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Operational Philosophies and Strategies That Work


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Company owners and managers rightfully spend most of their time and effort on satisfying client demands. But developing and implementing philosophies and strategies in areas such as processes and procedures, human resources, customer service, and communication are critical to long-term health, stability, and growth. The following discusses philosophies and strategies that will ensure quality work, on-time delivery, happy clients, and motivated employees, which all leads to a positive impact on your bottom line.

Processes and Procedures

“The man who gets the most satisfactory results is not always the man with the most brilliant single mind, but rather the man who can best coordinate the brains and talents of his associates.”

— W. Alton Jones

One of the most important—because it is extremely effective—processes to implement is to set goals. Goal setting, when taken seriously, handled well, and followed through, enables individual and corporate focus, growth, and improvement. At Ralph McElroy Translation Company (RMTC), each employee, in conjunction with his or her manager, sets new goals for the coming year during the annual performance evaluation, and both the employee and the manager are held accountable for the completion of those goals. Employee goals often include such items as learning a new software program, expanding skills to handle a different type of project, or crosstraining to provide backup for another department. Each manager also sets departmental goals at the beginning of each calendar year, many of them based on input from his or her staff.

There are three keys to a successful goal-setting process: 1) limit the number of goals (three is a good number); 2) make the goals specific and achievable; and 3) monitor and report each goal’s accomplishment. Setting too many goals reduces the likelihood that all of them will be achieved, and having unfinished goals at the end of the year—regardless of the many that may have been accomplished—can “feel” negative. This is also the reason for making the goals specific and achievable. Vague goals, such as “improve our quality,” and overly optimistic goals, such as “increase sales 50%,” are not nearly as effective as those that are specific (“reduce our customer complaint rate from 3% to 2% by adding a final quality control check”) and achievable (“increase sales 15% by doing three new promotions”). And your follow-up, as the top manager, is critical. The simple fact that you take the process seriously and expect its outcome is its single best motivator. Knowing that you will ask for a verbal update quarterly in staff meetings and that you will publish quarterly or semiannual progress and annual results in the company newsletter ensures results.

Investing time and effort in making sure staff know what to do and how to do it is another effective operational process. Of course! But staff members are often left to their own devices in these areas, and while such individual creativity can be an asset, it does not foster a reliable, efficient, and productive workflow. Define procedures, so that your staff will not only understand and perform their own tasks and responsibilities well, but will also train others accurately and quickly and cover for each other when the workflow is unbalanced due to absences or a high workload. Defining procedures also minimizes errors, facilitates a consistent product, and gives staff members a common language and knowledge base with which to discuss projects and problems. RMTC has developed procedures for every step in the workflow (from job intake, to patent formatting, to FTP delivery), and these procedures are documented in both paper and online manuals in each department.

Procedures are best developed by consensus of the staff members who will use them, and should be put in writing and widely distributed, accompanied by training. They can take many forms, such as checklists, step-by-step instructions, or flowcharts, and must be reviewed and updated regularly in order to remain useful and meaningful. When RMTC needed a procedure for intoforeign- language projects, our middle managers formulated it in our weekly staff meeting and decided a flowchart would best illustrate its workflow steps. Then one of our project coordinators and I provided company-wide training via a simple Microsoft PowerPoint presentation to groups of 10 staff persons at a time. This particular procedure was reviewed and revised several weeks after implementation, based on feedback from the staff and problems that surfaced during the trial period, and then again more recently, as the nature and circumstances of our work and our clients’ needs changed over time. Of course, not all projects will “fit” the established procedure, and your staff should recognize and understand this and remain open to modifying or bypassing a procedure when necessary or more effective.

