Sunday, 17 December 2006

The Awe of the Simple

I just spent the last week in St. Louis, MO. I was on a business trip, but I always try to see one or two things whenever I travel to a new city. In this case, a couple of my co-workers were very gracious and took me to see the St. Louis "Gateway Arch".
It is hard to explain what impressed me about it. It's a very simple shape (A catenary curve, to be precise). Its size is certainly impressive, but there are larger structures, and certainly more difficult ones to build.
I think it was the elegant simplicity of it. Looming over the hodgepodge of architectural styles that make up the St. Louis Riverfront, it stands out by being a very pure expression. Many of the more intricate works lose something by their complexity.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Serendipity and Leadership

Sometimes, things seem almost too coincidental.

I had a conference call/training session this morning on the topic of leadership. It is part of the leadership development program in my company, and involved hearing from the COO of our organization. He talked about his leadership style, characteristics, and challenges.

One of the messages he gave us resonated strongly with my previous post. He talked about leading by example. How we need to be the example to those we lead, of the type of behaviour we expect. He talked about how this builds trust, and credibility. Parts of the discussion seemed to parallel my points regarding how the nature of an organization is often based on the example of the leaders.

On an unrelated note, the topic of ethics and integrity came up, which was something that hit me hard only a couple of hours later. He stated how integrity was critical to the organization and to leadership. A couple of hours later I found myself embroiled in an ethically questionable situation. I just don't know if I handled it properly. I sought advice from a couple of my role models, and took what I think was the ethical action for myself and the organization. But it wasn't pretty, and I don't know how things will fall out from this.

Integrity. Doing what is right, even when it's not easy.

Wow is that a lot more meaningful to me.

Start at the Top

As an analyst, I often get asked for my opinion on challenges faced by organizations. Sometimes my own, sometimes those of friends or acquaintances. I'll probably talk about those here, but I will make things anonymous to protect the confidentiality of the organization.

An acquaintance recently presented me with the following situation. A new project in his organization was floundering badly. Productivity and quality were both consistently under target. This had been an ongoing issue since the initiation of the project. He talked about the discussions he'd had with the project managers, and the actions they'd tried. Despite those initiatives, the various teams responsible for the project had failed to improve. His question to me was whether I had any thoughts on what else he could do to get the project turned around.

My response to him was very blunt. Look at the leadership. Any time you have a unit that is consistently under-performing, you need to ask yourself if you have the right people leading that unit. I believe it is entirely appropriate to start by looking at systems and processes, but once you've addressed those, it comes back to people.

People follow their leaders, in more ways that are immediately obvious. If you've got an organization that delivers poor quality work, the leadership doesn't value quality. If you've got a unit who in unproductive, ask how productive the leader is. These are problems that start at the top.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Lest We Forget

I really am not posting this at the best time. It would have been more topical a couple of weeks ago. But it's one of those thoughts that's built over time.

As you may or may not know, there was recently a motion passed by the Canadian House of Commons regarding whether or not to hold a state funeral for the last surviving Canadian Veteran of the Great War (WWI). There has been a great deal of support, and a great deal of opposition to the idea. I'm not going to provide my thoughts on whether this would be appropriate. I have to admit to seeing many sides to the issue.

What has been percolating through my mind is more about the passing of time, and the deadening of memory. Last century we lived through some of the most cataclysmic events the world has known. Two conflicts whose impacts were felt world wide, both in terms of the geo-political changes they effected, as well as in the unprecedented damage they wrought. A plague that probably killed more people than both those wars combined. The creation and use of some of the most devastating weapons mankind has ever known.

I do not discount or minimize the terrible events of the recent past, but as we come to the point where all those who fought for freedom in First World War leave us, I wonder that we don't lose the power of their memory. For myself, World War I is something I've only read about. Even the second World War only impinged on me in stories that my grandfather told (would that I, as a child, had paid more attention and respect.) Soon there will be no one who can tell us of the horrors, of the sacrifices, and of the glory. That both saddens and scares me.

These events have helped us create a better world (and if you don't think the world of today is a better world, that's another reason to study history). We are a better, more tolerant, and generally safer society than we were a hundred years ago. We are infinitely better off than we were two hundred years ago.

For most of you who will read this, these events will never be more than history. I rejoice that we do not face the awful demands placed upon those who endured the trenches. But I also pray that we do not forget the lessons learned.

Hark the resentful guns!
Oh, how thankful am I
To think my beloved ones
Will never know how I die!
I've suffered more than my share;
I'm shattered beyond repair;
I've fought like a man the fight,
And now I demand the right
(God! how his fingers cling!)
To do without shame this thing.
Good! there's a bullet still;
Now I'm ready to fire;
Blame me, God, if You will,
Here on the wire . . . the wire. . . .
~Robert Service - Last stanza of On the Wire

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Customer Service

You can expect to hear a great deal from me on the topic of customer service. Unsurprising as I work as a Quality Analyst in that field.

