Can Tech, Workers, and Burgers Co-Exist?

One purpose of technology is to make labor more efficient. This was not news to the inventor of the first wheel or the latest and fastest micro-chip. Western society has been pretty comfortable with this because it really makes things go faster and has eliminated some very physically demanding jobs. Of course, tech also creates higher paying jobs (though not as many) than the ones that get replaced. But, where do customers draw the line?

This article describes the effect that tech is having on McDonalds. Note that this is the only description of the issue I’ve seen online, so I’m a bit skeptical of the premise that this is the reason people are quitting work at McDonalds at higher rates than before, especially considering the low unemployment rate. There are those who think that this kind of automation is being driven (or at least accelerated) by local minimum wage increases. However, automation has always been designed to reduce labor, so that’s not a big surprise.

Yet, Walmart is appearing to be having the opposite experience with tech in its stores. I think the big difference is that the impact of the technology there is to allow employees to focus on what they already do well rather than leading to a change in necessary skill sets.

New tech always has growing pains and I am sure that fast-food chains will get this figured out pretty quickly. The bigger questions to me are:

1) Whether they will understand that they have changed the cognitive complexity of the jobs, and therefore need to change their hiring practices.

2) If service is really part of the equation for fast food customers.

When you change tech in any job, you need to change organizational behavior to adapt. Part of this equation is training, but the other half is ensuring that your selection systems are still valid. This change has led to an increase in behaviors such as quickly shifting between ways people can order while maintaining attention to detail. This requires a somewhat different skill set than handling one order at a time using one process. The tech won’t work as well if you do not have the people who can run it correctly.

As for the second question, the U.S. economy is filled with examples of service employees going away. Whether it was the transition away from pumping your own gas to checking out your own groceries, we are pretty good at serving ourselves. This leads me to believe that the increasingly automated fast food restaurant will be here more quickly than you think.

How Committed Are You to Developing a Skilled Workforce?

The economy is in a unique position right now. Unemployment is at the lowest rate this century as is the net migration rate. This leaves employers of a skilled workforce in the position of a smaller pool of candidates in general and likely one that contains fewer people with the talents they are looking for.

When more the jobs in the country were in the industrial sector (and there was a higher participation in private sector unions), management and labor worked out apprentice programs. This allowed lower skill workers to obtain the knowledge and skills for jobs over time. It also required the companies to really think about how they wanted the work done and train people accordingly.

The knowledge and service economy (along with companies’ willingness to expand/contact their head counts and greater employee mobility) has ground the apprentice approach to a near halt. People are more willing to skip from job to job to gain skills and employers are less leery of candidates who have multiple firms on their resumes. This gives hiring companies less control of the skills of the people they are hiring. I was considering these ideas when I read this article about Kaiser Permanente breaking ground its own medical school.

Kaiser’s jump into medical education can be taken in several ways, but the one that interests me the most is that a very large player in a big industry (health care) has gone to another big industry (medical schools) and said, “You all are behind the times in providing us workers and we think we can do it better.” It would be like a software company offering degrees in computer science (I think I just gave Amazon an idea!). This is potentially a disruption of a 300 year old model of providing workers.

The investment Kaiser is making is large, but they obviously see the benefit is even bigger in the quality of their doctor labor pool. I would think that if this foray is successful that they would open schools for other professions where they hire a lot of people (e.g., nursing).

The question for other business sectors is this: If your pool of available skilled talent is getting smaller, what are you doing to do to ensure you have access to it in the future? Are you going to poach from competitors or are you planning on creating your own talent pipeline?

I get that the investment in training is high and has its risks (I don’t want to spend a lot of money investing in people just to see them leave). However, it provides you the opportunity to develop the right skills and create the culture you want. It seems like money well spent.

Is Taking a Pulse Too Invasive?

Corporate culture is a tricky thing. It develops over time, but we want to change it quickly when it suits us. The business media is replete with examples of great (100 best places to work!) and toxic (see Uber, supposedly) places to work. If your job is to influence those cultures, where do you start?

I am very big on measurement in the workplace. Whether it is testing for job candidates, evaluating job performance, or surveying employee engagement. So, I was interested to read about startup software tools that provide for spot surveys and compliance measures. The appeal of these is clear. Real time data can lead to real time solutions. But, are these really ways to improve culture or just faster methods of applying band-aids?

