Archive for the ‘We Don't Make Widgets’ Category

Fixing Government’s People Problem: A Modest Proposal

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Bill Bott

Last weekend, while at a birthday party my boy was attending, I made the mistake of telling someone what I do for a living. See, I’ve been working in government my entire adult life, and I’ve dedicated the past 15 years to working with agencies and departments to make things run more efficiently.

Well, the minute I told the party guest my line of work, he launched into half an hour of typical government bashing. It was all the same stuff we hear at these occasions: every dinner party with friends in the private sector, every church picnic (that somehow always seems to fall on the Sunday after taxes are due), and every casual conversation that follows, “Hi, I’m Bill, and I work for the government.”

I’ve had hundreds of these conversations over the years. But this time I had an epiphany. Standing at that birthday party, I experienced a paradigm shift that will forever change the lens through which I view government. The problems of government all have one common denominator: us.

Somewhere along the way, government employees have lost touch with what it’s like to actually work for a living. We’ve become lazy and complacent, and we don’t even know how it happened. When I worked in government, the computers only had two applications on them: Internet Explorer (so we could look up pictures of the Kardashian wedding and check our Facebook pages) and Spider Solitaire (to help us get used to the concept of a mouse). Anytime someone walked into the office, half of us would scramble to hide the screen. The other half simply finished their game of Solitaire before even acknowledging someone had come in!

That is, if we were in the office at all.

When I worked in government, I loved having more vacation time than my private-sector friends. I loved having sick days I could use for whatever I wanted — even if it was just to give my third-cousin a ride to have his wart removed. I hated lumbering into the office day after day like I had a real job. On Columbus Day, I would go to the bank just to make sure they didn’t have more days off than me — sure enough, open ’til noon. Suckers! When I did have to actually go into the office, I’d split my time between smoke breaks and not answering the phone. Most of us in the office didn’t even smoke! We just liked to go outside and watch the people who had real jobs drive past for an hour or two.

Luckily we were so overstaffed with people living off the government teat that the office always looked busy. Looking busy is an underappreciated art. You have to have a stack of applications overflowing your inbox, a bunch of voicemails filling up your phone and Post-it notes stuck all over your desk to give the impression that you’re working hard. If you’re good enough at looking busy, whenever somebody asks you to do real work, they’ll feel real bad about piling it on.

If you do ever have to engage in real work as a government employee, your main goal should be to make it as miserable and experience as possible for everyone involved. Unhappy people don’t bring back more work. Apathy and a slight scowl are essential tools of the trade. But the true public servant goes above and beyond to work traps into the policy and procedures and really gunk things up for customers. You know you are dealing with an experienced pro when they can quote the manual without looking and send customers away with a tear in their eye.

It’s us. We’re the problem. And that’s why outsourcing is so popular right now. Of course it was only a matter of time until someone realized non-government workers are clearly smarter and better at doing these jobs. While government workers were off enjoying college, business students were learning what real work is all about. They were getting the quality education in measurement, accountability and productivity that the rest of us somehow missed. (Thank goodness the government would have us!) The more tasks we can turn over to these superior, outsourced workers, the better. We all know that the only reason outsourcing fails is because public-sector managers sabotage it in an effort to save their jobs and get rich on the taxpayer’s dime.

That’s why the vast majority of staffers brought in by presidents, governors and mayors are from the private sector. Who knows more about collecting taxes than a lawyer, or more about running the Department of Agriculture than the owner of the largest farm in the state? If we want radical change in government, it is going to come from outside government for sure. If we could do it, we would have done it long ago.

Like Soylent Green, it all boils down to people. We are the problem. So the solution must be to fix us. How are we going to get all of us customer-hating, lazy, uninspired freeloaders to actually do some work? Obviously what we’re doing now just doesn’t work.

So. Do you agree? Do you at least know some people who would agree? Did you see some grains of truth in that rant? We may all feel that way sometimes, but my firm belief is that those “truths” are a bunch of bunk. The problem isn’t with the people. Every effort to argue that it is, or to fix the people, is foofaraw.

Over the next several blog posts, Ken and I hope to show that it’s this kind of thinking that has caused an epidemic that is doing more damage than any amount of budget-cutting or political turmoil. The problems in government do not start and end with the people in government, despite all the bloviating to the contrary.

Shame On Us: Part II

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Bill Bott

We started the theme of Customer Satisfaction in Government one night after I had watched National Lampoon’s Vacation . During the movie, I saw commercial after commercial featuring Social Security lawyers telling you they’ll fight the evil empire and get you the money you deserve. We’ve gotten a ton of great comments and questions, many of which you’ll see in future articles. But Ken and I are getting ready to change up themes, so we thought we’d wrap up this theme the way we started: with a scathing post on how governments treat customers.

Truth is, one comment we heard at a workshop has been stuck in my brain like a Yo Gabba Gabba! song. It has nested like a Ceti eel and is driving me mad. I just cannot escape it until I jump, shake, and shimmy out the “1-off dial.”

The “1-off dial” haunts government employees who are unfortunate enough to have a phone number a digit or two different from a hotline, an ombudsman, the office of citizen relations or any other published number that typically rings off the hook. Savvy callers know that in large organizations like government, if nobody picks up at 555-555-5678, chances are that somebody will answer at 555-555-5679, or 5680 or 5681. So when no one answers the hotline, customes dial one number off in an attempt to reach someone. When they do, they have a new best friend.

At a recent workshop, a federal employee told me that some of his most rewarding work-related moments had begun with a “1-off.”

Someone needed help navigating the pipes of his agency and when their contact number rang busy, they 1-off’d and got him. The good news is, he was able to help. The bad news is, at times, we are so bad at answering the phones that our customers will dial random numbers in desperation.

