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Monday, March 30, 2009

So You Have a New Boss...

With the recent shakeup in executive leadership it seems like half the building has a different supervisor this week. With that comes the usual anxiety, plus a little additional angst given that its happening during a time of economic travail. I both have a new boss and picked up two departments that haven't reported to me before.

While having a new supervisor can be a challenge at first, here's a few reasons not to jump off the roof.

1. Its not about you! Changes in the executive ranks ripple through an organization. You weren't assigned to a new supervisor to "straighten you out" because you're a screw-up. This has nothing to do with you so just roll with it.

2. There aren't many bad ones. The people to whom you could possibly report are whittled down to a handful of capable managers. If a manager is on our org chart they are seasoned and have a good heart. I can't think of many exceptions so whomever the "luck of the draw" threw your way, you'll be fine.

3. You're not too bad yourself. No disrespect to any of our former colleagues, but if you're still here after the year we've had you're pretty good at what you do. You can chin the bar with the new boss.

There's plenty of challenge ahead of us in this troubled economy. Stay the course and give your new supervisor, whomever that may be, a fair chance. If they ask you to prove yourself, well, just do it and don't get insulted because you've proven yourself to others before them. Once you establish trust in your new situation it will look like your old situation and life goes back to normal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Work From Here

I've had a couple of questions lately about the future of Work From Home. To be completely transparent, we've fielded questions from Board members and executives alike on what this program is and does. Here's an update that might surprise you.

WFH was a response to two pressing issues several months ago. Gas prices had gotten to around $4/gallon in Nashville, and with headcount reductions we were spending about $350k in rented office space charges for room we didn't need. We didn't have enough space in the Corporate Office building to close Lakeview Place. I became concerned that increased commuting cost would lead to a call for a cost of living increase that the company couldn't afford in an economy growing more unstable by the day.

The answer, as my grandmother would have said, was as plain as the nose on your face. Develop the systems for remote work, require space sharing as a condition of working remotely, reduce commuting costs to their pre-gas-hike levels (by reducing the number of trips), and get out of LVP.

Today gas prices are down below their pre-WFH levels. We are out of LVP and have, as I understand it, about half of that space leased. Let me be very clear to anyone reading; we would not have been able to move out of LVP and get all office staff into Corporte without WFH.

So what's next for WFH? Candidly, nothing. This is a program that has served its purpose. HR will not be promoting it further because the business necessity for it has passed. Going forward, jobs that make sense to perform remotely should be done off-site, and jobs that make sense to be performed in the office should be done in-house. People who work in the office most of the time may, on occasion, need a day off-site to perform work requiring concentration and that should be allowed.

Every business cycle has its unique needs, and now I wonder if the most pressing need for the company is to have more people in the office more days. We have fewer bodies, and in service departments such as HR WFH could reduce customer service during lunch hours and the upcoming vacation season. In a market where we're looking for every sales and product idea, face-to-face collaboration is more important than ever.

This isn't a mandate or an announcement of a change in policy; I don't run any business unit but my own. I do believe however that some of you should consider shifting your schedule to more days in the office. We can take advantage of being on one campus and build the type of teamwork needed in this challenging climate. The day will come again when we'll grow. Instead of then renting another building, we can leverage what we learned implementing WFH to keep our space charges low, generate cash, and pay down our debt.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On-Line Streamlining

On Friday of this week I will shut down both my Facebook and Twitter accounts. In place of communicating via those outlets I intend to be a more consistent and diligent blogger. There are several reasons for this move which I will explain just briefly.

  1. I usually check all these accounts after dinner. That process entails checking Nelson email, personal email, Twitter updates (both reading and writing), looking at who added or dropped me on Twitter, checking Facebook updates from my "friends", and leaving comments. I could set up a link that combines Facebook and Twitter updates into one process, but that only saves a few moments of what takes about 45 - 60 minutes.
  2. My other personal interests, be they gardening or guitar or a few home improvement projects slated for the spring, suffer from the time taken up with living in the on-line world. Every so often my wife would like for me to just sit down and watch TV with her and I rarely ever do.
  3. After slacking off for the winter, I am back walking 4 miles every night (yes, every night) in what may be my last opportunity to stay off insulin.
  4. 99.9% of the people on Facebook are good people that I haven't seen since high school. I share with them mostly the accident of geography (i.e. from 1966 to 1978 our parents lived in the same school district).
  5. 90% of what happens on FB are games that are time sucks.
  6. Those who follow me on Twitter can also follow this blog.
  7. Most days, my life's just not that interesting to me much less to other people :-)
Life is about balance, and I'm not abandoning on-line communication or community. This is a great communications tool and I'll continue to use it as such. I'm just going to substitute late nights spent staring into my monitor for some spring sunshine, dirty hands, rehearsal time, time with family and friends IN PERSON, and exercise.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Quality is The Way Out

This week I picked up additional responsibility over Facilities and Travel. I'm glad to take on whatever needs to be done and add value wherever I can. This move will take me somewhat out of my role as "the HR guy" and back into a more general managerial role as in my life before Nelson, and that's gotten me thinking back to how we managed in my prior life.

