Setting and Maintaining Standards

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In a prior entry, I mentioned the fact that when I look for consultants and volunteers to work with here in Framework, I find myself looking for a particular standard.

In thinking about this, I realize that my standards are similar whether I am looking to hire a copy-editor to review a single article, or someone to lead programs to CEO’s of critical client companies.

There are certain basics that I look for, and the best business-partners are those who are able to match my own commitments to the following cornerstones, which I would call “The Unreasonable Commitments”:

  1. An Unreasonable Commitment to Keeping Promises
    This is especially true for basic practices such as starting and ending events on time, keeping due dates and working as hard as possible to create an environment in which everyone keeps their promises, and acts as if their word is an important part of who they are. They are careful in what they give their word to, because they treat the act as an almost sacred one, even when it seems to be unimportant. They break their promises infrequently, and only under duress.
  2. An Unreasonable Commitment to Mastery
    I like working with people who love what they do, and give 100% of themselves as often as they can. They are always looking to learn and master their craft, and are willing to practice the basics over and over again (a la Tiger Woods) for smaller and smaller gains that add up to greater expertise in whatever they might do.
  3. An Unreasonable Commitment to Communication
    There are some people who can be counted on to reply to business email, and to keep channels of communication open with those who they consider to be business partners. They just don’t drop off the radar of others, and work hard to stay in touch. They know that “80% of success is showing up” according to Woody Allen.

These are “Unreasonable Commitments” not because they are all that crazy, but just because in the Caribbean environment it may well be that no-one else is willing to keep these commitments.

Make no mistake about it — our regional companies are (in general) operated at lower standards than the average international companies. There are a few exceptions, it is true, but they demonstrate the rule.

Individuals that insist on these three commitments will appear to be “Unreasonable” simply because they are operating very, very differently and it might be hard to understand at first why a consultant should be on time even when the client never is.

On a slightly different note, my wife insists that it is easy to make money in Jamaica. All one has to do in business is the basics — return phone calls, answer the phone, be a little pleasant most of the time, keep the most basic promises and stay in touch in some way.

I think she has a point.

Volunteering and Standards

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I once “worked” as a volunteer for an organization that had 200 employees and 3000 volunteers. What was remarkable was that this company was a for-profit company.

There are a few companies that I have volunteered for that I consider to provide the kind of experience that made the time well worth it, and many that I think could learn a thing or two.

There were three lessons that I learned from my volunteer experiences.

Savvy organizations realize that volunteers give of their time for every reason that employees do, only without the prospect of material compensation. They seek to learn and grow themselves, to make a real difference and to be acknowledged for their contribution.

Savvy employees know that they need to make it easy for their volunteers to gain the benefits they seek.

Many of the best practices used to manage employees still apply.

Best Practice #1 – Insist on Providing Value
Managers of volunteers know that they need to sit down at the beginning of a volunteer assignment and talk about what the volunteer would like to gain from the experience. They talk about their goals, and what they would like to learn while they are on the assignment.

Some go even further, and explicitly insist that a condition of their engagement as a volunteer is that they gain value that exceeds the cost to them in time, money and energy. In other words, the onus is on them to gain the benefit.

Here at Framework, this is a part of our own volunteer agreement.

Best Practice #2 — Make the Agreement Explicit
A written agreement works better than one that is spoken. It covers the necessary basics that relate to any contract employee, minus a section on remuneration. ’nuff said.

Best Practice #3 — Maintain High Standards
In the best organizations, volunteers are part and parcel of the high standards the organization aims to deliver to its customers or constituents.

The question I ask myself most of all when engaging volunteers and employees alike, is whether or not they have what it takes to raise the standard of work done in the company, or whether or not they will have to be managed carefully so that they don’t lower it. With volunteers, the key is to create that expectation from the very beginning, and to be very clear with them that they are part of delivering it.

If they are treated as if they can deliver great things, they are much more likely to do so.

On the other hand, if little or nothing is expected of them, then it is likely that they will live down to that expectation also.

The bottom line is that the volunteer to company relationship is not very different than an employee to employer relationship.

The Demise of "World-Class" Standards part 2

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The report reproduced in part 1 was instructive, and gave some important clues as to why an emphasis on standards, even “World-Class” standards, is insufficient for companies.

Clearly the hosting of the Cricket World Cup is a BIG DEAL, and the various organizing committees have told the public over and over that this could not be business as usual, and that the event would have to be organized along World Class standards.

I think that the problem began when the organizers committed an error in assuming that what is World-Class is always better.

However, if there is one lesson to be learned from the empty stadia for Caribbean companies it is this: World-Class standards are meant to produce a particular experience for First World people. It is an experience that First World people desire, and often pay a premium to have.