I have known caseworkers who refuse to have voicemail because the moment they turn it on, it is full. I’ve worked with call centers scared to look at the number of abandoned calls and wait times. I’ve even had personal experience with this: I once was stuck with a phone number that previously had been listed (around 1997ish) as the number of the Office of Excellence in Customer Satisfaction. For a decade, I got calls ranging from “Where can I find a list of state parks?” to “Can you tell me last night’s lotto numbers?” There were days I just dreaded answering the phone.

In my case, the problem was a recycled number. But for many of us, the problem is more often volume and capacity. There are simply too many calls and not enough time to take them all. When we get calls, we have to take time away from doing the work. When we take time away, we get behind. When we get behind, we get more calls wondering why we haven’t finished the work we had to set aside yet.

It’s what Ken calls the crazy cycle. Once you get on, you may never be able to get off. (He’s written about the crazy cycle in both his books, We Don’t Make Widgets and the brand new Extreme Government Makeover.)

If you work in an agency that gets a lot of calls, chances are someone you pass in the hall is riding the crazy cycle. If your number is one off of theirs, chances are you despise their inability to keep up (and you may quickly be on your way to joining to them on the crazy cycle).

Shame on us for our phone etiquette. Despite our best efforts to build state-of-the-art call centers and expensive computer systems that track volume, wait times and dropped calls, we still find ourselves buried in calls and our customers find themselves desperation-dialing. We hire managers who track time per call, schedule bathroom breaks around peak times and monitor each employee’s break. What those managers always fail to realize is that the secret to customer service isn’t about having a call answered in under three rings — it’s about customers never needing to call in the first place.

The tricks to good customer service, which we’ve been talking about over the last several articles, are also the tricks to getting off the crazy cycle and returning order to our phone lines. We need to stop doing the things that make people call. If they are calling to see the progress on their permit, we need to put out permits so fast they don’t have time to pick up the phone. If they are calling because they don’t understand the letter they just received, we need to stop sending them letters filled with legalistic jargon, letters that make the iTunes agreement terms look like Goodnight Moon. If they call because theirfill-in-the-blank isn’t done, we need to get it done and back to them.

We need to fix the pipes.

Is Social Media a Wise Investment?

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Bill Bott

Several years ago, while working in the office of a state CIO, we decided to invest in social media. It was not a big investment; we had one employee work a couple of hours a week to start building an online presence in Second Life. If you don’t know about Second Life, you can get the official explanation here.

In Second Life, we partnered with educational institutions to build a place where prospective employees could come and learn about our state’s IT opportunities. We even hosted a career fair once. If memory serves me right, the fair was attended by, among others, a cat the size of beetle, an aqua-colored fairy with glitter wings and some student in a lab coat who kept trying to sit on the micro-cat. Government Technology even did a story on it. And hey — we even hired the cat, and last I heard, he turned out to be a pretty great guy.

(By the way, I was a stud in Second Life. Three inches taller and 20 pounds lighter, my hair was always perfect. And of course, I could fly. Still, I was never a big fan of the virtual world. It was like when video games went from a couple of buttons and a joystick to having to memorize a 17-move combination or else you just wasted a dollar to watch Dirk get eaten by bats again … bats! Second Life was just too confusing. I’ll stick to the intuitiveness of Facebook and LinkedIn.)

Government and social media have always had an interesting relationship. Many states host multiple Facebook pages but won’t let employees access the site on their work PCs. It’s not uncommon to see YouTube videos about public programs, and last year I used a state’s smartphone app to help avoid road construction. Wherever you turn, there are new ways people are communicating, and innovative people in the public sector have really stepped up their game to try to exploit these. Plus, it’s new, it’s hip, it’s cool — and all the kids are doing it!

This week’s question comes from a reader, Nancy, who is watching the current social media craze all around her. Nancy wants to know 1) Is this a good use of our limited resources?, 2) Is it hitting the right people?, and 3) Are we alienating some of our most avid supporters in our efforts to reach a new audience?

We can’t answer any of those. The truth is that government is too big and diverse — and social media is changing so fast — that while we could make a stab at answering it in one area, it would be totally irrelevant to another by lunch. But Nancy isn’t just fighting the peer pressure, her brilliant questions should serve as a litmus test for all our online endeavors.

Remember the 90s when we all raced to put websites up? In our mad dash to get sites up and running, did we ever stop and ask ourselves who was going to be using this? My favorite example involves putting welfare benefit information online. These customers couldn’t afford food, and yet we expected them to have Internet access in 1995, or “go the library” to learn how they can spend less time in line by spending it online?

We made the same missteps when we attempted the portal approach 10 years later. I remember sitting in meetings talking about color schemes and arguing over which elected officials would have their photos where. The biggest priority seemed to be making sure that users could easily click from the homepage to the winning lotto numbers. (No more than four clicks or we all may die!) No one ever asked if this was the best use of our resources; it was just assumed that it was. It’s technology and technology makes it better.

Jumping into Social Media?

Here’s one of a series of articles from Peter Wright to help you test the waters. If you don’t want to read anything else, ask yourself Nancy’s questions:

  • What are we trying to do here?
  • Who do we expect to use this?
  • Why are they going to use it?
  • What is the return on investment we expect?

It doesn’t cost us too much to set up a Twitter feed or maintain a Facebook account. However, it is still a good idea to look at resources.

Nancy notes that putting all of our eggs in a new solution-basket risks alienating people that rely on more traditional ways of getting their information and services. Luckily, we’re hoarders in government. We add a lot of new things, but we rarely throw anything out. In this case, though, that spreads us thin. And when we get too thin, we do a bad job at everything, or we hire more people. Well, we used to hire more people. Now we just spend more time and more energy using the same employees to reach fewer people.

But there’s a bigger issue for us at Public Great. All these efforts to let citizens know when trout season officially begins, or tweets about when your elected official will be cutting the ribbon at the new bowl-a-rama, are fine. But they do not help straighten the pipes of government.

Communication is not the biggest issue we face.

