Monday, May 14, 2007

More power to Front Liners PLEASE

The great Andrew Carnegie got it right - see quote below

I have long advocated for front line staff.

Since I started work in 1969 – as a front liner of course - my opinion has not changed. Front line staff are not valued anywhere near enough in most organisations.
This is despite patronising platitudes from senior management such as;

‘Our staff are our most valuable asset’

In my opinion that is usually not the way staff are treated in reality when we take apart, in some detail, the ACTIONS of managers compared to their WORDS. In the words of the legendary Andrew Carnegie 'As I grow older I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.'

I argue almost every single front liner is ‘over managed’

Processes that are always invented by managers usually mean front line staff have to jump through completely unnecessary hoops and I believe many management jobs could easily be wiped out overnight if we give front line staff more freedom to make decisions.

I saw this directly for 35 years in my health service career and I still see it when I look at the way most organisations work - whether a big organisation or even (and more sadly) in small businesses.

I get a real buzz when I see staff ALLOWED to use their initiative and work for the customer rather than having to disappear and ask permission of someone more 'senior' (but often less 'in touch' with customers)

In reality, the front liner usually knows the right answer.

If it is frustrating for me as a customer just imagine how it feels for the member of staff and how demoralising it is.

I’d love to hear your examples of companies where front line staff are GENUINELY allowed to make decisions and just get on with it.


Anonymous said...

As you know Trevor, I am a fan of Ricardo Semler and his views on work. In his book Maverick he points out that we are adults – we can vote, we can get married, we can buy a house – until we turn up for work, then we are treated like children. We are given lots of rules to abide by, we are told what to do, what not to do, what to wear, what not to wear, our work is checked, we are timed in and out, in fact given very little scope to express our personalities.

I am minded of a comment by Larry Page, co-founder of Google. “We don't have as many managers as we should, but we would rather have too few than too many.”

I would certainly endorse that view and extend it to included politicians and bureaucrats. You have commented on the impending departure of Tony Blair. No one could say that his government hasn’t put record sums of money into the health service and education. Yes, we have lots of shiny new hospitals and schools. But do many of us feel that we have a better health care system or better education?

It seems to me that the greatest indictment of this government is that they didn’t trust doctors, nurses, radiographers (have to mention them!), teachers and other professionals to use the money to good effect. So we have seen a stream of Government initiatives, policies, targets etc which then need someone to manage them. Hence, staff are deflected from their prime task and more managers are required to look after the paperwork. So because the government couldn’t resist meddling, much of the money has been wasted and the professionals are thoroughly demoralized.

In its ten years, this government has enacted 179 new pieces of employment legislation. Did business really need all those new rules to keep it on the straight and narrow? A simple example of the benefits of empowering the front line: a friend of mine is the CEO of a hi-tech engineering company. He has told his people to make their own decisions on if, when and how they travel to meet suppliers or customers. He tells me that the travel costs are invariably less than he would have been prepared to authorize.

I am sure that, at some point, we have all felt the frustration of having something imposed on us by people who we know are less expert than us. Perhaps those of us involved with consulting, advising, training or writing can spread the message so that many more can be encouraged to empower all of their employees.

Trevor Gay said...

Thanks David

I remember an old boss of mine telling me at least 10 years ago how brilliant Semler was. He encouraged me to buy Semler’s book. I’ve promised myself many times since to read his books – I must get round to it. From what I hear of him he is my sort of person.

I endorse the story of the reduced travel expenses. Tom Peters mentioned this a few years back and produced evidence that travel expense costs reduced by as much as 50% after staff were allowed to approve their own expenses without the need for the counter signature of their manager.

The NHS issues you raise are really interesting and I think it depends on which side of the fence you sit. My take on things would be that this government has invested more money in the NHS than any government since the NHS was formed in 1948 and in return they have rightly expected improvements in efficiency from local managers who have been held to account.

The patient experience of the NHS is streets ahead of what it was ten years ago. People have short memories of how poor standards were compared to now. Ask for instance how long people were waiting for out-patient or in-patient appointments 10 years ago compared to today.

Yes of course some staff in the NHS are rightly unhappy – I have written elsewhere on many occasions that when I joined the NHS in 1969 I was told ‘Morale has never been lower – it wasn’t like this in the good old days!!

I think morale issues are more to do with management at a local level than to do with governments.

Dan said...

Semler's books are fantastic - both Maverick and The Seven Day Weekend.

And since you mentioned Carnegie, you might also enjoy The Hypomanic Edge. Fascinating combination of history, psychology and philosophy.

Trevor Gay said...

Thanks Dan - I really, really, really must catch up on my reading. Like you I have so many excellent books already in the ‘pending reading tray’ I sometimes wonder if I will ever read all the books I want to read.