Culture evolves whether you want it to or not. Companies that actively manage employee engagement can use it as a strategic and recruiting advantage. The constant use of software to measure culture strikes me as a reactive approach. It can lead companies to chase small problems (“Why has turnover ticked up in Pat’s area?”) instead of focusing on larger ones (“What are we doing to ensure that all of our best employees want to stay?”). Also by constantly measuring engagement we are affecting it, but probably not in the way we want to be (“Why are we constantly being asked for our opinion? Doesn’t management know what’s happening here?”).

I would suggest a thoughtful approach where you ask what you want your culture to be. You can take a baseline measure and then take steps to close any gaps (hint—be sure that senior executives are modeling and talking about the culture you are trying to achieve). Then see if closing any of those gaps affects measures of engagement (turnover, absenteeism, productivity, etc). Keep focusing on what has impact and put aside what doesn’t. Wash, rinse, repeat. This replaces a “whack-a-mole” approach with a more strategic one that does not require constant surveying.

Senior executives should have a “pulse” on the organization, but they should not have to be constantly asking “are we there yet?” like an 8 year old in the back of a car. If you approach employee engagement strategically, you can manage better and not be so invasive.

Accountability, Fear, and Changing a Culture

Uber finds itself in the news for lots of reasons, not all of them good.  The most recent story concerns the firing of 20 employees for a variety of bad behaviors to show that they were being held accountable for their actions.  I am not so concerned with whether this was a good move as much as if it will lead to change.

Certainly, the publicness of the firings meant that they were done as a message to Uber employees and the investment community.  It says, “Yes, we hear you about our culture and we are doing something about it.”  What it doesn’t say is, “You have been rewarding our CEO who does the same things, but we are not so sure what to do about that.”

Firing a bunch of people does not improve a company’s culture, even if it was the right decision.  Rather, it instills fear.  And while it may convey a message of what will not be tolerated, the action does not reinforce any positive behaviors that senior management would like to see.  It is almost like sentencing people to hang by the neck until they cheer up.

Uber has grown their business by the asking for forgiveness rather than permission.  That type of a model, by definition, rewards people for bending the rules to the extreme.  Their challenge is how to continue with a culture based on disrupting the status quo but respects the people who support it.  That will require threading a pretty small needle.

Changing a culture requires time and consistency.  Management needs to look at every aspect of its people processes (recruiting, hiring, onboarding, training, compensation, performance management, and succession planning) and ask, “Have we put in the right incentives and are we modeling the correct behaviors for a sustainable culture?”  Cultures do not happen overnight and they do not change after a few heads roll.

Another Step Towards Engaging Millennials

When writing previously about employee engagement, I discussed how companies can encourage employees to be engaged by taking steps to connect them with the organization.  We also know that, as a group, millennials tend to look for ways to connect with their employers and co-workers in ways that go beyond whatever product or service they are delivering at work.

This article describes a start-up that provides experiences for groups of employees to help encourage engagement in a way that is enticing to millennials.  This includes unique experiences they can together and being involved in community service.

Of course, this type of thing is not brand new.  Companies have been involved with stalwart social service organizations like United Way and Red Cross for many years.  But, I think it is fair to say that millennials are looking for something a bit more active than fundraising and giving blood (both worthy endeavors, by the way).

Companies do not need to outsource their engagement activities and management can brainstorm things that would appeal to their employees and fit with their culture.  But, this does show how companies are trying to get younger workers more engaged by experiencing intrinsic rewards (feelings of accomplishment) rather than extrinsic ones (here is a thing for doing well).  It also underlines how it is important to proactively create engagement you want to improve teamwork and reduce turnover.

Higher Minimum Wages and Success in the Hospitality Industry

The state of California and several of its cities have been on the forefront of raising the minimum wage.  The arguments for (people cannot live on the current minimum wage) and against (it will cost jobs because business will need to lay people off) it are familiar.  But now there is some data that makes a very interesting link between quality and the impact of raising wages.

