Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Less Known Leadership Qualities

We all know that Leadership defies formulas – despite the myriad books and articles that keep trying to sell us the newest and latest.  Personally, I'd rather celebrate the great variety of leaders and leadership styles.  For, just as I am internalizing the great qualities of one leader, comes along another, who has anything but that.
Do we celebrate Gandhi’s consideration for his fellows or ‘Neutron Jack’s toughness? Narayana Murthy’s softness and humility or Steve Jobs’ near-cruelty? (tempted to add a dozen more here, but let’s leave that for the list makers).
Precisely for this reason, situational leadership has held me in its sway for a long time.  History is replete with the failures of celebrated leaders, when presented with a different set of demands – often of their own seeking.   ‘Rebellious’ political leaders have often found it difficult to govern the same people they have led to victory.  Great start-up entrepreneurs have struggled to manage a mature enterprise... (list, please!)

Expectations and Change Management
Another dimension to leadership is the expectations of those they lead, or even those that stand and watch.  Consider the failures of successive leaders at companies such as Yahoo! Or HP.  Obviously, if the measure of success (KPI) in such situations is the turning around of a “sick” company, arguably, it is not leadership that is needed but a mere viable value proposition.  I would argue against equating the two.  I can understand the argument that a great leader should be able to develop and implement a value proposition for an ailing business.  But that expectation suffers from a very idealistic, even wishful, definition of leadership.  I could make a case that an ingenious product developer could well dream up a powerful value proposition and, given pre-existing internal steam put in place by a previous ‘leader’, well succeed in turning such a company around.  Who, in such a case, would the real leader be?  I suspect the market, having kicked out the previous ‘failed’ leader, would not hesitate in embracing the new comer as a visionary leader.  I would pause and reconsider.

Span of Leadership Influence
Somewhat on the edge of leadership, is a leader’s grasp of the span of his reach.  He needs to realize that he alone cannot influence the entire target population directly.  He needs to develop a whole hierarchy of leaders to reach all the way to the grass roots.  I have seen any number of organizations, where good leadership stops at level two.  That is, the big leader picks a good team that has the intellectual understanding of the task on hand, but not the EQ to be leaders themselves.  They fail to initiate change at their level and below.  The real failure here is that of the big guy in his inability to understand the span of his influence.  He needs to understand that his direct influence can (at least in most cases) reach at best two or three levels below him.  Unless these 2-3 top levels can pick up the signals and amplify them to reach further, noise is bound to kill the signal.  Gandhi, had leaders like Nehru, Krishna Menon, Sarojini Naidu and Patel to amplify his signal to reach across India.  Jack Welch had his famous winning team, Immelt, McNerney and Nardelli, among others, to carry and amplify his message across a huge conglomerate. 

Such development of leadership is often discussed as part of succession planning.  I want to make the point that this is not about succession planning at all.  This is just being an effective leader today.  The leader needs a realistic appreciation of the strength of his signal and the extent of background noise.  Only then can he breed the right kind of leaders and the depth of the hierarchy that is needed to reach the grass roots.

Hanging in There
Here’s another: The ability to stay in the position of leadership.  One may look at it as hanging on to power.  It often is.  But, one does come across situations occasionally, where it is important for a leader to hang in there for the change he has initiated to take shape.  If by his own actions or due to lack of political acumen he is unseated, it can be a loss for all concerned.  Chandrababu Naidu, the ex-Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, in India comes to mind.  He initiated so many positive, powerful changes that he forgot he also needed to appease his voters (read customers) and was booted out by the electorate.  

