ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

December 1998

Once Around The Block

A Better Place To Live

Chevron Fuels-Up For The Future

Imagine What Creativity Can Lead To

Lessons Learned At The Water Cooler

by Maryann Brennan
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Views for a Change

The Quality Tool I Never Use

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Lessons Learned At The Water Cooler
by Mayann Brennan

If you attend a quality conference, you will most likely hear at least one speaker share her company’s journey to excellence. The first time you hear how a company became customer-focused, increased revenue and empowered employees, you are inspired and revved up. For many the experience is like “finding religion.” You cannot contain your excitement. You rush back to your company, share everything you learned and begin implementing some of the great ideas. But by the time you have heard four or five quality journey stories, they become predictable. Why? Because companies who have achieved excellence share many of the same factors. These factors point to the clear alignment of strategies to achieve a vision and measures to tell the company how they are doing. They underscore the importance of developing employee capabilities and they link performance results with process management. Yet, you yearn for more substance. You desire to understand not only what they did, but how they did it. You want the details. And more importantly, you crave an understanding of the behind-the-scenes story. Except for the rare speaker who is refreshingly candid and tells you about the “warts”, “false starts” and “lessons learned” most speakers share the “best foot forward” version.

On the one hand, companies are understandably proud of what they have accomplished and delight in the opportunity to share their accomplishments with fellow journeyers, as well as current or prospective clients. In many ways, sharing their story is an important right of passage. It marks the transition into the next phase of excellence. It is the time to seek public acknowledgement for having completed the early phases of deployment and, perhaps, achieved some good results. On the other hand, it is human nature to quickly forget how difficult it was to change the organization in the first place. Dwelling on the hard stuff reminds us of how difficult it was to make change happen. It is much more important to declare our efforts a success. The process of putting together the story into a presentation is a form of healing after the change effort. It focuses on the good things that came out of the effort and not the conflict and confusion that occurred during some steps of the transformation.

So we leave the conference, return to our companies and wish that our leaders were as committed to quality management as the leaders of the speaker’s company. We shake our heads and wonder how to get our balanced scorecard as balanced as the one on the speaker’s overhead.

Maybe it is unrealistic to expect companies to “tell all” and “share all”—at least not in front of hundreds of people. But it is possible to get the “inside” story by networking with other conference attendees. The practice of networking at these same conferences typically leads to sharing of strategies on a one-on-one level. And, unlike attending one session for one hour, you are making a contact that can lead to a benchmarking partnership, an ongoing resource, a fellow colleague or a friend with similar interests. In the meantime, here are a few “insider” lessons that I have learned by networking at conferences.

Change is more painful than death.
There is a great deal of resistance to any type of change in a person’s life. People prefer to maintain the status quo no matter how much it is broken, than to venture into the unknown. Expect the deployment of each new approach to be painful. The pain may take the form of endlessly long discussions on what to do and how to do it and why it can’t be done. The pain may be the frustration of having the leadership meeting to discuss “measures of success” postponed for the eighth time.

The process is more important than the product.
Most companies still focus on the deliverable such as the Vision Statement or the Balanced Scorecard Measurement Report. It is the process of working through what we want the company to be in the future and how we want to operate in getting there that is important, not the wordsmithing exercise that results in a thirty-two word vision statement. Too many leaders think that the vision statement is a proxy for going through the arduous process of deciding what business they are in.

Mass marketing doesn’t work.
We don’t sell to more than one customer at a time. Why do we think that we can sell commitment to a quality program to more than one employee at a time? Vision letters in a mass mailing may increase awareness about a company’s direction, but they no more get people to participate in making it happen, then a mass marketing campaign for a new automobile can get people to go out and buy the car. In fact sending out a vision letter can be the quickest way to get people to shut-down and think “program of the month.” A two-way communication forum is one of the most credible and effective ways to get employees to not only become aware of what is important to the company, but also to engage them in a dialogue with the senior leaders to understand the role they play in the success of the company.

These are a few of the lessons that I have either learned myself or had the good fortune to have heard from someone in my network. The key work here is networking. Create your own source of information and tap into strategies that have worked for others and will work for you. So the next time you are at a conference, such as AQP’s Annual Spring Conference and Resource Mart in Las Vegas, March 29-31, remember not only the lessons learned in the auditorium but the ones you can glean from the person to your right at the water cooler.

December '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
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