Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Change The Lens: An Open Letter to Barack Obama (And All Government Leaders) On The Best Way To Improve Government

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

obama

This year’s election season generated a lot of enthusiasm from all sides. The record-breaking voter registrations and the long lines at the polls are positive signs of an active democracy. The pundits are saying this election will drive renewed interest in public service the likes we haven’t seen since the 1960s. I hope that is true. The work of government is noble, necessary and too often thankless. But we can’t renew interest in public service until we reform the perception of public servants.

 

Government employees have been an easy target for far too long. Imagine how well a company would perform if the employees were continually berated by the investors, the board of directors and the customers. Imagine how inspired you would be if you were told that your life’s work was “the problem” instead of the solution. While you alone can’t change the attitude of taxpayers and elected officials, you can at least assure the employees that the CEO is supportive of them and their important mission.

Over the next four years, people will be approaching you with any number of initiatives to improve government. Many of these initiatives will be directed at improving the performance of the people of government. On the surface, they may sound well-meaning, but I challenge you to search your heart and ask what assumptions these initiatives make about people. Through what lens do they view the work of government? Are they assuming government employees are looking to avoid work and responsibility? Are they assuming that government employees are motivated by money? Do they assume that the customers of government are all out to cheat the system?

As you embark on your new administration, I challenge you to change the lens. To start with a fresh perspective. To see government employees as they truly are — hard working, creative, mission-driven, passionate people who want to make a difference in the world.

With that perspective in mind, what can you do to radically improve the performance of government? (more…)

“Zip It”: Why Naming Your Initiative Is The First Step Toward Failure

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

zip-it

In a previous column, A Mug Full of Change, I asked the question, “Why do we have so many change mugs?” With each new initiative comes a new mug — and rather than helping to make change, they often end up merely collecting change. I reasoned that we have so many mugs because we have so many flavor-of-the-month initiatives. I shared seven areas our organizations will always be working to improve. It is the job of the leader to provide the context for new initiatives — to show employees that we are not jumping on another fad, but rather continuing our journey to get better every day. We may introduce new methods or approaches to doing the seven things — a new strategic planning model or different process improvement techniques, for example — but we will never not be doing the seven things.

 

In this column, I’d like to address the other reason we have so many mugs: the almost universal desire to name our change initiatives. Look around your cubicle at all the logo-adorned mugs, pens, paperweights and mousepads. See what I mean?

What could possibly be wrong with naming your change initiative? As someone with a marketing degree who had named several initiatives and held big kickoff events, I had assumed that was step one in creating change: Create a brand, a catchy name that people would remember. (more…)

Free the Hostages: Sure Governments Are Monopolies. But They Don’t Have To Act Like It.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

hostage

Difficult economic times have government agencies searching for ways to be more efficient. One solution that’s always trotted out is the concept of outsourcing — turning to the private sector to fulfill functions previously performed by the public sector.

There are definitely times when this solution can be advantageous: When the expertise is too rare and too costly to develop, or when there simply isn’t enough capacity inside the agency to keep up. Good examples include using private collection agencies for outstanding fees and taxes, or employing private after-hours child-abuse investigation units.

In most cases, though, outsourcing isn’t being done to supplement the work of government employees. It’s done to replace them. The assumption behind most pushes for outsourcing is that the private sector can do it better. Many people hold this as a universal truth, that private sector employees are simply better and more efficient than public sector employees. (And after corporate America’s stellar performance in 2008, who could argue?)

But is this true? Are those of us in government defective in some way? Have all of the slow, inefficient, customer-hating people gravitated to one industry? (more…)

A Mug Full of Change: Employees Don’t Need Another Mug With A Catchy Slogan. They Need Context.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

mugIn my closet, I have a change mug. Each night, before I place my pants in the laundry basket, I empty my pockets and deposit the change in an old coffee mug. I noticed the other day, however, that my change mug was actually a “change mug.” That is, it was a mug left over from one of the numerous change initiatives I have experienced in my time in government. This one was a relic from the Total Quality Management days, complete with a picture of a non-smiling W. Edwards Deming.

 

I remember when I first got this mug, because its presence had been forecasted by one our organizations’ great cynics. I was pretty new to government and had been volunteered to represent my agency on the bigger department’s TQM steering committee. (I was to learn later that this was a clear sign the organization thought I was expendable).

This was my first change initiative, so I enthusiastically embraced it and felt with all my heart that it was going to change the world. With the zeal of the converted, I started proselytizing cubicle by cubicle.

Until I met Gerry, a 30-year veteran of state government. (more…)

Competing Interests: What Toothpaste and Tax Forms Can Teach Us About Simplifying Government For Citizens

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

 

toothpasteI thought April would be a good time to write a column about taxes and a topic people in government love just about as much as taxes — customers. As many of you may know, one of my previous jobs in government was as deputy director of a large state agency responsible for taxes and DMVs. Much like the “I learned in Kindergarten” book series, everything I ever needed to know about customer satisfaction in government, I learned there.

 

I learned that people don’t like the word “customer.” I learned that telling auditors “the customer is always right” doesn’t win friends. I learned that customer-service training washes off the first time there is a two-hour line and the computer stops working. But most importantly, I learned about competing customer interests — a reality we all face in government at every level in every agency.

One of the push-backs I get in my workshops about customer satisfaction in government is, “Ken, this would all be so easy in the private sector. They just have to worry about one customer. But we have multiple customers with competing interests.”

I sympathize with that sentiment. In many ways, the concept of customer in the private sector is much easier, but the reality is that the private sector struggles with the same issue we do.

Let’s use a very simple example: toothpaste. Our common notion of customers is of someone who walks into a store, buys something and walks out happy. So when it comes to that tube of Crest, determining who the customer is seems like an easy exercise. If I walk into Target and buy a tube of toothpaste, I am the customer. There, that was easy. (more…)

The WelcomeMat to Your Culture: Your Hiring Process May Be What’s Keeping Your Organization From Improving

Friday, May 1st, 2009

doormatLast month, I wrote about Buckminster Fuller’s trimtab analogy for organizational change. Essentially, you must identify trimtabs, those few vital changes that would break up the status quo, in order to change the direction of the culture of your organization. These trimtabs are not low-hanging fruit, but rather they are the key systems of your organization. Once you find them, form projects and fix them. At the end of the column, I promised I would share the one trimtab every organization should work on right away: the hiring process. There is no organizational process that I have seen that has a bigger impact on a culture than the hiring process.

I’ve had many frank discussions with executives in which they confess their absolute frustration with the slow, unresponsive, bureaucratic culture they are leading. As one manager said “We’ve thrown fish, we’ve moved cheese, none of it works”.  Despite their best efforts, the culture only seems to endure and perpetuate itself. I usually give the same reply: How is your hiring process? Think about it. What is the first experience a new employee will have with your agency?

One of my workshop participants, a recent hire to government, put it to me this way:

“I had to fill out ridiculously long forms; I couldn’t get hold of anybody to help me; I got notified of my interview a day before; was told the wrong place to go; had to take a test that reminded me of my drivers exam; and then I waited and waited and waited and called and waited some more. Finally I got the offer, showed up for work and goofed around for a month before I could get a phone, a desk and access to the computer system.”

What have we just told our new employees about how we do things around here? You never get a second chance to make a first impression. (Compounding this problem is the generation gap. Many of us grew up being told that if you wanted something, you had to wait for it. The TiVo Generation has a different perspective. When they start a new job, they want to hit the ground running.)

But that’s just the half of it. The unresponsive, cumbersome hiring process may create the wrong impression for new employees, but that pales in comparison to the cancerous effect it has on existing employees. (more…)