Tag Archives: management

Out of Touch Executives Damage Companies: Go to the Gemba

When your customer service organization is universally recognized as horrible adding sales requirements to customer service representatives jobs is a really bad practice. Sadly it isn’t at all surprising to learn of management doing just that at our largest companies. Within a system where cash and corruption buys freedom from market forces (see below for more details) such practices can continue.

Such customer hostile practices shouldn’t continue. They shouldn’t be allowed to continue. And even though the company’s cash has bought politically corrupt parties to allow such a system to survive it isn’t even in the selfish interest of the business. They could use the cover provided by bought-and-paid-for-politicians-and-parties to maintain monopolistic pricing (which is wrong ethically and economically but could be seen as in the self interest of a business). But still provide good service (even while you take monopolistic profits allowed with corrupt, though legal, cash payments).

Of course, Adam Smith knew the likely path to corruption of markets made up of people; and he specifically cautioned that a capitalist economic system has to prevent powerful entities efforts to distort markets for individual gain (perfect competition = capitalism, non-competitive markets = what business want, as Adam Smith well knew, but this is precisely not capitalism). Sadly few people taking about the free-market or capitalism understand that their support of cronyist policies are not capitalist (I suppose some people mouthing those words are just preaching false ideas to people known to be idiots, but really most don’t seem to understand capitalism).

Anyway, this class of protected businesses supported by a corrupt political and government (regulators in government) sector is a significant part of the system that allows the customer hostility of those politically connected large businesses to get away with a business model based on customer hostility, but wasn’t really what I meant to write about here.

Comcast executives have to know they are running a company either rated the worst company in the country or close to it year after year. They, along with several others in their industry, as well as the cell phone service providers and too-big-to-fail-banks routinely are the leaders of companies most reviled by customers. Airlines are also up their for treating customer horribly but they are a bit different than the others (political corruption is much less of the reason for their ability to abuse customers for decades than is for the others listed above).

Leaked Comcast employee metrics show what we figured: Sell or perish [Updated]
Training materials explicitly require a “sell” phase, even in support calls.

The company’s choice to transform what is traditionally a non-revenue-generating area—customer service—into a revenue-generating one is playing out with almost hilariously Kafkaesque consequences. It is the nature of large corporations like Comcast to have dozens of layers of management through which leadership instructions and directives are filtered. The bigger the company, the more likely that members of senior leadership (like Tom Karinshak) typically make broad policy and leave specific implementations to lower levels.

Here, what was likely praised in the boardroom as an “innovative” strategy to raise revenue is instead doing much to alienate customers and employees alike. Karinshak’s assurances that he doesn’t want employees to feel pressured to sell in spite of hard evidence that Comcast demands just that are hard to square with the content of the document.

So what is going on here? Most people can easily see this is likely a horrible practice. It is a practice that a well run company theoretically could pull off without harming customers too much. But for a company like Comcast to do this it is obviously going to be horrible for customers (same for all those too-big to fail banks, cell phone service providers and other ISPs and cable TV providers).

Lets just pretend Comcast’s current leadership executives were all replaced with readers of the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog. And lets say that for now you are suppose to focus on improving the policies in place (while thinking about policy changes for later but not making them yet).

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George Box Articles Available for a Short Time

A collection of George Box articles have been selected for a virtual George Box issue by David M. Steinberg and made available online.

George E. P. Box died in March 2013. He was a remarkably creative scientist and his celebrated professional career in statistics was always at the interface of science and statistics. George Box, J. Stuart Hunter and Cuthbert Daniel were instrumental in launching Technometrics in 1959, with Stu Hunter as the initial editor. Many of his articles were published in the journal. Therefore we think it is especially fitting that Technometrics should host this on-line collection with some of his most memorable and influential articles.

They also include articles from Journal of the American Statistical Association and Quality Engineering. Taylor & Francis is offering these articles freely in honor of George Box until December 31st, 2014. It is very sad that closed science and engineering journals block access to the great work created by scientists and engineers and most often paid for by government (while working for state government universities and with grants organizations like the National Science Foundation[NSF]). At least they are making a minor exception to provide the public (that should be unlimited access to these works) a limited access to these articles this year. These scientists and engineers dedicated their careers to using knowledge to improve society not to hide knowledge from society.