Even the most celebrated and innovative attempts, like the smartphone app that tells you how long the line at the DMV is, only adds a bit of convenience. It doesn’t allow you to pop in over lunch and get out in 10 minutes or less. Knowing the line length at any given time was never the real problem.

Our core problem is capacity. We don’t seem to have the time and people to keep up with the volume of work. If you’ve been reading along, I hope you’ve noticed our theme, “Fix the pipes above all else.” Fixing pipes includes looking at how we do the work we do and stripping away everything we do for all the wrong reasons and getting to the core of what our customers need.

Better communication is nice; short lines are nicer. To get our customers shorter lines, you have to look at how we process them for licenses and registrations. What we require from them, how often they have to come in, and how many staff work the line is far more influential on the pipes than a YouTube video telling you that we now require your grandmother’s birth certificate as proof of ID.

Concentrating on social media, or almost any communication tool, is like poor Dirk trying to reach the dragon’s lair. It only costs you a buck, but even if you win, you never got a real princess. Simply put, Facebook doesn’t fix pipes. But if you fix the pipes, it might be a great tool for getting the word out!

Is your organization dipping into social media? If so, how? And more importantly, how is it working out for you?

What Do We Mean By ‘Customer Service,’ Anyway?

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Ken Miller

When we opened up the Public Great request line last week, we had a feeling we’d get some great questions. And we weren’t disappointed. The depth of the questions has been fantastic, and we will do our best to answer as many of them as we can. In many cases we had multiple questions that hit on the same theme, so we will paraphrase those and address them as one.

We had many questions on the meaning and utility of customer satisfaction in the public sector. It was best expressed by “Angie” in Washington:

“What is the definition of customer ’satisfaction’ in the public sector? Is it about timely and accurate processes? Is it about getting everything they wanted? The term ’satisfaction’ is so subjective — how to we get down to the detail we really need to know to do root cause analysis and actually make positive/constructive changes.”

So what is the definition of “customer satisfaction” in the public sector? Well, first let’s put the concept in its original context. Why does the private sector care about customer satisfaction? To get more customers — including repeat customers — in order to make more money. They want customers to have a positive experience so they will come back and refer friends. And why do they care about that? To make more money (so they can survive and grow). Customer satisfaction is not an end; it is a means.

In the public sector, we also need to recognize that customer satisfaction is a means and not an end. We strive for customer satisfaction not because it feels good, but because it helps us achieve our “profit.” As we’ve mentioned many times here on Public Great, our profit in government is not measured in dollars but in the outcomes we are here to achieve (clean air, safe neighborhoods, high quality of life, economic opportunity, public health and so forth). Our investors, the taxpayers, invest in our agencies to maximize ROI. They want the most of these outcomes possible with the smallest possible investment — just like private-sector investors.

But how does customer satisfaction in the public sector actually lead to these outcomes? Couldn’t we accomplish these outcomes whether or not the customers are happy with their experience? Maybe, but it’s a lot harder.

Where things tend to go haywire in the area of customer satisfaction in government is the fact that most of our customers are hostages. They didn’t choose us, they don’t want to be there, and given a choice they’d run as fast as they could in the opposite direction. Customer loyalty is not our issue. So who cares if the hostages are happy?

I talked about this issue at length in We Don’t Make Widgets, but to sum it up succinctly: If customers can’t successfully use our widgets, we can’t achieve our outcomes. The way government achieves things (like clean air, safe neighborhoods, and quality of life) is by customers/hostages using the widgets that we produce for them. How do we get clean air? By widgets like environmental permits, notices of violation and environmental standards. How do we get safe neighborhoods? By widgets like arrests and probation visits. How do we get quality of life? By widgets like zoning ordinances and building codes.

You will notice that in most of these examples, these widgets are being produced for hostages. A convicted felon doesn’twant to go to probation visits. A speeder doesn’t want a ticket. A plant manager doesn’t necessarily want a government permit. But such is the nature of most government work. We don’t always do things for people, we often do it to them. (But that’s what our investors want.)

Whether we want to call these people “customers” is really irrelevant to me. Whatever you choose to call them, the issue is the same: If they can’t successfully use these widgets, we can’t achieve our outcomes. If the plant manager can’t understand the permit, we don’t get clean air. If the probation visits aren’t useful and helpful, we don’t reduce recidivism. If the building codes are not clear, consistent and meaningfully enforced, we don’t get neighborhoods with high quality of life. The challenge in government is to work with those who don’t always want us, to make our widgets the best we can so we can achieve the outcomes our investors demand.

That was a long slog through the woods to get back to the central question: “What is customer satisfaction in the public sector?” But it was important to set the context, as I hope you will see the clear difference between the private sector and the public sector. The private sector is focused on capturing the loyalty of voluntary customers. The public sector is focused on capturing the cooperation of often involuntary customers. The private sector, operating in a highly competitive marketplace where customers have a choice among many widgets that are equally effective, focuses on differentiation. The public sector, operating in a monopoly marketplace where we need hostages to successfully use our widgets, must focus on efficacy.

Customer satisfaction with any widget is made up of three elements: the outcome we accomplish by using the widget; the attributes or characteristics of the widget (how easy it is easy to use, whether it’s cheap, and so on); and finally, the features of the widget. For example, let’s take my iPhone. My satisfaction with it is based on the three factors:

  1. Outcome: stay connected to family, friends and the world
  2. Attributes: lightweight, convenient, easy to use, long lasting
  3. Features: battery life, size, apps, color, 3G, wi-fi, retina display, processor speed, Face Time

In the customer experience, all three matter. But of the three, outcomes (efficacy) is most important. My iPhone has all those wonderful features. It can do anything imaginable, including tune my guitar and measure my golf distance, but it can’t make a freaking phone call! I absolutely abhor the thing because I can’t talk for more than two minutes without dropping the call. (This could be AT&T’s fault.)

Customers care most about outcomes. When the outcome is not achieved, nothing else matters.