Another process that will be well worth your investment is to cross-train. What if your shipping coordinator (or receptionist, or bookkeeper, or QuarkXPress expert) becomes ill and cannot work for several days or weeks? How will you handle a sudden and unexpected (but welcome!) spike in your workload? Can you afford the high cost (in dollars, time, quality, and customer dissatisfaction) of temporary personnel or inexperienced existing staff? Cross-training to duplicate functions for emergency or extra coverage protects you against all these costs. It also creates opportunity and adds value for your employees, and fosters their cooperation with each other and their understanding of corporate issues. At RMTC, staff members at all levels have been cross-trained, not only within their own department but across other departments as well. For example, our production manager has cross-trained most of her staff to assist in at least one other department—from downloading jobs from translators, to preparing customer estimates, to performing computer-related tasks delegated by our systems administrator. So we are well prepared for a variety of events, both planned and unplanned, because our staff has been crosstrained so that they can quickly and easily step in to perform a second function, even one that may be unrelated to their primary role.

Your operation will also benefit if you learn (and teach and model) how to hold effective meetings. A meeting should never last longer than an hour—if you can’t deal with an issue in an hour or less, then you have some other, larger, operational or personnel problem that needs addressing. RTMC holds a weekly meeting of key operational staff, and when an hour’s time has passed we stop meeting and postpone any unfinished or untended business to the next week. Most of our weekly meetings last less than a half an hour, as staff members have learned to place on the agenda only those items that require input and consensus from others, and to present them in a concise and straightforward fashion. Speaking of agendas, an effective meeting always has one, even if it’s just a simple bulleted list of topics to be addressed; and distributing it in advance enables attendees to come prepared with ideas and discussion points. An effective meeting also always starts on time—this demonstrates to staff that their time is and should be respected and valued. A good meeting leader keeps to the agenda, and facilitates communication and consensus decision-making. Within 24 hours of the meeting, the leader should also distribute a summary of the meeting that includes the action items (who, what, and when) that were agreed upon.

A process that will demonstrate just how well (or not) your procedures and activities are working is to measure results. The act of measuring something will virtually ensure that it improves, even if you don’t set goals or reward results. But be careful what you do and don’t measure—for instance, if you measure speed and don’t measure quality, then a fast but sloppy work product may be the result. RMTC currently measures on-time delivery, employee productivity, a customer complaint rate, and staff turnover. We have developed an electronic time and job tracking system that automatically calculates and reports the first two measurements, on-time delivery and employee productivity. However, simple manual tracking can also be effective—our customer complaints are monitored by entering into a Microsoft Word table the date, the client and job numbers, the complaint, the resolution, the word count, and the category of the complaint (careless or typographical error, failure to follow instructions, miscommunication, shipping/delivery error, or quality problem). This information is distributed company-wide regularly.

Finally, have a disaster contingency and recovery plan. Its most essential component is to backup your data and keep a backup copy off-site. If you do nothing else to prepare for a disaster, do this, and stop reading this article in order to do it now. (We backup our financial, job tracking, timekeeping, and work product data nightly, and update our offsite copy weekly.) Then, if a disaster occurs, your first priority is your employees’ safety, and you can give that your undivided attention, knowing that when you and they are ready and able to return to work, your information resources will have been preserved. To help ensure your employees’ safety during a disaster, prepare, distribute, and practice a building evaluation plan. You may have to endure some teasing and laughter when implementing this, but the more important consideration is that it may save your employees’ lives or prevent injury. You should also have an emergency communication plan and operational contingency and recovery plan. Questions to consider in the drafting of these plans include: What will the communications to employees and clients be, who will prepare them, who will deliver them, and how? Who are the key employees who will need to be involved in getting the operation running again, where and when will they meet, and what are the issues in priority order that they will need to address? What are the minimum space and equipment requirements for a temporary or substitute operation, how will those be acquired, what vendor alternatives are available, what and where are emergency financial resources, and how will they be obtained? Many good books can help you address this process, and your insurance companies and workers’ compensation organization may also be of assistance.

