Leadership – the key to Price, Quality and Speed

Recently I was sent an email with a photo of a poster saying “Price Quality or Speed – Pick Two”. It struck me at the time how old this phrase was and how out of place it seemed today. In its time the slogan meant that customers had only two choices and that it was too much to expect a business to offer all three. A short time later I ran into an old employee who mentioned the same phrase, this time reminding me that I taught it to him. I felt terrible. I felt like I’d corrupted him and yet, at the time we worked together it was our truth – or at least we thought so. For people who didn’t grow up in business in the 1980’s and early 90s this phrase must seem odd. Who would think that way today and yet a few decades ago we did. This would be just another interesting history lesson if not for the fact that today, some individuals and companies still hold fast to the notion that only two of these are possible. So what took a phrase that was prevalent in business thirty years ago and turned it into an arcane strategy today?

One of the most significant events that changed our thinking was the quality movement that began in the 1970’s (first in Japan and then the U.S.). The quality movement was about more than just quality. It changed how we thought. It represented a fundamental shift from internally-focused decision making to the customer-centric business model and a leadership system that we take for granted today. Statistical quality control taught us how to reduce variation in the quality of our products. “Good enough” was no longer good enough. Eventually, consistent high quality products was no longer something we touted as a competitive advantage. It became the expectation of every customer just to be considered as a supplier.  Quality was taken off the table as a point of differentiation because everyone offered it. Now all we had left was price and speed.

International pressure also brought the need to be more competitive and cost conscious. So on the heels of the quality movement came “Lean” with its sights set on eliminating waste in systems. The result of leaner, more efficient processes meant we could deliver products faster and at a lower cost. We now had efficient and quick customer response time along with high quality. The nimbleness of highly responsive systems also enabled mass customization. No longer were we tied to long production runs designed to maximize machine efficiency.

There’s no question that technological advances in the digital age played a big role in making it all possible. Computer controlled machines made quality, consistency and speed possible. Electronic communication such as email compressed time and enabled data to be quickly and accurately dispersed to far flung corners of the globe.

I remember when one of my sales pitches was consistent quality and on-time delivery. Who would think of leading with that strategy today? Today the marketplace expects it. Decades ago we complained about the “unrealistic” demands of the customer. Not only do we not hear the complaint as much anymore, but we have a generation of employees who’ve grown up in a system of giving the customer with what they want, when they want it and at a fair price.

For most of us, improving quality, shortening delivery cycles and lowering costs required minimal if any investment. What it did require was that we change the way we thought. We began to look at all our processes with an eye for waste and inefficiency. We placed an emphasis on serving our customers what they wanted, when they wanted it. The quality movement changed our attitude. The digital revolution enabled it.

Satisfying customer expectations in a highly competitive environment is challenging for all companies. But those who embrace leadership strategies that support the idea that price, quality and speed are not only possible, but are necessary, have the greatest opportunity for success. Those that still expect the customer to “pick two” are often trapped in a perpetual struggle for survival.

Continually evaluating and evolving our leadership and competitive strategies to anticipate customer needs is critical to success. The competitive differentiating question we should be asking ourselves is “What do we believe today that ten or twenty years from now will seem as arcane as “Price, Quality or Speed – Pick Two”? Maybe, the new phrase for us today should be “Price, Quality & Speed – Pick More”.

If you’re struggling to get traction with a strategy or need to challenge old thoughts that are holding you back, let’s talk. I can help. You can  reach me through the “Contact Us” tab on this page.

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Bring Back My Old Inbox

Lately I’ve found myself reminiscing about how much I miss by inbox. Now, I don’t mean my Outlook inbox or the Gmail inbox on my phone. Actually, they’re the problem. It’s the other inbox. What I really miss is the wire basket that, for the first twenty years of my career, sat on the front-left corner of my desk right above the wire out-basket. What I didn’t realize then was the important role it played in my management development, how it served to bind my employees and I together socially and how it helped to maintain a healthy life-work balance for me. Here’s how it worked.

Several times throughout the day my secretary would stop in my office to deliver fresh mail and pick up items I’d put in an inter-office routing envelope for delivery. Inevitably, I’d ask how her day was going and for a short time we engaged in meaningful conversation about how she was doing. Sometimes the conversation was about her office workload while other times it was about events in her personal life. It may have been a bit of unproductive time for both of us but we engaged in face-to-face conversation. That inbox facilitated communication that strengthened the social fabric of our unit and the company.