However, World-Class standards do not necessarily produce an experience that Third World people enjoy, and this, I think, is what is at the heart of the reason why St. Kitts was forced to gave away so many tickets to school children in order to help fill the stadium.

Essentially, the organizers neglected to ask themselves what it would take to create a particular experience for Caribbean people. I believe that they assumed that we would appreciate the World-Class standards all by themselves, and be happy with them.

Well, they were wrong. From the very beginning, the experience of the ICC Cricket World Cup across the region has been that:

  • we had very little say in the “runnings”
  • ticket prices would prevent the average citizen and cricket fan from attending
  • the same prices meant that the crowd would be more upscale, less experienced in the game, and therefore quite different
  • tickets were hard to get, ordering was complicated, some tickets could only be bought as part of 2-match deals and the information on getting them was scarce and often blatantly incorrect
  • we were restricted from doing the things we always do to enjoy cricket matches — eating what we want, wearing what we want, playing music the way we want, etc.
  • they were trying to “change Caribbean culture” according to Stephen Price, the tournament’s commercial director

The organization seems to have left a little something behind on the floor of the planning room.

Yet, this oversight is not unusual — many companies do the same with their over-focus on standards, and lack of focus on the customer experience, and here in the region, it gets them in all sorts of trouble.

For the ICC Cricket World Cup, there is a small window of time to get things right, and to reverse the customer experience that currently exists. Hopefully, someone will take the opportunity.

More on a Likkle Man

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Growing from being a Likkle Man performing a service or selling a product in the Caribbean means more than just expanding the top or revenue line of the business.

The pathway for growth must include some basics – there has to be a market, and there has to be some basic means of supplying it.

Beyond these basics, there must exist a company that is able to provide what the market needs. This is where the Likkle Man typically runs into problems, and has no clue how to get himself out of it.

A business can grow by just being in the right place at the right time – in other words, from luck. A friend of mine just happened to be selling roller-blades in Austin Texas, when no-one knew what they were. Then, all of a sudden one Christmas, everyone had to have one under the tree and she sold enough roller-blades to make a tidy profit.

However, most companies are not lucky. Their growth comes from careful cultivation of a market, and the organic growth of their capabilities to meet that market.

In one sense, my friend from Austin was “lucky.” However, she also told me that she spent several months giving away free classes in roller-blading at a time when no-one was interested in the sport. In other words, she systematically created the demand for the product by giving people an experience of it, at a time when no-one would pay for the classes.

She gradually built up an organization that could take advantage of the sudden demand that kicked off what became national fad.

And that is what the Likkle Man must do – build up an organization that will enable his company to create demand and take advantage of it. This is where the Jamaican entrepreneur is weak.

Based on my experience working in the region and beyond I would say that we Jamaicans have no problems dreaming big, and envisioning what a business idea can become. The challenge comes when the dreams must be translated into an organization that must deliver the product or service reliably.

The typical entrepreneur’s approach is to do it all themselves, and then hopefully find someone else who is willing to learn to do it themselves to pass it on to (often an heir). However, the problem with this approach, unknown to many entrepreneurs is that this approach keeps the company at about the same small size.

While there is nothing wrong with being a Likkle Man forever, a lack of growth does less than it could for owners, employees, customers and countries. Most company owners are not interested in remaining small.

However, it is fair to say that they do not know what it takes to grow and develop their organizations to be anything other than small.

The good news is that this is one of the skills of entrepreneurship that can be taught. The work done by Michael Gerber, author of The eMyth books, is a method that I continue to use years after reading his original book, and has the simplest and best prescription on how to develop an organization over time.

Even a Likkle Man who has no desire to grow can use these skills.

When we Caribbean people ask someone if they know a Likkle Man, what we are asking for is only a lower price, not a lower standard of product or service. A Likkle Man such as a shoemaker who operates out of a converted container (like the one I used 3 weeks ago) can use Geber’s techniques to consistently maintain extremely high standards that cause customers to keep coming back, and referring others.

In our region, there is nothing like a high standard to attract attention from customers. This is unfortunate, because so very few businesses are able to produce anything at a high standard.

On the other hand, it makes for lots of low-picking fruit. When the market is used to low standards, a higher standard comes as a welcome surprise, and even a shock. In many of my blogs, I have written about the presence of higher and lower standards indirectly.

The ongoing quest for higher standards of product and service delivery are critical to the entrepreneur’s goals of revenue expansion, market growth and greater profits. This quest is also important to countries, such as Jamaica, that have high unemployment and years of stagnant GDP.

This is where all Caribbean need to be very, very careful to empower the Likkle Man, but demand that he deliver at an ever-increasingly high standard. Perhaps we have failed ourselves by not demanding more.

Service Standards — no more

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The days are gone when employees will be trained to follow customer service standards.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the idea of creating standards.