Human Resources

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”

— Dale Carnegie

If you take the time and trouble to hire the right, best person for each position, many common human resources problems can be avoided. The two techniques that will have the most impact on your ability to do this are to: 1) create (or update) a job description, and 2) employ behavioral interviewing with prepared questions. A good job description will outline in detail and comprehensively the position’s essential duties, required and desired qualifications, and general working conditions and physical requirements. You will need to thoughtfully consider exactly what you want the employee to be responsible for and accomplish, and what skills, education, experience, and natural personality traits will best enable success in those activities and tasks in your company’s environment. And by using behavioral interviewing, you can determine whether a candidate actually possesses those skills, experiences, and traits and knows how to use them.

Behavioral interviewing is based on the axiom that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. From behavioral examples gained through pre-interview question preparation and certain interviewing techniques, you can discover facts about a job candidate’s history that demonstrate whether he or she has the necessary skills. Behavioral examples describe actual events, and they are best elicited by open-ended questions that begin with: Tell me about a time when…? Give me an example of…? Describe for me how you would…? How did you handle a situation where…? What did you do when…? Why do you enjoy…? Interviewees generally do not spontaneously refer to such actual events, so you will need to actively and specifically solicit these examples and be prepared to tolerate periods of silence as you wait for the candidate to think of them. The more behavioral examples you can obtain, the more real information you will have upon which to base a hiring decision.

Another human resources fundamental is to have an employee handbook, which should contain your company’s stated employment policies. The following topics are typically included in an employee handbook, and many books and software programs are available to help create one: 1) general information (introduction to and history of the company, mission statement, customer service philosophy, equal opportunity statement, confidentiality and nondisclosure expectations); 2) employment (types of employment, introductory period, performance evaluations, telecommuting); 3) compensation (work hours and record keeping, pay periods and procedures); 4) benefits (insurance, 401(k) plan, time off); 5) employee conduct (attendance, smoking, problem resolution, termination, personal business and phone calls); and 6) rules and policies (workplace harassment, computer use, security and safety, solicitation, theft, substance abuse, concealed weapons, workplace violence). Your employee handbook should be reviewed, updated, and redistributed annually, and with each distribution you should obtain a signed acknowledgment of receipt from each employee. Once the handbook is implemented, be absolutely fair and consistent in the application of its policies. If you choose to bend or break a rule, be sure you know why and are aware of the precedent you set by doing so.

A third essential human resources function is to do performance evaluations. How else will employees know how they are doing, what’s going well, what needs improvement, what you expect, where they can grow, what opportunities are available, and how they can succeed? At least once a year, every employee deserves an investment of your time, effort, and personal attention in an honest and formal evaluation of their performance. At RMTC, our performance evaluation process consists of an annual written evaluation by the manager and self-evaluation by the employee, prepared independently of each other and exchanged the day before a discussion meeting. If the manager has been doing his or her job properly throughout the year, then there should be no great surprises in either the evaluation or self-evaluation—the two evaluations should generally agree with each other—and the discussion can focus on the future instead of the past. Your evaluation should be specific, accurate, complete, and supported by examples. A good rule of thumb (in spite of its negative connotations!) is to consider that anything you write may be read in open court one day. The evaluation should also be timely and the discussion uninterrupted—otherwise you send a message to the employee that their performance isn’t important. Be as polite, respectful, and positive as possible, particularly when discussing constructive feedback, and be very aware of your body language and tone. Ask the employee what you can do differently, better, or more of, to help him do his job better, and also ask if he needs anything or has any questions, concerns, complaints, or comments. Actively encourage the employee’s input—it may not be enough to simply ask once and then move on if she doesn’t respond—and listen without interrupting. And be sure to close with a sincerely and clearly expressed thank-you.

Finally, treat your employees as well as you can. Provide all the supplies, tools, resources, support, coaching, and training they need and a clean, safe, pleasant working environment. Offer the best pay and benefits you can. Recognize good work or extra effort with a simple acknowledgment. Empower and even challenge your staff with responsibility and authority, trust them, and expect that they will perform well and participate in solving their own problems. Be flexible and open, promote balance, and watch for and address burnout. Your employees will repay you with their best performance, their loyalty and dependability and responsiveness, their creativity, and their good will.

