Adapting to Changes in Job Duties

I wrote a couple of months ago about how McDonald’s is changing the cognitive requirements of some of its jobs by adding channels for customers to order food. I argued that such a development should get them thinking about who they hire and how they train new employees.

If you have recently wandered into one of their stores, you probably noticed that, if it is not too busy, a McDonald’s employee may bring you your order. OK, this is not particularly revolutionary. But, to quote a franchisee in an article, “We’re bringing the employees from behind the counter out front to engage, in a more personal way, with our customers.” Maybe I am making more out of this particular example than it warrants, but this strikes me a really upping the customer service requirements of a McDonald’s employee. And I am guessing that a fair amount of the employees are not going to meet it. It’s just not what they signed up for.

This is not about whether McDonald’s employees are capable of providing the additional service or whether their ability to do it well affects the customer experience and/or sales. Rather, it appears to be an example of company changing job requirements and then assuming that people hired using a process that does not account for the new skills will be able to carry out the new duties.

Changing skills requirements is a good thing. It shows adaptation to technology and customer needs and makes the work experience more interesting for people in repetitive jobs. But, companies cannot assume that the incumbents can magically adapt without training and revised performance expectations.

This change also requires updating validation selection processes. Whether it means increasing the weight given to certain aspects or validating a new test, we must adapt our workforce to new job requirements on the front end. As jobs change, hiring practices should as well.

Technology and customers are big drivers of change in the skills, abilities, and personality characteristics required of employees. Smart companies not only redesign work to account for this, but they also update how they train and hire to help their workforce adapt.

Ways That We Punish, Rather Than Coach, Poor Performers

During the 4th of July holiday, I was binge watching an Australian cooking competition show with my family. It was pretty mindless and entertaining stuff. The gist of each episode was that contestants competed in a theme-based challenge. One was selected as the best for the day. Two others were deemed the poorest performers and then they competed to stay on the show. What I found most interesting was that they task they were given to avoid elimination (getting fired) was harder (by design) than the original one.

Of course, there is not necessarily a straight line to be drawn between entertainment shows and the work place. But this did get me thinking about how we develop poor performers. While it seems intuitive that resources spent on improving their performance would have a significant return-on-investment, data show that high performers generally benefit more from training than low ones do.

HR needs to consider how to develop all levels of talent. With the current low unemployment rates, companies are losing some of their control over their talent levels, especially now there is more job hopping. There are a few considerations in developing low performers:

• Are you rewarding progress until the person is capable of delivering results? The key here is that improving performance requires changes in behavior. If they are reinforced, the new behaviors are more likely to be learned. Telling people “try harder” or dangling a future carrot are not good strategies for improving performance.

• Are they sufficiently skilled in the tasks you expecting them to do? Before concluding that the person is not going to be a good employee, be sure that they have the basic skills/experience to perform the job. You should not expect someone to be a pastry chef if s/he does not know how to make a cake. This is where valid pre-employment testing programs are valuable.

• Are there other areas of the business that appeal more to their interests? I have a client that staffs its own call center. They have higher than average turnover in the call center, but somewhat lower in the company overall, because after people spend 6 months there they can bid for any other open position in the company for which they are qualified. Allowing easy lateral transfers helps you keep good employees who may just be in jobs they do not find engaging.

Low unemployment rates mean that new talent is going to be more expensive. It may indicate a good return-on-investment in developing under-performing talent than usual. However, getting people in the right place and having alternate reward strategies are essential to getting the most out of their development.

Can Robots Reduce Turnover By Making Work More Interesting for People?

Lower unemployment rates mean that many industries, including hospitality, need ways to attract and retain more talent. Higher minimum wage laws in many states and cities have likely encouraged people to stay in jobs they may have previously left. But, what about using automation to get them to stay?

The typical assumption is that automation leads to fewer workers, which makes sense in many cases. The cotton gin took people out of the fields and it does not take as many people to put together a car now as it did 30 years ago. What automation also does is offload boring tasks so that people can do more interesting work. We see that in offices (no longer lots of people mindlessly typing memos all day) and now we are seeing a bit of it in the hospitality sector. Granted, most of the turnover in restaurants is due to still crappy pay and low benefits. But an employer quoted in the article thinks that it is partly due to the work itself (note, I was unable to find another dataset that confirmed this, but it makes for an interesting argument). From this perspective, a restaurant can provide more value to the employee (and, presumably the customer) by having that person deliver food instead of taking orders (which customers are doing themselves from kiosks or smart phones). Perhaps these are both minimum wage tasks and the former is more interesting for the worker than the latter.

