Let’s assume that for the purposes of this conversation that when I use the term customer-centricity I am pointing towards a specific behaviours which show an organisation as being attuned and responsive to the needs of their customers – their core customer base.
How should you go about effecting change in the behaviour of your people, your teams, your functions, your business units, your entire organisation so that your organisation shows up as customer-centric? The authors of Six Simple Rules point out that managers go about effecting change by typically taking a hard approach (strategy, structure, process). And when this fails or to make it more appealing they introduce elements of the soft approach (training, team building, affiliation events). How well do these approaches – hard, soft, hard+soft – work?
In the last post I illustrated what tends to happen when managers take the hard approach: set direction, communicate direction, set metrics to hit, change the bonus system. What about taking the soft approach? How does that tend to work out? Lets return to David K. Hurst’s experience at Hugh Russel:
The top management team emerged from Hugh Russel as a “band of brothers” ….. we found we could “read ” situations better … “contextual intelligence” seemed to be an important feature of our newfound skills. So, after our near death experience, we set out to create an educational experience that would nurture the spirit of commitment, excitement, and engagement we had seen at the senior level of the organisation….
What did this senior leadership do? They organised a series of 3 day retreats ["core samples"] where 50 people drawn from all levels of the company (truck drivers, salespeople, branch managers, vice presidents) were invited to a “lovely old cottage”. What happened on the retreat? The participants hung out together doing team exercises, case studies, got feedback on their behavioural styles, and discussed the issues that the Hugh Russel was facing. How did it go? The senior leadership were delighted with the results:
Discussion at the meetings was open and honest, the behaviours observed were cooperative, and the feedback from the participants was excellent..…… our local branch managers, who nominated most of the attendees, told us that they saw changes in the behaviour of those who had come to the session, even staunch union members. We were very pleased.
The soft approach works! If you take folks from all levels of your organisation to a three day retreat, at a nice place, educate them, teach them, develop them, give them feedback, and allow them to hang out with another then you are well on your way to being customer-centric. Or are you?
Then, over time, the feedback from the managers became less positive….. after awhile back at work, the participants began to revert to their old dysfunctional habits. Many of them who had been cooperative and open during the core samples became surly and aggressive again after a few weeks back at work.
Slowly it dawned on us that we had completely misunderstood cause and effect….. We thought we were teaching them new behaviours, which they could practice back in the workplace. But they knew these behaviours already since they were the ones the workers used in friendly environments, like their homes or bowling alleys or golf clubs. The open environment of the development sessions evoked those social behaviours.
Please make note of the line that I have put in bold. The behaviour that was being taught was behaviour that the folks already had in their very being: cooperation is intrinsic to us. In infant never makes it past infanthood unless it arrives and is nurtured in a cooperative context. So if cooperation is not showing up in the work context then it is because non-cooperation is the functional behaviour in the work context. And cooperative behaviour is dysfunctional in that work context. What can we learn from David K. Hurst?
We had misunderstood the power of context over our people’s desire and even their ability to practice these behaviours back at work. The closed work setting was completely different from that of the country estate …..
Martin Heidegger was on to this phenomenon back in the 1920’s almost a hundred years ago. Most managers are yet to get it: when you ‘deworld the world of its worldhood’ you are in the land of theory. And what is theory? Theory is derived from the Greek word: theoros. What does theoros signify? Spectator. And if you follow that which I speak here on this Blog, you may have gotten the profound difference between “being in the stands and being in the arena”.
Let’s continue listening to David K. Hurst:
…. we weren’t teaching them soft skills that they didn’t already know; we weren’t conveying any hard skills that might have been helpful to them; we weren’t using live company cases or confronting real issues…… our management development program had some of the ingredients of a behavioural trap – short term rewards and a long terms waste of resources.
How does David K. Hurst conclude this story? With a profound lesson for anyone seeking to effect behavioural change that lasts:
This is a perennial problem with development programs, especially those that depend upon a radical change in context to produce their effects. Climbing a challenging mountain peak or whitewater rafting can certainly build temporary espirit de corps in a team. However, the challenge is not to take the skills learned in those challenging contexts back to the workplace but to create challenging workplace contexts that evoke those desirable behaviours. The development sessions should deal with the constraints that prevent an organisation from creating challenging work environments where learning and teamwork are a natural response….
