Slosh

Every employee in your organization has a bowl. Back in the '90's it was a plate, and everyone talked about how full their plate was. In the 21st Century, we've increased productivity, which is putting positive spin on the fact that we've eliminated a lot of positions but not their associated responsibilities. Instead, we've heaped those responsibilities on existing staff, who no longer talk about how full anything is because they don't have time - all of which brings us to the bowl.

It's a bowl because the plate wasn't big enough. If your workplace is like most, everyone you know now does the equivalent of three jobs. They come in early, eat at their desk, and don't leave until it's dark (or, for some poor souls, just getting light). All of which is fine, fine... hire 5, work them like 10, pay them like 8, right? Only we don't, we pay them like 3, or maybe 4 if they've been around long enough, because isn't being a good corporate steward all about increasing returns?

All of which is grand material for a book, or possibly a sea change in corporate culture, but what we've gathered here to talk about today is slosh.

Slosh is what happens when you try to add something to a bowl that's already full to the brim. As a famous fictional Scotsman once said, "you canna change the laws of physics". Every bright idea that you get and push down the chain of command means something is going to spill out the other end.

I know what your argument is going to be, and yes, it's going to be an argument: "But it's just 10 minutes," you'll say. "It will make us more efficient, which will actually save time," dances out of your mouth. "It will save time and money," you sing, and it sounds sweet, but it's all a lie, my dears - every syllable of it.

The old work doesn't go away when there is new work. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn't, and some parts of it can't go away without affecting other (madly important) bits down the line that you aren't even aware of. Slosh is the butterfly effect in motion, and the only way to prevent it is to study what the heck your people actually do before you even open your mouth.

I don't mean what you think they do, or what you think they should do, or what the books say they do. I mean what they actually do. And until you sit down with them for a day or two and watch, utterly silent and unobtrusive, I'll bet you a sandwich that your idea of what happens and what actually happens wouldn't recognize each other in a mirror.

The only way to prevent slosh is to make room first. There are a couple of ways to do this (the very last of which should be to hire more people).

Your first step, always, is to look at what we do now and determine if any part of it is redundant, inefficient, or flat-out insane (you know what I'm taking about). It's pointless to plant potatoes (although that's fun to say) until you get dirty and dig out the weeds. Once they're gone, there may be room for your new idea provided that:

a. It's cost-effective. (What do you mean you didn't write a business plan for your brilliant idea? This is business. In a business, we write business plans and do SWOT and whatnot. Look it up.)
b. There is genuine buy-in from the rank and file. Unless you've gone around and gathered their input, you've not only doomed your brilliant idea to a swift, largely ignored death, you've missed the opportunity to make your idea even better by throwing it up against their fiercest tire kicking and adopting their suggestions.
c. It's well planned and has a timeline, with deliverables that each person involved is responsible for.
d. You aren't responsible for more than half of the outcome.

Unless and until your process takes all of the above into account, your employees - even the ones that like you - will see your new idea as the enemy, and put into play the one defense they have at their disposal: Push back the launch, week by week, until you forget all about it and are on to the next shiny piece of tinfoil.

To Move or to Motivate

... that is the question.

If you have an employee that appears to have reached the end of their usefulness or the limits of their abilities (and really, isn't that the same thing?), you have a choice: Do you replace them, or do you try to coach them beyond their existing limitations?

If there is a large labor pool available, as is the case at the time of this writing, the current trend is to 'trade up'. It sometimes takes less effort to find someone with a higher readiness/ability quotient than it does to grow an existing employee. I would argue that that's part of why the labor pool is currently as large as it is: Many people without jobs simply don't have the willingness, readiness or the ability to get to the next rung.

Increasingly, as the education level of American high school and college graduates declines, we find ourselves off-shoring jobs simply because overseas employees have higher skill levels. (English grammar is my pet peeve. How many cover letters and resumes have you read lately that were misspelled, had poor punctuation, and sentence structure that made you cringe?) There is no sign that this downward trend is going to change, at least any time soon and, as a responsible manager, part of your job is to find the best person you can for each position.

But...