Attributes and features are irrelevant if I can’t make a call. The flip side is that when the outcome is achieved, everything else matters. That is to say, if all the widgets produce the same result, then we as consumers look to the attributes and features to make our choice (differentiation). For example, all airlines provide the same result: You will arrive there safely. Given that, we then make our choice based on differentiators like price, schedule, leg room, cookies, flight attendant humor, etc.

Much of what we have been taught about customer satisfaction deals with the attributes and features: Make your offering more friendly, easier to use, faster. Delight your customers. That stuff is all fine. But our primary focus needs to be on the outcomes: Can our customers successfully use our widget? Can they make a call on our iPhone?

Perhaps a government example will be useful. Many years ago, I was working with federal job-training centers. Specifically, there was one job-training center that was confused. They had done extensive surveys with their customers to find out what they liked in a job-training center. They set about changing their hours, their decor, their smiles, and everything else. Still, customers rated them very low on customer satisfaction. This was evident by the few customers they actually had. Meanwhile, across town was another job-training center located in the basement of a run-down community center. It looked more like a condemned building then a service center. But there were customers lined up out the door. Why? The outcomes/efficacy. This job-training center was an eyesore, but it was also a life-changer. It got people jobs and helped people get back on their feet. Could the center have used better carpet and more up-to-date computers? Sure. But in the public sector our emphasis has to be on efficacy — customer success. When we’ve accomplished that, then we can worry about adding features that “delight” customers.

For example, Bill and I were participants in a brainstorming session a few years ago where the assembled were trying to come up with innovations for a tax agency to improve customer satisfaction. One high-level exec came up with the idea of sending thank-you cards to taxpayers after they filed their taxes. Bill and I did a tandem spit-take as the idea caught on around the room. I respect this man deeply, but it was quite simply the worst idea I’d ever heard. What would the card accomplish? At what cost? What would it say? “Thanks for paying your taxes. We recognize that the tax code is as incomprehensible as our forms, that you had to pay a couple hundred bucks to have someone do your taxes for you and that there was no way we would ever answer your calls for help. But hey, thanks anyway”? Customer satisfaction efforts in tax compliance should be about helping the hostages successfully use our widgets, not trying to make them feel better about the horrible experience they had.

Having said all that, let me return to the central theme: Why does customer satisfaction in government matter? Simply, there is no faster way to achieve culture change than when we open up our doors, let the customers in (those that need to successfully use our widgets), and let their goals become our goals.

I will close my long answer to a short (but profound) question with an excerpt from a previous column of mine, titled “Free the Hostages“:

Even though you may be a monopoly, there’s no reason you have to act like one. Instead, act as if your customers had a choice. Act as if your competition was relentless. This “acting as if” forces you to pursue excellence. The surrogate for competition is high expectations.

If your customers had a choice, what behaviors would that cause you to adopt? You’d probably spend time trying to figure out what they care about, improving your performance to meet their expectations and then seeking their feedback on how you are doing. Well, what’s stopping you from doing that now?

What if you faced relentless competition in the market? You’d probably benchmark your performance against your competitors, learn what the best ones are doing and adopt best practices. Well, what’s stopping you from doing that now?

You’d probably continue to look for ways to add value to your offering, to increase performance while lowering costs. You’d probably have to innovate, to look to the future and anticipate the next great thing in your industry that will propel you from follower to leader. Well …?

The Second Body

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Ken Miller

Back in April, I wrote about an investigation that showed widespread cheating in Washington, D.C., public schools. We’re not talking about kids cribbing off each other’s test sheets, here.  The problem involves teachers or principals (allegedly) erasing kids’ wrong answers and replacing them with correct answers, all in a bid to game an accountability system that rewards and punishes educators and schools based on how well their students do on standardized tests.

Back then, I called the D.C. scandal “the first body” to die from the “miracle drug called accountability.”

Well, folks? Looks like we have another body, this time in Atlanta. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Across Atlanta Public Schools, staff worked feverishly in secret to transform testing failures into successes.

Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students’ answer sheets.

Area superintendents silenced whistle-blowers and rewarded subordinates who met academic goals by any means possible.

Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.

For years — as long as a decade — this was how the Atlanta school district produced gains on state curriculum tests. The scores soared so dramatically they brought national acclaim to Hall and the district, according to an investigative report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal.

This is starting to sound like a bad murder mystery…

Serving Customers in Government

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Bill Bott

If we are ever going to master customer service, one of the hurdles that government needs to clear is the idea that the customer is always right.

Quite frankly, this statement is impossible to balance with some of our regulatory and safety functions. For example, I’ve worked with a lot of correctional facilities, and when the idea of customers comes up, many administrators say the same thing: “These people are convicted criminals, not customers. I don’t really care what they want or how they want it.”

It’s not that corrections officials don’t care about the well-being of offenders, because most do. It’s that thinking of them as customers in the traditional sense almost gives them a power we don’t want to grant. The concerned officers don’t want the baggage that comes with customer satisfaction, in particular, the case that the customer is always right. They know many of their customers aren’t happy. They’re in prison — it’s not a happy place.

That’s extreme, of course. But the fact is that many of government’s “customers” would choose not to use government if they could. Nursing homes might choose not to have inspections. Businesses might choose not to have to get a permit. And most of us would prefer not to use the IRS, or to get a speeding ticket. Because of this dilemma, it is often easier to skip the customer debate all together. While skipping the debate may make our jobs easier, however, it creates a disconnect with our customers, like a creaky old bridge connecting two shorelines. On one shore is the work we do; on the other, the outcomes we want. Without a strong bridge between the two, we have trouble connecting them.

For an example, let’s look at any number of government programs aimed at keeping a community healthy. Many county health clinics offer free immunizations, particularly for children. They gather quantities of vaccines and lollipops awaiting the victim — I mean, the kid — to stick with the needle. That’s one shore. Across the water is the outcome we’re after: a healthy community free of particular diseases. To bridge the two, we need a customer (or in this case, a customer’s parent who can drag him in and hold him down). Without a customer bridge, we have all the medicine and noble intentions, but no way of connecting that with the goal of a disease-free community. If we don’t know how to reach out and let them know the vaccines are available, or if we offer shots only at inconvenient times and locations, then we end up with lots of needles and no healthy kids.