Customer Service

“Anybody can do anything they want to, if they want to badly enough.”

— Chuck Whaley (my dad)

We know to make sure the customer comes first, but what does that really mean? First, deliver what you promised, when you promised it. Accomplishing this alone will set you apart and win and keep your customers. Then, meet your clients’ needs, and graciously. Are you delivering what they want, rather than what might be easier for you to provide? If you must say no to their request, always offer an alternative proposal. Does your customer service staff understand the importance of patience and good humor, regardless of the client’s state of mind? Next, communicate, communicate, communicate! Too much communication with your client is far better than too little. If you communicate too much, they will tell you; if too little, they will simply leave you. And honesty still is the best policy, even when you must disappoint them. Also, educate, educate, educate! An educated client will become a valued partner who is able to communicate with you clearly, plan and organize projects, allow for reasonable due dates when possible, and have clear expectations of the deliverable. And finally, minimize client “bashing” among your employees. Expressions of frustration with clients can be healthy venting when infrequent, short, and done with good humor. However, our clients—not our managers or company owners or bookkeepers—pay our wages and salaries, and this understanding and context should frame every action and word, decision and choice we make.

Enable customer service at all levels of your organization. Make sure that every employee understands that they are allowed and even encouraged to make any decision they think necessary to satisfy a customer, without repercussions, even if it costs you time, effort, or money elsewhere. Every person who might pick up the phone and find themselves answering a client call, even your cleaning staff after hours, should know how to greet the client professionally, how to transfer the call and who to transfer it to based on the client’s need, and what the options are if the right person isn’t available to take care of them. These behaviors can be modeled, practiced, and reinforced daily if you also coach your employees to identify their internal customers and treat them like external customers. Imagine if each person in each department delivered to the next person in the next department what they promised when they promised it, with clear and honest communication and helpful information, in good humor and graciously!

Communication

“One’s effectiveness is determined by one’s ability to reach others through the spoken or written word…perhaps the most important of all skills.”

— Peter Drucker

Communication seems to be society’s greatest challenge—another of my favorite quotations is “Nine-tenths of the serious controversies which result in life result from misunderstanding” (Louis D. Brandeis). A simple lack of communication is one problem, so…share information, through meetings, publications, bulletin boards, your website, informal chats, and e-mail. Employees who are well informed about all operational matters, whether or not they are directly involved or affected, make better decisions, cooperate more with their colleagues, serve customers better, and produce a higher quality product. They feel included and important, and are motivated to act in the best interests of their department and the company, not just themselves. When employees don’t have enough information, they tend to assume rather than ask, and such assumptions are often incorrect and detrimental.

A widespread and common communication problem is lack of communication skills; these are usually not modeled or taught by our parents or in our schools, higher education institutions, or workplaces. So, develop communication skills, both written and verbal, in yourself and your employees. This will involve learning about and accepting different communication styles, and modifying your style to accommodate and facilitate good communication with another. Regardless of your communication style, always try to be direct, clear, explicit, specific, precise, and polite. And develop your awareness of nonverbal communication in yourself and others. The receiver of your communication will “hear” your tone and body language more than your words, particularly if they are not all in agreement, and his or her body language will instinctively and subtly reflect back to you what was “heard.” Development of communication skills in your employees also means not intervening and resolving their communication problems, but instead encouraging, facilitating, coaching, and expecting them to repair and rebuild their own communication situations directly with each other, and expressing confidence in their ability to do so.

Another key factor in communication is to listen, patiently, openly, attentively, and especially without interrupting. If you can be available to listen to your employees, give them your undivided attention for as long as they need it, and not react badly to anything they might have to say, you will find that they are more likely to be receptive to and act on any advice you might give and to solve their own problems. And listen closely to the company “grapevine.” You will learn a lot, particularly if you simply absorb what you hear without judging or responding to it. The well-known practice of MBWA (management by walking around) is also an effective listening tool. I try to be up and down the halls and stairs several times a day at RMTC, listening and observing, and at least every other day I make a point to spend time greeting everyone and asking what’s going on and how they’re doing.