While the intention of creating standards for employees to follow is an honorable one, the very idea of standards can devolve quickly into “doing what the company wants so that I can avoid being fired”.

This is not the best frame of mind to be in when it comes to trying to create a particular experience in the mind of customers.

However, it is quite easy to shift the focus from the internal need to “follow standards” to engaging in “Experience Practices” that are designed to produce a particular experience in the world of the customer. The term was recently coined by my colleague, Scott Hilton-Clarke, after some research that he did on the most recent thinking in the field.

I thought this was particularly brilliant innovation, as it changes the focus completely from compliance to creation.

These Experience Practices (or ExP’s) can be designed for an entire company, a business unit and even for individual job functions.

But that is not even the beginning.

The first step is that a company must define the Experience it is trying to create in explicit terms. It is just not enough to say that the Experience should be good, or excellent or top class. These mean nothing anymore, especially in the Caribbean when the average employee has not experienced anything more than the best of “Frien’ Service.”

Instead, the Experience must be defined, and here I use my own firm as an example. Early in 2005, I decided to create a particular experience for my clients:

  • bring sunshine and hope to dark places
  • create new thinking and innovations
  • be relentless
  • speak truth to power

In short, I wanted my clients to experience all the above, and to do so at the major points of contact with the company or any of its representatives. The best way to do this would be to create Experience Practices at each point of contact.

In a larger company, this would mean training employees in the following:

  • what the experience is
  • how to recognize it
  • how to use the Practices to create them in the customer’s experience
  • how to depart from the Practices when necessary

We know that the initial training could be modelled on the video-based feedback training outlined in our white paper available for download from our site: Lights! Camera! Action! During this experiential training, the employee would learn how to create the experience by being coached by a facilitator and his/her peers based on a handful of difficult cases or scenarios.

On an ongoing basis, however, the biggest difference would come from the kind of coaching that the employee receives from his / her manager in whether or not the experience is being created.

Customers that come into contact with employees that have been trained to “follow a customer service standard” often complain that the employees are robotic, and do not show the respect or flexibility that is necessary when the customers are real people with real needs that do not fall in line with a company’s pre-planned process.

However, when the purpose is to create a particular experience, employees are able to focus on the right thing, and can then be trusted to create the right outcome for their customers.

Delivering a Custom Experience

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I’m staying at my favourite hotel in Barbados, the Accra Beach Hotel. What makes it my solid first choice is the very warm welcome I receive after 30 visits, and the high level of service delivered relative to other Bajan hotels. The service is on par with a Jamaican hotel such as the Pegasus and a Trinidadian hotel like The Kapok.

On the other hand, it comes on the heels of my visit to the Marriott in Miami’s Dadeland area (my third or fourth overall).

There is just no comparison between the standards of the two hotels – the Marriot operates at a level that is clearly higher.

For example, I am sitting at my computer in my room at the Accra, and as I scan the room I can enumerate the service defects in my line of sight:

  • the balcony door has putty spots on it
  • there is a black mark on the wall
  • the light fixture needs to be painted
  • the light is blown
  • I had to move my desk to the other side of the room, where the hi-speed access Ethernet port is located
  • the baseboard is dirty
  • there are marks on the ceiling

The overall furnishings are clearly of much lesser quality than the Marriott (or even the Hilton here in Barbados for that matter).

But that is not what got my attention initially. As a runner, I often enter a hotel after a morning run by walking through the lobby, looking like someone who just ran 6 miles or so in 80 degree weather. As I entered the Marriott’s lobby yesterday, the bellman literally ran to his desk, and pulled out a bottle of water for me to drink. This is perhaps the third time he has done so.

In my 5 or so years of staying at the Accra Beach Hotel, that has never happened; nor has anything close to it happened.

I use this example to illustrate the example of a bellman who operates to extremely high standards, although his actions are typical of the staff at the hotel.

The question I have been asking myself is, “What would it take for the staff at The Accra to meet that kind of standard?”

Incidentally, I ask myself the same question. In my career, I have had the fortune to work with and for McKinsey & Co., which is seen by many as the premier management consulting firm in the world. Working alongside some of the brightest people in the world hired from the best schools in the world was an eye-opener.

What remains is a personal goal to operate my company at the standard I witnessed at that firm. This has proven to be challenging!

It seems that the first obstacle that The Accra would have to face is how to very quickly create the standard in the first place. The average Caribbean employee in the service industry is not surrounded by the high standards of service that their colleagues in the First World are privy to. There is no mass-market company in the region that is known for excellent, world-class service (except, perhaps, in their own minds). By mass-market, I mean companies that serve the general public, therefore excluding hotels like the Ritz Carlton or Sandy Lane.