On the flip side is the Dalai Lama.  A reporter wanted to know why he did not stay back in Tibet and launch his anti-China movement from there.  He responded: if he had stayed back, it would have taken no time for the Chinese to capture him; and that would likely be the last the world would have heard about him.  
Quality Leadership - Dalai Lama with world leaders
Importantly, he would not have been able to carry on the kind of campaign he has been waging against China -- essentially becoming a one-man thorn in the side of a global super power.  My point is that, it is part of Leadership to be able to position oneself for maximum impact.  If this means taking a step back or making a seemingly cowardly, even unethical move, that could well become part of the tactics and strategy a leader may have to adopt to achieve the goal.
Cause-based Leadership
Finally, I have recently come across a very different type of leadership that has perhaps not been studied adequately.  Resisting the temptation of naming it, let me describe it.
A situation calls for change.  The current leader either doesn’t read the signal or is clearly incapable of addressing it.  A "common man" reads the signal.  But he is “leader” enough to understand his own limitations and strengths.  He is also able to conceptualise the kind of leader needed to make it happen.  He goes on a hunt to look for the ‘appropriate’ leader; finds one after several attempts; “sells” the idea to this 'appropriate’ leader; positions himself as a 'side-kick', providing back-office support and brain power to this ‘appropriate’ leader.  He does not hesitate to call the shots, or even to take the heat when called for.  To cut a long story short, he ends up making a nationwide movement by driving another ‘visible’ leader to launch a campaign designed by him!
To me, this is an amazing example of leadership.  In fact, I’d rate it even higher that ‘direct’ leadership that we see most often.  To be passionate enough about a cause, to be able to know oneself enough to understand that a different kind of person is needed to ‘front’ it and then stay behind and guide the movement, takes the kind of maturity and leadership that’s seen extremely rarely.  I would like to call it Cause-based leadership.  (Yeah, admittedly a lame name.  Feel free to suggest a batter one!) 

Kejriwal burns a copy of the Lokpal Bill at a protest near New Delhi
Team Leadership.  Kejriwal: 40 winks with the team
The man I am talking about is Arvind Kejriwal, the man who managed to shake an entrenched and corrupt political establishment on both sides of the political divide in India.  Here is a short abstract from the Indian magazine The Caravan, on the man I am talking about.

This man was Arvind Kejriwal, a 43-year-old social activist from East Delhi. Though (Anna) Hazare is the recognised face of an anti-corruption campaign that began with his fast on 5 April, Kejriwal is the architect of the movement—the man journalists swarm to, seeking an interview. At press briefings, he often sits next to Hazare and helps the self-styled Gandhian handle tough questions: Kejriwal whispers into Hazare’s ear or scribbles key points on a piece of paper lying between them. When questions are posed to Kejriwal, he responds like an impassioned professor explaining a complicated problem—piling detail upon detail with the supreme confidence that his answer is the correct one. His essential message never changes: only a powerful independent anti-corruption agency, with wide-ranging authority and minimal government interference, can cure the plague of graft—and anything less will fail.
(Read more here)
The hallmarks of “Cause-based” leadership are:
•    The only thing that matters is the cause.  Even the leader is an instrument for the cause. 
•    The visible leader may not be the real leader
•    Rather, the real leader is the driver and he may well be at the back of the vehicle, among the passengers!

All this tells me, we are a long way from understanding leadership, much less training leaders.  But then, part of leadership is to make do with inadequate information!

- Sri

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Customer Service and Brand Promise

I recently experienced a different kind of customer service.  This was at a popular Italian restaurant called Zachary's Chicago Pizza in Berkeley, CA.  The place is known for its ‘Chicago-style deep dish pizza’.  It was not a big restaurant; just one big hall with a parapet wall running all along the side, leaving a narrow lane for customers to reach the cashier’s counter in the far corner.  The same counter serves as the take-out and payment point.

We were asked to wait some 20 minutes.  There were others in line and we fell in line too.  There was no waiting room as such and the waiting customers just hung around in the narrow lane, squeezing themselves against the wall every time someone had to pass by.  Pretty inconvenient, if you ask me.  But the customers did not seem to mind – and importantly, nobody walked away.  They just hung around or stepped outside if they wanted a smoke.

Soon a waiter turned up and introduced himself (“Hi! I’m Joe, I will be your waiter today.”)  He then apologized for the delay and told us that the pizzas normally take 20 minutes to cook and that if we did not mind, we could place our order right away.  We agreed (again like everyone else!) and he promptly handed us a menu each, saying we could order drinks mean time.  We did that too.  The drinks came in a few minutes and, in what seemed to be reasonable time, the waiter appeared and informed us that our table was now ready.  Of course, our order arrived almost as soon as we sat down.  The food was good and we had a good time. 

