While boarding a plane in Atlanta a few years ago, I noticed a familiar face in the line in front of me. The unmistakable beard and steel-rimmed glasses, even the trademark bow tie: C. Everett Koop, former US Surgeon General, Mr. Anti-Smoking and Eat Healthy.
It was a large plane and my seat was a good distance from his, so I didn’t see him again after boarding. When the food was served, it was a steak dinner (you can tell this was some time ago!). As I loaded up on cholesterol, along with the proprietary artificial greens, simulated sour cream, preservative-laden salad, and chemical cheesecake, I couldn’t help wondering what C. Everett was doing. Did you eat what the rest of us did? Or did you have the foresight to order a low-cholesterol meal or a vegetarian dish? Faced with the choice of eating recklessly or not eating at all, what is the preferred alternative?
In Koop’s case, he was the country’s advocate for healthy practices. When you eat, there are probably people watching to see if you practice what you preach. There is no way you can light a Camel after your meal and maintain credibility. But what about us? Do we practice what we preach?
We are not under close scrutiny like a public figure is. We can talk all we want about best practices and ecological resource management, and few will know if we have been successful in that area. Neither should they. The improvement programs you undertake aim for better performance, lower costs, and being more competitive, and as long as the result justifies the effort and expense, no matter what you call it or who knows it.
So the real issue is whether it does what it should, even if no one is watching. How serious are you anyway? It’s always the little things that trip you up. First on the list is procedural discipline. Take inventory accuracy, for example. Let’s say the accuracy of your inventory record is 40 percent. If you spend half a million dollars to automate your inventory records but do nothing to fine-tune procedures, what you get is an automated inventory system accurate to 40 percent of half a million dollars. Sometimes we forget that systems are only as good as the information we provide them. Even if we remember, it’s easy to slip into old habits when no one is watching and destroy the benefits we work so hard for.
At the beginning of an implementation project, there is a lot of visibility. Top management wants to see the results of that big investment. We pay attention, we toughen up, and we act together to achieve an accuracy of around 90 percent. However, after a few months, when the spotlight has shifted to another project, it is easy to lose the discipline that brought success during implementation. That level of accuracy will quietly return to 40 percent. We go back to having steak and chips.
What we really need is a spotlight that doesn’t go away after the implementation effort is over. Successful companies post inventory accuracy measurements where everyone can see them. Make it public so that there are witnesses to your success or failure. Nobody likes to air out dirty laundry, so what better way to keep the pressure off and ensure results? The visibility rule applies to all levels. Any individual who has a responsibility associated with the success of the business (which I assume includes all members of the business) must have a proper focus of attention directed in their direction.
There is an incentive system at work in every situation, whether it is a formal performance system such as incentive pay or management evaluations by objectives or as informal as “get it right or lose your job.” The key is to make sure that the incentive is specific enough to encourage the desired behavior and that the promoted behavior achieves the desired results.
People respond to their motivation system whether the motivation is properly targeted or not. If a production foreman is paid a bonus based on the quantity of product produced, he will do his best to produce the maximum quantity per month, regardless of whether that is the best result for the business. When implementing a priority-based planning system, the maximum amount of production per month will likely conflict with the priorities developed by the system, which are directly tied to shipping schedules or finished product goals.
For example, it is the last day of the month and there are three jobs in the queue. The production figures for the month (total quantity) are slightly below average. Of the three jobs, one is a high priority but a small quantity, the second is a large but long-running (medium priority), and the third is a fast, high-priority job that is early (low priority). Guess which one will run today? Of course, high-quantity, low-priority work; This produces the greatest reward for the foreman. As a result, high-priority work is delayed and the customer’s ship date is likely to be missed while unnecessary parts are left inflating inventory.
It’s not the foreman’s fault. You cannot be blamed for responding to an incentive system. Instead, blame the incentive system for not adequately reflecting the goals of that company. The spotlight is there, but it is illuminating the wrong target.
The challenge is threefold:
1. You must identify what the true goals are for each employee, in line with the overall goals of the company (make a profit by shipping quality products and efficiently produced on time)
2. Find a way to motivate employees appropriately in line with these goals
3. Institute and monitor the incentive system and adjust it as necessary to reflect changes in business objectives, procedures, and environment.
So did Dr. Koop eat the steak? I’d like to think that you ordered a special meal and didn’t face the problem in the first place. I’m sure it wasn’t smoked afterward.
We have to design our own bulbs to motivate ourselves and our employees to do what is best for the health of the company. The incentive is necessary. Commit and reinforce it with a measurement system that maintains pressure. Doctor’s orders. It’s for your own good.