Really awful retail (part 1)

July 6, 2007

I was at a drug store recently and the whole experience left me deflated. Service was non-existent, apathetic and nobody seemed to know where anything was. And I couldn’t help compare this store which is part of a large chain to the rather more distant individually-owned drug store where I pick any prescriptions I might occasionally need. The chain is convenient and cheaper but I’d never trust them to fill the orders accurately.

Tellingly, this chain recently installed self-service scanners. This made me think that the chain’s management clearly doesn’t think their staff adds any value to the enterprise. And yet, it seems like there would be a lot of room to create demand through better service: there are beauty products that could be consulted on, non-prescription drugs that likely require advice and at the very least, it would really help if the staff knew where things are. And one figures you could have staff rotate through a ‘consultant’ position on a weekly basis and just be there to provide advice and to make suggestions. As it is, one suspects that their staff stacks shelves and rings up charges – no wonder they’re all so depressed.

Then we came to the end

July 4, 2007

“Then we came to the end” by Joshua Ferris has been receiving mostly glowing reviews. It tells the story of working at an ad agency around 2001 when the bottle fell out of that market and when many found themselves once again looking for work. And when somebody compared it to Douglas Coupland’s wonderful Microserfs, well, then I had to buy a copy.

And I suppose that the two books do share a certain 20-something sensibility. Both books are about searching for meaning and about defining one’s self – but where Coupland captures something of the creative potential of work, Ferris seems to regard all work as being vaguely pointless. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism given that the book is about a ad agency – and those firms did indeed produce some ultimately fairless pointless pieces of work. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad if Ferris hadn’t adopted the conspiratorial “we” to narrate everything. Well, no, “we” certainly do not see things that way…

All of this might be fine, if the book was purely satirical. But Ferris doesn’t appear to have set out to write a farce. Instead, he appears to have a greater purpose in mind. I suspect he meant to write about how work obscures people’s basic humanity – about how little we might know about people that we spend time with; and that this is also a bad thing. So, lay-offs start triggering eccentricities – a lack of work appears to reveal the true person within. In a sense, it’s too bad that Joe’s persona isn’t better realized. He seems to be the only character who comes close to realizing that work is not life and that work is also about allowing people to live happy lives and to provide for their families.

But perhaps this is all unfair. Where I wanted to read a novel about the creative process, I got a novel about cubicle-ennui. Not so bad, I suppose – problem is, I didn’t laugh once – and Microserfs can still make me laugh even after I’ve read it many times. And I think the reason Microserfs made me laugh is that it’s full of people doing ridiculous things in pursuit of perfectly reasonable goals. Then we came to the end, however, is full of ridiculous things being done in pursuit of pointless, uninteresting things.

The dreaded performance review

July 4, 2007

Most people at white-collar organizations are required to submit to the periodic performance review. I am no exception and the prospect regularly fills me with dread. My strengths, such as they are, haven’t really changed since I first joined the workforce. My faults, on the other hand, tend to remain. Some, I can neutralize by simply making sure that I never do certain kinds of work. Others, I delegate. Most effectively, a few of us who have worked together for a long time self-optimize. We trade work with each other and selectively look for advice from each other when it comes to something where we know one or other to be especially strong. Sometimes, I flatter myself that we might be one of Katzenbach’s high performance teams. Crucially, none of this ever gets covered during our performance reviews. Once upon a time we all shared a reporting structure and some of us reported into each other. That hasn’t been the case for a while but that hasn’t stopped this implicit team from remaining intact even as we share few projects.

And when it comes to completing performance reviews myself, I find myself at a loss as to how to advise people that they accomplish this for themselves. I’ve told plenty but haven’t really found a way to force the process. Essentially, I find that I basically write maybe four different kinds of reviews:

First, and most often is the keep up the good work review. This person does the job, takes a certain pride in what they do but might not have all that much upside without having to make some significant changes. These are easy reviews as long as the job is a steady-state job where expectations do not increase over time – where it gets harder is when in-seat expectations increase over time (most complex roles or management-type roles). Then I’ll try and come up with activities that might fix whatever is lacking. But truth be told, as long as the person has a certain amount of ambition then these things tend to fix themselves. The ambitious always seem to know that they can’t rely on me to manage their careers for them and for that I am always grateful.

Then there’s the it’s my privilege to manage you kind of review. These are easy, easy – the plaudits write themselves and the feedback comes in unsolicited. However, these always come with a certain expectation of loss as I know that these people won’t be reporting to me for too long. Actually, I wouldn’t mind reporting to them myself some day.

Next, there’s the – OK, but – review. These people do tend to do exactly what they’ve been asked for – no more, no less. Personally, these are the greatest challenge. Nothing I have to say will make much difference. Sometimes, if it’s just a matter of lack of experience, then I can tell them exactly what behaviors they need to demonstrate. But it all seems to depend on whether or not they’re motivated to display those behaviors. If they’re not, then I know that I have to inspect, control and supervise. These are the only times that performance reviews seem to serve a purpose. These are reviews that take the longest to write. They take the longest time to write because I have learned that they will be read with lawyerly precision and interpreted very, very literally. The first few groups of employees don’t really need things to be spelled out quite as precisely – they’ll try to do what they think it’s right – and for that, I am always grateful.

And then there’s the total failure. These are time-consuming in that everything needs to be logged but the log usually assembles itself. Luckily, in my field, it’s relatively rare for people to completely fail. There is however always that moment right before the termination when that person seems to think that things have improved. What they never seem to realize is that there’s a reason why their queue has shortened and why they seem to have snagged that cushy assignment and why there are no more one-to-ones.