Compare this with the more typical scenario.  You arrive early or find a long line.  Waiter greets and tells you it will take 20 minutes and asks you to be seated.  There normally is a small sitting place reserved for such situations.  You sit down.  Perhaps the waiter gives you a menu to help you occupy yourself, perhaps not.  You wait for 20 minutes making a call or twiddling your thumbs.  Your turn comes… and so on.
Service Rating

You will agree, Zachary’s did a couple of things differently:
•    Was not too concerned about the inconvenience to waiting customers
•    Focused on optimizing customers’ time by taking their order right there
•    Improved his own turnover by reducing customers’ time at the table – by eliminating time taken to settle down and selecting from the menu
•    Increased working space by eliminating the unproductive ‘waiting area’; instead adding to capacity by substituting it with dinner tables.

Certainly not what most customer service experts and consultants would advise.  So what’s the secret?

To my mind, it really boils down to brand perception.  I think, as Steve Jobs showed us so often, if the brand perception is right, customers don’t seem to mind inconvenience.  In fact, they are willing to go through a lot of it!

Of course, building that kind of brand is not easy!  It needs excellence in an area of the customer experience that matters even more to the customer.  What Jobs and Zachary are telling us from very different industries is that if you have a deep understanding of customers’ real needs (especially unexpressed, or even unknown) and are able to deliver on those needs significantly better than competition, customer’s do not mind inconvenience.

Wait a minute… I suspect it’s even worse.  What Jobs has done is to make the ‘inconvenience’ part of the overall experience.  The exasperation of the typical wait has been converted to the excitement of waiting for that ‘cool gadget’; so it’s cool to sleep on the street to be among the first to own an iPad2!

While not with as much pizzazz (sic), Zachary too achieved similar results.  It make’s no bones about the possible wait.  Here’s a prominent notice it puts up on its website:

There are some preconditions to be able to pull this off, though…
1.    You need to make sure you deliver on the core promise extremely well,
2.    You need to consciously build the brand and make the ‘inconvenience’ a part of the excitement of owning the brand,
3.    The ‘inconvenience’ needs to be carefully managed.  The customer should perceive it as a natural consequence of the popularity of the brand.

 Of course, to make real sense the ‘inconvenience’ should also yield some critical benefit to the business, whether in terms of costs or additional revenue. 

How best, and to what extent, you can leverage the brand to inconvenience the customer and how you benefit from it is the tricky part.  You are the lucky one in a million, if you are able to achieve it intuitively.  For the rest of us who have to look for a tool, I would recommend beginning by mapping the customer experience end to end and then brainstorm on each component to identify areas for delighting and areas for ‘inconveniencing’.

Brand Promise
What would be some inconveniences that could be engineered into some other products and services?

1.    A consultant who is so busy, he is not available for weeks or months, but his advice is so valuable, customers are happy to put up with it.  Think Ram Charan
2.    Patients waiting for hours in the waiting room of a trusted neighborhood doctor (primary physician).
3.    Customers willingly viewing boring repeated commercials for seeing their favorite program on TV…

One way to look at it is to think of convenience as part of the overall value proposition, just like functionality, price, package, access or pride.  By providing one of these values in “delightful” proportions to the customer, you can please other stake holders (e.g., share holders or employees) by shaving off a few points in other values.

- Sri Vadrevu
SigMax-e Consulting

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Excellence of a different kind…

This happened in Hyderabad, India…

My friend from Dubai is on a visit and has a serious stomach upset, thanks to indulging himself in some of this city’s spicy local food.   I take him to the private clinic of a popular local physician.  We find a long line of patients waiting for the Doc’s attention.
Now, this Doc does not give appointments and just serves patients in the order in which they show up.  For convenience, a chaprasi (typically, an uneducated helper) issues patients a token with a serial number as soon as they come in, and asks them to be seated.
The token given to us is #24.  The number currently being attended to is #5, indicating that we may not be called in for over two hours.  We decide to go to another doctor down the street, when the chaprasi stops us outside the office.  “Don’t worry sir, I can help you go in earlier” he says respectfully.  He also gives us an expectant smile, which most Indians recognize as a request for a bakshis, or tip.
Intrigued, we stay back.  True to his promise, the attendant returns with a different token (#11).  Collecting our #24 from us, the chaprasi assures us our number will be called in less than 20 minutes.

After waiting for 30 more minutes, we are fed up and accost the chaprasi.  The chaprasi very apologetically pleads that the patient inside is taking unusually long.  He however, promises to send us in along with the next patient.  When the next patient is due, he asks us to ‘join the party’ of two others who are going in to meet the doctor – for all intents, as part of that patient’s family!   We are then asked to stay back in an ante-room till the patient, whose turn it really was, is done.

