Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Horse/Cart Problem in Call Centers

There are horses and there are carts and getting them ordered properly makes all the difference.  
Unfortunately, when it comes to improving center-wide outputs, call centers often have the cart in front of the horse and you don't need to wonder how that works out.
That explains something important about call center results.  If you ask call center leaders to put up their one or two most important customer measures and their one or two most important shareholder measures and you ask them to graph them over time, you will likely observe two outcomes:  1) performance is mediocre (for example 85% compliance with required call components is often considered quite good in many centers), and 2) those mediocre measures are treading water...there is rarely any evidence of continuous improvement in the most critical center metrics. 
Moreover, Call Center performance has been this way for decades.  The problems have existed for so long and management has become so inured that they have just unplugged the smoke alarms.  Why the leaders of the business don't view the situation as a crisis is astonishing.
Though there is rarely evidence of continuous improvement in call center output measures, there is no lack of improvement projects throughout call centers. Every single call center on Earth has projects underway to increase performance.  They could be technology upgrades.  They could be the never ending calibration meetings that will be used to evaluate agents.  They could even be fairly sophisticated Black Belt-lead DMAIC improvement projects.
Nothing wrong with any of these efforts. All might be needed.  All might even deliver value.  But make no mistake, they are all versions of  "the cart."
Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the late godfather of quality and operations improvement, the one who is credited with resurrecting Japanese manufacturing, talked very little about "carts."  Sure, he was a huge advocate of Plan-Do-Study-Act...his version of DMAIC...and a big proponent of control charts to understand variation at the worker and system levels. These were definitely cart-like elements he often discussed.
But the bulk of his recommendations focused on Leadership, their values, and the organizational "system" they created to deliver results.  For Deming, those elements were "the horse."   If you really wanted to deliver value for customers and improve quality, productivity and shareholder returns, Deming was unrelenting in insisting that leadership get the System "horse" in front of the "cart" of improvement projects.
Deming's two big horses were 1) "Constancy of Purpose" and 2) his "System of Profound Knowledge."  Is the call center's purpose clear?  Is it articulated top to bottom?  Is there a constancy of effort towards achieving that purpose?    Is there any evidence it is being achieved?  
Once you have a Constancy of Purpose, whatever it is, he argued his System of Profound Knowledge was the best way to achieve it.  According to Deming, the four elements of Profound Knowledge were: Understanding (Inputs-Process-Outputs) Systems, Understanding Variation, the Psychology of Change, and the Theory of Knowledge.
Deming laid responsibility for quality and performance measures at the feet of management because management designed the System that generates those outputs.  Yes, a call center's outputs are the weighted average of each agent's individual performance, but it is Management that decides whom to hire, how much to pay them, how much to train and coach them, how well the agents' systems work together, the tools and resources the agents have at their disposal, and on and on.
Completely contrary to Deming's exhortations, call center management does just the opposite.  They have the agents under a microscope.  Everything they say and do is monitored.  They are rewarded, but also sometimes threatened under the flawed and destructive mental model that by trying to improve the performance of each agent, the overall performance of the center will improve.  It is true in theory,  but never, ever true in practice and the simple reason is call center turnover.  Call Center turnover is so high it eats the gains of any improvements from monitoring and coaching.  Read that sentence again.
Deming would ask, instead of the agents, why aren't the designers of the system being constantly monitored  to see if their decisions are actually improving call center outputs?
For  call center leadership teams that are ready to look in the mirror, Deming's framework, tailored to call centers, offers the key.  These are the same principles Dr. Deming used to revitalize this nation's moribund manufacturing industry.  The emphasis needs to be on evaluating the system designed by management that produces, good or bad, the outputs of the call center.