By the late 80’s I had a PC and was able to schedule my appointments and write and send my own memos. I didn’t need my secretary and I could get a lot more done in less time. Although I could walk a short distance to my colleague’s office, it was faster and easier to send an email. We were more productive, we thought. We also talked less.

That inbox also enabled one of my first and most memorable management development opportunities. At the time, I was a young technician in a small but important unit in a large company. I had been to management development classes but had few opportunities to manage and to practice what I had learned. That was until my boss went on vacation and I was asked to serve in her capacity for a week. That meant that I had to open the mail in her inbox, read important memos, attend meetings and decide what needed immediate action and what could wait until she returned. I was able to experience her job by managing her inbox for five days. That was a meaningful assignment that I thoroughly enjoyed and have not forgotten. Today, with comingled business and personal emails, 24-hour access and the expectation of others that we’re always available, not only would it be difficult to do, but having someone handle my mail during my absence wouldn’t be needed. A developmental opportunity is missed and a new problem is created.

People today tell me all the time that they’ve lost a healthy balance in their lives. Work has crept into every corner of their waking time. It’s growing harder every day to escape the intrusion of work emails or texts. The line between work “on” and “off” has become blurred. That wasn’t the case with my old wire basket. Issues then were no less important to the future of our company than they are today. However, my inbox didn’t go home with me. The company and our problems could wait until the next day.  When I left the office, work turned off and life turned on. We didn’t have another option. We had clear separation and a healthy balance between the two. Time away from work was a time for rest and recharging.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is a wonderful thing and I don’t want to turn back that clock. But we tell ourselves that we’re more productive because we can work when we want or that we can create a better organization if we can conduct business after we’ve left the office. Rarely is that the case. Rather, it serves as a convenient rationalization for the trap we’ve found ourselves in.

Sometimes we need to slow down to go faster. To perform at our best we need good rest every night. For companies to perform at their best their employees need to rest also. Realizing that clear separation is both healthy for associates and for the business, some companies are taking bold steps to develop policies that limit or prohibit what work can be conducted off hours. They develop leaders who delegate effectively and are not missed when they’re gone.

Call me old fashioned if you’d like. I probably am. But I still think we all lost something of ourselves when we gave up our wire inbox for technology that promised to free us from the burdens of work. Company leaders should ask themselves if their employee’s work habits are in their best interests and that of the company’s. If there are doubts, it’s the leader’s responsibility to protect their employees, even from themselves if necessary. Now, has anyone seen my old rotary dial phone?

If you’d like help bringing balance back to your organization contact me off this site and let’s begin the conversation.

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Rethinking Servant Leadership

It seems these days the wires aren’t as hot with servant leadership articles and blogs as they were just a couple years ago. In one way I’m OK with that. In another I’m not. I don’t like it when good concepts are turned into fads. While I have nothing against the attention a fad brings to an issue, it’s disappointing when leaders fail to assimilate the concepts into their culture before moving on to the next “hot” program.

Although the term “Servant Leadership was coined back in the 70’s, the principles have been around as long as the bible and as I’ve said before, real leadership has always been of a servant nature. As social beings we’re naturally wired for it. It’s the model we’re given to build healthy and strong families. So, before another good concept drifts into the past, I thought it would be good to revisit a few principles that we shouldn’t lose.