The idea of reducing turnover by making the work more interesting goes back to the 1970’s. It is pretty simple: Most people do not want to do boring and repetitive tasks and they will be more satisfied and engaged with their work (e.g., more likely to stay) if it is not mundane. This is not rocket science. However, giving people more tasks and more autonomy may also require a different skill set. Where employers who choose this approach (either through job redesign or automation) miss the boat is when they implement these changes without considering whether employees have the skills sets necessary.

Most organizational change efforts I have observed save the planning for new selection systems or training until the end (if they are thought of at all). For instance, if I have always asked workers to follow one single process but now I am giving them the autonomy to override it, I need to understand that these are two different sets of performance expectations. If you asking for new behaviors from those in a job title, you need to be sure you are hiring people with those abilities using validated tests and/or provide them with proper training.

People–Can’t Profit With Them, Can’t Profit Without Them

So, in the same week that Tesla says that lack of people is a problem in their business (too many robots!), Starbucks comes to the conclusion that people are biased and are hurting its business, everyone gets training. So, which one is right?

Let’s start with Tesla. Their statement is not as much about how wonderful people are as it is that they haven’t quite (yet) gotten the engineering down for their new cars to be built completely by robots. So, it is not exactly an “Up with people” moment as a “Well, we guess we have to put up with them for a bit longer” one.

The Starbucks situation is a bit stickier. On one hand, they clearly felt as if they had to do something after a horrible incident involving African-American customers to maintain their brand image. But, I think they are setting themselves up for failure. Implicit bias training is well meaning, but correcting a lifetime of assumptions about people in a ½ day seminar is a pretty tall order. What will they do next time a racially tinged incident occurs? Do a full day of training? Validate a test that predicts levels of implicit bias?

Where I think the training will have the most impact is on their new hires. It sets a cultural norm of what is and is not OK. Yes, this will require management support and some way of recognizing employees for being decent human beings. But, in reading the comments on their social media pages after the announcement that may not matter as a lot of people were pretty bent out of shape of having to go one whole afternoon without their Starbucks. Ah, the downsides of selling a legal, but addicting, product.

Service sector organizations will always face the challenge of directing the activities of people in a way that is consistent with their values. Manufacturers are always challenged with introducing technology (which improves efficiency), but also understanding its limits (for now). We are not quite at a point where people can be engineered out of business. So, we still need to lead them in productive ways.

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.

But we Trained Them!

Workplace controversies that make headlines are a bonanza for corporate trainers. Even in states like California that have mandatory sexual harassment training (companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide all supervisors two hours of sexual harassment prevention training within six months of hire or promotion, and every two years thereafter), you can bet that the #MeToo movement has led to an explosion in programs for managers devoted to the topic.

While providing basic information about sexual harassment is a good thing, it is more of a “check the box” activity than a creator of change. The underpinnings of what made it allowable and tolerated run deeper than what can be addressed in a two-hour mandatory training session or firing a couple of executives for egregious behavior. So, how can a company create an environment where incidents of sexual harassment are reduced?

1) Recruit, hire, and promote qualified women. Sociologists tell us that the roots of harassment are power differences. Having women and men participate in an organization with equal footing will likely reduce harassment incidents. Oh, and while you are at it, equal pay based on skill and experience goes a long way.

2) Reward at least some of the means, not just the ends. Cultures that have a win at all costs mentality are prime breeding grounds for harassment. If an organization only focuses on results, top producers can rationalize and get away with more bad behavior. Consider rewarding important process indicators (voluntary turnover, complaints to HR, engagement survey results, etc.) as part of evaluating manager’s performance.

3) Apply corporate sexual harassment policies quickly and as intended. This is where training has benefit. If manager know the policy and implement it correctly, it tells employees that it is as important as other policies and procedures.

Sexual harassment in the workplace did not happen, nor will it disappear, overnight. Our challenge is to create cultures that strongly discourage it. And that takes more than a two hour training band-aid.

Does Kindergarten Really Have a Culture of Success?

You may be familiar with the marshmallow challenge. It is an intriguing and engaging team building exercise that demonstrates the importance of failure in group interactions.