It’s important to have the tough conversations, by learning how to give constructive feedback and resolve conflict. Most people will endure prolonged anger or frustration or problems rather than have the short—but difficult—conversation that will resolve the situation, usually because they don’t know how. When giving constructive feedback, carefully consider in advance what you will say and how you will say it, what situations and behaviors you will use as examples, how you would like for the employee to behave differently in the future, and how the employee might respond and how you might handle a variety of responses. Location and timing are critical to both your success in delivering the feedback and the employee’s receptivity to it. The feedback will be virtually useless if given in the presence of others, which is embarrassing to the employee, or while either you or the employee is angry, frustrated, upset or hurt, busy, preoccupied or anxious, or otherwise having a difficult day for any reason. Instead, choose a private place and a time when both of you have the time, focus, and resilience for the task, and begin by asking the employee’s permission to discuss the issue at hand. Always ask questions, confirm the facts, and solicit the employee’s point of view before offering your feedback, and be prepared to explain why the feedback is important. Choose your words thoughtfully, describing the behaviors and actions rather than characterizing the person or her motives, and begin your sentences with “I” or “we” instead of “you.” Guide the discussion from a focus on the past to a focus on the future as quickly as possible, and be sure to ask the employee how you can help. Finally, close the conversation with a strong and positive expression of your confidence in the employee’s ability to act productively on the feedback, and lighten the ending mood with just a tiny bit of humor.

Many of the above suggestions for giving constructive feedback also apply to resolving conflict. In addition, deciding that you will accept at least half of the responsibility for the conflict is the most effective step you can take toward resolution, and the more responsibility you accept and the sooner you accept it, the more readily your partner in conflict will do the same. Consider that you may be contributing to the conflict in ways that you don’t even realize, and solicit (and be willing and prepared to listen and hear) the other person’s viewpoints. Getting started is often the most difficult step; try this: “It seems to me that we aren’t communicating and cooperating well enough to get our jobs done right with a minimum of aggravation. Would you like to sit down with me for a few minutes to talk about it and see if we can figure out some things to try to change that?” Agreeing to remain polite, refrain from sarcasm, and focus on the facts will then go a long way toward fostering a productive discussion. The more listening and question-asking and the less talking you do, the more quickly you will reach a break-through point in the conflict from which resolution becomes possible. There is a win-win solution to virtually every conflict, and working—stretching—until you find it together will ensure a real and lasting resolution. Using these techniques to help others resolve their conflicts is called mediation, and much good information and training is available on that topic.

Conclusion

“Plant a thought, harvest an act.
Plant an act, harvest a habit.
Plant a habit, harvest a character.
Plant a character, harvest a destiny.”

— Indian proverb

Do these philosophies and strategies really work? At RMTC, the workflow runs smoothly on a day-to-day basis, regardless of who is or isn’t working on any given day, and we spend minimal time “fighting fires.” Our employees, visitors, clients, and vendors remark on our pleasant environment, and our clients regularly take the time to compliment in writing an employee by name on the customer service they received. In 2002, 94% of our jobs were delivered on time or early, our customer complaint rate was between 1% and 1.5%, and our staff turnover was only 7.1% compared to a national average of 22% to 25%. Our expenses were reduced from 2001, our capabilities and service offerings expanded, and our sales increased in a down market.

What do you think?

Suggested Resources

Coaching for Improved Work Performance, by Ferdinand Fournies
Customer Service for Dummies, by Karen Leland & Keith Bailey
The Mediator’s Handbook, by Jennifer Beer with Eileen Stief
The Power of Positive Criticism, by Hendrie Weisinger
Contingency Planning and Disaster Recovery, by Donna Childs and Stefan Dietrich

This article was published in the June 2003 issue of The ATA Chronicle, Volume XXXII, Number 6.

Originally published in the ATA Chronicle









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