Here are a few examples with links back to Deming's framework:
1) Constancy of Purpose:  What is the purpose of the call center?   Is it there to generate Net-Promoters/Word of Mouth in every interaction?  Is it there to just generate industry average returns while reducing YOY costs?  Is it differentiated performance by customer segment that is the focus?  Whatever the purpose is, is there shared vision on that purpose that runs from the CEO/GM of the business and his/her management team (not just the call center leadership team but the business leadership team) right down to the call center agents?  (Constancy of Purpose)
2) Accountable Leadership:  Once the purpose has been established, how are you doing?  Continuously improving?  Does leadership have the willingness to a) define the metrics that indicate progress on that purpose, b) display those metrics on longitudinal charts (preferably control charts), and c) publicly state whether they are getting better, getting worse or treading water? (Constancy of Purpose, Understanding of Variation, Theory of Change)
3) Causality at the System Level.  Since Y = f(X) (i.e., Y is a function of X), once the Big Y output metrics have been defined and plotted, what is the management team's theory of the Xs that drive those Ys?  Is it written down?  Is it testable?  If you are able to drive systematic improvements in X's, do you see any change in the key employee, customer, and shareholder Ys?  If not, does your "theory of the system" need updating? (Understanding Systems, Theory of Knowledge)
4) Agent Management:  Since you think agents are so critical to your success that your are constantly monitoring them, timing their bathroom breaks, and making sure they are exactly where they are supposed to be at every moment, how much effort actually goes into ensuring you are hiring the best agents and making it so the best agents don't want to get off the phones as soon as they can? Is there any effort to look for real statistical differences in agent performance vs. the typical (and destructive) top/bottom 20% view that every single system produces? (Psychology of Change)
5) Process...Designing Quality In:  Have the Required Call Components (RCCs) been defined by call type?  Do the agents know, by call type, exactly what they are supposed to do in their system and say to customers?  Do you just hope the agents do what they are supposed to or have you done any error-proofing to bake quality into the process thus ensuring that at least some of the RCCs are done exactly right on every call? (Understanding Systems, Psychology of Change)
There is obviously more to Deming's framework.  But I hope this gives you a flavor for why Deming was so focused on the System and its design and so much less concerned with the individual workers in that system.
It is this kind of thinking that helped Japanese manufacturing rise from the rubble of WWII into a global juggernaut.  Once the US woke up, these exact same principles also rebuilt American manufacturing after it got its lunch eaten by the Japanese in the 70s and 80s.  
Deming's framework, tailored to call centers, can easily do the same for any leadership team that is tired of seeing their barely mediocre output measures continue to tread water or who are under the gun to drive dramatic change.
Need convincing?  Look no further than the title of Deming's seminal publication on his approach:  Out of the Crisis.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Horrible Boss? "I Love You. Now Get Up!"

Bosses are making everyone I know completely nuts.   It should not be surprising.
A recent review of the academic literature concluded that “one in every two leaders and managers” is judged “ineffective (that is, a disappointment, incompetent, a mis-hire, or a complete failure) in their current roles” (The Economist (1/17/2016))
Another poll, for Parade magazine, found that 35% of American employees would forgo a substantial pay rise if they could see their direct supervisors fired. 
Finally, my colleague and friend Dr. Gordon Curphy, one of the leading leadership scholars in the world today, is a veritable drumbeat about the woeful state of leadership and leadership development in corporations.  Triangulating from a number of perspectives, Dr. Curphy estimates that 75-80% of leaders and managers range from mediocre to abject failures.
As an executive coach, I find a significant amount of time gets taken up listening to and developing strategies for helping my clients interact effectively with their bosses.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with this.  A good working relationship with one's boss is critical for success.  If the relationship is rocky, it is going to take up a lot of CPU time.
Triangulating from a number of perspectives, Dr. Curphy estimates that 75-80% of leaders and managers range from mediocre to abject failures.
And I don't even mind the hue and cry and gnashing of teeth from my clients about their bosses.  I know it is cathartic.   And it is absolutely essential for the next key step:  getting over it.
In the first Matrix movie (the only good one I might add, but then everyone's a critic), Neo appears to have died inside the matrix, but his body is back on the ship where Trinity is talking to him.  She says [sweetly], "Neo, I'm not afraid anymore. The Oracle told me that I would fall in love, and that man, the man who I loved would be The One.  And so you see, you can't be dead. You can't be, because I love you. You hear me? I love you.  [Kisses him...then sternly] Now get up!"
Some of my interactions with my clients eventually get to a point something like that.  I empathize with them about the situation.  "I do understand.  You're right...that is a horrible way to treat someone.  I can't believe the organization allows this to go on" etc. (That's something like the I love you part.)
If this has been going on for awhile, I might at some point say "Guess what?   Your boss is not going to change and it is your job...not hers...to make the relationship work."  (That's the Now get up! part.)
The quality of leadership in corporations is not great, never has been, and shows no real signs of improving.  Those leaders scoring highest on Emotional Intelligence or EQ, which tend to make people easier to work with, are likely not the ones getting promoted. Those getting promoted probably score higher on managing up and getting things done, neither of which have anything to do with what they are like to deal with or how they are leading the team.  