Eventually, we manage to see the doctor in less than 40 minutes since walking in.  The Doc himself is thoroughly professional and treats my friend with the greatest expertise and care.  Not only does he hear my friend’s case patiently, he shows a total familiarity with my friend's condition and is able to prescribe just the right medication for his condition, assuring him of total relief in less than ten minutes.  He also takes time to discuss life in Dubai and throws in a complimentary ‘emergency’ pill should the prescribed medication not work in the promised ten minutes!

No expensive tests or scans.  Simple clinical diagnosis and spot-on medication!  My friend was so totally reassured by the very demeanor of the Doctor, he perhaps did not need the medicine!  We come back, ‘delighted’ with the experience – the Doc, the service and the chaprasi!  The latter, of course earned his tip.

I suspect many Indians may not be surprised with this story.  Examples of such innovations, not only in customer service, but also in product / service development abound in India.  I dare say, this may be the case in many parts of Asia.  What is even more intriguing is that most of the nearly 40 patients the Doc sees every day, actually come out very pleased with his services; which explains their willingness to wait patiently (sic) for over two hours for his attention.

Yet, as a “process professional”, I hate to concede that this was a show of process excellence!
Got me thinking.
There are two parts to the overall experience.  The process of expediting the waiting experience and the consultation itself.  Let me skimp over the consultation -- as I am no medic -- except to say that there was no attempt to capitalize on the excruciating pain the patient was in and the doc showed a thorough understanding of my friend's condition, and experience in handling such cases!

Coming to the process of waiting, of course, there was the dubious ethics of playing with those waiting in line.  Take away ten points for that!

I think what the clinic achieved was a deep insight into it's customers that enabled it to segment them: Those who can afford to wait and those who could not.  Possibly elementary for a seasoned marketing pro, but for a doc, I’d give 25 points right there!

Taking off from here, I guess a typical management student would recommend two separate queues for the two segments, possibly charging a premium for those in a hurry.  Another solution may have been to open a different clinic in an up-market location and / or split his working hours / days between the two.  However, given the income diversity of the location, as well as the potential extra cost of opening another clinic, these strategies would certainly not have fared well.  Moreover, given the local culture, such a practice, so long as it is carried within discreet limits, would not be seen as outrageous!

Floor mill on a scooter - a classic jugaad
I doubt if it was the doctor’s idea to introduce the ‘token exchange’ or even the ‘patient coupling’ systems.  It could well have been the genius of the helper, looking for an extra buck.  This is a classic case of what, in India, has come to be known as jugaad.  There’s a lot of literature, at least on the internet, on India’s jugaad.   If you are interested, you can make a beginning here: http://ourdelhistruggle.com/2009/10/07/jugaad/ and

Don’t get the impression that I am happy with the dubious ethics displayed by the chaprasi.  My point is that jugaad is actually ethics-agnostic.  The ‘jugaadu’ just focuses on a workable solution, given the constraints.  One may add ‘ethical solutions only’ as an additional constraint, and he may well come up with something equally clever.

Let’s look at the HR aspect as well.  How does one hire and retain such enterprising people in such a small setting?

While our doc’s innovative helper could be a fluke, typically, such assistants – often called by their pet names -- are long-serving employees.  Sometimes they may even be linked to employer-families for generations.  Any written agreement or ‘appointment letter’ would be unthinkable!  The wages are typically ‘at market’, with a variety of freebies thrown in.  These could include emergency loans, medical assistance, pass-me-downs and more.  Often, they are treated as the ‘poor cousin’ and as such may even be privy to many family secrets.

This does not mean there is no attrition. It would not be shocking to hear a long serving helper, very apologetically, tell his boss that his cousin from Dubai has arranged a job for him and he would like to leave!  And there are cases, where the boss would actually help him along with a big loan or parting gift.

One may argue such arrangements are more in the nature of personal relationships than employment contracts.  I would submit otherwise.  For, the basic purpose of the relationship is clear.  One has a job that the other wants to take up -- for a consideration.  The relationship that is built (sometimes quite rapidly) is a matter of increasing mutual trust and concern for each other’s welfare.  I know this sounds rather utopian, but to my mind that is the core element at the heart of the relationship.  And yes, many have also come to grief due to this.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Operations Excellence in Malaysia

Let me share with you some instances of operations excellence I witnessed in Malaysia.  All in the public sector or Government offices.

