Sunday, June 15, 2008

Empowering People to Act

by Bill Kalmar

I think most of us would agree that there are a handful of attributes that separate average companies from those that should be held up as role models. Some of those traits would be: a strong and achievable strategic plan, management interaction with staff and customers, well-trained employees, a passion for excellence, a silo-free organization, an open-door policy, and a team of professionals who are empowered to perform their job without constant management intervention, to name just a few.

Of all those traits, I would place empowerment at or near the top. Organizations that properly train and empower their staff operate more efficiently and do a better job of meeting and exceeding expectations of customers. There’s a minimum of lag time in resolving problems or disputes with customers because each employee can take the appropriate action without kicking it upstairs.

In examining the reasons for employees’ lack of power, one has to conclude that managers are afraid to let go of their decision-making domain. Carrying that concept a bit further, I contend that quality is greatly diminished in an organization unless people are empowered.

Most of us have at some time been involved in a transaction that required a company’s agent to seek guidance or approval or permission from another person. This is a time-consuming practice that irritates customers and humiliates employees because he or she realizes that they’re nothing more than a figurehead lacking authority to perform even the most mundane tasks.

Permit me to provide you with two examples of an extreme lack of empowerment. In my tenure as director of the Michigan Quality Council, my office was at a major university. Once when I needed a meeting room, the conference rooms in my department were all occupied, so I wandered onto another floor seeking an unoccupied room. There was an available room in the history department, but my request would have to be approved by the department head, who was out for the day. No one else could give the OK, because he hadn’t deputized anyone to act in his stead.

The receptionist said that if the Keeper of the Keys learned that the room had been used without his approval there “would be trouble.” Armed with that information and the theory that it’s “better to seek forgiveness than approval,” I used the room anyway, much to the dismay and consternation of the history department. For the absent professor, I left a short write-up on the advantages of empowerment with the receptionist. I wish he had responded.

The second example is from a national restaurant chain where my wife Mary and I frequently dine. As with numerous other dining establishments, this restaurant provides their guests with a card whereon visits are logged—after the purchase of eight meals you get a free dinner. We dutifully bring in our cards each time and have the cards stamped by the staff. After we surrendered our cards for a free meal, we discovered that the restaurant had exhausted their supply of new cards. We were to bring in our receipt at our next visit, when more cards would have arrived. I’m nosy, so I asked why someone hadn’t noticed earlier that the supply of cards was low and ordered more.

It seems that a vice president at headquarters, let’s call him the King of Cards, is the only person responsible for ordering these cards. All requests have to be routed through the king, who then doles out the cards to the various restaurants. My suggestion that each restaurant be responsible for ordering its own cards met with agreement from the restaurant management, but as in many organizations, altering an existing procedure through a labyrinth of senior management is cumbersome and difficult. I’d like the Keeper of the Keys to meet with the King of Cards and see what other blockades they could invent to stifle productivity. Both of these management dinosaurs should be jettisoned from their organizations, or at least made to write the phrase “Empowering my staff adds to customer and employee satisfaction” a thousand times on a blackboard.

Baseball and showerheads
Motoring to New York recently to watch the Detroit Tigers play the Yankees at Yankee Stadium taught me two life lessons: Mayor Michael Bloomberg is genuinely a man of the people, and when it comes to height standards at a national hotel chain, size does matter. Permit me to explain.

For my 65th birthday my son and I attended opening day at Comerica Park in Detroit. The Tigers lost but the day was salvaged when my son presented me with tickets for an upcoming Tigers/Yankees game in New York on his birthday and, as most baseball fans know, this is the last year for The House That Ruth Built—Yankee Stadium.

I wanted to surprise my son with upgraded seats, so I contacted Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor David Paterson, and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and suggested that, if their seats for the game weren’t being used, perhaps a couple of out-of-town fans could be the new occupants.

Well-run organizations always respond to customers whether by phone, e-mail, or snail mail. I have made a habit of contacting organizations when I receive excellent service or when I have a complaint. Organizations that value their relationships with customers always respond, and those are the ones that retain my business and admiration. Then there are the companies that never acknowledge the contact, and that tells me everything I need to know about the management. Their lack of concern cascades onto everyone in the organization. No wonder service is shoddy.

Mayor Bloomberg took the time to respond, stating that he in fact doesn’t have season tickets but he sent a personalized letter to my son for his birthday hoping that he would enjoy his stay in New York. This reflects why he’s so revered in the Big Apple. On the other hand, judging from the poor condition of the reserved box seats, Bloomberg may be waiting for the new stadium to purchase season tickets.

We never received the courtesy of a response from Steinbrenner or Paterson. I realize that both of them receive numerous letters and requests every day but a simple “No, are you crazy?” response to my letter would have been a nice gesture. So Bloomberg goes to the top of my list of world-class mayors.

Let me say at the outset that the staff, the ambience, the food, and the surroundings at the Hampton Inn were first class. What was a bit disturbing was the showerhead, of all things. Entering the shower in the morning was like being a Lilliputian in a Brobdingnagian world. I’m 5'10", and the showerhead was positioned so high that I could adjust the water stream only by standing up on my toes. I’d just turned 65 and already I seemed to be shrinking. Upon checking out later that morning, I mentioned my experience to the front desk staff. Their response was simple and straightforward: Hampton Inns had done a survey and determined that the majority of their business traveler guests were 6'2", and the showerheads were adjusted to accommodate them. They raised the sinks, too.

I sent an e-mail to Hampton Inn management regarding this incident, which elicited the following response from the general manager: “Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience you experienced with our showers. Our hotel was constructed to Hampton brand standards, which specify showerhead heights. Until these specifications change, a solution would be to request a room with accessible features that have handheld showerheads”. In response I asked what would happen if I returned with a broken arm. How would I hold the shower wand, and would the hotel supply someone with a loofa to help me bathe. As with Steinbrenner and Paterson, I haven’t received a response.