Finally, what little leadership development training bosses do get is rarely focused on what it takes to build an effective team and is completely inadequate for seeing real behavior change. (Few leadership programs bother to measure whether there has even been any behavior change afterwards.) 
There is a short list of options for dealing with a bad boss. You can of course ask your boss what she hopes to accomplish by repeatedly referring to the team as a bunch of idiots.  And there is nothing wrong with expressing your preference that she try to refrain.  Sotto voce:  Any wagers on the likelihood of success with a boss like that? 
You can talk to HR.  This can be risky, but I have seen it done successfully...a CFO client of mine hung in there until her horrible boss, the COO, was fired but it was a long, painful, emotionally draining process.  
You can also end the misery by finding another job.  This is a very viable alternative for talented employees, but one that comes with a lot of personal disruption.  In addition, given how widespread bad managers are, chances are good your next boss will just have a different set of annoying traits.
The most reliable path however, and one that is always available to you, is to work on yourself.  Treat your boss like the people in Seattle treat rain or the people in Minnesota treat the cold...there is nothing they can do about it so, the wise ones at least, stop fighting with "the way things are" and just deal.  They carry umbrellas.  They take up winter sports.
It is interesting that we are so much more accepting when what troubles us does not involve other people.  Put a person in the equation and we make all kinds of attributions about why they are the way they are and have an ironclad, collegiate debate team worthy argument for why they are completely wrong and have to change.
In both cases we are not getting something we want:  We  wish it weren't raining or freezing...again...and we wish our boss gave us more notice before something was due, especially given how many times we asked her.  With the rain we say, "oh, well."  With our stone-in-my-shoe boss we go into a flat spin about how unfair it all  is...sometimes for weeks and even months.
Yes it would be way better if your boss didn't seem to adore the sound of his own voice and dominate every single conversation; if the words "thank you" crossed her lips once a year; if he didn't tergiversate; if she didn't play favorites; if he accepted some accountability and didn't constantly blame the team; if she didn't send emails in the middle of the night expecting a quick response.
If you choose to stay, quit handing over the keys to your psychic kingdom...your happiness...your esteem...your well-being...to someone who clearly does not care about you or about what you think of their leadership.  
The fact is there are lots of ways to be a leader.  Your boss does not happen to lead the way you think she should.  You might not even be alone in your assessment...maybe ten people on the team agree with you.  But the organization has put her in charge and she is leading the way she is leading.
There is a chance the organization will eventually address it, but it would not be wise to count on that happening soon.  Odds are a bad manager was promoted, not because of his people skills, but in spite of them and he will likely stay in the job for the same reason.  
I was working with a CEO who had a member of his staff that was not just disliked but despised by his directs and his peers.  When I asked, the CEO said, "He is serving a purpose."  You don't need a Trix Decoder Ring to know that means to not hold your breath that the splenetic staff member will be dealt with in a timely fashion.
I am not advocating needless suffering.  If you see a path to improve the situation, then by all means take it.  Speak up...multiple times.  Talk to HR.  See if you can get a 360 survey done on him or her.  Look for another job.
However, if 1) you want the job or you can't leave right now for a host of personal reasons and 2) you have taken some proactive steps to express your preference for some style changes that would help you and the team be more effective, then it's on you to get your head right.
Start viewing your boss like the rain in Seattle...unlikely to change or if so, not for very long...and deal.  Recognize that there are lots of ways to lead and be successful, not just the way you think it should be done.   Quit handing over the keys to your psychic kingdom...your happiness...your esteem...your well-being...to someone who clearly does not care about you or about what you think of their leadership style. Find other ways to feel good about yourself.  Find other sources of satisfaction from the work itself or from taking care of your business. Get your positive regard from family and friends, from your hobby, or from your work in the community.
Once you "get up" and get your head right, please, do everyone a favor:  don't let your bosses bad behaviors manifest in you.  
I see this all the time as well.  Senior management behavior makes it OK to, for example, yell at people, dress them down in meetings, and throw mini-tantrums and suddenly it is happening throughout the organization.  
Are you thinking there is no way you would act like your boss?  In a heart-to-heart moment, I suggest you ask members of your team if you display traits similar to those of your boss or if you act in other ways that are super annoying. 
And if you don't really find yourself having heart-to-heart moments with members of your team where you could ask questions like this, be careful you aren't becoming one of the bosses this post is referring to.
Please weigh in about horrible bosses, strategies for dealing with them, or your views on The Matrix.