The first was a couple of years ago.  I was delivering a session on Customer Service in the Public Sector to an international group of senior public sector officials at The National Institute of Public Administration (Institut Tadbiran Awam Negara or INTAN).  As part of the program, INTAN had organized a ‘show and tell’ visit to the National Registration Dept. (Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara or JPN).  I tagged along, curious to see what they had done.
Datuk Abdul Halim Muhammad

I was pleasantly surprised, first of all to see the (then) Director-General, Datuk Abdul Halim Muhammad (pic) take active personal interest in the visit.  He began by greeting us all and then making a detailed presentation of their quality journey.  The presentation was laced with performance metrics and showed how JPN had improved its performance over the years – in the process, winning several national awards.  Datuk Halim took great pride in showing us around.  Of special pride for him were the toilets!  Yes.  The building, several floors tall, had toilets on every floor and each one of them was maintained like bedrooms at home!  Not only were they spick and span, many of them had curtains and furniture and were decorated with pictures to give a pleasant experience to the users!  Apparently the D-G ran a competition every year for the best maintained toilet!

Another ‘show piece’ was the archive.  Here, the Datuk asked one of the visitors to give their identity card.  When a senior Malaysian produced one, he took it to the nearest officer and asked her to fetch the previous versions of that card.  He then asked us to note the exact time.  Mildly amused, I did as directed.  Less than a minute later, the officer was back with a small envelope containing all the previous identity cards issued to the lady!  These were old cards that were collected back by the Dept., when newer versions were introduced.  So, we had all the way from paper cards, to laminated, to magnetic stripe!  The Datuk told us that the SLA for the retrieval was 42 seconds (if I remember right)!

Finally, on our way back, we visited the Customer Center – this is where people come to have their cards / duplicates issued, get their marriages registered, etc.  Another delightful experience.  They even had a lovely chamber where the newly married couple was facilitated and could take pictures in studio-style settings!  At the waiting area itself was another great concept.  Like in most places, people were required to take a token from an automated dispenser when they entered.

Feedback Boxes
What was different and interesting was that after they finished their work, on their way out, they were asked to drop the token in one of four boxes, marked with icons, showing different levels of satisfaction – from smiley to grumpy!  The boxes were transparent and locked!  This is a simple way to collect customer feedback and no doubt, you may have seen it elsewhere.  Nothing could be simpler, more transparent and immediate than this.  I still wonder why more businesses do not follow this simple method.  It is amusing to think of the thousands of dollars many companies spend on seeking customer feedback in more complex and expensive, yet less reliable, ways!

OK, this post is not all about the JPN.  More recently I had to accompany my wife to get a duplicate driving license (original stolen).  So we go to the nearest Road Transport Department office (Jabatan Pengangkutan Jalan or JPJ).  I am fully armed.  I have taken half a day off from office and equipped myself with multiple passport size pictures of my wife, her passport and copies of the same, etc.  When I reached the office, I found there was a photography studio on the premises which gave out prints instantly.  Next, from taking the token to walking out with the new license (renewed for 2 years) in hand took, may be 3 minutes.  Yes three.  Our token number was called almost immediately and the lady at the counter knew exactly what she needed to do.  She verified my wife’s identity, collected the photographs, asked the period for which she wanted the license renewed, collected cash and printed out the new license.   That’s all!

Having worked in the public sector for nearly two decades, let me tell you it is nothing short of amazing to ‘transform’ a government department to this level of efficiency and effectiveness!  To get everything from selecting the right IT system and vendor, implementing the system, hiring staff with the right attitude, training them on the processes and ensuring they deliver as planned, is not a challenge for the faint hearted!!  I hope the service is comparable at JPJ's other branches!

Of course, I have also heard and read of many mishaps -- in the press and in coffee shop gossip. However, what I also see is the push within the government to get things right.  Little pockets of success like the ones highlighted here should be celebrated.  

Celebrating success is an essential part of the process of transformation (see diagram).  I would urge the Malaysian Govt to pay more attention to this part: simple Public Relations.  Not, “in the face” blunt advertisements and slogans, but just getting the word out; to exploit "word of mouth".  I would even argue for putting in place a small team of "spin doctors" to focus on this.  The Govt. also needs to get a better handle on social media – after all this country is one of the biggest users of this media.  It’s time the Govt learned how to handle such soft communications better!


