organizational development and change tools and techniques for consultants and others

Solving problems and getting action - quickly

by David Zatz, Ph.D.

We hear it more often than we’d have thought possible: “You’re the tenth consultant we’ve seen, and nothing ever happens. None of these simple problems ever get fixed!”

There are many ways to get things done where others have failed. But the most effective center around letting people empower themselves and following through.

One example is a one-day training seminar we conducted. Though the seminar was an introduction to service and dealing with tough customers, it ended up accomplishing much more. Most of the people at the meeting were jaded about it, and some said they felt that we had no business telling them how to work. Others resented the intrusion on their time.

It did not take long before we were challenged. I had just said that, before sending customers to other offices, people should call, introduce the customer, and see if they could resolve the problem over the phone. One person said they couldn’t figure out who to call because the phone book was organized by names, not by offices; nobody answered when I asked what one solution might be. We suggested getting in touch with the person who writes the phone directory and asking them if they could add a subject directory. By luck, the responsible person was in the room. She had no idea this was needed, and agreed on the spot to do it (she did it the very next day).

Someone else said the last president had introduced new hires publicly, which was very helpful, but no longer done. We suggested they take the initiative of bringing new hires around to all the offices. In short, each time a problem was raised, we first asked the group to solve it, then provided some possible solutions. To move the training along I began to suggest that interested people raise their hands for each problem, then work together on solutions.

As this discussion moved forward, people began to come up with their own solutions, and to seriously communicate with people from other areas who were in the room. Eventually, we moved back to the formal presentation, but only a few minutes later a resentful voice, spoke up, saying, “Yes, we can do these things, but nobody else will.”

This training session included more than one third of the staff of this small organization. We took advantage of the challenge to introduce the participants to some cultural basics, namely:

One of the hardest parts of this kind of training is getting desired behaviors to stay in the workplace. By emphasizing the difficulty and the potential of initiating cultural change, however, we overcame this problem, and the training had a real impact.

Cultural change does not have to begin at the top. At Chrysler’s Windsor, Ontario, minivan plant, a major change effort was undertaken (in the 1990s) by people at lower levels, resulting in dramatically lower warranty costs and significantly higher quality vehicles. The other minivan plant, which did not have a bottom-up cultural change effort, did not show these improvements.

The group was visibly impressed by the idea that they, without executive help, could alter the organization’s culture.

Their reactions, along with those of many others in different organizations, supports the idea that many problems are partly self-imposed. People did not communicate because they felt that people did not communicate. They did not take power because they were used to not having power. Despite the disempowering actions of top management, however, these people were motivated to do a high quality job.

Several people in the group suggested that we have another discussion about how they could resolve the problems facing customers. The results included more problem-solving, agreements to meet and discuss other issues later, and some personal feedback to people who had unintentionally been discourteous or condescending.

Most of the participants were very satisfied with this first training session. We had let the discussion wander because learning how to provide superior service was useless if they were not motivated or able to apply it.

The limiting factor was not knowledge; most knew how to provide better service, but felt they could not overcome certain obstacles. By deflecting protests of powerlessness with examples of how they could seize the power to help students, we were able to show them that they could, in fact, make necessary changes to increase customer satisfaction and retention.

Communication was key. Many people had never seriously discussed long-standing and common problems with their counterparts in other areas. Having the heads of different departments sit near each other was particularly productive, because they entered into a focused, albeit heated (we used process consultation to help there), discussion. The result was closer coordination and changes which had been needed for years. This was, for most people, their first work-oriented situation where they could discuss problems across areas.

Communication is often discussed as something which is needed, but nobody tells how to actually get it. It cannot simply be created by executive decree, though an executive can model it and start initiatives to try to increase it. Communication is in the hands of the people who work in an organization. If they talk with each other and have meaningful discussions on a regular basis, there will be communication, regardless of frills such as newsletters, Web sites, e-mail, and conferences.

The participants were happy with the experience of communication they encountered, and with their sudden empowerment. Some of this showed up in the post-session surveys, but mostly it showed up in the desire of the participants to continue the dialogue after the training ended. Several areas started their own low-level staff meetings, and several groups of individuals across areas began to meet regularly to attack problems. Within a week, there were many small but meaningful actions which resolved long-standing complaints.

We modeled communication and empowerment by using the “smile sheet” survey results from the first session with the second (the staff were divided into two roughly equal groups, assigned to morning and afternoon sessions). We told them what the first group had written, and what we were doing to comply with their feedback. The next day, we had transparencies with both sets of survey numbers and comments, and adjusted delivery to meet their feedback. The central response, however, we could not address directly: they wanted more meetings of this kind!

One of the toughest challenges was from someone who said that, no matter what they did, they would get no rewards from it. This was essentially true for most people. Bonuses were reserved for the president and sometimes one or two other top people, and raises were uniform across the entire organization. There was little or no positive feedback for customer focus, and working to resolve problems with people in other areas carried some risks. Our answer was that people had to do this for themselves and for the customers. By keeping that in mind at all times, and not expecting other rewards, people could keep their motivation and avoid bitterness. This was taken surprisingly well, because most people inherently want to do high quality work.

Though the outcomes were overwhelmingly positive, and people carried the motivation and knowledge they had gained with them, there were some repercussions — for us. We had been asked to follow through with the people who had agreed to meet later, and sent out a sheaf of letters to them two days after the training ended (by which time most had already met or taken action on their own). That was the essential follow-through, the key to keeping up momentum.

On a personal level, I was surprised by the repressed desire to help customers, the energy with which people started to communicate and work together once they lost their hopelessness, and even the simple fact that they did not realize that they could actually make simple decisions on their own. Though this organization was no worse off than most others I have seen, a few simple ideas liberated a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, and transformed actual working behavior. These ideas, in essence, were:

Those are powerful ideas - and the difference between an excellent organization and one that simply gets by.


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