Tuesday, 13 November 2007

But I've always done it that way!

Today I caught myself. I'm out on an audit, working with a peer I haven't worked with before. With the holiday weekend we were behind my normal timing for an audit. I was lamenting the fact that, with the managers schedules, we were having further timing issues and that we were not going to be able to have the meetings we need to have when I usually would have them.

He commented that we could rearrange some things and still get fully back on track. I started to protest, and then I really thought about it. I caught myself holding on to a way of doing something that was solely based on habit. There was no reason I couldn't rearrange my meeting order, and his plan was simply more efficient.

It amazes me how often we do things because we've always done them that way. There is an old business fable about this very topic.

I've decided to set a new guideline for myself. If I become frustrated with something, the very first question I'm going to ask myself is why I'm doing it in a way that frustrates me. If the only reason I come up with is because I've always done it that way, I'm changing things!

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Servant Leadership

One of the key characteristics I am striving for as a leader is service. I believe that, to be a great leader, one must serve others. Recently though I've been feeling a bit like a doormat.

I think there is an interesting tension between service and surrender. When I forgo my own wants and likes to accommodate another's wants and desires, I think that I am serving them. However there comes a point where I no longer am fulfilling my own needs.

Lately I think that's been preying on me more and more. I want to be a servant to others, but it is beginning to feel like I am surrendering who and what I am to them.

This came to a head recently when a peer I was working with was very tense and began to take it out on me. The right thing to do was probably to remain calm and recognize that her tension was the source of the abuse. Instead, I bit her head off, and reflected the very behaviour that I was receiving. This was about the least productive thing I could have done. I knew it at the time. I certainly know it now.

Now I need to figure out how to serve and stand my ground.

Friday, 28 September 2007

The Brutal Facts - Part 2

I know I've drawn a number of posts from Jim Collins' Good to Great, however I think it is one of the most thought provoking books I've read in a long time. I want to revisit the concept he calls Confronting the Brutal Facts. Collins posits that one of the key characteristics of the organizations that were able to make the leap from Good to Great was that they were able to confront the brutal facts.

Back in March, I wrote a post about how companies seem filled with people who want things spun rather than being willing to face the brutal facts. At that time I was working as a quality analyst and had contact with some peers in other organizations who were able to validate my perceptions based on their own experiences.

I'm now an internal auditor for the same company, which brings this whole issue home again. Yet I now begin to recognize the critical nature of the duality inherent in what Collins calls the Stockdale paradox. The Stockdale paradox is based on the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was captured in the Vietnam War, and was tortured numerous times during his incarceration. He never deluded himself with false hope, yet he retained a faith that he would survive. That faith, coupled with the stark acceptance of reality allowed him to survive the horror in which he found himself. It also allowed him to lead others in a way that enabled them to survive as well.

So what does that have to do with auditing? I think a key characteristic needed to be a successful auditor is to face the realities I find as I audit. But I also have to retain the faith that all the problems will be overcome and we will make this a truly great organization.

I will confront the Brutal Facts so that I can help build the company to be all it can be.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Leadership in New Roles

Today was my first day in a very new role. I've gotten very used to what leadership meant in my old role, but today I realized that I have to define what leadership will come to mean to me in my new role.

That need is based on a number of different considerations.

In my former position, I was one of the experts in my area. I was mentoring others in much of the work I did, and I was looked to as the final authority on matters of the quality philosophy.
In my new position, I have a great deal of expertise to bring, but I don't yet know what expertise will be worthwhile, and what will be irrelevant. I also am not yet recognized for that expertise, and I need to build that credibility before my expertise will be as significant a leadership characteristic.

In my former position, I was very unique. I was the only Quality Analyst. I am now one of seven auditors. While I've been proud that I've avoided making relative position very important in my leadership style, relying more on influence, character, and passion, it still is different to demonstrate leadership as part of a team of equals.

Previously I had a great deal of control over the work I did, deciding what was important. I had mandated deliverables, but I also had time that I could allocate to those projects I felt were most critical. Now I'm not going to have that kind of luxury.

It will be interesting.

Friday, 21 September 2007

One Day More

I'm in my last day of my present position with my company. Next week I start a very different job.

It's a very weird feeling in some ways. I leave my present position, knowing intellectually that I've had a strong impact. I've helped increase our client's satisfaction with us, I've increased internal team efficiency, and I've helped an amazing number of people in big and small ways. However, I'm having a hard time separating all that from the feeling of failure for all I did not accomplish.