Some of the excellent articles make available for a short time:

The “virtual issue” includes many more articles.

Related: Design of Experiments: The Process of Discovery is IterativeQuotes by George E.P. BoxThe Art of DiscoveryAn Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box

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Innovative Thinking at Amazon: Paying Employees $5,000 to Quit

Amazon continues to be innovative not just in technology but with management thinking. Jeff Bezos has rejected the dictates espoused most vociferously by Wall Street mouthpieces and MBAs that encourage short term thinking and financial gimmicks which harm the long term success of companies.

Most CEOs and executives are too fearful or foolish to ignore what they are told they must do because Wall Street demands it. CEO’s and boards often ratchet up the poor management thinking by tying big bonuses to financial measures which are much more easily achieved by gaming the system than by improving the company (so companies get the games there boards encouraged through their financial extrinsic motivation focus).

Amazon does many good things focused on making Amazon a stronger company year after year. These innovative management practices seem to largely be due to the thinking of the strong willed founder and CEO: Jeff Bezos. Jeff was smart enough to see the great things being done at Zappos by Tony Hsieh and bought Zappos.

Jeff Bezos has added his letter to shareholders to Warren Buffett’s (for Berkshire Hathaway) as letters worth reading each year. In the latest Amazon letter he includes many worthwhile ideas including:

Career Choice is a program where we pre-pay 95% of tuition for our employees to take courses for in- demand fields, such as airplane mechanic or nursing, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. The goal is to enable choice. We know that for some of our fulfillment center employees, Amazon will be a career. For others, Amazon might be a stepping stone on the way to a job somewhere else – a job that may require new skills. If the right training can make the difference, we want to help.

The second program is called Pay to Quit. It was invented by the clever people at Zappos, and the Amazon fulfillment centers have been iterating on it. Pay to Quit is pretty simple. Once a year, we offer to pay our associates to quit. The first year the offer is made, it’s for $2,000. Then it goes up one thousand dollars a year until it reaches $5,000. The headline on the offer is “Please Don’t Take This Offer.” We hope they don’t take the offer; we want them to stay. Why do we make this offer? The goal is to encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want. In the long-run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.

A third inward innovation is our Virtual Contact Center. It’s an idea we started a few years back and have continued to grow with terrific results. Under this program, employees provide customer service support for Amazon and Kindle customers while working from home. This flexibility is ideal for many employees who, perhaps because they have young children or for another reason, either cannot or prefer not to work outside the home.

The first point reinforces Dr. Deming’s words encouraging companies to do exactly that – pay for education even if it wasn’t related to the work the employee was doing or would do for the company. Still quite rare decades after Deming’s advice.

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Steve Jobs on Quality, Business and Joseph Juran

This webcast shows an interesting interview with Steve Jobs when he was with NeXT computer. He discusses quality, business and the experience of working with Dr. Juran at NeXT computer. The video is likely from around 1991.

America’s in a tough spot right now, I think. I think we have forgotten the basics. We were so prosperous for so long that we took so many things for granted. And we forgot how much work it took to build and sustain those basic things that were supporting out prosperity. Things like a great education system. Things like great industry.

We are being out-planned, we are being out-strategized, we are being out-manufactured. It there is nothing that can’t be fixed but we are not going to fix it up here, we are going to fix it by getting back to the basics.

I agree with this thought, and while we have made some progress over the decades since this was recorded there is a long way to go (related: complacency about our contribution the USA has received from science and engineering excellencewhen you were as rich as the USA was in the 1950s and 1960s more and more people felt they deserved to be favored with economic gifts without effort (forgetting the basics as Jobs mentioned)Silicon Valley Shows Power of Global Science and Technology Workforce). After World War II the USA was able to coast on an economic bubble of extreme wealth compared to the rest of the world for several decades (and the economic success built during that period even still provides great advantages to the USA). That allowed wealthy living conditions even without very good management practices in our businesses.