Therefore, it is impossible to tell an employee of The Accra that the service they deliver should be “world-class” like Sandy Lane’s. The truth is that the average employee would have no idea what that experience is like.

Instead, The Accra would have to start by defining the precise experience they wanted customers to have, and allow employees to create it for themselves for the customers. In other words, instead of delivering “world-class service” they would have to deliver an experience equivalent to that delivered to “my best friend” or “my favourite teacher” or “my team-mate.”

Once the desired experience is defined, then the hotel could move on to defining standards of new behaviour that match the experience.

However, there is a limit to what standards can do. The bellman who runs to give me water after a long run is obviously not following a written standard.

Instead, it strikes me that there are two requirements for service to be delivered at this level.

The first requirement is that there must be an inner motivation to deliver the experience. The easiest way to ensure that the right staff is in place is to hire people with a predisposition to serve from the very beginning. For the majority of existing and operational hotels, this is not an option as the staff would be very difficult to change wholesale.

The Accra would have to find a way to directly address and transform the culture of the existing organization.

The second requirement is that the staff would have to be trained to recognize the customer’s experience, and how to produce the desired experience at will. These are tall orders, but they are required capacities that may take a significant investment to perfect.

Interventions to produce these capacities must be developed with an understanding of the region’s peculiar realities, both historical and sociological.

With these ingredients, The Accra could improve its standards, and maybe even deliver a distinct experience that the Marriott could not duplicate.

Holding the Company Hostage

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In my work with Caribbean companies, one of the phenomena that I’ve noticed is that of “The Employee Who Can Not Be Fired.”

The Employee Who Can Not Be Fired?

Yes.

He/she deserves to be fired. Everyone knows it. Other employees may even be talking openly about it. They have developed elaborate routines to prevent themselves from being stuck working with the person. Only new, ignorant employees are assigned to work with them.

Their ineffective ways are legion, and the stuff of hallway conversation. Their failures are well-known, and well-talked about. They may never have stolen money, or attempted to defraud the company, so there is no way to call the police to let them do the dirty work (and they also can’t be idly threatened with that course of action).

In the Caribbean, there is considerable legislation that has been enacted to protect renters, and the laws make it very difficult to evict tenants, even when leases have long expired. Instead, landlords resort to all sorts of other means, some nefarious, but most involving social pressure of one kind or another to remove the unwelcome tenant-turned-squatter.

The employee I’m talking about here is basically a “cubicle/office-squatter”, and getting rid of them is extremely difficult.

One reason is that, once again, firing someone without documented cause in the Caribbean can lead to legal action, as the separation laws are written in favor of the employee. You can’t just get up one day and fire people for something like… Incompetence. In the eyes of the law, it’s just not enough.

(Whether this is a good or bad thing is beside the point of this particular blog.)

What keeps the squatter firmly in place, however, is an inability of executives and mangers to hold him/her to account on a consistent basis. Compound this inability with a deep reluctance to confront and the squatter is doubly protected. Add in a lack of adequate record-keeping by managers and human resource professionals, and you have an employee who will retire from the company with a pension. Only then will fellow employees breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, among those who are breathing a sigh of relief are several others who are in the same boat but don’t know it.

The consequences of this situation in most Caribbean companies are many: an increase in costs for companies, and a decrease in morale by employees.

Our companies are terribly inefficient when compared with the best-in-class, mostly to be found in first world countries. With the exception of our tourist product in some countries, customer care and customer service are abysmal (unless you know someone on the inside). More bodies are needed to do anything and everything — I once witnessed my friend move her small townhouse in Kingston using 9 men, when I know that a similar move in the US would take 2 or 3 at most.

Yet, the Caribbean worker living in North America is among the hardest working and most productive. How does this miraculous transformation occur? Is there some white magic that comes with a green card to “farin”? Or is that magic really based in fear?

Another downside of not firing the corporate squatter is that the excellent employees who are striving to maintain increasingly better standards start to ask themselves “A whey mi a kill miself fah?” (Why am I killing myself?) It appears to them that mediocre efforts are judged in the same way that strong efforts are judged, and the financial rewards, increased authority and better teams that are expected by the high performers do not come because the squatters are taking up valuable resources, space and time.

What does it take to create a new culture? Briefly, managers must be willing to make strong, clear interventions that shake up the status quo, and alter their programs and systems to reward those who take risks.

Also, oftentimes there is a dire need for training managers in the art and science of having effective feedback and coaching conversations. The paternal and autocratic style of management learned during slavery and indentureship is of no use here, but managers have seen precious few alternatives to either alternative that work.

The opportunity for executives and managers to improve how they deal with “The Employee Who Can Not be Fired” are tremendous. At the very least, managers need to take responsibility for the fact that the phrase “Can Not” really means “Will Not,” and that their inaction keeps the situation stuck in place.