So, that’s performance reviews in a nut shell. It’s a topic I’ll keep on wanting to come back to, but it would appear that performance reviews system might be awful because they’re primarily designed with the awful and the sub-par in mind. And it all makes me wonder if reviews shouldn’t be optional for the good or if there couldn’t be an alternative system to deal with overperformance.

Portfolio Magazine

July 4, 2007

I love the New Yorker. I have stacks of it everywhere that I only part with reluctantly. And I’m a great fan of their business coverage. Malcolm Gladwell and James Surowiecki have covered business for a long time. There’s is a suitably cerebral take that never fails to illuminate. Less obviously, James McPhee is wonderful when it comes to covering the scope of work – his piece on UPS, for example, reminded me why I remain fascinated by business – McPhee, like few others, shows us how business shapes the world around us. And what makes him so readable is that he never loses sight of the fact that business is large part of life but certainly not all of life.

And this brings me to Portfolio magazine. Given its stable, I had high expectations but so far, I can’t see who it’s meant for. It most reminds me of Tina Brown’s ill-fated Talk Magazine. I wasn’t the target audience for that but at least some of the people profiled were interesting. But a magazine that appears dedicated to profiling successful business people seems pointless – Boone Pickens, for example, might be as entertaining as it gets but I can’t imagine many people caring about the details of his family life, especially when his family life turns out to be not all that scandalous. As for the other articles, I’m afraid I couldn’t even bring myself to finish Tom Wolfe’s piece.

Business, I tend to think is more about methodical execution. It’s about thinking really, really hard about delivering a service. It’s about trying to lead people to accomplish something that requires the cooperation of many. It tends not to be about fun parties and private jets – though business might be the way one goes about acquiring those toys.

But I did learn something. I learned of the manpad – that definitely sounds a lot more impressive than my poor little briefcase…

Hidden measurement

July 1, 2007

Further to the idea that measurement might be something that is best hidden away from employees, I would recommend a small experiment if your neighborhood allows it. Pick two stores substantially offering the same thing: one should be a small business and the other should be part of a larger entity. Drug stores offer the perfect example.

I am willing to bet large amounts of money that the smaller, private establishment will likely offer better customer service. And this store won’t have spend money to teach its employees about customer service training. Neither are they likely to maintain an elaborate system for gathering customer information. Instead a lot of these stores will have a dedicated owner, somebody who watches the enterprise and who can both correct and reinforce when necessary.

Large companies, of course, can’t really do that, so they experiment with various reward structures or they find ways of proxying ownership. That’s partly why franchises can be so very successful – the entire messy business of trying to control work is essentially delegated to an owner who hopefully has all sufficient incentive to manage for quality. The alternative is to setup an elaborate system to try and gain oversight of the system. The suspicion, however, is that the comments on this blog dedicated to allowing waiters to blow off steam are all too typical of what actually happens:

” This particular overpriced seafood chain where I worked was very focused on comment cards. However, whenever one of us received a bad one, we certainly took care of it before it reached management. If the patrons were dumb enough to leave it on the table, we immediately had fun reading the comments to each other in the back while correcting the grammar. Sometimes, a more sly patron would drop the card into the locked comment box, and then we would retrieve it with an inch or two of tape dangled into the box. And if the patron wrote his name and phone number on the card in hopes of getting free food for his whining, let’s just say he was definitely contacted, hee hee.”

What’s the point of metrics?

June 30, 2007

As a consultant, I’m regularly asked how to measure something. These questions come in two flavors. The first category is technical. It comes from people who know what they want to measure but who face tensions in terms of defining the metric. For example, what’s the best way to measure customer life time? Is it enough to sum revenues from a customer over time? When should costs be included? What’s a meaningful time period for calculations like this?

I love help answer this category of question. These questions are all about providing meaningful information about the business.

And then there’s a second category which is all about justifying the point of whatever it is that somebody does; the dreaded ROI question. Here, I am increasingly reluctant to offer any advice. It’s not so much that there isn’t some likely solution that will produce the expected return rate, it’s just that there is the suspicion that defining the model will inevitably lead to subversion. It’s almost as if modeling the activity destroys the activity itself as people invariably concentrate on the model, trying to ensure that the model spits out the best numbers over time; and quality be damned.

Having observed this tendency for measurement systems to often destroy the point of the thing, I’ve increasingly begun to ask if measurement shouldn’t always be something that is either done out of sight or that is completely owned by the people who are actually doing the work. If it’s done out of sight, then there’s always room for a manager to intervene and pull-up. And if it’s owned by the people doing the work, then intervention might never be needed as long as the outcome is primarily a metric of quality. The best example here might be the Toyota Manufacturing system where front-line employees have virtually complete discretion to structure their workflow as long as it gets better. Other favored examples are the Ritz Carlton where employees really are empowered to do whatever they think is right. And in a way, this might be the key to Google’s success. Everything written about the company seems to suggest a relative lack of interest in much of the apparatus of project management – instead, employees appear to be given free reign to focus on doing whatever is right (and no evil). Apple is another example of a company where quality of outcome appears to come before anything else.

Things become difficult as a lot of activities are about volume and not about quality. So, your telecommunications provider would like you to have a good experience when you call them but they know that this isn’t crucial to their business. And so it’s going to be fascinating to observe how Apple and AT&T work together and whether people who paid over the odds for quality of experience will also be happy to stick with a service provider whose reputation in that arena is somewhat tarnished.

Hello world!

June 30, 2007

Hello world, indeed.

To give some background, I’m a management consultant. My domain is the world of work and the corporation, in particular.

I’m going to use this blog as bit of a conversation piece – mostly, I suspect with myself. The goal is to discuss ideas and thoughts in an open forum and to provide myself with some space for reflection.