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tackling Your Organizational Culture

I had an appointment with the Head of HR & Learning of a prominent listed company recently.  Upon announcing myself at the reception, I was told that ‘somebody’ will come down to escort me to the meeting room.  I waited.  Soon a presentable young lady showed up to take me to the meeting room.
Just as we were approaching the elevator bank, my escort pulled back and suggested we allow “him” – indicating a suited individual who was waiting for the elevator – to go first.  I obliged of course, but it piqued my curiosity. 
“Who is he?” I asked. 
“He’s our CEO”. 
“And why are we not waiting with him?”
“It’s not proper, right?  I always avoid going in the same elevator with top management”
 This was a young, up and coming technology company.  The CEO may have been 40 or so.  (Did he know what his staff was “doing to him”?)

Got me wondering.  What if my company was the same?  Would I even know?  What have I put in place – systems, processes, structures – to ensure this will not happen to me?

The fact is, I had never given this issue serious thought.  Just assumed we had the right culture!  So what can a CEO do to ensure the culture he wants to establish is seeded, nurtured and thrives in his organization? 
Luckily we have some help from the Gurus of Management!

Ram Charan

One of the best I have come across on influencing organizational culture, comes from Ram Charan, best selling author and consultant for the top F-100 companies and ex-faculty of Harvard Business School.  In his landmark 2001 article, Ram gives us some powerful insights:
  1. It all begins with dialogue
  2. The right social operating mechanisms (rhythmic meetings on strategy, performance review, talent, etc)
  3. Follow-through and Feedback 
  4. Rewards and Sanctions
When you read about systems and processes like these and compare them to a typical Asian situation, you will readily find the typical blind spots.  In my view, for

Asian companies, these are dialogue, feedback and sanctions.
  • Dialogue
For some historic reason, Asia has a problem with open dialogue.  One could trace it to the culture of respecting elders.  But, to my mind, the more important problem

is the definition of elders.  Elder, in Asia, is defined as anyone in a position of authority; it could be the father, the priest or the king.  These people got into their positions the hard way and then do everything possible to keep it that way.

I would additionally argue that North Asia (India, Pakistan…) have been able to wash this away a bit better than the rest of Asia (Maybe, we should thank the British authoritarianism for this).  Proof of my ‘theory’ lies in the controlled economies of China and Singapore and to a lesser extent, even Malaysia.  Political leadership either abhors open dialogue or struggles to ‘open’ dialogue in selective areas.  This naturally carries into business management.  Having an opinion different from that of the Boss is equivalent to raising a rebellion.  Bosses are not told the bad news.  Rather the masses will somehow manage the issue, even if it means pleading with the customer, or other external organization.  Ram offers four ‘must haves’ for a culture that encourages open dialogue: openness (i.e., the outcome is not pre-determined), candor, informality, and closure (you don’t go home without reaching a decision).
I have spoken earlier about feedback.  Here, I will only add a quote from Ram: “By failing to provide honest feedback, Leaders cheat their people by depriving them of the information they need to improve.”  I will also go out on a limb and say that most managers do a poor job of providing feedback because they lack the courage to see the employee in the eye and give negative feedback.  This, in turn, is because they have not been trained in providing non-threatening, constructive feedback.
  • Sanctions
Most companies lack both rewards and sanctions.  But things are getting better and many companies are introducing rewards systems.  Unfortunately, sanctions are still unheard of.  Many argue that lack of reward is a sanction in itself.  I would not agree.  To my mind, there have to be three classes, separated by the majority, who would be ‘average’.  X% above average, a large chink of average in the middle, and Y% below average. 
Why should we continue to tolerate the Y?  By doing this we equate them with average and are doing a major disservice to the average.  Of course, there is lot more to culture than what we've covered here.  Do expect more in forthcoming posts


Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Four Wheels of Process

Ever wondered what could be the basic building blocks of a business process, the wheels that make it run?  Considering the predominant position processes have in our lives today, it is a concept that certainly deserves some attention.

