As I was boarding a plane in Atlanta some years ago, I noticed a familiar face in line in front of me. The unmistakable beard and steel-rimmed glasses, even the trademark bow tie — C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General of the United States, Mr. Anti-Smoking and Eat Healthy.
It was a big plane and my seat was a good distance from his, so I didn’t see him again after boarding. When the meal was served, it was a steak dinner (you can tell this was some time ago!). As I loaded up on cholesterol, along with the patented artificial vegetables, simulated sour cream, preservative-laden salad, and chemical cheesecake, I couldn’t help but wonder what C. Everett was doing. Did he eat what the rest of us did? Or did he have the foresight to request a low-cholesterol meal or vegetarian entree? When faced with a choice of eating unwisely or not eating at all, what is the preferred alternative?
In Koop’s case, he was the country’s advocate for healthful practices. When he eats, there are probably people watching to see if he practices what he preaches. There is no way he could light up a Camel after his meal and retain credibility. But what about us? Do we practice what we preach?
We are not under close scrutiny in the way a public figure is. We can talk all we want about best practices and green resource management, and few will ever know if we have achieved success in that area. Nor should they. The improvement programs you undertake are aimed at better performance, lower costs, and becoming more competitive, and as long as the result justifies the effort and expense, it doesn’t matter what you call it or who knows about it.
So the real issue is whether you do what you should be doing, even if no one is looking. Just how serious are you anyway? It’s always the little things that trip you up. Top on the list is procedural discipline. Take inventory accuracy, for example. Let’s say that your inventory record accuracy is 40 percent. If you spend half a million dollars to automate your inventory records but do nothing to tighten up procedures, what you end up with is a half a million dollar automated 40 percent-accurate inventory system. Sometimes we forget that systems are only as good as the information that we provide to them. Even if we remember, it is easy to slip into old habits when no one is looking and destroy the benefits we worked so hard to achieve.
Early on in an implementation project there is a lot of visibility. Top management wants to see results from that big investment. We pay attention, tighten up, and get our act together to get accuracy up to around 90 percent. After a few months, however, when the spotlight has moved on to another project, it is easy to lose the discipline that brought success during implementation. That accuracy level will quietly slip back to the 40 percent. We start eating steak and fries again.
What we really need is a spotlight that doesn’t go away after the implementation effort ends. Successful companies post the inventory accuracy measurements where everyone can see them. Make it public so there are witnesses to your success or lack thereof. Nobody likes to air dirty laundry, so what better way is there to keep the pressure on and guarantee results? The visibility rule applies at all levels. Any individual who has a responsibility associated with the company’s success (which I’m assuming includes everyone in the company) must have an appropriate spotlight aimed in his or her direction.
There is an incentive system at work in each situation, whether it is a formal performance system such as incentive pay or management-by-objectives evaluations or as informal as “do it right or lose your job”. The key is making sure the incentive is specific enough to encourage the desired behavior, and that the encouraged behavior achieves the desired results.
People respond to their motivating system whether the motivation is properly aimed or not. If a production foreman is paid a bonus based on the quantity of product produced, he will do his best to produce the maximum quantity per month, regardless of whether that is the best result for the business. When implementing a priority-based planning system, the maximum production quantity per month will likely conflict with the priorities developed by the system, which are tied directly to shipment schedules or finished goods objectives.
For example, it is the last day of the month and there are three jobs in the queue. The production numbers for the month (total quantity) are a little below average. Of the three jobs, one is high priority but small quantity, the second is a large quantity but long running (average priority), and the third is a quick, high quantity job that is early (low priority). Guess which one will get run today? Of course, the high-quantity, low-priority job; this yields the highest reward for the foreman. As a result, the high-priority job is deferred and a customer ship date is likely to be missed while unneeded parts sit around inflating inventory.
It is not the foreman’s fault. You can’t blame him or her for responding to an incentive system. Instead, blame the incentive system for not properly reflecting the goals of that company. The spotlight is there, but it is illuminating the wrong target.
The challenge is threefold:
1. You must identify what the true objectives are for each employee, in line with the overall objectives of the company (make a profit by shipping efficiently produced, quality products on time)
2. Find a way to motivate employees properly in line with these objectives
3. Institute and monitor the incentive system and adjust as necessary to reflect changes in company goals, procedures and environment.
So did Dr. Koop eat the steak? I’d like to think he ordered a special meal and wasn’t faced with the problem in the first place. I am sure that he did not have a smoke afterward.
We have to devise our own spotlights to motivate ourselves and our employees to do what is best for the company’s health. Incentive is necessary. Make a commitment and reinforce it with a measurement system that keeps the pressure on. Doctor’s orders. It’s for your own good.