All in all, it was a great trip. The Tigers swept the Yankees, and I’m doing stretching exercises in the event we return to New York and I need to take a shower.

As you read this, I’m resting comfortably after June 2 robotic prostate cancer surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. The hospital is the pioneer in this type of surgery, having performed more than 3,000 such operations for people from all over the world, so I knew I was in good robotic hands. What makes it even more appealing (if surgery can be appealing) is that the hospital has partnered with the local Ritz-Carlton Hotel and thus patients for this procedure are transported back and forth to the hospital by hotel staff, and special arrangements are made at the hotel for pre- and post-surgery dietary needs. If one has to experience this type of operation—I’m told one in six males will—it’s comforting to have the best at one’s disposal.

As I relax in my hammock contemplating my next column, I just might arrange for a conference call with the Keeper of the Keys and the King of Cards so we can discuss empowerment. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

About the author
William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director. He has been a member of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Board of Overseers and a Baldrige examiner. He’s also been named quality professional of the year by the ASQ’s Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, he’s a freelance writer for the Detroit News and writes a monthly column for Mature Advisor newspaper. Kalmar is a mystery shopper for several companies and a frequent presenter and lecturer. He also does radio voice-overs and competes in duathlons.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How to Avoid Green Schemes When Getting Green Certified

by Thomas Hinton

Last week, during a speech to business executives, I was asked about the proliferation of Green schemes and how a company could evaluate the credibility of a Green Certification Program. Given the number of misleading web sites and schemers who are trying to make a fast buck from the Green Movement, here are five questions your company should ask before applying for a Green Certification program.

1. Is the Green certification program sponsored by a credible non-profit organization?

I strongly encourage companies to avoid for-profit ventures that claim to offer certification programs but, in fact, are fronts for some money-making scheme. The leading Green Certification programs are administered by viable non-profit organizations or associations that are legal entities and led by volunteers and a professional staff. Most non-profit organizations have been established for the public good and have bylaws and members. While non-profit organizations will charge a fee for their certification program, they do so to sustain their programs and pay their professional staff. Among the leading non-profit organizations that offer outstanding Green certification programs are the U.S. Green Building Industry Council, the American Consumer Council, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Green Steam, and Green-e, which is operated by the Center for Resource Solutions. They are many more credible non-profit organizations, but these non-profit organizations are leading the way in the area of Green Certification.

2. Does the Green Certification program have written criteria and standards that govern the application and certification process?

Yesterday, someone sent me a link to an online green certification program managed by a mom-and-pop website. The alleged certification consisted of 32 yes/no questions. If the applicant answered a majority of the questions correctly, they earned the right to affix the website’s green-certified logo on their company materials. This type of green certification is bogus and does a disservice to the many valid green certification programs that have formal criteria and rigorous standards. Any Green Certification program that does not require your company to complete a detailed application and respond in-depth to serious questions regarding environmental compliance and sustainability is suspect. I should note that Green Certification for a specific product is even more rigorous and often requires some type of ISO-related certification compliance.

3. Does the Green Certification Program have a verification and validation process as part of its certification?

Two common elements among all credible sponsors of a Green Certification program are the verification and validation of the information contained in a company’s application for certification. In order to verify and validate the contents of a company’s application, an independent team of assessors or auditors is trained and certified to review the contents of the application against the criteria and, in some cases, conduct a site visit to verify that certain claims by the applicant are, in fact, being performed.

The certification of assessors or auditors should be done by the sponsoring organization or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). In the case of the American Consumer Council, our Consumer Green Council is responsible for recruiting, training, and certifying its Assessors. Only then are certified Assessors assigned to review an application. Also, an independent Board of Judges reviews all recommendations for certification prior to any certification being awarded. In this way, there can be no collusion or conflicts-of-interest. This process ensures that only qualified applicants receive ACC’s Green C Certification designation. Other non-profit organizations have a similar process in place to ensure the integrity of their certification program.

4. Once your company is Green Certified is there an accountability step and a process for continuous improvement?

The most progressive Green Certification programs not only have contemporary standards and a strong verification process, but they also have a way to hold certified companies accountable to those standards after certification has been earned. In other words, a company cannot earn its Green certification and then engage in practices that violate the spirit of the certification program. Organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the American Consumer Council have high standards in this regard and frequently review the practices of certified companies to ensure they are in compliance and striving to reach higher levels of certification.

5. Does the Green Certification Program have credibility in the marketplace?

Let’s face it, most companies are not altruistic. Very few businesses decide to go Green because they want to save the rain forests. Instead, their motives range from increasing their profits to boosting market share. Frankly, that’s fine. As long as there is integrity in the certification process, it doesn’t matter what motivates a company to get certified.

Based on my observations over the past few years, I can say that consumer acceptance of a brand or product that bears the Green C certification (or some other Green designation) is a strong reason for any company to go Green and get certified.

I’ve also witnessed an interesting transformation among executives as their companies go through a Green certification program. Typically, three things happen to executives. First, they begin to truly appreciate the growing number of Green Consumers and their purchasing power. Secondly, they begin to understand that their company is capable of doing many small, but significant things, to sustain our natural environment and planet. Thirdly, executives realize that their employees genuinely care about our planet and going Green is a smart way to engage employees in the workplace and stimulate innovative solutions to reducing costs and making their company more efficient.

About the Author: Thomas Hinton is president of the American Consumer Council and serves as the executive director of the Consumer Green Council, which administers ACC’s Green C Certification Program. He can be reached in San Diego, California at