This study looks at the impact of raises in the minimum wage and restaurant employment in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Don’t be fooled by the academic nature of the paper—the authors do a good job of explaining things in English before digging into the math (though you can get another explanation here with an eye towards the political).  The main takeaway from the article is that well run restaurants (in this case, defined by high Yelp ratings) are not impacted by minimum wage hikes.  Crappy restaurants (based on quality, not menu price) saw their already higher closure rate go up with the increases.  So, what does this mean for HR?

  • Well run businesses can absorb higher wages when their competitors cannot. This may mean higher prices (in some instances people will pay for quality) or that these businesses can survive on lower profit margins.  HR can contribute to this through good hiring (brining in people who can deliver high levels of customer service) and training (developing a learning culture) practices.
  • Use data to improve quality. The study shows that online feedback (in this case, Yelp reviews) is strongly correlated with business success.  This customer input should be used to improve service and quality.
  • If we presume that the vast majority of the workers at the restaurants are at minimum wage (as the paper does), this research tells us that paying more is not an indicator of quality or success. If restaurant A is getting a rating of 5 and restaurant B is getting a rating of 3, it is not due to wage differentials.  Rather, it is likely based on the quality of the product and the level of service.  HR may not have much impact on the former, but it certainly does on the latter.

What the paper really tells is that that business can succeed without necessarily being the one that pays the highest wages.  When wages are held constant, hiring the best people from the available labor pool may lead to higher service delivery.  This, in addition to a good product, can keep a business successful, even if wages are forced to go up.

He Knows When You Are Working, He Knows When Are Logged Out

As long as there have been workers, management has looked for ways to manage performance.  In the case of piece work, it was mostly used to provide incentives for productivity.  As the economy became more service oriented, performance was also measured so that throughput could be forecasted more accurately (think about a telephone center predicting the number of call to be handled on a certain day).

The use of this data has traditionally been used to “gamify” work as well.  That is, make reaching certain performance level an incentive in and of itself.  Sales competitions are a great example of this.  The logic being that if something is like playing a game it will be more fun (read: motivating) than something that seems like work.

Big data gives companies more ammunition to gamify work.  It also provides opportunities for the application of it to go beyond making or selling widgets.  As this article points out, Uber is at the forefront of this (though, make no mistake, they are not the only ones doing it).

Uber really has a love/hate relationship with its drivers.  Right now it needs them, but they foresee a day where they will need fewer people behind the wheel due to the automation of cars.  Uber needs a lot of drivers to provide high levels of service, but a glut of them leads to fewer occurrences of surge pricing (Uber’s version of raising prices and being more profitable when demand is high compared to the supply of drivers), which leads to fewer people being available since they will not make as much money.

Forecasting labor availability is key for the company in order to maintain service levels.  But, since Uber insists that the drivers are independent contractors who can work whenever they want, they cannot schedule the appropriate number of drivers to match anticipated demand.  So, to keep drivers logged in the app and behind the wheel, they have employed the same techniques that video game designers use to keep people playing.

In the article, the author clearly thinks that tapping into these motivations is “tricking” drivers into spending more time behind the wheel than they may want to.  But, is this really any different than traditional motivation techniques used by leaders such as providing intrinsic motivators like praise (“I appreciate the hard work you put into that presentation”) to reward and encourage future efforts?  Is it more coercive than, “You need to work at the store on Thanksgiving or your fired.”?

The answers really depend on whether the goals that Uber wants to achieve are aligned with those of the drivers.  If keeping more people in the app leads to more idle time (time spent without making any money), then I have a real problem with it.  If it helps manage the drivers’ time in a way that allows them to be more efficient and them and Uber to be more profitable, then I am good with it.

Worker performance has always been managed to help achieve organizational goals.  New technologies allow companies to look at these issues more closely than ever before.  HR should examine closely whether these efforts enhance engagement and, in the case of independent contractors, financial viability.

Lost Communication and the Death of Process

The business world is both transient and stable.  People and priorities change, but as long as the organization is in existence it has processes that continue on.  When the information gets disseminated is becomes institutional knowledge.  We often connect this with an individual (When Maria leaves we are in trouble because she has so much institutional knowledge.), but keeping this information available improves the understanding of processes throughout the enterprise.
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But, how we speak about things changes over time.  For instance, organizational commitment became employee satisfaction, which became employee engagement.  There are subtle differences between them, but what we have always been talking about is, “How much do people want to be here and contribute?”  Yet, if we did not have records about how we understood these concepts we would have some difficulty understanding how and why we conduct (or don’t conduct) employee surveys.