I tend to wander around different customer service sites on the net. Most decry the state of customer service today. Many suggest fixes (often their own customer service training package.) Quite a few talk about automated solutions.

Although I won't be so bold as to say I know all the solutions to what is wrong with customer service today, I would like to posit a slightly different cause than most of those I see put forward. I don't think the problem is a lack of training, or the wrong training. I don't think the problem is a poor IVR, or bad websites. I think the problem is with the people doing the customer service.

North American culture worships entitlement. We are 'entitled' to everything. We have rights! It is the duty of everyone else to ensure that we get what we are due. Unfortunately, if we all expect others to serve us, that leaves no one to serve. Customer service in North America is floundering because too many of the people who are providing it aren't concerned with the person they are supposed to be helping. They are only concerned with what they are due.

So when these people encounter others looking for help, they are entirely correct in treating with indifference, or disdain. Their culture has told them that they only need to be concerned with their own needs.

If you've read my previous post on altruism, you'll know that I believe that everyone acts only to their own benefit. Unfortunately North America has become very short sighted in this regard. We've lost sight of the big picture of the benefits a caring society provides in favour of a very narrow view. Our vision is only of tangible personal gain. We have deified the cold and calculating individual.

So what does this mean for companies that want to differentiate themselves from their competition on the basis of their customer service? They can hardly alter the collective ethos of hundreds of millions of people. No company is going to make North America a caring culture in any sort of realistic timeframe.

In the short term I think the best a company can do is to take three basic steps.
  1. First they need to hire people who care (at all levels of the organization). This requires a bit of a different focus in terms of the recruitment and selection process, but I think it will create some very interesting side benefits for the company willing to do so.
  2. Second, the company needs to create it's own internal culture. I think the example of the Ritz-Carlton demonstrates how that is done. They talk about customer service every day. They define themselves in terms of their character: "We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.'' They drive their culture through constant communication of a message that says 'this is who we are'.
  3. Finally, the company needs to structure it's performance management, at all levels, to include customer satisfaction and culture adherence. One of the truisms of performance management is that what gets rewarded, gets done. Failure to make the culture part of the performance management regime sends a clear message that it is simply corporate lip service and should be completely ignored. Any organization that says the quality of its customer service matters, and doesn't include the customer's feedback as part of its performance management is deluding itself (and whoever else is listening). Depressingly, many companies do exactly that.
Until a company can hire or create caring individuals, it can do little more than dabble in the field of customer service.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Corporate Altruism?

I'll start by noting that I work for a large multi-national corporation.

My friend and gym partner, PJ, had a rather interesting discussion about corporate reality. I'm not sure if he would characterize the discussion that way, but I do. Basically, we ended up discussing whether a corporation could, would, should, have other motivations than profit. PJ contended that corporations should have other motivations. I felt this was an unrealistic expectation.

Now, to immediately deflect certain arguments, I want to be clear that we are talking about publicly traded corporations. I'm not talking about charitable organizations, governmental entities, etc. I fully recognize that a privately owned company may act based on the personal philosophy of the owner.

Corporations, like the one for which I work, exist to make money for their shareholders. All actions they take are intended for that purpose. This is even true of 'altruistic' actions by corporations. I'm not denying that the people who decide that a corporation will donate to charity 'X' may care deeply about the goals of the charity. However if there was no benefit to the corporation for making those donations, there would be no donations. Corporations undertake 'altruistic' actions, expecting certain benefits. Improved image, improved employee morale, and tax breaks are all very valid reasons why corporations undertake these actions.

I would go farther to posit that corporations are no different than individuals in this regard. We, as a race, only do things that meet our needs. All actions we undertake are intended to create some sort of benefit for us. Barring true psychosis, every individual acts for their own benefit. Mothers protect their young, philanthropists give away money, and masochists inflict pain upon themselves, all for the benefits those actions provide to them.

Corporate or individual, altruism is simply a way of saying that I do something for less apparent benefits.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

Caffeinated Ramblings

I've been meaning to do this for a long time.

That, in and of itself, might sum the story of my life. Sigh.

I think best, when I force myself to write out my thoughts. While journalling has often helped me understand what I think or feel, I find that my motivati0n for journalling flags. I prefer to write for an audience, even if that audience is unknown to me.

Hence, this blog.

I can't tell you what you're going to see here. Thoughts on Politics. Thoughts on Art. Thoughts on the weather (Hey, I'm Canadian. Talking about the Weather is our national sport.) Coffee will likely recur as a theme (something that surprises none who know me).

You'll probably also find a lot of thoughts on 'life', for lack of a better word. I find I watch people, and it amazes me what I see. I suspect I will return to 'people' a great deal during my musings.

Well, enough for now.