  1. Servant leaders provide a vision and place a high value on subordinating self to the larger team. They set clear expectations for themselves and others and then ask: How can I help? What do you need to succeed in your role?
  2. Servant leaders support and facilitate those they serve. They’re committed to other’s success and hold others around them to a high, but fair standard of performance. They expect a lot and provide an exceptional level of support and encouragement to those willing to accept the challenge. They also expect others to hold them to the same standard.
  3. Servant leaders actively pursue maximizing the potential in others. Through coaching and opportunities for growth they help others find their place in the organization or outside of it if necessary.
  4. Servant leaders expect others to accept personal responsibility. They don’t coddle and they don’t tolerate helplessness or inaction. They expect everyone to perform up to their potential and encourage everyone to expect the best from their teammates. Failure to do ones part is less of a personal failure than it is a failure to serve the good of the team.
  5. Servant leadership isn’t a one-way street. Leaders don’t settle for being the only servant in the room. They won’t be taken advantage of and expect teammates and others to exhibit the same qualities. They are teachers through instruction and modeling. They expect to create a culture where the people they serve will also serve others. It’s foolish and frustrating to serve others who enjoy being served but refuse to serve others.
  6. Servant leaders don’t dodge or shrink from the tough issues. They challenge the self-serving behaviors and actions of others firmly but with grace and compassion.
  7. Servant leaders are fully aware of their own behavior and response to situations. They understand the influence their style has on others.
  8. Servant leaders know they’re not the smartest people in the room. They are passionate about building a team. They see themselves as conveners of the gifts and talents inherent in others and harness it in pursuit of the organization’s goals.
  9. Servant leaders are not soft or weak. They understand the place for humility in leadership without compromising their own identity. They put themselves in a position of serving others without giving up their role and requirement to lead.
  10. Servant leaders recognize that their leadership style extends beyond the company to include customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. It’s an attitude, not a program, that influences every human interaction the company has.

Fortunately for many companies, this is already common behavior. Unfortunately for others it’s not and they miss out on the powerful benefits a service-style culture can bring. Leading is difficult when it doesn’t flow from our human nature to serve one another. When we all can say we’re leading by the golden rule, we’ll have gotten what we need from servant leadership and once again we can say that it’s just old fashion leadership we’re practicing.

If you’d like to talk about how to create a high performance, caring and compassionate leadership style, reach out to me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Goals, Ethics and Underachievement

OK. I admit it. I’ve been accused more than once of being too optimistic and positive about business outcomes. I know, when I believe we can accomplish something that’s never been done before, I can fall into the trap of not being a realist, not having the truth of why it won’t work. It’s especially the case when it’s been tried before and it didn’t work. Thinking big with a fundamental belief in the greater potential of people and companies is now being referred to by critics as “the cult of positivity”.

A few years ago the Wall Street Journal printed an article titled “The Power of Negative Thinking”. It claimed, “In American corporations, perhaps the most widely accepted doctrine of the “cult of positivity” is the importance of setting big, audacious goals for an organization”. It identified two problems associated with large challenging goals; unethical behavior and underachievement.

It seems to me that unethical behavior to achieve a goal would have more to do with the culture of an organization than the goals themselves. Goals can’t turn good people bad any more than the sight of a bank can turn people into bank robbers. But companies can. Compromising ethics in the pursuit of goals is not an accident, it’s a choice and that choice is deeply rooted in the cultural values and beliefs of the organization.

The WSJ article went on to say that goals may also be the source of underachievement. It cited a study in which New York cab drivers were found to make less fare on rainy days than in good weather. According to the researchers, once they hit their “mental target”, their goal of a good day’s earnings, they went home. This isn’t goal underachievement, its goal achievement and a great example of how small expectations produce small results.

We’ve all experienced it. After a long day at the office, we get home with barely enough energy to get through dinner and then do little except sit in the recliner until we fall asleep. While that’s not always bad, it is an example of what happens when we perform without a higher, more inspiring goal. Don’t be surprised then, when small goals are set for your employees, that once they achieve them they shut down. It’ll look like it’s the limit of what they can do, but more than likely, it’s the limit of what you or they expected of themselves.

It’s reported that “sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst”, a strategy called “defensive pessimism”. This sounds to me like a defense mechanism against the sting of missing a bold target. Under-promise and over-perform. It’s a cultural trait of organizations and individuals to either cover for a lack of confidence and efficacy or to avoid criticism.

Of course, optimistic goal setting must include consideration for the possible outcomes and downsides. Planning for only the best outcome, ignoring the risks and failing to prepare contingencies would be reckless and irresponsible. But expecting the best is absolutely necessary to get the best.

So, if we believe what we read, we have two problems with large, challenging goals fueled with optimism: they contribute to either under performance or unethical behavior. While both claims are entirely possible, it’s crazy to place the blame solely on the bold and aggressive nature of the goals.

 Companies come in all shapes and sizes and their cultures are as unique as fingerprints. Like people, there are good and bad. Let’s not make goals the reason to set our sights low. If you’re truly concerned about potential adverse consequences to very challenging goals, remember, the problem may lie somewhere else. Likely it’s in the belief system of the organization.

