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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Building Your Brand in Inclement Weather

One of the truths of growing your career is that as you progress through the organization you become broad and shallow as opposed to the staff emphasis of being narrow and deep. By that I mean that when you are on staff you work on a small variety of tasks which you must know completely down to the last detail. As you progress in your career and take on broader responsibilities there simply isn't enough time to go into all the details of every task; that's why you have staff working for you and that's their job. The further you rise in an organization, the more you just touch the tops of your different responsibilities.

Your job then becomes fundamentally different; the organization starts paying you for judgement, trustworthiness, dependability and execution. Can they assign you to an area and almost completely walk away from it? If so, you've become a reliable manager.

It is in that area of dependability and execution that there's opportunity in times of bad weather. I know it sounds a little trite, but I've seen it happen many times over my career that the path to getting recognized goes through the snow.

On days when there are only a handful of people who can make it to work, you want to be among the handful. Staying home, if you can make it in at all, is a missed opportunity.

I know that sounds old school, but trust me it works. Managers have such a broad area of responsibility that they want to build a team around them with people who can handle things. Attendance is a huge part of that, and showing up in bad weather makes a statement. Two hours late is better than not at all; on time is sterling.

Being able to do this isn't just a matter of will power; it also involves preparation. I started my career in small communities where everyone either worked agriculture or worked by the hour in communities 30 - 90 miles away. Remember, this is pre-Internet and working meant being at work, and not working meant either dead livestock or not getting paid. In that culture, missing work was not an option and that rubbed off on me profoundly. In our marriage, my biggest fights with my wife didn't involve money, sex or how to raise kids; they started with, "Surely you're not going to work in this!"

So how do you become super-dependable no matter what mother nature brings? Here's some tips from small towns where people have to get to work:
  • Where you live - Most people have several addresses during their working life, so next time you change addresses keep your commute in mind. If all things are equal, avoid the place at the top of the winding hill with no guard rail. If you give yourself a flat commute you can almost ignore everything that follows below.
  • What you drive - Four wheel drives are best, front wheel drives are very good, and rear-wheel drive only if (like me) your commute is almost flat.
  • Good tires- Replace your tires in the fall if at all possible for good snow traction.
  • Emergency Kit - Keep jumper cables, a tow strap, kitty litter and a camp shovel. If you don't know what to with all that ask somebody with a long commute; they'll know.
  • Go Play in the Snow - One of the biggest causes of accidents, and missed work, are people who are afraid to drive in the snow. Next time everything ices over, go take your car to the nearest empty parking lot and practice sliding around until you're not afraid anymore.

Does this mean, from my HR post, that I expect anyone to come in when it's dangerous? Absolutely not! But if you're career is stuck and you can't seem to get noticed, be one of the super-dependable few who show up when nobody else does. Trust me, it works.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Building Quality Products One Relationship at a Time

I consider it a life-changing experience having spent 10 years in the Japanese automotive business. Even in an HR role I got to see first hand how a "culture of quality" permeates a corporate culture. I'm not sure that we'll ever be able to install anything like it at Thomas Nelson. Our business model is split between experiential content (live events, social media, etc...), electronic content, and physical content. While we want everything we do to be of high quality and value to the customer, we aren't solely focused on how to make an excellent physical product from the top down. This divided focus is contrary to the type of fanatical devotion to "the thing" you make that is required of a "total quality" culture.

Still, we can make high quality physical products, and our product quality is in some cases an opportunity. Some regard the type of focus needed to make an excellent product too "blue collar" and so don't focus enough on it. An emphasis on numbers-first can also work against the type of decisions needed to run a total quality organization, like pulling bad product (i.e., "we'll fix it with the next printing"). A culture of quality requires supplanting whatever culture came before hand, and that's a years-long tough transition.

Part of that transition is how we call out substandard work, and how we react when told that our own work is substandard. In this relationship realm there are simple behavioral adjustments that can push the cause of quality forward. Lacking these adjustments you let interpersonal controversies overshadow the greater goal of zero defects, and quality gets lost in the finger pointing.

Here are three simple (but elegant) ways to use communication and relationship-building to help us make better products.

1. Senior leadership articulation of a zero defect goal - From C-level execs to division heads, the idea that the goal of each and every individual thing we do is zero defects is powerful. We don't publish written materials with typos, or videos with bad splices, or audios with background noise. But remember this:

Zero Defects is Not Zero Mistakes. Zero Defects is Finding and Fixing Our Mistakes

So the articulation from the top that we want zero defects rolls through the organization something like this: that errors be minimized through good processes, reasonable deadlines, and well-trained/well-equipped people, resulting in fewer mistakes. Mistakes that are found are corrected, including reworking or pulling bad product.

2. Call-out substandard work in a way that builds relationships - My Japanese bosses liked to say, "Fix the problem, not the blame." Just like good supervision separates the person from their behavior ("We love you, but we won't tolerate this thing you did"), identifying substandard quality separates the error from the person who made the mistake. "This work isn't up to par" is a lot different from, "Your work isn't up to par."

Too often I've seen a mistake used as an excuse to farm work out to a preferred vendor. That gives the content producer greater control, but does little to make the whole system (and company) better. Instead, we should examine each mistake and ask the person responsible (1) how did it happen, (2) how much work is out there that isn't up to our standards, (3) what can we do now to fix the problem in current inventory, and (4) what are you doing to make sure this doesn't happen again? Repetitive cycles of asking these four questions with every error will improve our system and raises everyone's game.

3. Receive quality complaints with grace, not defensiveness - This isn't about you; its about a standard that your product is not meeting. Granted, how you hear this oftentimes depends on how its said (see 2 above). It requires maturity and fortitude to take criticism and turn it into performance. But we only hire grown-ups so receiving this criticism maturely isn't an unreasonable expectation of anyone.

Once you know something you've done or made isn't up to standard, your next actions mirror the questions in 2 above: (1) how did this happen, (2) what is the scope of the problem, (3) how do we isolate bad work or inventory and then correct or destroy it, and (4) what procedural changes or controls do you put in place to make sure we don't have this same error again?

In all this we should have two goals: to work together toward a common goal of 100% customer satisfaction through zero defects, and to never fix the same problem twice. We can achieve this through graceful calling out of problems, graceful receipt of criticism, and focus on only producing products we're proud to sell...not sweeping it under the rug or catching it on the next reprint.