on which the hotel was run …….
What keeps a hotel going is the fact that the employees take a genuine pride in their work, beastly and silly though it is. If a man idles, the others soon find him out, and conspire against him to get him sacked…… everyone in the hotel had his sense of honour, and when the press of work came we were all ready for a grand concerted effort to get through it….
This is the good side of hotel work. In a hotel a huge and complicated machine is kept running by an inadequate staff, because every man has a well defined job and does it scrupulously. But there is a weak point, and it is this – that the job the staff are doing is not necessarily what the customer pays for. The customer pays, as he sees it, for good service; the employee is paid, as he sees it, for the boulot – meaning, as a rule, an imitation of good service. The result is that, though hotels are miracles of punctuality, they are worse than the worst private houses in the things that matter.
Take cleanliness for example. The dirt in the Hotel X, as soon as it penetrated into the service quarters, was revolting ….. the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches….. The others laughed when I wanted to wash my hands before touching the butter. Yet we were clean where we recognised cleanliness as part of the boulot. We scrubbed the tables and polished the brass work regularly, because we had orders to do that; but we had no orders to be genuinely clean, and in any case had no time for it. We were simply carrying out our duties; and our first duty was punctuality, we saved time by being dirty.
In the kitchen the dirt was worse….. he [French cook] is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness..… When a steak is brought up for the head cook’s inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up in his fingers and slaps it down, runs his thumbs round the dish and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it round and licks it again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist …. then presses it lovingly into place with is fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning…..
Dirtiness is inherent in hotels and restaurants, because sound food is sacrificed to punctuality and smartness. The hotel employee is too busy getting food ready to remember that it is meant to be eaten. A meal is simply ‘une commande’ to him, just as a man dying of cancer is simply ‘a case’ to the doctor. A customer orders ….. a piece of toast. Somebody pressed with work in a cellar deep underground, has to prepare it. How can he stop and say to himself, ‘This toast is to be eaten – I must make it eatable’? All he knows is that it must look right and must be ready in three minutes. Some large drops of sweat fall from his forehead onto the toast. Why should he worry? Presently the toast falls among the filthy sawdust on the floor. Why trouble to make a new piece? It is much quicker to wipe the sawdust off… And so it was with everything…..
Apart from the dirt, the patron swindled the customers wholeheartedly. For the most part the materials of the food were very bad, through the cooks knew how to serve it up in style. The meat was at best ordinary, and as to the vegetables, no good housekeeper would have looked at them in the market …… The tea and coffee were of inferior sorts, and the jam was synthetic stuff out of vast unlabelled tins ……. There was a rule that employees must pay for anything they spoiled, and in consequence damaged things were seldom thrown away. Once the waiter on the third floor dropped a roast chicken down the shaft of our service lift, where it fell into a litter of broken bread, torn paper and so forth to the bottom. We simply wiped it with a cloth and sent it up again. Upstairs there were dirty tales of once-used sheets not being washed, but simply damped, ironed and put back on the beds. The patron was as mean to us as to the customers ….. And the staff lavatory was worthy of Central Asia, and there was no place to wash one’s hands, except sinks used for washing crockery.
In spite of all this the Hotel X was one of the dozen most expensive hotels in Paris, and the customer paid startling prices. The ordinary charge for a night’s lodging, not including breakfast, was two hundred francs …. If a customer had a title, or was reputed to be a millionaire, all his charges went up automatically…..
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
What is that the astute change agent can learn here?
I don’t know. Here is my take on the matter of leadership and organisational change – including shifting organisations to be more responsive and aligned to customer needs:
The context is decisive
- Werner Erhard
The underlying structure of anything determines its behaviour
- Robert Fritz
I urge those of you who strive to be effective in effecting change need to master and obey these insights. Most of us don’t – even if we get these distinctions we don’t have the time, the energy, the resources, or the passion to do that which is necessary. Which explains why it is that most organisational change efforts yield disappointing harvests. And why most ‘customer-centric’ change efforts fail to yield an organisation that shows up as customer-centric. Perhaps genuine customer-centricity is unnecessary – maybe it is a matter of faking it like the patron and employees of the Hotel X were faking it. Perhaps not – today just about everyone has digital media and access to social media. You decide.
I dedicate this post to James Lawther who reached out to me when reaching out occurred as a most welcome kindness. James called me back to the conversation that occurs in this blog.
What is the connection between happiness, leadership and customer-centricity?
A lot has been written about happiness. Not much of it speaks to me. And there are some speakers whose speaking resonates with me. Let’s start by listening to a wisdom master:
Happiness is almost not worth talking about because the instant you turn happiness into a goal it isn’t attainable any more. In other words, happiness isn’t something you can work towards.
- Werner Erhard
Let’s follow this up with the following quote which is in alignment with that which Werner Erhard is pointing at:
Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of travelling.
- Margaret Lee Runbeck
Many want what are presented as the trappings of leadership. Few get the reality, lived experience, of being a leader and the exercise of leadership. What is the reality? I’d say it something like the following:
Being a leader and the exercise of leadership is not a destination you aim for or arrive at. Nor is it the path that you take. It is a manner of being-showing up in the world and travelling.
If that sounds a little philosophical for you. Then I share the following with you, courtesy of Shane Parrish at Farnham Street:
.. actually leading is different. A leader decides to accept responsibility for others in a way that assumes stewardship of their hopes, their dreams, and sometimes their very lives.….
It is mostly just hard work. More than anything else it requires self-discipline. Colorful, charismatic characters often fascinate people, even soldiers. But over time, effectiveness is what counts. Those who lead most successfully do so while looking out for their followers’ welfare. Self-discipline manifests itself in countless ways. In a leader I see it as doing those things that should be done, even when they are unpleasant, inconvenient, or dangerous; and refraining from those that shouldn’t, even when they are pleasant, easy, or safe.
- General Stanley McChrystal
I’ll leave you with my take on customer-centricity which is manifested in many ways including creating-generating customer experiences that leave customers feeling happy, even delighted, in doing business with you:
Customer-centricity is not a station you arrive at. Nor is it the path that you travel. Customer-centricity is the manner of your showing up (in the world) and travelling.
I wish you a great day. And on this first day of a new year of living for me, I thank you for listening to my speaking. Your existence makes a contribution to my existence. Let’s work together to co-create a world that works for all.