We have prison programs because we want safe communities, but without meeting offender needs we fail to connect these programs to the outcome. We have inspections and permits because we want clean air and water. Without the cooperation of businesses we have no bridge.

Just because our customers may look at us the same way a kid about to get stuck in the arm would look at the doctor, it doesn’t mean they’re not the customer. Granted, we will always have to balance their wants with the wants of those people who count on us to keep them safe, healthy and prosperous. (In Ken’s book We Don’t Make Widgets, Ken puts it like this: We “make invisible things for people that do not want them on behalf of others that do.”) Still, every effort to strengthen the customer relationship, even with people who may not want it, helps to get us more of the noble outcomes we are after.

Last year, I worked with a state health department to review its nursing home inspection process. The agency had a lot of unhappy nursing home administrators, but above-average customer survey scores. The leaders wanted a team to look at what was really going on.

Some state inspectors said, “This is sour grapes. If they get a bad inspection, they complain. If they had their way, there would be no inspections at all and they’d do whatever they wanted.”

We had representatives from the nursing home industry who said, “The state is nit-picky and is driving people nuts with the constant changes to requirements and an inability to communicate what they want from us.”

Together we conducted 14 focus groups with various types of facilities. We learned that, with the exception of one establishment, everyone recognized the state’s role and the importance of the inspections. They just wanted them to be easy to understand, consistent and fair.

The team then took on the task of redesigning the inspections so that facilities would have a better understanding of what inspectors need to look at and what is expected of them. We developed checklists and standards to make the process more consistent among all the inspection teams, and we reinforced some internal mechanisms to help ensure fairness. The same inspections still occur, and we increased customer satisfaction with the process, hopefully leading to better, safer, facilities.

Over and over we find that our customers recognize the need for government involvement. Even if I’m a nursing home administrator and I may not be thrilled with the state coming to inspect again, I still recognize, as a child of aging parents, that it’s important for the state to ensure the quality of assisted living facilities. As taxpayers, we all want to know someone is looking out for the elderly who need this type of care.

Prisoners are never going to get the VIP customer treatment while behind bars. We’re not going to start catering in the lobster bisque from Craft Steakhouse, or have Extreme Makeover: Home Edition come in and bling up the cells with flat-screens and appliances from Sears. But we still have an obligation to strengthen the bridge and offer better drug treatment, educational and reentry programs.

Customers are not always right. We cannot always do what they ask us to do, nor should we. But we must recognize that customers are the key to increasing our profit — the noble outcomes we are after. If we want more and better outcomes, we must strengthen that bridge by building better relationships with our customers. We can only do that by talking to them and really understanding what they need from us, so together we can help our communities, our states and our nation.

Just How Important is Customer Service?

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Bill Bott

Your customers will not be loyal to customer service

When I first started working in the public sector, “customer service” was being touted as the key to improve how government can improve. If we focused on happy customers, processes would have to change in order to keep them satisfied and coming back for more. President Clinton even had an aggressive goal in an executive order of determining what customers wanted, then measuring where current performance was and developing a plan to bridge the gap. The problem was, most of us built the wrong bridges.

To measure what customers wanted, we turned to surveys

Please rate us in the following areas on a scale of 1 to 5 — or, in my favorite government survey, from sad face to happy face. In my area, we collected surveys from all over and entered them in an Excel spreadsheet that would have made Bill Gates proud. The thing is, the scores were always the same: 4.2 on a 5 point scale. People were pretty happy with us on paper. However, our customers’ motto is that early Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me lately?” Assuming we were asking the right questions to the right people, the survey scores never reflected the word on the street.

Time to train

Remember the “choose your way” books from, like, 6th grade? You read half a chapter and then could choose to fight the dragon or risk the haunted forest; you flipped to the appropriate page and your story continued. My first customer service training was a series of case studies with “choose your way” moments. I still remember the scenario where you could remain compliant with policy or make your customer happy. The customer always won out.

I’ve been trained that the customer is always right, that I need to treat everyone like they were my mother, I need to smile so big they can hear it on the other side of the phone, and that a positive attitude starts with me. That was only the first wave. In Wave Two, I learned that internal customers are just as important as external customers, and that every customer wants respect, empathy, action and love (get “REAL” with customer service).

While there is nothing wrong with service with a smile … nothing got better.

Customers don’t care about good service

The bridge we were building to our customers had a foundation of good intentions, but it was a bridge to nowhere. Customers are not loyal to good service, and more often than not, they really don’t care about your smile. Don’t get me wrong: We like it when we get good service and we hate it when we get bad service. It’s just not what we care about.

Last year I was working in Florida when I realized our old dryer had eaten the collar of the dress shirt I had intended on wearing. I was going to pick up a new one that night after dinner. But dinner with the team ran long and before you knew it, most of the stores were closed or closing. I started to panic.

A colleague jumped on his smartphone; he had an app for this. He typed in “men’s dress shirt” and a list of nearby places popped up. He called the first one. They were closing but said they’d stay open until we got there. Great service. He asked my shirt size and color preference and said he would pull one for me. Awesome service. He called back and said we could do the transaction over the phone and he would have the shirt pressed and meet us in the parking lot. WOW!

It wasn’t a nanosecond after hanging up, having given him my credit card number, that I realized I probably just paid a lot for this shirt. It is very unlike me to not ask for the price, but I’ve bought my share of men’s shirts and figured in a jam like this a $90 shirt is tax for not looking at what I packed close enough.

As I pulled into the parking garage I thought to myself, “How bad could it really be? This is just a mall — maybe $200?”