It is all fun and everyone gets a laugh regarding how, according to an accompanying Ted Talk I show, kindergartners do better at it than those who went to business school. By the way, I’d like to see that replicated because it makes a great story but I doubt that it is really true. But the most important lesson for leaders from it is not that failure eventually grows success. Rather, it is the call to action to create a culture where taking the risk should be rewarded and not only when the risk leads to immediate success.

What leaders should learn from the challenge is that it takes place in an environment that encourages risk taking. There is no one to say, “Let me tell you how we’ve done this before” or “If this doesn’t work out well we are in big trouble.” From this culture, most teams are able to accomplish something that at first seems unlikely in about 18 minutes. This should lead to a candid conversation about the barriers that exist to useful failure and what actions can be taken to change those aspects of the culture.

The nature of kindergarten is to reward process more than results. Incentives in business cannot be quite follow that model and lead to success. However, we can use learning to find the unnecessary hurdles creativity and problem solving.

Flexibility, Bench Strength, and Leadership

An attribute associated with leadership is determination. The idea that once a goal has been established and a plan laid out, effective leadership involves sticking to it and absorbing the inevitable bumps that come along the way. This may involve coaching or training, but requires confidence in the team.

But, what if things get really bad? Should the leader have faith in the plan and work harder on execution? Or, does effectiveness require that things get “blown up” and change on the fly?

There was an interesting example of this in the college football national championship game earlier this week. The University of Alabama (Bama) was playing the University of Georgia (UGA). Bama’s coach had won 5 national championships (6 was the most) going into the matchup, so he knows something about winning big games. While renowned for his success, he is also thought of as being a bit humorless and someone who has extraordinary attention to detail, the latter being a trait shared with other successful coaches, regardless of the sport. This is a person who meticulously plans practices and expects nearly flawless execution.

So, in the championship game, UGA took a large lead into halftime. Bama’s coach was faced with a choice: Conclude that his team was executing poorly and stick with the plan (with some adjustments) or decide that the plan was not working and implement a different one. The coach chose the second option, including replacing many of his star performers, and they won the game in dramatic fashion. What can we learn from this?

1) A plan is not destiny. If leaders view them as the ONLY path, then they will be blind to other opportunities to succeed.

2) Changing approaches requires bench strength (which is literally true in this case). When Bama changed their game plan they also replaced some key players. This was only possible because they had a reservoir of talent with a variety of skills. If they had recruited (the college athletics equivalent of employee selection) players with the same skills, they would only be able to execute one type of plan. Since they had more variety, it gave the coach more flexibility. Think about that when someone says, “We need to hire more people like so-and-so.

3) Effective leaders establish criteria for success and failure. We often here about measuring when we have achieved goals. Less frequently talked about is when it is time to rethink our approach. While perhaps not explicit before the game, Bama’s coach knew when it was time to change to Plan B and made the decision.

Do effective leaders need determination? Of course they do. No plan is ever going to be executed perfectly and without adjustments. But, they also need the humility to know when their plans are failing and the talent available to them to change directions.

Inviting Introverts to Lead

Whenever I teach about leadership the participants and I talk about the value of charisma. Not surprisingly, most of those in the workshop feel that the most effective leaders are these larger-than-life figures. That is, until we start talking about ones that are not (and often one of them is the CEO of their company). So, what gives?

This article delves into the issue. Note that the author sometimes confuses behavior (which can be changed) with personality (which is VERY stable, despite her claim and her link that is not associated with any research). The real issue is what can introverts do to be effective leaders?

For many, what it comes down to is the expectations of the situation. If I think any task is going to be painful, of course I am going to avoid it. This is how introverts feel about an assignment that involves a lot of group interaction.

This study looked at potential barriers to introverts being effective leaders. What they found was that negative thinking about assuming the role inhibited performance (as measured by emergent leadership). However, and this is important, positive thinking did not lead to more emergent leadership. So, in working with high potential introverts, this data (and it is only one study) suggests that removing undesirable thoughts about the role (e.g., your fears are not accurate, you will not be a failure, etc.) will lead to more leadership behaviors than selling the role (e.g., you will be fabulous, there is no doubt that you will be successful, etc.).

This is important because it shows that those who lack the extroversion trait associated with charisma may still be effective leaders. This increases your pool of leadership potential in your company. It also provides a road map for encouraging introverts, who are otherwise qualified, to take on leadership assignments in way that allows them to be successful.

From a selection perspective, understanding this nuance would be valuable to determining who you choose to be leaders. Rather than assessing introversion/extroversion, you can look at a person’s attitudes towards leading groups as potentially a more valued predictor.

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.

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