– David K. Hurst, The New Ecology of Leadership
1 – That the challenge of showing up as a customer-centric organisation is one that involves a radical change in context to produce the kind of behavioural change that is needed from just about every person in your organisation;
2 – The central task of any leadership team is to get to grip with the existing work context – to understand what it is about the context that generates the behaviour that is generated today; and
3 – Using this insight to nudge-influence-shape the work context (made of up many micro work contexts) such that the only functional way for your people to show up is as being attuned to and responsive to customers.
Let’s assume that you are a member of the leadership team for your organisation. Circumstances are such that you decide that your organisation needs to focus on customers and generate “total customer satisfaction” on the assumption that satisfied customers buy more of your stuff at higher prices thus generating higher profits. How would you go about it? What approach would you take?
The Default Organisational Change Approach: “Analyse-Think-Change”
The default, dominant – almost exclusive, approach has been labelled as “analyse-think-change” by John Kotter. What kind of results does this generate? Let’s explore this through the experience of David K. Hurst as recounted in his book The New Ecology of Leadership:
For the pilot program we decided to measure “on time delivery” as a proxy for customer satisfaction; that is, did the customer get the steel on the day we promised it? ….
We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when the first measurement showed that ….. 53% of the step was delivered on time. Shocked, we decided to feature on-time delivery as a significant part of a new bonus system, allowing branch managers and their people to earn up to 25% of their bonus for on-time delivery.
What kind of results showed up? Did treating human beings as purely economic beings yield a step change in one-time delivery?
To our delight the results started to improve immediately, climbing quickly to 75% across the system, and some branches even headed into the 80-90% range.
It works, it is as simple as that! Sit in the executive suite, decide to become customer oriented, find a lever that represents customer orientation, measure it, bonus people on improving that measure, and soon you find that your organisation is customer oriented. If that is what you are finding in your organisational change / customer-centricity efforts then take a break from celebrating and listen some more:
We had hardly finished congratulating ourselves … when one of the senior team had a disturbing experience. While walking through a branch, he overheard a salesman on the phone to a customer. “We can’t get it to you on Tuesday,” said the salesman. “How about Friday?”……. The executive saw the salesman go back to the on-time delivery screen and record the new promised date as Friday ….….
Was this salesman just an isolated ‘rotten apple’? I say that where there is a so called ‘rotten apple’ there is a structure that generates rotten apples. Think back to the last post where I shared Robert Fritz’s insight: structure determines behaviour. Let’s listen to David K. Hurst again:
Further investigations revealed that the improvement in on-time delivery that had earned bonus for all was largely an illusion created by our people, who gamed the quirks in the measurement system. The actual delivery processes in the organisation remained unchanged, and the customers were seeing no difference in our performance. Our analyse-think-change approach had rendered the organisation mindless by focusing exclusively on outcomes and ignoring processes….
“See-Feel-Change”: A More Effective Approach to Organisational Change and “Total Customer Satisfaction”?
So what did David and his colleagues do? How did they go about orchestrating “total customer satisfaction” through “on-time delivery”? Let’s listen once more:
We realised that we had to dig deeper to get into the “habit systems,” the processes our people were using, by repeatedly asking why. The top seven reason for the late deliveries were instructive:
1. Salespeople promised the steel early so that they could get the order.
2. The credit department could not approve the credit in time.
3. The processing department couldn’t make the schedule.
4. The quality of the product was not up to standard.
5. We were unable to locate the product in our inventory.
6. The trucks were unable to deliver on schedule.
7. A third party (usually a steel mill) let us down.
Take a look, a deep look, at these reasons. What do you see? I see issues in the product, in the manufacturing of the product, in the management of the inventory, in sales, in finance, in logistics….. In short, just about every function in the organisation is involved in the work that has to come together in order to generate “total customer satisfaction”.