The challenge is how to keep track of the amount of information that organizations generate and keep it in an update language that makes sense as the business changes.  For instance, in my practice it is normally takes quite a bit of communication and presentations to keep validated testing programs going when there is a change in HR leadership.

Perhaps a more interesting example is outlined in this article, which describes how a group of volunteers are taking handwritten letters to reconstruct the English language during Shakespeare’s time.  You may say that 400 years is much longer than any business organization has been around, but think about the rapid changes in computer languages and how important understanding the “old” ones are in maintaining or updating systems.  The archaic can be useful

What potentially gets lost over time and change in language are the research and reasons for doing things.  We lose the ability to answer the most basic of business questions, “Why are we doing this?  Why are we doing it this way?”  Being able to communicate the answers those questions allows for adapting processes when the environment changes and prevents reinventing the wheel.

 

 

CEO Accountability…Really!

I could fill up this post with examples of CEOs that got raises when the performance of the company they were running got worse.  But, that’s too depressing.

Rather, here’s a story about Tim Cook and other Apple executives getting their pay cut because the company did not hit its numbers.  Sure, Cook and the others are not going to start clipping coupons any time soon, but it is an all-too-rare example of executive compensation being linked to actual company performance.  In this instance, profit was down 16%, so pay got cut 15% (though I doubt whatever formula was used was quite that simple).  In this case, the cut is not receiving 100% of a cash incentive, which had been paid out in full previously.

Cynics will say that the cut amounts to change in the cushions for the Apple executive team, which I guess is true.  However, it does send a message to employees (and shareholders) that if executives are accountable for the overall performance of the company.  And this type of message is important in establishing a culture of accountability.

What this step also does is establish the purpose of executive variable compensation—to reward provide a reward based on recent company performance.  This is separate from any gains/losses in the stock price, which is supposed to be a forward looking metric.  Is this going to make Tim Cook work any harder?  Probably not.  Does it tell Apple employees that senior executives are accountable for the development and execution of business strategies?  Absolutely.

How Far Will You Go to Emphasize a Culture of Customer Service?

I am a regular listener to the podcast of This American Life.  Recently, they had a segment on customer satisfaction and L.L. Bean’s extreme version interpreting it (“Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We do not want you to have anything from L.L.Bean that is not completely satisfactory.”).  You can read the transcript here (go down to “Act Two. Bean Counter”) or download to podcast (I recommend the latter).  Some of the stories are stunning.

The first issue is who gets to define customer satisfaction?  The company?  The customer?  Of course, only the customer knows if s/he is truly satisfied with a product or service and the satisfaction is generally derived from whether or not they got exactly what they wanted out of the transaction. So, the question really is what will a company do when the customer is not satisfied?

In non-competitive marketplaces (think government services or other monopolies), don’t hold your breath.  To them, customer satisfaction is a cost, not an investment.  There is no incentive for them to make you happy (though, one could argue that working in a customer service oriented environment would lead to a better culture, which leads to better word of mouth when it comes to recruiting).   Lucky Patcher app The same goes for pseudo-competitive marketplaces (like cable/satellite TV) where you have some limited choices but making a switch is really a pain in the ass.

However, in competitive marketplaces, like apparel, delivering superior customer service is a differentiator.  All of us can think of how different retailers interpret customer satisfaction and the investment they put into it.

What I found most interesting during the podcast was the training that went into ensuring that LL Bean’s return policy was carried out.  It’s one thing to say, “OK, we’ll take back anything that you bring back for store credit” and another to do it in a way that provides for a satisfying experience for the customer.  Note that they trained people who work in returns to execute the letter and the spirit of the policy.  LL Bean also selects people who work in that department who have the personality and skills to carry it out.

What this tells us is that customer service does not just happen.  Rather, it is a combination of strategy, culture, and the right people to treat customers the way the company wants to treat them.  What is your plan to align all of these?

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