In one sense, the good old SIPOC (Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer) may be said to represent an appropriate framework.  As a huge champion of SIPOC, I am convinced it is one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of any process manager.  However, the SIPOC takes a ‘process’ and sequential view, looking at the factors that impact a process.  When I talk about building blocks and wheels, I refer more to critical components that constitute process.  It is more of an in-depth and systematic look at the “P” in SIPOC.  I find that there are a few critical elements that drive the effectiveness and efficiency of most processes.  The Four Wheels approach suggested below is an attempt to focus attention on these ‘vital few’ elements.

I submit this more as a framework for further thought.  Hopefully, we will have more contributions to the idea and eventually have a model that can work effectively in most situations.

I believe four ingredients are critical for the completion of any process, especially in an organization setting.  Let me discuss them briefly:

The person (or group) entrusted with the process needs to have the authority to complete it.  This means, the authority to take the process all the way to an output that has a direct impact on a desired outcome or business result.  If this authority is limited, it will lead to passing the activity on to another person or group (or worse, another process), which has a direct bearing on the efficiency and effectiveness of the process.  At a minimum, it can lead to delays or disagreements.  Empowering the person concerned to complete the process also minimizes hand-offs – a bane for any process.
The key factors driving Authority are:
o Empowerment
o Understanding of process dynamics versus specialized skills

Information or Ingredients:  
Whether the process belongs in the real or the virtual world, the person needs to be in possession of all information and / or ingredients to perform the process.  Any shortcoming here can result in delays (in attempting to procure it) or defects in the output.
Information in turn, involves:
o identifying the information / ingredient required,
o having access to it as needed; and once that process is completed,
o the documentation of the completed process, for records.
Each of these elements can in turn cause inefficiencies or defects, if not addressed appropriately.

Systems & Infrastructure:
This primarily refers to IT systems, but not entirely.  Too many disparate systems, weak integration among them or unreliable infrastructure (frequent breakdowns) will delay the process or cause errors, besides impacting the motivation of the workers.
The key drivers in systems and infrastructure are:
o Understanding of process design requirements
o Well integrated systems / enterprise resource planning
o Reliable infrastructure

Manpower (Skills & Motivation):
Finally, the person entrusted with the process needs to possess the skills necessary to complete the process.  Again, any lack of skills can result either in a defective output or delay caused by acquiring the skill.  Additionally, in today’s hyper-competitive, knowledge-driven environment, motivation of the persons entrusted with the process can make a ‘make-or-break’ difference.  Poor motivation levels can cause delays  (procrastination), defects (errors), or even fraud.
The key elements driving skills and motivations are well known:
o Hiring (especially to ensure, basic capabilities and motivation, which cannot be added later)
o Training,
o Compensation, and
o Leadership


It has been my experience that most process improvements fall within any one or a combination of these four wheels.  While I may be off at the edges, and there could well be some which fall outside these four, I do feel they should take care of the vast majority of processes.

I call these the four wheels of process because they not only support the vehicle that a process is, they are also critical in keeping it moving, in determining the direction the vehicle takes as well as in absorbing expected shocks on the road.

The power of looking at process in terms of wheels is that not only does it focus on the vital few components of a process; it can also be used as a ‘quick and dirty’ check list for making process improvements.  For instance, one could ask:
1. Does the team entrusted with this process have the authority to complete it?
2. Do we have a complete understanding of the information (or ingredients) needed to complete the process?  Does the team have access to all the information required?
3. Has the person handling the process been equipped with all necessary systems and infrastructure to complete the process effectively and efficiently?
4. Does the team have all the skills required and the motivation to perform the process to ensure the output meets the desired outcome?

A negative answer to any of the questions should lead an enquiry into the root cause(s) for that and an exploration of ideas to eliminate such root causes.

The four wheels are conceptually akin to the typical categories one selects for an Ishikawa Diagram (aka Fishbone analysis).  I am talking about categories like Machine, Method, Material, Manpower, Policies, Procedures and the like.  In that sense I would recommend using the four wheels as the four bones of the fish.  Simpler and more focused.

May be I am over simplifying the problem.  Nevertheless, as a new idea, I would certainly put it to the severest test.  You will hear more about this from me.  For sure.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

VISION -- Oops! There I go again!

I find I am not done with the vision thing!  So, this is a follow-up to my previous post!