That inevitably takes me back to W. Edwards Deming whose teachings were the basis of the Japanese system in which I last held this type of role. His systems have turned around so many companies, and helped others actualize into outstanding enterprises. I believe we have much to learn from Deming and that adopting several of his teachings, both you as an individual and us as an organization, can accelerate our turnaround.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Dr. Deming the link above is very informative. What it doesn't say is that Dr. Deming, who developed his theories while improving industrial output in the U.S. during WWII, was laughed out of Detroit by each of the Big Three. He then took his theories and methods to Japan which at the time was known for making cheap, inferior goods. He was embraced there and today is a national hero and many American companies have now adopted his teachings. His theories are the basis for GE's Six Sigma approach and are credited for turnarounds at Proctor and Gamble and Harley Davidson. In Japan, their Noble Prize equivalent for business excellence is the Deming prize.


Although his system is comprehensive, I believe the relevant points for us in these troubled times are:


  1. A relentless focus on continuous improvement in quality drives down cost, while a focus on driving down costs both increases cost and drives down quality. A certain Latin American printer comes to mind.

  2. Training and education are central to empowering employees; and empowered employees are central to quality.

  3. 85% of all problems are caused by management (and that includes me), as managers control the system in which people work and the system is what does or does not produce quality.

Here's a somewhat oversimplified view of how this works.

A trained and engaged workforce works within a system free from fear and speaking truth to management about what's wrong and how to fix it. The sum total of the individual learning from this training, when combined with this freedom to have conversations about quality, results in organizational learning. As the organization gets smarter, quality improves not only initially but continuously.

It is management's job to set up the system by which training and communication are caused to happen, to set and communicate the standard for the quality expected, and to measure everything that can be reasonably measured as a feedback loop so that everyone knows how they're doing regarding product quality.

The inverse of this, sadly, is what so often happens in tough economies.

Worker stress leads to uncertainty about jobs which suppresses communication. Cost cutting takes the forefront which leads to problems in service and product quality. Lower service levels and decreased product quality lead to loss of customers, which drives down sales volume, which in turn increases product cost per unit.

As managers our role in improving quality performance is to:

  1. Decide that you want quality and focus on that and not just the budget.
  2. Communicate to your team that you expect quality.
  3. Teach what quality looks like to your team. Don't assume that they know.
  4. Inspect or spot-check what you expect. When you just look at something it improves.
  5. Measure the 3-5 important aspects of your business, track those measurements, and share with the team how they're doing.
  6. Actively ask for feedback from your team as to how to improve these numbers.
  7. Learn from them and teach what they taught you to everyone else. This the manager's role in helping the organization learn.

Here's an example of how this works. A few years ago we were having payroll accuracy problems. We had a payroll supervisor and a payroll processor and averaged about 96% accuracy. In trying to drill down as to why we had accuracy issues the finger pointing went in all directions. Time cards were late from the supervisor, the employee's handwritten entries were illegible, the payroll processor was pulled off on other tasks and didn't have time to do an accurate job, the ADP processor in Atlanta made a mistake, our payroll processor made a mistake, commissions weren't received on time from Sales, etc... Meanwhile, I'm getting pressure from upstairs to reduce staff and wondering how I would ever produce a decent payroll with one fewer person.

The solution was that I expected and communicated (1) a standard of 99.5% accuracy each payroll, and (2) that we track payroll system accuracy via a bi-weekly Payroll Accuracy Report. It required the processor to report all inaccurate pays after every payroll, the reason for each error, and the overall percentage of accuracy. I got pushback from payroll and half my staff that it wasn't fair to measure the processor's performance because of everyone else's mistakes. My pushback was that this was a measure of system quality.

The first thing that happened was a immediate improvement in quality without any other action. Just measuring it made the people doing the work more diligent. Next, we started following up on employees with habitually late time cards. We established a cutoff time for commissions to be in payroll and enforced it. I followed up on managers with habitually unapproved time cards, late time cards, and late commission sheets.

Today we average 99.8% payroll accuracy and we have one Payroll Specialist and no Payroll Supervisor. The difference between 96% and 99.8% accuracy is 20 fewer mistakes every payroll. Every payroll mistake became an immediate priority to be researched and corrected, and it took more HR staff time to clean up a mistake than it did to produce an accurate payroll in the first place. We reduced our need for staff by increasing quality.

This example can be replicated in any business unit of our company. The cool thing is that we, every employee and every manager, can control quality every day. Deming refers to his system as emphasizing a "craftsman" mentality when performing our work (as opposed to cost focus, a productivity focus, or worse-yet, a disengaged mentality). Each of us can communicate with one another and share knowledge openly and freely. Each of us can take seriously the quality of the work that we do, from filling orders in the warehouse to payroll accuracy to the layout of book jackets to the editing of manuscripts or even what manuscripts we acquire.

Just go be craftsmen.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rumor Patrol

I'm out of the office for a couple of days, but through the magic of modern communication I've gotten wind of a rumor running through the company. I want to give a big shout-out to our Publishing division, of which I have been critical in the past regarding rumors, as this one doesn't come from and isn't being spread by you.

I have six confirmed instances in two days of the rumor that we've had another layoff. Now this is different from all the other, "there's going to be a layoff" rumors over the past year. This one is different and goes something like this:

"I hear there's been another big layoff."
"Nobody knows how big it was because management's not talking about it."
"I hear that the Curriculum staff got fired."
"I hear that two people in the warehouse got fired."
"I hear that half the warehouse is gone."

Friends, the reason the leadership team isn't talking about "the big layoff" is that there wasn't one. We've lost two good people in sales due to slow sales and due to no fault of their own. In this economic environment this may happen from time to time as the business consolidates and the leadership team makes tough calls to keep the company profitable.

As I do with all rumor patrol posts I'll leave you with this final thought; consider who told this rumor to you (whomever that may have been) and don't believe them when they come to you with the next rumor.

Peace.