I know that, no matter what, there would always be more I 'should' have done. There will always be those people whose buy-in I couldn't achieve, those problems that I couldn't solve, and those cool things I couldn't build. But I feel that I should have.

I set unreasonable expectations for myself. Sometimes that pushes me to unexpected excellence, and has been the secret of my success. Sometimes it just leaves me feeling like a bit of a failure.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Problem is in the Meta-Planning

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I've been taking some time to clean up my den. I'm a pathological pack-rat, and this is no small task.

One of the challenges I've faced is that I tend to look at everything before deciding what to do with it. This makes things very time-consuming, but it also allows me to find the occasional treasure. This morning, as I reviewed a notebook that was on the top of one pile, I found some notes from the Leadership Training course I completed last year. One note, in particular, stood out.

"How do we plan to plan?"

I instantly recalled why I wrote that down. As part of the Training Session, we did a number of activities. We worked in small groups, and my group was exceedingly successful at the first activity. We jumped into the next activity with gusto, and failed miserably.

The problem we faced was that we hadn't really agreed on a planning strategy. We all just threw in our ideas, without a way to collect them, and without a decision making strategy. Since we were in a time sensitive exercise we ended up running low on time and jumping into an ill conceived (and ill understood) plan that ultimately failed.

So ask yourself. Do you have a plan to plan?

Sunday, 16 September 2007

It Lives

I was there to see it breathe for the first time!

Yesterday my best friend (JP) and I did some massive computer work. We fired up his new machine (a Core 2 QUAD!) system. Admittedly, all did not go smoothly, but after about 3 hours of tension, we figured out that there was a memory configuration issue. Fixing that allowed us to boot the single most powerful computer I've ever touched.

After about another 3 hours of installing and updating Windows, we finally got to see it in action. I literally sat their with my jaw between my knees as Bioshock ran flawlessly at maximum settings.

I was there!

Friday, 14 September 2007

You Can Make a Difference

I stumbled across this story on the net. It's a reprint of a Guideposts article, and is appropriately inspirational. But I think it's also an interesting take on customer service. Few people in customer service would have taken the time that the lady did, especially with a child. She approached things from a completely different perspective.

Our People are our Greatest Asset

I've been writing and rewriting a post on this topic for months now.

I guess the problem is that I'm horribly conflicted about the concept. I fully believe that the people in an organization are the most important asset it has. But I think most corporations may approach this concept from entirely the wrong direction.

Jim Collins proposes, in Good to Great, that rather than figuring out strategy first, an organization should make sure it has the right people. In his analogy of 'Getting the right people on the Bus" he posits that the Level 5 leader will say:

“Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”
This seems intuitively wrong, but I really think it's right. The right people are going to be the right people regardless. They will adapt as needs and the business environment evolve. I don't want someone who is amazing at leading in a bullish economy when the economy goes bear.

But very few organizations recruit this way, and they hamstring themselves right at the start.

I know I've recommended it before, but you really should read Good to Great.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

This is Customer Service on a Brain

Ok, that title probably doesn't do what it's supposed to. I was going for the allusion to the old anti-drug commercials using the egg to illustrate how one's brain would be fried by drugs.

Anyways, I wanted to share another Customer Service Moment of Excellence I experienced last week. I had to book a business trip to Halifax for later this month. Now the departure was more than two weeks, so I was expecting to get a decent rate. I always try to book early to save the company a few bucks.

I called Carlson-Wagonlit, who handles our corporate travel. I'm always very impressed when I work with them. Sean (Shawn? Shaun?) with whom I often deal, is the epitome of a customer service professional. This time I was a bit disappointed to get Paula.

My disappointment vanished quite quickly. Paula displayed all the personality that Sean usually impressed me with. Things proceeded well with her providing a couple of different options. However, I thought things had gone south when the price was almost 50% more than I had expected. I stated that to Paula, and she agreed. Then she won me over completely. She let me know that she would need some time to try out a few other options to see if she could find me a better price. She wanted to be conscious of my time and asked if she could let me go, and email me those options in 20 minutes?

As I'm on vacation at the moment, I was quite pleased to go back to cleaning my office and agreed readily. 20 minutes later there was a perfect option in my email!

Paula thought. She thought about me.

Keep it up Carlson-Wagonlit. You are at the top of my list for customer service!