If an employee has been with you any length of time, they have acquired knowledge. Often, and especially in key roles where no one else performs the same task, this knowledge exists nowhere else in your organization. Moving that employee out means starting from scratch, and usually at some expense. Have you ever felt like a given issue or project comes up over and over again, yet never seems to get resolved? Brain drain is likely the culprit - some key cog that had the knowledge necessary to resolve that issue or complete that project is no longer part of the organization, and you are taking two steps back for every step forward as a result.

Is that good corporate stewardship? If not, how do you solve the puzzle - especially when you have so little time to perform your own tasks, let alone mentor someone that may or may not take that next, vital step?

It helps to understand where that employee's limitations come from in the first place. It could be simply a matter of training, something you don't even have to do yourself. But as often as not, there is a deeper root that stands squarely in the employee's way - one that has dogged them their entire life. And to help them climb out of that box, you need to understand the Lifeboat Scenario.

Much smarter people than me have discovered that our reactions to potentially lethal situations (and if losing one's job over and over in this economy isn't lethal, what is?), we each fall into one of three camps. The scenario is a lifeboat that has sprung a leak and is going down fast, and the passengers self-divide as follows:


  • 30% panic, flail wildly, and either die quickly or accidentally find a way to live
  • 50% do nothing, and drown
  • 20% take stock, rationally determine a course of action, and live, often rescuing others on the way

It's easy to see where this behavior came from, and even why it makes sense from a survival of the species perspective: If a leopard attacks a tribe of early hominids, the ones who panic either draw the leopard's attention and die instantly (leaving the rest to live another day), or accidentally escape and eventually reproduce. The ones who do nothing either die (easy pickings), or fail to draw the leopard's attention (and live to reproduce). The ones who are rational think to pick up a good, heavy stick or a rock, and may succeed in driving the leopard away (resulting in minimal losses, leaving more potential reproduction partners).

In essence, the lifeboat scenario is nature throwing dice, in the hope that at least one of the three strategies works. But in modern humans, this genetic predisposition often gets in the way of our rational minds, resulting in a box that is difficult to escape.

It takes time and effort to assess willingness, readiness, and ability. But if at least one of those two traits exist in the employee, in the long run, it is less costly (in terms of time and money) to invest in driving the lower trait to the next rung, growing the employee and preventing yet another loss/hiring/backtrack cycle.

For more information about readiness, I suggest this article: http://www.projectconnections.com/articles/050905-glory.html.

Equality, Part 1

There's a long-standing tradition in sales that's about as self-destructive to a sales team as it's possible to get: Treating salespeople differently depending upon their sales metrics.

You all know what I mean - making exceptions for things you would never normally allow because a particular salesperson generates high numbers. While it's great that they are consistent achievers (wait - they're not consistent? then why are you rewarding them for sporadic results?), think about the door that you've opened. These are salespeople we're talking about; it's their job to open doors as wide as possible, and you can't expect them to act differently with internal doors than they do with external doors. They will push those exceptions as far and as wide as they possibly can, and that's not their fault - that's what salespeople do, by nature, and you're the one that opened the door.

Now think about the other members of the sales team, the folks who consistently hit goal but don't soar above it. How much of a motivator is it for them to see that the fellow who occasionally hits a high note is permitted to break the rules, sending their sales even higher, while they have to rigidly observe procedure?

It's not. That's why they're sullen. That's why their results decline. That's why they leave, and go do terrific work for your competitors, taking knowledge about your company, your Customers, and how you do things with them.

There's nothing wrong with compensating salespeople based on results - that's what sales is all about, and everyone understands that. It's the arbitrariness that makes unspoken benefits evil, not the concept. If you're going to bestow privileges based on results, put them down in black and white, for all to see and aspire to. And, rather than have them kick in when a salesperson goes above and beyond just once, make them effective with consistent high results.

Salespeople are like racehorses: It's their job to run, but it's your job to clearly lay out the track and the stakes.

PTO

There are some employers in the United States today that don't offer employees paid time off (PTO), even if they're sick or there's a public holiday. Others restrict PTO to employees who have been with their organizations for 1 year or more.

I understand the reasoning: "If an employee isn't producing, why pay them?" Followed closely by: "They'll only take advantage of it."

There's just 1 problem with this line of reasoning: It's wrong.