When he met us in the garage and handed me the bill, I nearly choked. For the price of this shirt, I could have bought four $90 shirts and gone back and had dessert. And since the tags had been removed to iron the shirt, of course it was non-returnable. Driving out of the mall the ultimate insult was the TARGET circle lit up across the street like a lighthouse guiding smarter shoppers to the $22 dress shirts.

Now, as much as I am an idiot for letting panic drive my purchasing, let me be clear: This was the best customer service I have ever received while purchasing a shirt. AND I will never buy anything from that store again.

In the same way, it doesn’t matter how much we smile, empathize and even love our customers. They come to us for results, not service. If we cannot get them their results, the service is meaningless.

It’s the same reason we go our for fast food. The meal’s mediocre at best, the purple-haired kid at the register with DEATH tattooed on his knuckles turns out to be the manager, and let’s not even talk about the nutritional value of the food. But we keep going back: It’s fast, cheap, and allows us to get to the next event on time. It is the result we are after.

A better bridge

A good bridge starts with the right pipes. Assuming we are providing something our customers actually need (which is another blog post altogether), how do we provide it faster and better? How do we make customers happy? We get them in and out of the DMV in one 10-minute visit. We answer their questions correctly the first time. We give them an application that’s easy to understand and easy to complete.

The bridge is less about service and more about getting them the result they’re looking for more quickly. For example, the salesperson at Smith Corona may be phenomenal at getting “REAL” with customers, and he may know his typewriters inside-out. But we don’t buy typewriters anymore. The result — business communication, in this case — was taken over by the computer decades ago now. If Smith Corona had focused on the results their customers wanted and tried to deliver those in the most efficient way, they would be selling the iMac now.

The benefit of the bridge is that when it’s built well, the customer service takes care of itself. We don’t mind mediocre-to-bad service if we get the result we’re looking for. Sure, we enjoy good service. But we’re satisfied leaving Target with a $22 shirt even if it isn’t pressed and delivered.

How do you build a better bridge? It starts with fixing the systems of government, the pipes. Know the widgets you make and the factory you make them in. Run that factory as efficiently as possible and customer satisfaction will go up.

Band of Brothers

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Adapted and excerpted from Ken’s new book Extreme Government Makeover: Increasing Our Capacity to Do More Good.

Management-by-Fear is the current fad. Across the country, in conference rooms of every size, governors are looking at cabinet members’ performance measures and demanding to know why the curve isn’t bending. There are city managers berating department heads because the trend line is going in the wrong direction. There are federal appointees making up excuses for why the green light turned yellow on their dashboard. Again, nobody calls it Management-by-Fear. Its called accountability, managing for results, dashboards, scorecards and STAT, to name a few. Different names, same assumption: The way we get better results is to hold people accountable for measurable goals. Unfortunately, as we explored in the previous column, not only do these accountability systems rarely work (affixing blame instead of fixing systems), they also produce devastating side effects (gaming the measurement system and increasing fear).

I used to believe very strongly in accountability systems. I have created and implemented every one of the buzzwords from the previous paragraph. And none of them made a bit of difference. Not because (as commentors to the previous column argued) we didn’t do them right. Rather, it’s because we have gotten the notion of accountability all wrong.

My view on accountability was greatly changed by the stories of soldiers from World War II. My grandfather had fought in the war, but, like so many of his generation, he had chosen not to speak of it. I had no idea what he went through until I saw the incredible work of Stephen Ambrose, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. This graphic, eye-popping series followed Easy Company from the storming of Normandy Beach through the liberation and the eventual end of the European conflict. Each episode of the 10-part series showed a key battle through the eyes of one of the true-life characters. You saw what they saw and felt what they felt through some amazing acting and directorial magic. What was most memorable, however, were the last five minutes of each story, when the show interviewed the actual soldier depicted. Seeing the gentleness in their faces and the wisdom in their eyes, the bottled-up pain and their lifelong quest for a peaceful place to live out their days, brought me to tears. I appreciated my grandfather as I never had before.

If you’ve seen the series or know about the events, you know that these men displayed acts of unthinkable courage. They ran head-long into a hail of bullets. They dived on grenades and ran across enemy lines with little regard for their own life. How? How did the military breed that kind of dedication? How do they continue to do that? Why does a soldier give his life? Surely it’s because he is accountable to his Sergeant and doesn’t want to let his Sergeant down. And the Sergeant is accountable to his Major, and the Major to his Colonel. And all the way up the chain, everybody is accountable to someone above them.

Right?

Of course not. What the military knows, and what the soldiers in Band of Brothers revealed, was exactly the opposite. The front-line troops didn’t feel accountable to their commanding officer. Heck, they didn’t even like their commanding officer, and could care even less about his commanding officer. They were accountable to each other. They would rather take a bullet than see their friend take one. They risked their lives to save the man next to them, knowing full well that man would do the same. True accountability is shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s horizontal. Yet we keep trying to make it vertical. True accountability looks like love; we keep making it feel like fear.

Rather than creating a band of brothers (and sisters), rather than cultivating teamwork, togetherness and — dare I say it? — love, we continue to divide, separate and force competition. We incentivize the chain of command but do little to cultivate the foxhole. We keep trying to “re-form” government. Thinking that another accountability form or scorecard will create excellence. That type of accountability only breeds compliance — doing just enough to avoid punishment. We can’t complyour way to excellence. Excellence is a pursuit of the heart.

So how do we create shoulder-to-shoulder accountability? Create more foxholes. Continually cultivate ways for people to work together for a common good. Create organizational puzzles to solve and use teams to solve them. As I wrote about inThe Profound Puzzles of Effective Management, good leaders don’t have all the answers. Rather, they frame puzzles and challenge their people to solve them. The best way to do this is to form a team of people who work in a system to come together with people who are affected by the system to create a better system. Much like real foxholes, these team projects are harrowing and intense at the time, but create bonds that last a lifetime.