Saturday, 8 September 2007

The Mourning

Forgive me, for I have sinned. Today, I killed a poor defenseless coffee. An extra-large Timmie's with double cream, (carelessly placed in harms way by JP) was innocently resting on the bumper of the van when I closed the back hatch. In less than a second it was crushed, coursing it's caffeine goodness on the ground (and making one heck of a mess in the back of the van.)

It will be missed.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Fire-Fighting isn't Good Business

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, this is not a post about our noble emergency service workers. I view them with nothing less than awe. These people would risk their lives to save mine, and they don't even know me.

This post is about business in North America. Talking with a number of associates from different industries, and looking at the literature out there I've come to realize that many organizations spend most of their effort in putting out fires. That is to say that they only have time to fix the things that are critically broken. There is never time to build or grow as an organization.

When organizations engage in change efforts, they are often radical change efforts. "We are redefining ourselves." "We are going to shake up the company."

A post by Tom Vander-Well titled The Mantra of Mediocrity got me thinking about this in the context of Call Quality.

I've seen the Fire-Fighting approach to Call Quality:
"Agents aren't branding! We must fix this. We'll start doing monitors that only listen to the opening and make sure the agents brand. Anyone who doesn't will receive a Zero Score."

I've also seen the radical change approach:
"Our CSAT has dropped 5 percentage points. We need to completely redesign our Quality Guideline!"

The Fire-Fighting approach 'Over-Solves' the immediate symptom and rarely improves actual Call Quality. Unfortunately, most radical change efforts fail as well. The amount of resources and energy to lead a radical change effort are immense and generally not available as they are devoted to fighting fires.

Instead of Fire-Fighting or radical change, we need to consider true continuous improvement. I'm especially enamoured of Jim Collins' Flywheel concept. The idea that we continuously give that flywheel small pushes, speeding up the wheel to incredible speeds and ultimately making that Breakthrough.

Saturday, 1 September 2007


Why do people think numbers have intrinsic meaning. In my work as a Quality Analyst I provide numerical expressions of the state of affairs in customer service. But all too often people look at the numbers as if the actual values were important. 85% is bad where 90% is good?

If I tell a company that their customer satisfaction is 85%, do they need to improve, or are they doing too much? The number is meaningless out of context, but so many people look at it as if it mattered.

A few years back I designed a quality assessment program for customer service where a baseline score was 60%. Managers were absolutely terrified when they saw Quality Scores of 70% being reported. They knew that quality was bad unless the score said 90%.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Vulgarity in the Workplace

Linguistic propriety has gone out the window in the workplace. Walk into any retail establishment and I'm sure you won't have to wait long to hear a clerk use some sort of profanity. Wander the halls of any large corporation and you will hear vulgarity used as every part of speech by senior management (yes every part of speech - there are those who use swear words as prepositions).

What a sad state of affairs.

Friday, 24 August 2007

I'm The Problem

One incredibly common theme in many of the organizations I know (either directly through my own involvement, or indirectly through associates and friends) is an unwillingness to take responsibility. The ability some people have to deflect is absolutely astounding.

Development Group: "It's not our fault. The Database Group didn't design the database properly!"

Database Group: "It's not our fault. The Development Group didn't give us the correct specs."

The line blames management. The management blames the support groups. The support groups blame the senior leadership. Senior leadership blames the line. No one is willing to say: "This is my responsibility. What I'm doing isn't achieving the results the organization needs. I need to change what I'm doing."

In my own organization, I've decided to approach each challenge from the point of view that "I'm the problem." Every challenge that I'm facing must first be met with an assumption that there is something I could do differently to overcome that challenge. I think I've generally approached things that way, but I've never formalized it quite like this before.

It will be interesting to see if it has an impact.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007


Those of you who know me, know that I have a bit of an ongoing fascination with English. I'm often overly excited by a particularly well turned phrase. I greatly enjoy both conversation and reading. If you've ever chatted with me using an Instant Messenger, you'll know that, in a medium with a brutal disdain for grammar, I tend to fully structure sentences and use punctuation.

I'm not sure where this particular fascination came from. Is my reading habit a cause, or an effect? Regardless, I realized this evening, as I was reading Robert Service's poem Call of the Wild that sometimes, the power of language truly transcends it's content. There are a number of poems that affect me that way:
Those are just a few that popped into my head. All of them have stuck with me over the years. If, in particular, has one of my favourite lines of any poem: "If you can bear to hear the words you've spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools." It encapsulates an entire aspect of life in a single line.

