Monday, December 26, 2011

I Am Fourth

No, I'm not part of a league of supernaturally endowed humanoids fighting evil in the world. It's the experience of many employees in an organization. Take this recent conversation:

"What do you think of our retail operation?" asked the regional manager.

"Frankly, I don't think very highly of it," I answered. "You place yourself above everyone else. Now, I'm not just talking about you personally but all of the corporation's management. If I was an employee here, I'd feel demoralized, put down and confused between the espoused values and the real values."

I continued, "Your visit today to a store location is a good example. You came unannounced. This shows no respect for the local store management. You consume the attention of five customers because you distract the associates from serving real customers with long, unimportant conversations. By having the visit unannounced, it served your purpose of seeing the store 'in the raw' so to speak, but you didn't allow the store manager to put on extra staff so she could meet with you and still serve the customer. When you have their attention, they can't respond to pleas for customer assistance, so the customers' experience today is diminished. In fact, you're countermanding your own expressed values that the customer comes first. Customers needs are ignored while yours are met. Do you know why third shift in most factories is the most productive?"

"No," he answered suspicious of where I was going with the question, especially now that I wasn't sugar coating my feedback.

"Because there aren't any management or engineers around to interfere with steady, consistent operations," I explained. "People are allowed to do the work they were hired and trained to do without any interruptions."

"Above a certain level in the organization," I pointed out, "all I see are white males. This seems to deny that there are any other class of person with management skills. That's just false besides hinting at some violations of US law. It makes management meetings very comfortable, however."

"All this indicates is that you've put management as the number one priority for the organization," I concluded. "But that's not all."

"Secondly, your systems make it hard to serve the customers. This is a book store. Things are arranged by topics which only helps one kind of customer--the browser--but hinders the customer who knows what they're looking for. Also, your computer system only tracks one location but your marketing software designates multiple locations for product placement. This creates difficulties for store associates to locate the item when they're assisting a customer. It makes them look stupid and ill-trained. When they try to use the only tool they have to help a customer, it only gives them the one primary location. They don't have access to the marketing system that might suggest where else it might be--like feature displays or other categories. So they lie--sometimes--to the customer about whether they really have the product or not, or blame other customers' lazy habits of replacing items where they found them. It's just bad policy."

"You don't pay for product training," I added. "So associates are not knowledgeable and able to help customers who want to know about the latest or best choices. You want them to be knowledgeable and helpful, but the only way to become so is to sacrifice their own family time to hang out in the store and browse themselves. Otherwise, the manager is not allowed to have cost overruns by letting employees have training time on paid time. (All of this is horrific for part-time employees who have no chance in hell of learning about the product or staying aware of what's sold out, or where things get moved to.) Organization profits are king, right? Yet profits are reduced when customers walk away without confidence in the store's ability to provide the best product guidance."

Rhetorically I asked, "Aren't you sorry you asked? Just through observation, I can tell you an order of hierarchy: corporate management, stockholders, customers, employees. This isn't at all what the corporate values say, but it's the order that's lived in your stores and other stores in the other regions. I can tell you too that the only ones that are satisfied are the first group--corporate management. They are the only class of stakeholder whose needs are being met. Because customers and employees are lower down, profits are not as high as they could be, and therefore stockholders are suffering too. But the stockholders at least get some return for the success of the company. And that's why they haven't rioted yet."

"Store level managers and employees are last because they get zilch out of the whole deal:  no support to make them feel successful. At the end of the day, they're not sure how they contributed to anything and nothing was given back to them to help them be better at their jobs. They don't even get respect from the next tier up, because regional management can't even provide the common courtesy of an advanced notice."

"And here's the kicker," I said with a wink. "Your medical costs are sky high because of this hierarchy. When employees have excessive workplace stress and don't like the environment and atmosphere in which they spend most of their day, they have more illnesses and injuries. By pushing the needs of employees down the ladder, you're actually shooting yourself in the foot making it harder to meet the corporation's needs for higher profits. Absenteeism is rampant causing extra hassle for store management, and health insurance costs are too high. I don't even have to look at the data, but I'm 80% confident that it will prove me right, just based on the observations in one store location.  There's one thing in your favor to keep these costs low: the extensive use of part-time employees who have no benefits. Not a good thing from the employees' perspective though."

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