These foxhole moments not only create shoulder-to-shoulder accountability as the team members struggle, fight, gel and transcend. These moments also create the other powerful accountability: over-the-counter accountability. That is, accountability to the people we serve. Again, a child-abuse case worker may loathe her supervisor and may not particularly enjoy her co-workers, but just try to get between her and what is best for the kids she is trying to protect. No top-down accountability system can produce even a fraction of the motivation, passion and creativity that comes from accountability to your team and your customers.

Vertical accountability perpetuates the parent-child relationships that so permeate our agency cultures. Management author Peter Scholtes laments that most of our organizational cultures, rather than being populated by adult-to-adult relationships, instead are dominated by parent-child relationships. When we see others as children, we treat them accordingly. We try to direct them and control them. We punish them and praise them. If they please us, they get a reward. If they displease us, they get a talking-to. With this mentality, all organizational progress takes the same energy as getting a three-year-old to put his shoes on.

Look at your own life. Who are you really accountable to? Who would you never want to let down, not in a million years? Are they above you or beside you? Is the relationship built on love or fear? What can you do to help foster those types of relationships in the workplace? What is your agency’s Normandy Beach or Battle of Bastogne? How are you building a Band of Brothers (and Sisters)?

Let us know the answers to these questions in the comments below.

Management by Fear: Part I

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Ken Miller

In 1997, the FDA put an end to the miracle weight-loss drug Fen-Phen. The Fen-Phen case was typical of so many of the miracle cures we have seen, from weight loss to addiction to lower cholesterol. They promised to replace hard work and discipline with a pill. Forget dieting and exercising — those are too hard. Just pop a pill! Fen-Phen seemed too good to be true. And just like so many of the miracle cures, it was. People started dying of enlarged hearts; investigations followed. The drug was pulled and lawsuits began. This is the miracle cure cycle: Outrageous promises, mixed results, death, recall and lawsuits. For the public-sector accountability movement, we have our first body.

For the past few years, those of us in the public sector have been sold a miracle cure called accountability. Poor results? Out-of-control costs? Poor customer service? All you have to do is hold people accountable. No fuss, no muss, no diet or exercise required. Just measure something, set a goal and hold people accountable. Miraculously, everything will get better. This miracle cure comes in a lot of different forms: measurement systems, dashboards, scorecards, performance management, STAT, etc. They are all based on the belief that good performance comes from holding people accountable for achieving measurable goals. This belief is killing us. Let’s look at the first autopsy.

On March 28, USA Today published a scathing exposé of the seemingly miraculous test score gains of students in the public school system of Washington, D.C. Under chancellor Michelle Rhee, schools previously underperforming on standardized tests were making remarkable gains. So remarkable in fact, that Rhee became the cover girl for school reform. She graced Time, Newsweek, and appeared on countless TV programs touting her simple cure for our education malady: accountability. Measure performance, set a target, reward those who meet it and fire those who don’t. High-scoring teachers and principals received bonuses of $8,000 to $10,000. Low performers were dismissed — Rhee replaced nearly 45 percent of the teachers and principals in the system. Miraculously, test scores improved and Rhee went on to start a billion-dollar foundation to dispense this miracle cure nationwide.

So how exactly did all these incentivized, accountable educators improve their test scores? (Some schools posted gains of more than 40 percent, meriting national awards and federal incentive grants.) According to USA Today and McGraw-Hill, who scored the tests, they cheated. The high-performing D.C. schools, Rhee’s shining examples, had alarming instances of wrong-to-right erasure rates on test answers. That is, someone was erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct answers before the sheets were machine-graded.

Rhee, of course, denies any wrong-doing. And no one accuses her of ordering the schools to cheat. She didn’t have to. She created the climate of fear that made these actions inevitable.

“The pressure on principals was unrelenting,” Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal, told USA Today. Jefferson is now president of the Council of School Officers, representing principals and other administrators. Every year, Jefferson says, Rhee would meet with each principal and ask what kind of test score gains he or she would post in the coming school year. Jefferson says principals told her that Rhee expected them to increase scores by 10 percentile points or more every year. “What do you do when your chancellor asks, ‘How many points can you guarantee this year?’ ” Jefferson says. “How is a principal supposed to do that?”

It would be easy to point the finger at the educators who cheated. But the real question is, what would make these good people — teachers and principals who love educating children — make these unethical choices? To see how the problems are created, one need look no further than the ubiquitous surveys that are thrust upon us after every visit to a restaurant, hospital, and even church service. I mentioned this in my book We Don’t Make Widgets, and I have since had my inbox flooded with stories from readers who had the same experience I did: Their car salesman, waitress, and even nurse handed them a satisfaction survey — already filled out with perfect scores. Rather than being a tool to learn from customers, these surveys have become an instrument for banging people over the head. These people game the system to avoid the hammer. It’s a perfectly rational reaction: The smart choice when faced with being held personally accountable for a broken system is to game the measurement system. When we don’t fix the system, they game the system.

It’s okay to want results. It’s okay to focus on results. But when we move from desiring a better outcome to demanding a better outcome, the unhealthy behavior occurs. When dieting, it’s okay to want to lose 20 pounds. It’s okay to fantasize about fitting into a certain shirt. But how will you actually lose the 20 pounds? What has to change about your system of choosing, cooking and consuming food in order to lose weight? What has to change (or start) with your exercise system to lose the weight? Results come from our systems. If we want better results, we need better systems. Better methods. Better methods yield better results. It was perfectly acceptable for Chancellor Rhee to want better test scores. It was okay for her to expect improved performance from her principals and teachers. But instead of telling educators, “Give me a number that I will hold you accountable for,” Rhee should have been asking, “What systems in our district must improve for you to improve your learning outcomes? What methods need to be improved, adopted or removed to improve student performance?”