I think we underestimate the power that effectiveness in our spoken and written language has over others. I can't speak to the impact in other languages, but so many of us are judged by the ability we demonstrate in English. People think I'm particularly intelligent, not for the content of my thinking, but for the manner in which I communicate it. Boy do I have them fooled.

Cultivate language. It has a power to impact. It can influence in a manner that transcends the power of the content. I do not advocate style over substance, but rather advocate that substance must be presented with style, or be lost in the endless sea of banality.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Quality in Customer Service

As an Analyst in the Customer Service industry, I'm often struck by how many people seem to approach Customer Service Quality as if it were no different from Quality in the Manufacturing Industry.

In the Manufacturing world, quality is a function of inputs. The nature of the materials used, and the processes applied to them determine the quality of the finished product. If I want to ensure a high quality product, I can do so by ensuring high quality inputs (top quality raw materials and rigourous processes). In theory, I have all but 100% control over the inputs, and thereby, 100% control over the outputs.

In the world of Customer Service, the most significant input is a variable. The Customer is the main input of customer service, and I know very little about that input until I come into contact with it. I don't even know if the Customer is male or female.

The second most significant input is also a variable. That input is the Customer Service Professional. As part of a Customer service group, the CSR has a unique style, a unique set of skills and talents, and a unique set of biases and blind spots. The process that works for another person may not work for the CSR.

We can't approach Customer Service with rigour. Rather, our approach must be principled and dynamic. The CSR must understand what they want to achieve, but they have to have sufficient freedom of movement to use their strengths and to compensate for their weaknesses in achieving it.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

My Leadership Credo

Last year I completed a Leadership Training course conducted by the company for which I work. I learned a great deal, both about myself, and about Leadership. One of the final sections of the course had us draw together all we'd learned in the form of a Leadership credo. I thought I'd share mine.

Day by say, week by week, month by month:
I will do what is right and what is ethical, for myself and for others, and I will pay the cost required of me. I will persevere in the face of adversity, learning the lessons of failure to ultimately succeed. While striving for the ideal I will recognize the practical. I will live a life, not of no regrets, but of no wrongs unrighted, no sins unatoned for and no forgiveness ungranted. I will follow roads less traveled by and often swim upstream. I will be what I believe so passionately, so totally, and so transparently that my being lights a path. I will be the vanguard of something greater than myself and that surpasses me. And I will have fun!

Wednesday, 18 April 2007


Well, that title has to get you wondering, especially if you know me. But I just wanted to Thank God for Morphine.

About a month ago, I had a kidney stone. 3 days of intermittent agony (or so I thought). Each day, for two or three hours, I would have an ache that transformed into some serious pain. The worst pain I'd ever felt. I toughed it out, it went away, and I made some lifestyle changes.

Sunday, I had a similar experience with my left kidney. Two to three hours of pain, that then went away. I thought I got lucky. Murphy was just toying with me. Tonight, I had to go to hospital for real pain. I've never vomited due to pain before. The admitting nurse jumped me in the queue because I was white as a sheet.

When the morphine finally kicked in, I knew what Heaven will be. It will be that true knowledge of the joy of the absence of pain.

Thank God for Morphine.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

The Brutal Facts

Brutal Fact Number 1

It's been over 3 months since I posted. I can give a number of reasons, but I doubt anyone's really interested.

Brutal Fact Number 2

I'm mostly inspired (or provoked) to write by work. Anyone who knows me knows how much I define myself in terms of what I do. I like to think I'm very good at what I do, although sometimes I'm not even sure how to even describe that. I'm a Quality Analyst, but if you looked at my typical day, you'd find I spend very little time in a traditional analyst role.

However, as an analyst, I feel it's my duty to try to present things clearly and correctly. I try to avoid significant spin. I try to present the good and the bad without being a Pollyanna or prophesying the apocalypse. I believe that one of the signs of a truly effective analyst is that ability. One of the other signs of a good analyst is the number of bullets they take. Everyone shoots the messenger these days.

Jim Collins proposes that one of the characteristics of an organization that is poised to go from good to great is the ability to face the brutal facts (If you haven't read Good to Great go do so. Now.) In talking with friends and associates in different industries, I've come to realize how rare that is. Most organizations seem to be filled with people that want things spun. They don't want the facts. Which means, if Collins is right, that their organizations are not poised to ever be great.