When a Personal BOD is a Must Have

A lot has been written recently about having a personal Board of Directors (BOD).  It's certainly true that having a group of trusted people you can turn to for counsel is never a bad idea.
But there are a few key times in everyone's career when a board of advisers can be the difference between success and failure.  One of them is when you join a new company. 
What I want to do in this post is talk about the reasons advisers are so critical when you take a new job, some of which are not that obvious.  I also want to make some recommendations for the composition of your group when taking a new job.
There are several reasons to assemble a group of advisers as you join a new company.  The first is that in a new position you have a lot to learn:  about the customer base...the technology underlying the offering...a regulatory environment that might be very different from what you have dealt with in the past, etc.  Also, the culture, the norms, and the politics at your new company are bound to have nuances that you need to get smart about quickly.  
It is probably obvious that having people you know and trust to solicit for information and to bounce ideas off of can be essential in this period of rapid learning.  But there are also some less than obvious reasons to have outside resources to turn to when you take a new job.  
As a new leader, it is common for the people around you to turn into “Yes Men." When you propose something new, many on your team are likely to say "Great idea!" whether they think it is or not. They are trying to please you and get on your good side.
Further, you might notice something about the rest...the ones who did not say "great idea":  they didn't say anything at all.  A common trap for new leaders is to confuse silence with agreement.  In addition to wanting to please you, your team is also worried about their jobs.  They don't know who you are, what is permissible and what is not, and they don't want to risk annoying you.
In both cases, you as the new leader are are getting precious little "disconfirming," sanity-check input. Getting a steady drip of confirmations is a sure fire way to waltz down the garden path to...the wrong answer.  This is never good, but on big jobs where the stakes are high, it's can be hazardous for your career.
Getting a steady drip of confirmations is a sure fire way to waltz down the garden path to...the wrong answer.
This is a second reason why outside counsel  is so valuable.  You need some people you can turn to who are not afraid to tell you an idea of yours is just plain dumb or the ways you could modify it to make it work.  You need it from the outside because that feedback is unlikely to come from your new team for awhile at least.
So what kind of advice network do you need to assemble?  Three channels of advice are important to have on a new job:
  • ŸTechnical/Functional…nuts and bolts knowledge in areas you are not as strong in
  • ŸStrategic/Change Management…how you get from here to there both externally (marketplace, competition) and internally (influence, timing)
  • ŸPolitical…advice on how to handle complex organizational dynamics

ŸPeople always think that if you have a BOD you need the likes of Sergey Brin or Elon Musk on it or it is not worth it. While experienced, senior leaders are important to have in your advice network, when you take a new job, not having people in your advisory group who are close to the work is a mistake.  
You need to know how your message is being received throughout the organization and how to adjust it to have the desired effect.  For example, you might decide you need to exhort the organization to do a better job of delivering for shareholders.  Now senior people certainly will understand and be motivated by that since their comp is likely tied closely to shareholder metrics.  
But that message might not only not be motivating, it might actually backfire on you with, for example, front line people who deal with customers.  So be sure your advisory group includes individual contributors in customer service, manufacturing, sales, and/or R&D who you can check in with to see how your message is resonating.
In addition to the three previously listed advice channels, there is a fourth one that is crucial to have...it's the Personal channel.  This is rarely talked about. You need some people around you who know your tendencies at work, know your professional weaknesses and your growing edge...people who care about you and who want you to win.  These need to be people with whom you can let your hair down and share your honest concerns.
But what you need from a good Personal adviser is not just a cheerleader. If they can't bring the tough love when necessary, they are no good for you. When you take a new job it is easy to fall back onto old habits.  It is also easy to get sucked into 14 hour days and neglect close relationships and self-care items like sleep and exercise. Effective personal advisers need to be strong enough to hold up the mirror and point out the cliff you are headed towards.
But what you need from a good Personal adviser is not just a cheerleader. If they can't bring the tough love when necessary, they are no good for you. 
The last thing about having a circle of advisers...they are not possessions or decorations for the wall...you have to use them.  This may sound obvious, but in new jobs people are so busy scrambling to get up to speed that they don't find the time to step back, reflect, and seek outside perspective.  
In the first 100 days on a new job, you should be blocking time in advance to check your thinking and seek input from your advice network.  If you don't block time in advance with your network, the day-to-day will take over and you will have deprived yourself of the perspective that new leaders so desperately need to stay out of the ditch.
Please weigh in.  How have you used advisers in your first 100 days or at other times?  What suggestions can you share?