The focus has to be on fixing the systems. Yelling at systems doesn’t improve systems. Bribing systems doesn’t improve systems. Fixing systems improves systems. When we don’t do the hard work to fix the systems, the only option is to game the system. Which is exactly what the D.C. principals and teachers did. Faced with being held accountable (read: “fired”) for test scores — and with little control over the complex variables that make up student success, including class size, curriculum, socioeconomic conditions, education level of parents, availability of quality food and the compound performance of all the previous teachers — what choice did they have? What would you have done?

The charlatans selling the accountability snake-oil don’t see systems. They don’t see complexity, cause and effect and correlation. They don’t have time for the analysis required to understand a system and its constraints. They don’t have the patience to balance competing stakeholder interests. Rather than studying your unique body, helping you choose food, plan meals and build an exercise regimen, they just demand you lose 20 pounds. Now. The accountability movement believes that the only variable that matters is effort. That you aren’t trying hard enough. With a goal, an incentive and constant monitoring, they can finally get you to use all that effort you’ve been withholding all these years. For them, results come from people simply trying harder to get a carrot or avoid a stick. The truth is that we have good people trapped in complex, broken systems that they did not create. Performance improves when these good people in the system get together with those affected by the system, to build a better system. Like all miracle cures eventually prove, there is no shortcut for hard work. If we don’t do things the right way, the weight comes back and the test scores go back down. Fen-Phen killed people from enlarged hearts. Accountability — Management by Fear — kills government by shrinking the hearts of the people who work in it.

In the next two parts of this series, we will look more closely at Management by Fear, why performance measures need warning labels, and how your agencies can create true accountability — without money, dashboards or fear.

How has the Accountability cure affected your agency? Agree or disagree, we’d love to hear your stories below.

Shame on Us

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Bill Bott

I am a frequent sufferer of television-induced insomnia. If the tube is on, this kid is awake. It really doesn’t even matter what’s airing — amateur gold-miners in Alaska or hoarders in Illinois, I can get hooked.

My wonderful wife usually keeps me in check by assuring we pull the plug at a decent hour, but when I’m on the road doing a workshop, or facilitating an improvement team, all bets are off. I may see Good Morning America before I see a pillow.

Last week I was in Phoenix getting ready for bed when the original Vacation came on. I had to watch, at least until they strap Aunt Edna to the roof. Somewhere between contemplating whether Billy Joel is the world’s greatest hypnotist and the real tomato ketchup scene, I saw a commercial that really hit me and I haven’t been able to shake it since.

We’ve all seen these commericials before: “If you need help with your Social Security benefits, call the law firm of Baylor and Shifflet. We’ll fight the government for you!”

But have you taken a minute to think about what these commercials say about the business we are in?

We are so confusing to deal with that you have no hope of navigating our process without the help of a lawyer. We do not want to help you. We do not want you to get your benefits. Prepare for battle, because we are big and bad, and we get paid whether or not you do.

I was a little embarrassed for the public sector. This is what we put our customers through? Potentially worse is that it has become so commonplace that in the million times this commercial has run tonight, I’ve been completely oblivious to the real message. I’ve met people who work in Social Security benefits offices. They are nice people who at their core want to help people in need. Yet the pipes of their process are so twisted, so gunked-up, we have an entire law specialty needed to help people in need deal with them.

Shame on us.

Shame on us for making things so complex and confusing that people who really need us can’t get to us without legal representation. Yes, we need to fight fraud. Yes, we need to follow a lot of rules. Yes, we need some semblance of order. But enough to keep millions of lawyers busy?

Before we dismiss this as a problem unique to the Social Security Administration, let’s take a look at some government-mandated functions where an entire industry has popped up to help people navigate. I did some very scientific-based research, by which I mean I Googled the following terms:

  • Social Security Benefit Law Services — 7,500,000 results
  • Environmental Permitting Assistance — 800,000 results
  • Building Construction Permit Assistance — 16,000,000 results
  • Tax Services — 290,000,000 results

Now let’s remove half of those in each category for government-based sites designed to help. The numbers are still staggering. It’s worse when you consider I have not included advocacy groups and “industry watchdogs.” These groups help our customers all the time. While working in the mental health industry, I learned that advocacy groups representing our customers are often experts in paperwork and benefit packages not only for their state, but their neighboring states. They have to be in order to help families deal with some of the most important decisions they will ever make.

Shame on us.

It was never our intention to make customers feel so … well … so ignored and mistreated that they had to find help to get to the noble things we want for them. Imagine the increased hassle and resource drain if you needed an automotive engineer each time you took your car in for an oil change, or if you needed a lawyer to get your prescriptions. But we in government do this to our customers all the time. It’s not all about the inconvenience to them either. There is a deeper issue of how we view the whole issue of customers:

Many of us feel as if we do not have customers.

Those of us with customers have a lot of customers, and none of them want the same thing.

Our customers often don’t want us around, and we end up with adversarial relationships. (Think of the customers of the prison system.)

Our customers don’t understand that the pipes are there for them. If they would only learn what we need from them, they would see the process is pretty simple.

We confuse customer service with customer satisfaction and end up not delivering either.

Public Great is going to dedicate a good amount of time to the theme of “Customers in Government.” Once we recognize that our work is all in the pipes, the most important thing we have to struggle with is that our customers serve as the bridge, the connection, between those pipes and our noble outcomes. In other words, unless our customers are active participants, we cannot have clean air, pubic safety, educated children and healthy communities. In its basic form, if no one comes to the health clinic, then no one gets an immunization shot, an epidemic spreads, and we wasted millions on lollipops. More abstract, if a factory does not use our environmental guidance, we have polluted air and water. Both groups are customers we need in order to achieve our outcomes.

We recognize we have a lot of customer issues we need to get our arms around, but nothing may be as key to knowing how to fix our pipes like when we work with our customers to improve that connection, to build a better bridge. In the weeks to come, please engage in the customer conversation and help us strengthen that bridge. By the time Clark pulls a BB gun on John Candy, we need to have better commercials.

In the comments, please share what industry would be hurting if government was easier to use.