David and colleagues tackled the challenge because they had to – the survival of their employer was at stake:
We formed teams to look at each of these reasons and to search for the systemic causes behind them, drilling down into the bowels of the system. Reason 1 was no surprise ….. the disconnection between sales incentive schemes and factory production systems is a major obstacle to effective performance.
Reason 2 (credit delay) did surprise us -surely credit approval was a mechanical, by the numbers job,. How could it be a major source of delay? ….. investigation revealed that the problem lay with the large number of smaller orders. Now small orders were part of our overall strategy, and for years we had encouraged the taking of smaller orders… Margins on small orders were high, so, as far as we were concerned, the more we had the better.
…. another team working in the warehouse on reason 3 (production delay) found that the primary cause of production delay was the time spent waiting for cranes. After another investigation a team of warehouse people found that the main reason was …. small orders…….. Management was stunned – our small order strategy had been an article of faith throughout the corporation. Yet here it was creating a fundamentally unprofitable operation for systemic reasons that we had never understood.
There is a profound insight and truth here. And it is one that is neglected. It is this: organisational policies and leadership-management practices are the real source of most organisational dysfunction including a lack of attunement-responsiveness to customer needs. I say this as a statement of fact, not as blame. What does David K. Hurst say on the matter:
Now, the reader may feel that management must have been asleep at the switch to miss something as obvious as this. However, the logic of complex systems is neither obvious nor intuitive, and it becomes clear to us only in hindsight. Even then it was the people who worked in operations every day who had to point to us that the real cost drivers on the warehouse floor are finding and handling the product. It’s a common problem in large organisations. The people on the front lines have all the answers, but senior managers seldom ask them the questions, at least in a form … that they can understand.
How does David K.Hurst end his story? What does he conclude?
We had experienced the benefits of drilling deep down into operations, into the processes that produced the outcomes that we were trying to change. John Kotter calls this kind of change “see-feel-change”. That phrase neatly captures a sensual aspect of change – you see a truth and it changes how you feel – it is timely, specific, visceral feedback. Also, it’s compelling for other operators to see it because they can study the action required at the fine grained levels at which they are going to have to implant the changes in their own operations……. First, you go deep on a narrow front, and only after that do you go horizontally, rolling out a program in depth from unit to unit….. This perspective also suggest that huge benefit of pilot programs that develop working prototypes of how a proposed change will actually function….
What is my take? David is sharing and advocating the road less traveled. It is less travelled because it is not quick. It is not cheap. And it is not painless. Yet, it occurs to me that this is the road that has to be travelled to generate the insight-motivation-action that is needed to effect deep change in the behaviour of the organisation. And shift it towards generating-delivering “total customer satisfaction”.
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.
This conversation follows on from an earlier conversation: Mazism 1: There Is Always A Price, It Is Always Paid.
What lies at the source of organisational effectiveness? Is is strategic planning in the guise of strategy? Is it process standardisation / reengineering in its many disguises? Is it restructuring the business, offshoring and outsourcing? Is it about embracing and making good use of the latest information technology? Is it about embracing the latest management fashion: customer-centricity, customer experience, digital business? Is it leadership? Or organisational learning?
After 25+ years spent engaged in the challenge of improving organisational effectiveness and business performance, I am clear that the access to organisational effectiveness and superior performance does not lie in any of these domains. Why? Because they do not get to the heart of the matter: of what is actually so about organisational life and the game of business. What is so?
I am clear that organisational effectiveness (team, function, business unit, corporate) comes down to the people and their relationships with one another. By ‘relationships’ I mean the communicating-relating that has occurred and is occurring between people. If the job of ‘leaders’ is to cultivate organisational effectiveness then it occurs to me that leadership involves-requires a focus on people and relationships. I invite you to read-consider the following passage (bolding is my work):
The lone warrior myth of leadership is a sure route to heroic suicide. Though you may feel alone at times with either creative ideas or the burden of final decision-making authority, psychological attachments to operating solo will get you into trouble. You need partners. Nobody is smart enough or fast enough to engage alone with the political complexity of an organisation or community when it is facing and reacting to an adaptive challenge.
