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.

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