NYT vs. Amazon

The New York Times recently created quite a stir with the publication of a “what’s wrong with Amazon” article based on a conversation with only 100+ current and former Amazon employees. That’s a pitifully small segment on which to base an assessment of an organization which has more than 110,000 employees!

A better view of the company would result from a professional but simple, three question survey to a decent segment of Amazon employees…say at least 1,100. The questions?

As an employee of Amazon:

“What do/did you like best about working there?
“What do/did you like least about working there?
“If you could, what one thing would you change?”

We’ve used those three questions in large and small organizations, both private and public businesses and agencies, with very positive results. In several smaller organizations (500 or fewer employees), we’ve surveyed all employees and provided a summation of their responses to the organizations’ strategic planning committees. Employees thus contributed to the planning process and felt some ownership and responsibility for the resulting strategic plan.

When you ask the right questions, the results are amazing…collectively a fair and balanced view of the organization. Critical, yes, but also revealing and constructive!

Employee Involvement

A number of years ago in a conversation with W. Edwards Deming, the acknowledged father of effective quality assurance, he said, “If you want to know what’s going on and how to fix it, ask the employee who’s doing the work.”

That makes a lot of sense especially when various components of a product have to fit with great precision. In fact, I understand that the Cross Pen Company has authorized each work station to stop production if a defect shows up. The result is a high quality product and significant cost savings…the problem is resolved at it’s outset rather than a some later time.

So, how can we involve employees in the strategic planning process? One way we developed while consulting with an occupational health organization was to

  • let employees know we were having a planning process,
  • invite them to submit changes/goals on 3×5 cards, and
  • assure them that all submissions would be considered.

About 300 cards were received and clerically sorted into half a dozen groups for consideration by the executive staff, no ideas were discarded. The cards became a resource for the management team during a facilitated session to develop priority goals for short and long-term activities of the corporation.

The concept was well received and the proposed goals submitted by employees were invaluable in adopting a strategic plan for which each employee felt some ownership and responsibility.

Advice from Peter Drucker

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Peter Drucker in 1985 not long after his book Managing in Turbulent Times was issued. His wisdom will, I am sure, endure!

It was his view that strategic planning must be dynamic: “…every endeavor undertaken by a company (or organization) should be put on trial for its life every two or three years.”

His test was then a simple question: “If we were not in this already, would we now go into it?”

If the answer to that question is “no” ask the second question: “How do we get out and how fast?”

He was great at zeroing in on the vital issues which face business and government

Facilitation Challenges

The greatest challenge we ever faced was facilitating a planning session for a Junior High School. The principal wanted everyone involved…eighty persons…academic, administrative, custodial, transportation, et al. It was accomplished in one day; the morning devoted to vision and mission and the afternoon to goal setting and action planning. In one two hour segment toward the end of the day, the group:

recommended about 300 proposed goals,
reduced that number to six by a consensus process,
prioritized the six goals, and
developed a preliminary action plan for each goal.

The entire process was documented as it proceeded so the school staff could easily prepare a final, polished document.

Who’s Involved?

How many should be in a planning session? We’ve had as few as two and as many as 80.

Generally, in a non-governmental organization, we suggest the full board of directors (if there is one) plus the CEO. The board sets corporate direction in it’s planning process. That would normally be followed by a staff planning session involving the operating officials (the CEO and his/her direct reports) to operationally implement the corporate plan.

A similar pattern is used for city and county governments. A city, for example, would have a session involving the City Council and the City Manager. That would be followed by an operational planning session with the City Manager and his/her direct reports.

There are also ways to involve the workforce (maybe more about that later).

Vision Statements

Remember that two page Vision Statement that came out of a planning session? What a waste of time!

A Vision Statement needs to be a very short phrase describing your “future condition” as though it presently exists. None of this “we will be” statements; rather, “we are” statements! Two examples:

“Success for Every Student” for a school district. It appeared on every document..letter, billing statement, check, etc…and as a plaque in every school room. Everyone, including the janitors, knew exactly what the vision was!

“The News Medium of Choice” for a weekly newspaper. They took on everyone…CNN, NYT, WSJ, etc…but that’s exactly what they were in their town! Again, it was repeated everywhere within and without the organization.

Meaningful, short, and present voice are keys to an effective Vision Statement.

Outside Facilitators

A facilitator should not be from within your organization or even from your industry.

Either of those bring their own issues and conclusions which are fine when they are working within the team. However, if they are facilitating the process they can unduly lead the group in their predetermined direction.

Example: a Chamber of Commerce brought in the executive director of another Chamber as a facilitator. He pulled the discussion right along but the product was more suitable for his town than for ours. They pulled in a business instructor from the Community College to facilitate another session. The resulting plan worked very successfully.

Facilitation Tools

An outside, knowledgeable and caring facilitator brings several tools to assist your organization in developing a strategic plan. Two are the most important: a thorough knowledge of the planning process and the ability to draw out the wisdom of your team. It is neither necessary nor desirable for the facilitator to have any in depth knowledge or experience in your business or industry!

That is the secret of achieving a successful outcome in your planning process! You and your team have the knowledge, the experience, and the wisdom necessary and the facilitator’s task is to draw it out and enable the team to apply it in a way which will carry your organization forward toward a successful future.