Hula-Hoop Management?

Some years ago as a corporate VP, our senior team rolled out a yearly countrywide program to increase business and motivate the field organization. Each senior manager presented a segment of the strategy, with the president laying out the overall goals for the year.

I would regularly “check the temperature” of the field by talking with a number of the more influential managers. One was Bob, a 22-year division manager. I asked Bob what he thought of the plan. He said, “I’ve been attending these meetings for the past 15 years. It’s like a HULA-HOOP with a different color of hoop each year”. (Bob was a colorful, direct and clear communicator)

What Bob meant was each year we presented the latest and greatest management concept that our organization was going to embrace: Management-By-Objectives, Managing By Walking Around, Time Management, Performance-By-Results, Organizational Renewal, QMS (Quality Management Systems), Baldrige Awards, Deming’s 14 points, Scientific Management, ISO 9000, Process Improvement, Six Sigma, and so on. You can probably add on at least 10 more items to the list.

Since Bob’s division was the highest performing unit in the entire corporation, I asked him what was his formula for success. His response was very insightful. He said:

Each quarter I ask employees, from the bottom of the organization on up, as well as our customers, these three questions:

  • What were the short-term impediments in the last quarter that we should improve upon?
  • What are the longer-term issues preventing world-class results that we need to change?”
  • What are potential solutions to these short and long-term issues?”

After a more lengthy discussion with Bob, I was able to add a few more details:

  • The reason why employees are asked these questions from the bottom of the organization on up, is that those closest to the issues can see the impact of the problems, along with their potential solutions, better than from the top down
  • This kind of free-form communications is encouraged and rewarded, without penalty
  • As the information cascades upward, each level of the organization finds solutions to those items that they can resolve, then sends the others up the organization for a higher level for review
  • Those issues that need a policy change reach Bob for review and action if warranted
  • Customers usually feel the impact of a problem more acutely and need a way to improve their results by helping us improve our service to them
  • Customers learn over time that they can impact potential solutions directly. It gives them a sense of control over their own results, along with a feeling of “teamwork”

What’s the morale to the story? Programs, themes, campaigns and headlines are great, but it’s the execution of good management that makes it all work.

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