Where we have to start is with our products and our services, not with our marketing department.

Quality isn’t just the product or service. Its having the right product. Knowing where the market is going and having the most innovative products is just as much a part of quality as the quality of the construction of the product. And I think what we are seeing the quality leaders of today have integrated that quality technology well beyond their manufacturing.

Now going well into their sales and marketing and out as far as they can to touch the customer. And trying to create super efficient processes back from the customer all the way through the delivery of the end product. So they can have the most innovative products, understand the customer needs fastest, etc..

The importance of customer focus is obvious at the companies Jobs led. It wasn’t a weak, mere claim of concern for the customer, it was a deep passionate drive to delight customers.

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Management Improvement Carnival #198

The Curious Cat Management Improvement Carnival has been published since 2006. The carnival, has been published twice a month – but will now be published once or twice a month depending on how things work out. I hope you find the post included in this edition interesting and find some new blogs to add to your blog/RSS reader. Follow John Hunter online: Google+, Twitter and elsewhere.

  • Observations From A Tipless Restaurant by Jay Porter – “Our ability to make sure team members in all parts of the house were taken care of, and to remove tip-related squabbling from our business, gave us a huge competitive advantage in the marketplace; this in turn allowed us to serve a much higher quality of food and take lower margins on it.”
  • An open letter to Jeff Bezos: A contract worker’s take on Amazon.com by Steve Barker – “As experienced temps left and new ones rolled in, the breakdown began. Temps who had not paid attention in training were now training new temps. Different temps were teaching different techniques and it wasn’t long before the quality of work suffered. As witness to the poor quality, I made a few attempts to express my concerns, but none of my suggestions were implemented. When one of the higher-ups checked our work and realized that mistakes were being overlooked, performance scorecards were implemented.”
  • Change has to Start from the Top – webcast, included here, with David Langford: “You are the top of your system. Change your thinking, change your process – you change your system. As soon as you start to modify your system you are going to have an effect on the larger system: the way you organize, the way you manage what you do everyday, how you process the work that you are doing [will impact the larger system].”
  • No filter: the meanest thing Paul Graham said to a startup – “the vast majority of teams have the opposite problem: people filter their thoughts too much. The psychological and social incentives to do so are quite strong: we don’t want to go against the team, or we’re worried about giving offense, or we don’t want to be ‘the bad guy’… And that has a corrosive effect on culture.” [I agree – “I wish more people objected to bad ideas instead of just letting them go because they were afraid of being seen as negative.” – John]
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Leadership and Management

I don’t think the attempts to separate leadership and management are useful. I read plenty of things that are variations on Peter Drucker’s:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

A manager that is not concerned about doing the right things is a lousy manager. And a leader that doesn’t care about doing things right is a lousy leader.

Another theme of this contrasting type quote says some version of:

“Managers care about efficiency and leaders care about effectiveness”

A manager who doesn’t strive to be effective is also a lousy manager. It is also odd to suppose the detached leader (the type that lets the manager deal with the mundane while they dream), one that doesn’t concern themselves with customer focus, value chains, going to the gemba really has a clue about effectiveness. The idea seems mainly to view a manager is a cog looking at some tiny process and making it efficient without understanding the organization as a system or value chains or customer focus.

I think, the main problem is all of the attempts to contrast leaders and managers. Much of the time people are saying managers don’t do things they certainly should be doing.

The desire to express how leadership traits can be used by those without organizational authority are useful. Discussion of how certain traits can be seen as within the domain of leadership I suppose may be useful (it can help our minds see how various traits and practices combine to help get results – and we can categorize these under “leadership”).

Leaders that are primarily “big thinkers” and motivators without a clue about how to actually do the things they advocate (the model of “managers” deal with the implementation with blinders to the system while “leaders” are “above the fray”) is not useful in my opinion. It does note a somewhat common practice (in organizations today) but not one that is wise. Separating leadership from the gemba is not wise. Separating leadership from a deep understanding of customers is not wise. Separating leadership from how the organization actually works is not wise.