Relating to people is central to leading and staying alive. If are you are not naturally a political person, then find partners who have that ability to be intensely conscious of the importance of relationships in getting challenging work done. Let them help you develop allies. Then, beyond developing your base of support, let them help you relate to your opposition, those people who feel that they have the most to lose with your initiative. You need to stay close to them to know what they are thinking and feeling, and to demonstrate that you are aware of their difficulty. Moreover, your efforts to gain trust must extend beyond your allies and opposition, to those folks who are uncommitted. You will have to find appropriate ways to own your piece of the mess and acknowledge the risks and losses people may have to sustain. Sometimes you can demonstrate your awareness by modelling the risk or the loss itself…..
- Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linksy, Leadership On The Line
Time after time I have witnessed promising ‘strategies’ and plans come to nothing during the implementation phase because those leading change have been blind to the importance of people and relationships – during the strategy development phase, the implementation phase, and/or the post implementation phase.
I say look at any effective organisation (team department, business unit, corporate, society) and you will find healthy communicating-relating occurring between the people who collectively constitute that organisation. And healthy communicating-relating occurring between members of that organisation and the people who they interact with in the broader environment in which that organisation organises and executes its work.
I continue to be amazed that some Tops and Middles want to work on improving customer relationships and the Customer Experience. Why? Because they and their organisations have little appreciation-consideration-feeling for the quality of communicating-relating that is occurring in the organisation. And no lived experience nor appreciation of the the Employee Experience: whether on the front line or the back office.
In dynamic-turbulent times positions of authority require those who fill these positions to exercise leadership: to stand for a sense of purpose, to articulate a mission, to lead people, to effect change in attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, practices, relationships. This is challenging work; we (you/i) find ourselves situated in particular ways of life and are deeply fearful of any change that hints at adaptation, discomfort and loss for us.
If you find yourself in such a leadership position and the burdens-cost of such a role are having the kind of impact that I have listed above, I offer you the following in the hope that it will make a contribution to you:
…. leadership cannot be exercised alone. The lone-warrior model of leadership is heroic suicide. Each of us has blind spots that require the vision of others. Each of us has passions that need to be contained by others. Anyone can lose the capacity to get on the balcony, particularly when the pressures mount. Every person who leads needs help in distinguishing self from role and identifying the underlying issues that generate attack.
Partners come in two general types: the confidant and the ally. The confidant is the person to whom one can cry out and complain. A confidant can provide a holding environment for someone who is busy holding everybody else. People attempting to lead need partners who can put them back together again at the end of the day. These partners, often friends, spouses, lovers, or close colleagues, provide perspective. They help on climb back up to the balcony to understand what happened….
Listening: Using Oneself as Data
To interpret events, a person who leads needs to understand his own ways of processing and distorting what he hears. To sustain the stresses of leadership, he needs to know enough about his own biases to compensate for them.…Compensation requires the inner discipline to step back and test the accuracy of one’s own perceptions and the appropriateness of one’s reaction….
How do people maintain an adequate level of self examination? …. two general principles apply. First, we learn by reflecting on daily actions, successes and failures, of ourselves and others. In particular, we can learn from those habits that repeatedly get us into trouble and from those behaviours that surprise us….. Second, we can use partners as hedges against self-deception…… often they will be informal partners, who, when permitted to do the job of debriefing us, can promote reflection because they are the people to whom we ordinarily can talk openly…..
Finding a Sanctuary
Listening to oneself requires a place where one can hear oneself think.…. When serving as the repository of many conflicting aspirations, a person can lose himself in the role by failing to distinguish his inner voice from the voices that clamour for attention outside. Partners can help greatly, as can a run, a quiet walk, or a prayer to break the spell cast by the frenzy of the floor. We need sanctuaries.
To exercise leadership, one has to expect to get swept up in the music. One has to plan for it and develop scheduled opportunities that anticipate the need to regain perspective. Just as leadership demands a strategy of mobilising people, it also requires a strategy of deploying and restoring one’s spiritual resources.
- Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers
I dedicate this to a friend whose existence elevates my existence. And whose commitment to do good and contribute to a world that works for all leaves me inspired.