Take care my friend and I hope things are well with you on the right hand side of the pond.

Anonymous said...

As you know Trevor, this subject is unlikely to get a great deal of "I know an organisation...." comments because despite all the management rhetoric and the external PR spin these companies are few and far between.

One HUGE reason is because companies teach transactions, but rarely equip their people the knowledge of how the rest of the company works in relation to the customer or their own actions.

Take for example a well-known delivery company I did some work for in the UK. They wanted to understand why they were getting so many calls from customers demanding a Proof of Delivery (POD).

Some of the facts were that over 27% of incoming calls requested one. One those requests sent to the internal POD team, more than 67% came back with a "Can't find it" answer. Of the ones that did come back, over 90% of them demonstrated that the full order HADN'T been delivered.

Although there were questions over why POD's couldn't be found, and why the delivery admin team were inputting 'Delivered' when something was marked as missing or when the customer marked the order as 'unchecked', the real discovery was that once or more a week, a file run would fail part-way through.

This created the root cause as the person who had to 'press the button' when the file run failed didn't realise that: -

a) If it failed on file 3 out of 10, files 4-10 couldn't run

b) If the entire file hadn't completed its run by 2pm, any missing items on the delivery schedule wouldn't be highlighted.

c) The delivery drivers often delivered an order of over 127 items per drop and had no time to check the contents.

Therefore, had the person who pushed the button to run (or re-run)the files had it explained WHY it was so important to make sure the file run was completed by 2pm, the customer experience would've improved dramatically (and costs would've reduced dramatically).

Therein is the importance of educating employees on their role in the bigger picture, not just in their little element of it.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Geoff and thanks for that example.

It seems to me enlightened managers realise that staff are no longer happy to be seen as a narrow part of some rational process. People demand to know why and how their ‘piece of the jigsaw’ fits into the whole process. The best organisations tap into that ‘natural inquisitiveness’ of staff and use it for the betterment of the company.

But then I have an idealistic view of the world of work where people genuinely want to enjoy what they do and to make a difference. The old ‘Taylor’ school of management where everything can be measured and if you simply get human beings to do a piece of the process – then add it all together and you end up with the desired outcome - is failed thinking.

I actually believe it was always failed thinking but there you go.

Anonymous said...

I agree Trevor that we tend to see the problems of today and forget those of the past. I also agree that there are many improvements in the NHS, not least in reduced waiting times. However, I wonder whether the waiting times would have come down anyway without government targets, given the extra resource pumped into the NHS. That way, the right clinical decisions could always have had precedence rather than being influenced by the need to satisfy the target achievement measurers.

I also agree with Geoff that it is important that we all understand our role in the context of the total organisation. As someone who spent a lot of time with engineers and sales and marketing people (as well as people from other disciplines), I always seemed to be explaining that the other guy’s job wasn’t necessarily as easy as it looked from the ‘other side of the fence’. It is interesting how that ‘plonker of an engineer’ or that ‘useless marketing manager’ becomes a jolly decent chap when you understand the issues that they are facing.

Trevor Gay said...

Interesting comments – thanks David.

Many times in my management career when I started a new job or a new project I was tipped off by some well meaning person who would say things to me like ‘ Watch him’ or ‘He is trouble’ …etc., etc., And yet when I got to know the person concerned they were terrific.

The thing it taught me was to make up my mind based on my own personal experience and dealings with people and not to simply believe the reputation - good or bad - of a person.

I think the NHS has improved significantly over the last ten years and despite your optimism this would have happened anyway I don’t think so. We also have to ask why the previous Conservative Government did not invest as much in the NHS if they really believed in it.

Phil Gerbyshak said...

As a frontline manager, I agree with you that we need to focus on empowering our teams to make the right decisions for the right reasons, and let them roll. I think it's important to manage the outcome, and let them own the process.

I work hard every day to get my team to make the right decisions for the right reasons, and support them when they occasionally make the wrong ones. It's a much easier management method, as I don't have to white knuckle every single decision, and can instead work with my team to achieve the outcome of happy, engaged customers.

Keep up the provocative questions. They help us all think about what's really important.

Trevor Gay said...

Brilliant response Phil and I have no doubt if every manger had your style, culture and passion we would see empowered staff and ‘customer delight.’

You need to keep shouting your message from the rooftops. I think managers that operate as facilitators are the future. Staff at the front line generally know what to do – they just need ‘permission’ and explicit freedom from their manager to get on and do it. Staff ill make some mistakes but they don’t need punishing – they need encouraging.

We get back in life at least as much as we put in.

Great to hear from you – keep it great my friend