Everything's Made Up!

One of many profound lessons I’ve learned during my career is that everything’s made up.

This is a powerful and liberating message for employees and leaders trying to improve an organization. Why? Because if something’s made up, then we are free to invent its replacement.

Whenever I visit with leaders and employees, the discussion inevitably leads to why they are doing things a certain way. And, no matter the organization or industry, the most common answer is: We’ve always done it this way.

For me, this answer is pure gold! Why? Because there are no visible impediments to improving a process that is no longer serving us. As an example, an airline policy manual tells flight crews that everyone must be in their assigned seats for takeoff. A passenger boards and sees someone in his place; decides not to make a big deal, and moves to an empty row. The flight attendants, following policy, end up calling security and taking the offending passenger off the half-full plane. Why? Someone made up a system, and the flight crew was following orders to avoid getting in hot water with management.

Dr. David Dao’s violent removal from a United flight after he refused to give up his seat compelled United to draft a list of new policies within days of the ensuing social media fallout. (http://newsroom.united.com/2017-04-27-United-Airlines-Announces-Changes-to-Improve-Customer-Experience). The team made up new policies within days, communicated broadly to the media and customers during the next few weeks, and implemented its new way of doing things.

Processes, policies, and procedures are only precious if we treat them that way.

If the leadership of United took the time to understand the unintended consequences of vicious compliance and opted instead for the power of building employee commitment, they may have avoided this and other incidents that have tarnished their reputation. They may have also concluded that their frontline employees require leadership support to serve customers at the highest level, and those intractable and inflexible policies do not offer a foundation for excellence.

A key lesson for us is to challenge everything. Don’t assume that an old, time-tested process is useful due to its longevity. We also must avoid suspending critical thinking skills at all costs. Encouraging, rewarding, and training our employees to use good judgment in escalating situations empowers them to be part of the solution and to create a better customer experience.

As leaders, we must embrace that control is never perfect and it’s never free. By combining sound processes with reasonable policies, we can empower and reward our employees for using their skills and instincts to serve our customers without them being unnecessarily handcuffed by corporate risk aversion.

As one example, Four Seasons Hotels empowered their employees to spend $2,000 on the spot to solve a guest issue. How do you think the housekeeping, maintenance, and kitchen staff felt about being trusted to serve their guests at a higher level?

Activating Questions

As you consider the way your team does things, ask questions to generate candidate areas for improvement:

1. What if we could change_________________?

2. What are the top three things that are stopping us from our best work today?

3. When and where is the best place for that work to be done?

4. Who is in the best position to do this work?

5. Why have we seen labor productivity decline in___________?

6. What is the cause of this problem?

7. I’ve always wondered, why do we do it this way?

8. If I were a customer of ours, how would I feel about this policy, procedure, or process?

Notice that there are no how questions on this list. In my experience, if you understand what needs changing, and you have a big enough reason to change it, the team of employees you assign to design or redesign the process, policy or procedure will figure out how best to do it. After all, they are the people living with the wrong process, policy, or procedure now, and they will likely welcome both leadership recognition of the problem and the ability to have a vital role in fixing it.

Takeaway: We’ve always done it this way is a green light special for challenging assumptions and replacing a process, procedure, or policy with one that is relevant now. Challenging every assumption allows us the freedom to change the way things were up to now. And, if we incorporate a self-examination mentality in our teams, we take that job away from our customers. After all, there is no more expensive quality issue than the one a customer discovers.