If you don't allow paid personal time, sick time, etc., you are essentially saying that there is no defined limit to how many days an employee can be absent (with notice, of course), provided that they are willing to forgo pay for that many days. That being the case, what actually happens is not multiple days taken off in one go - it's a day or two taken off each month, every month.

That's right - you've unintentionally consented to allow employees unpaid time off that totals 12 to 24 days a year - and to resent you for making them show up for work sick (getting everyone else sick in the process).

But give even a new employee 5 personal days up front, and here's what happens (provided you hired the right person): They hoard them.

That's right - limited to just 5 days that they can have off per year, the end of the year rolls around and people still have days left that they could take off, but haven't. Why? Because they never know when their child might be ill, or their hot water heater might spring a leak, or one of their parents might die. Against the unknown, they take those 5 days and bank them. Especially since so many of them are working 2 jobs just to make ends meet.

But really, do you really want employees that haven't taken their 5 days? Think about it: 52 weeks in a row of 40 or more hours per week, without a break. How productive do you really think this employee is going to be, even if they don't get sick?

If you really want someone fresh and sharp, why not offer 5 days of personal/sick time, and 5 days for mental health (what we used to call a 'vacation').

So, for the cost of 10 days' pay, you get:

  • Employees who are less likely to leave
  • Higher production because no one is spreading the plague
  • Sharp, fresh employees
  • Few employees who actually use all 10 days
  • An employee who has to work harder to pay for an even better vacation next year
In other words, if you're going to bean count, do it here only if you prefer employees that are mentally and physically unfit.

Moving Pianos

My entire career has been about moving pianos.

I did actually used to move pianos, years ago, when my back was younger than any of me is now. What I learned then has informed my work process ever since. The only time I've failed is when I didn't pay attention to the rules of piano moving, which are as follows:

The Customer gets to pick the piano
You can influence that decision, of course, depending upon whether the Customer (or the Customer's associates - i.e., spouse and/or children) plan to use the piano to noodle around on or to train the next Rachmaninoff. Ultimately, though, it's the Customer's dime. If they want a zebra-striped 21-foot grand and can afford it, it's their right to get that hideous monstrosity.

Yes, you want a lamp - and a grandfather clock
When Customers purchase a big-ticket item, like a piano or a database, payroll service, CRM, etc., sign the deal for that first. Then, once that deal is locked, suggest add-ons that go well with the original item, like a lamp so they can see their sheet music better, a certain amount of additional storage in the cloud, etc. Customers who've just made a large purchase are much more likely to say yes - after all, they've already said yes to the big, scary decision; anything after that is easy - and it's your job to fill the new needs created by their original decision.

The Customer decides where the piano goes - within limits
Customers always have interesting ideas about where the piano should go. The third floor? Sure, why not - provided that the floor is sufficiently braced to take the weight. Full-sized pianos are like full bookcases - they weigh a lot, and the Customer has a right to be angry if their floor starts to warp or sag and you didn't advise them that that was likely to happen. It might be more convenient for you to put the piano in the living room, where you won't have to take off its legs and turn it on its side to negotiate those treacherous, hernia-inducing stairs, but it's the Customer's house, and the piano goes where they want it. But I would still get it in writing that you've told them about that floor - just in case.

Do you want your piano tuned?
Pianos - real pianos, as opposed to their digital cousins - need regular tuning. You may offer a certain number of tunings for free, and possibly a package price if they sign up for a regular course of these after the fact. Unlike additional warranties, tuning is necessary if you don't want the neighborhood dogs to howl every time you play. You may not be who they choose to do the tunings, of course, so it's in your best interest to offer a fair price for that package to lock them in. Unless, of course, you don't mind your Customers tweeting or Facebooking that you robbed them.

What do your extended family and friends think of your piano?
It is a given that anyone who purchases a piano will show it off, partly to reassure themselves that they've made a good decision, and partly because they're proud to own something so cool. So call the Customer 2 weeks or so after the first tuning and ask what their extended family and friends think. Did any of them mention that they wish they had a piano? If so, let your Customer know that you would be honored to help their friends choose a piano that will be the perfect fit for their needs - and that they can get some kind of break for mentioning that they know your Customer.