Once we separate Stab (stating the obvious) visions and Real visions, vision and strategy become quite intertwined.  Yes, vision is still the distant objective; and strategy more the “how” of achieving that vision in the shortest, simplest way.  But without a strategy to match, your vision will remain on banners – whether on walls or online.  Conversely however, a clever strategy may not need a clear vision to take it forward.

It, of course, helps to have a clear vision as well.  But it is not a necessity.  In fact, when the future is not clear, especially in high technology spaces, or where popularity or standards are involved, many companies adopt a strategy of ‘flexibility’ or ‘spreading the investment’.  That’s a case where we have a clear strategy (we will NOT invest heavily in any one technology / platform), but not a clear vision.  Rather, we admit to ourselves that our vision of the future is not clear.  That understanding drives the strategy!

Of course, many fail even with a clear and powerful vision.  One cause, as we discussed above, is a weak strategy to execute it.  Another is having a great vision and even a great strategy, but no execution capability.

A key element of execution and something I see more often is the communication of the vision.  Most Stab visions are followed with a routine communication plan.  Posters, banners, website updates, or at best, town hall sessions.  Little emphasis is placed on the style of communication: the language, the content, the stories, the context… and perhaps most important of all, the leaders do not pack it with passion.

In fact, I have seen this so often that I’d like to make communicating the vision the real point of this post!  Yet, rather than re-invent what this should be like, permit me to quote from the best.  Here’s what John P. Kotter said in his landmark article “What Leaders Really Do” in Harvard Business Review, circa 1990.

“Good leaders… articulate the organization’s vision in a manner that stresses the values of the audience they are addressing.  This makes the work important to those individuals.”  (Emphasis mine)
The operative word is ‘values of the audience’.  We just said the vision should not state the obvious.  Yet, it has to be made clear to the organization.  The logical way of doing this is to link it to the pre-existing values of the audience.  That is the insight of Kotter.  When the vision statement speaks the language of the commoner – whether customer or employee – when it is able to engage them, invoke in them the passion felt by the leader, connect with what they value already, that is when it would have served its purpose.  The word “invoke” is operative.  The idea is the audience needs to be able to see the vision the leader is talking about.  They should be able to convert the words into a visual of their own.  That is when a vision can be said to be communicated.  That cannot be done without passion and commitment.
Unfortunately, too many vision statements are filled with cliché and jargon to be able to relate to the real audience.  Visions like that of The Body Shop or Air Asia (Now everyone can fly) resonate with their chosen audiences – both employees and customers – precisely because they ‘stress the values of the audience’.

So, we have the development of the vision, which, to be effective, tends to be product / service / market / customer focused.  We then have its communication, which needs to connect with the existing values of the audience.  This, of course, is not a one-off activity.  To quote Kotter again, “Leaders also regularly involve people in deciding how to achieve the organization’s vision (or the part most relevant to a particular individual).  This gives people a sense of control.  Another important motivational technique is to support employee efforts to realize the vision by providing coaching, feedback and role modeling…”
Let’s see vision in action.  I think Zappos.com offers a great example.

To start with vision is not a statement for them.  Its just that – a vision.  So, on its website we see two vision statements!
In it’s ‘About Us’ page  you see the following text:
“So here is the vision:
One day, 30% of all retail transactions in the US will be online.
People will buy from the company with the best service and the best selection.
Zappos.com will be that online store.”

Again, in a CEO letter dated 22 Jul 2009 , he says:
 “…our vision remains the same: delivering happiness to customers, employees, and vendors”!

That’s the beauty about real vision!  It is not about the words.  It is not a statement.  It’s the vision that is invoked.  That vision means several things.  Outstanding customer service?  Of course.  Happy employees?  Sure, that is what will make it happen.  But best selection also means engaging the best vendors.  So, you need happy vendors too!

So what happens to profits?  ROI?

Well, they have to wait!

Indeed, Zappos was passionate enough about the vision to stick to it all the way!  In July 2009, under pressure to deliver a return to Sequoia Capital and its other investors, the company announced it would be acquired by Amazon.com in an all-stock deal.  Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO explained to his employees:
“…We plan to continue to run Zappos the way we have always run Zappos -- continuing to do what we believe is best for our brand, our culture, and our business. …it will be as if we are switching out our current shareholders and board of directors for a new one… We want to align ourselves with a shareholder and partner that thinks really long term (like we do at Zappos).”

We don’t get many stories like that.