Plenty of others seem to disagree with my opinion though, there are many articles, blog posts, podcasts, talks… on separating leadership from management.

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Executive Leadership

Senior executives must lead management improvement efforts. When senior executives only give lip service to management efforts the result is normally the same: little happens.

When Dr. Deming was working with companies after the 1980’s NBC white paper, If Japan Can Why Can’t We, he wouldn’t work with companies if the CEO wasn’t attending the meetings and learning how to manage the organization better. Dr. Deming had seen far too many CEOs want improvement but wanted to delegate the effort of getting there. Dr. Deming saw when senior executives delegated improving the management system it didn’t work.

There are a number of problems with senior executives not taking improvement seriously. First, and most common, they don’t really believe it and have no interest in improving practices – they just want to magically get better results without improving how things are done.

Second many senior executives don’t understand what management improvement is about. They think it is something those other people do on the factor floor or in the call center or somewhere. The most important changes will be in the c-suite for organizations that make substantial improvements. But when executives are out of touch (as so many are) in both management practice and how their organization actually works (at the gemba) then improvement efforts are extremely difficult.

If those senior executives are taking part in the improving the management system they will learn and then will be able to help improve the management system. If they are not engaged in actively working PDSA (on their workload) learning about variation, looking at their organization as a system, making changes to the organization given an understanding of respect for people the potential gains are severely limited.

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Lean Blog Podcast with John Hunter

Mark Graban interviewed me for the Lean Blog podcast series: Podcast #174 – John Hunter, “Management Matters” (listen using this link). Links to more information on what we discussed in the podcast.

More podcasts with me: Software Process and Measurement Podcast With John HunterBusiness 901 Podcast: Deming’s Management Ideas TodayProcess Excellence Network Podcast with John Hunter

George Box

I would most likely not exist if it were not for George Box. My father took a course from George while my father was a student at Princeton. George agreed to start the Statistics Department at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and my father followed him to Madison, to be the first PhD student. Dad graduated, and the next year was a professor there, where he and George remained for the rest of their careers.

George died today, he was born in 1919. He recently completed An Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box which is an excellent book that captures his great ability to tell stories. It is a wonderful read for anyone interested in statistics and management improvement or just great stories of an interesting life.

photo of George EP Box

George Box by Brent Nicastro.

George Box was a fantastic statistician. I am not the person to judge, but from what I have read one of the handful of most important applied statisticians of the last 100 years. His contributions are enormous. Several well know statistical methods are known by his name, including:

George was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1979. He also served as president of the American Statistics Association in 1978. George is also an honorary member of ASQ.

George was a very kind, caring and fun person. He was a gifted storyteller and writer. He had the ability to present ideas so they were easy to comprehend and appreciate. While his writing was great, seeing him in person added so much more. Growing up I was able to enjoy his stories often, at our house or his. The last time I was in Madison, my brother and I visited with him and again listened to his marvelous stories about Carl Pearson, Ronald Fisher and so much more. He was one those special people that made you very happy whenever you were near him.

George Box, Stuart Hunter and Bill Hunter (my father) wrote what has become a classic text for experimenters in scientific and business circles, Statistics for Experimenters. I am biased but I think this is acknowledged as one of (if not the) most important books on design of experiments.

George also wrote other classic books: Time series analysis: Forecasting and control (1979, with Gwilym Jenkins) and Bayesian inference in statistical analysis. (1973, with George C. Tiao).

George Box and Bill Hunter co-founded the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984. The Center develops, advances and communicates quality improvement methods and ideas.

The Box Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Industrial Statistics recognizes development and the application of statistical methods in European business and industry in his honor.

All models are wrong but some are useful” is likely his most famous quote. More quotes By George Box

A few selected articles and reports by George Box

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Software Process and Measurement Podcast With John Hunter

In my podcast with Tom Cagley, Software Process and Measurement Cast: John Hunter on Management Matters, as you might expect there was a bit of a focus on software development and agile software development as related to the ideas I expressed in Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

photo of John Hunter at the Borobudur Temple

John Hunter at the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Indonesia.


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