Ideas for Action: Now
Every year we conduct a half-dozen executive seminars. Last month we had a two-day reunion of attendees from the previous year. It featured a lengthy "bragging session," in which people reported their accomplishments. I was most impressed with seven ideas, which I believe can be of immediate use to many managers.
1. The wheel of fortune. Here's a great way to stimulate across-the-board interest in a stalled employee suggestion program. One high-tech company holds a lottery of sorts, where anyone who has had an idea accepted goes into the eligible pool, regardless of the magnitude of the idea. Each 90 days a name is drawn from a box. The winner gets $1,000. There are other financial rewards, but this purely random one has grabbed attention and vaulted program participation to a new high.
2. Could it be that simple? A $100 million specialty chemical company has dramatically increased sales, despite a stagnant world market for its products. The key: it has increased the sales force by 230 percent since 1980, from 79 to 260. Sales have risen at virtually the same rate that sales force has grown, with a one-year lag, which is about how long it takes a technical salesperson to get up to speed. Simple, says the chief executive: Sales are proportional to salespersons. Success is probably not quite so simple, but there is a lot of truth to his remark. I've seen many companies skimp on sales force additions in the name of the great god, cost containment. Think about it.
3. Dinner for 20. A successful Canadian forest-products company prided itself on its open and extensive communications—until a survey painfully revealed that employees thought communications stunk! The fix? The president and chief operating officer had dinner with all 300 plant/sawmill employees over the next six months or so. Each week, the two executives hosted a dinner for 10 employees and their wives, followed by semi-formal questions and answers. The president explains what he learned: "All of them share the same problem we all share, not being listened to ... Many a night we'd finish up late and I would observe a very changed mindset in even the hardest-nosed union guy."
4. So obvious that it just might work! Dramatically successful grocer Stew Leonard has a new employee evaluation system, called S.T.E.W. The "S" is for Satisfy (as in customer satisfaction), the "T" for Teamwork, the "E" for Excellence and the "W" for Wow (as in pizzazz). Each evaluation form consists of ten questions in each area, to reflect how well each employee performs in terms of the store's philosophy. The amazing thing here is a performance appraisal that actually focuses directly on what the company professes it values.
5. Four kids and a mom. Fast-food employees hate the typically garish and tacky polyester uniforms that most chains provide. One big chain is mired in a multi-year, multi-million-dollar program that's looking into the matter. But one major and successful franchisee in New England, where unemployment is down to almost zero, is having an increasingly tough time finding employees. He is convinced that uniforms have been a big irritant; he noticed that the kids immediately change into street clothes even for their 20-minute in-store breaks. So he took four employees and one mother down to a local uniform shop and asked them what they liked—and gave it to them. Four months later his applicant pool has soared, including college kids whom he'd always wanted. So far the parent company hasn't clamped down. Given his splendid results, he suspects it may be aware, but looking the other way.
6. The Miami Dolphins of business. No team runs a football "two-minute drill" better than the Miami Dolphins. But a New England bank comes close. At a recent two-day conference of the top 40 officers, a meeting was broken into small groups for a two-hour session. Typically such sessions result in wallowing uselessly around some vague issue. This time, the president told the group, "You've got two hours to find major cost savings, without layoffs, that can be implemented in 90 days." Oddly, they did. One group came back with $700,000 in savings from dozens of ideas. Most subsequently worked. Other groups did almost as well. Maybe if we'd present problems as straightforward challenges, without a lot of muss and fuss, we'd find simpler and more workable solutions.
7. Patting yourself on the back. A paper-products firm handles numerous complex orders each week. It prides itself in not having missed an order in more than four years. The firm wanted to emphasize its responsiveness as a selling point to its customers, who were vaguely aware of its prowess. The break-through: With each monthly invoice comes a new sheet that lists each order, the order date, the delivery request date, and the actual delivery date. The last column is called "over/under" and gives the number of days behind or ahead of schedule the firm delivered the order. Given the company's flawless record, the summary sheet is a patent reminder of its responsiveness. It has led to unanticipated new business, in just the first few weeks of the program.
These are the kinds of improvements that managers I hang out with are devising. I suspect there are some nuggets in here for most of us.
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