Success isn’t luck. It’s not random outcome. If it was, then why plan at all? The odds of success or failure would be the same. Great success results from dreaming beyond the horizons everyone else sees, inventing the paths to get you there and believing in yourself enough to expect it.

It was nearly fifteen years ago that Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good To Great, encouraged business leaders to set Big Harry Audacious Goals (BHAG) as a unifying focal point for team spirit and performance. You’d think that if setting our sights high, sometimes very high, drove unethical behavior and underachievement, someone would have warned our most successful and respected companies about it.

If you’d like to create a culture of high performance individuals who challenge conventional boundaries, respond to the post or use the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Test Your Assumptions When Planning

It’s fall and the time of the year again when most business leaders head to the conference room for their annual planning process. For some it’ll involve new goals and strategies. For others it’ll just be a budget. However you approach it, the process of planning involves a lot of assumptions, many of which are taken for granted. We often give little thought to the assumptions that influence, sometimes in a big way, the direction and distance the business will go in the forthcoming year.

These assumptions are our truth and yet, they’re likely not the truth at all, they’re just assumptions that we’ve elevated to the level of hard facts and then taken for granted. We get locked onto our assumptions and to some extent that’s OK. Assumptions are how we make sense of what we hear and see around us. They provide a framework for our work and allow us to operate in a complex world with new information coming at us from every direction. However, nothing in our world remains constant and if we don’t closely examine the assumptions by which the company runs, we’ll soon find ourselves left behind.

The foundational building blocks of any business plan are the assumptions. They are the undergirding of every strategy, idea and budget. The Rand Corporation defines an assumption as “an assertion about some characteristic of the future that underlies the current operations or plans of an organization.” Certainly market research, competitive analysis, industry research and more are important. But those things are really just input into the conclusions and assumptions we draw from it. Like the report that’s been distributed throughout the office forever that no one seems to need, assumptions have a way of surviving long after their useful life is gone. It’s for these reasons that every planning process should involve some degree of assumption validation. Testing assumptions isn’t a difficult process, but it is a deliberate activity you should include in your planning calendar. There are several simple but important steps to follow.

Seeking Different Assumptions

  1. The first step involves creating the environment where team members feel comfortable and are expected to challenge key assumptions in the business and the plan. Let them know that you’re no longer sure that everything you believe as factual about the company or marketplace is still accurate. This is easier said than done because by definition our assumptions are our truth and when a question is raised about one of them, it’s normal to defer to the subject matter expert in the room, the keeper of the assumption, who will reassure the team that it’s still the case and you can move on to the next question.
  1. Ask yourself – What are the key assumptions that drive the plan, that if inaccurate, would take planning in another direction? These are the assumptions that are central to how the business interacts in the marketplace.
    • What do you really know about customer attitude toward your company?
    • Is there a continuing need for a product or service to remain in the portfolio (we all have some that should go, but we hang on to them thinking we’ll suffer harm if we eliminate them)?
    • What features or services do customers value most?
    • Why do your customers buy from you?
    • Is there a significant customer base?
  1. Once you’ve considered the list of key assumptions, you have to get comfortable with the next question – How do we know? I have a friend who likes to say that in any conversation with an employee or customer, you’re always just two questions away from the truth. The truth is we stop asking too soon. Reflect on the history of each assumption – Where, when and who did it come from. Does it still serve your best interests? The answer to these questions can take some time to answer so it’s good to begin this process early or, better yet, make it a part of communication throughout the year. I’ve seen too many plans forge ahead with old assumptions because there just wasn’t enough time to dig into them further. Even when there was some doubt about their accuracy, pushing it off for another year conveniently took the team off the hook of dealing with the work that might have had to occur if the assumption was proven inaccurate.
  1. Be honest with yourself. If you’re not sure the assumption is accurate but you don’t have the time or desire to dig deeper to find out, say so. At least you’ve got something to follow up on, maybe as a part of the annual plan. Guessing is acceptable so long as you’re willing to bear the risk and potential consequences of the decision.

In summary, don’t get carried away calling into question every assumption. Pick a few big ones that are long in the tooth and take the time to validate their accuracy. In another time you can look at a few others. The worst case would be, you’ve put in time to validate that you’re in touch with the key drivers of your business. That in itself is a pretty good outcome.

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