MSQC Series: 4. Responsibility
When I used to manage local audit departments for the insurance company I worked at for 20 years, I learned that employees are often afraid to make a mistake. This is certainly understandable. Our whole childhood is filled with parental controls, teacher controls, peer controls, and so many other limitations placed on us. In fairness, parents and the others often impose those controls to protect us. “Don’t touch that!” they yell. They may or may not say, “…because you’ll get burnt.” But that’s their reasoning.
As we get older, a boss or spouse becomes an important part of our lives. And, often, we defer to their control just as we have done with our parents and others in our childhood. We’re used to it, and many times the boss or spouse expects it.
The consequence is that people expect to be in trouble for making a mistake. The trouble may be small, like a note in our employee file or a private conference with the manager, or it may be great, like being placed on probation or worse. And this fear of consequences makes us hesitant to act.
Let me say that, of course, fear of consequences is used for law enforcement and the social contract, for sure. So I don’t mean to imply that being a scofflaw is desirable. I’m talking simply in the context of the work environment. But if that environment is one where serious stuff happens if you make a mistake, and the boss doesn’t support you, it is only reasonable to take care.
So, if the employer makes failure a reasonably acceptable risk, employees have freedom to act independently and creatively. In my earlier life as a manager I was amazed at how much better workers did their jobs once they were convinced that they didn’t need permission to take any step outside the standard operating procedure.
Let me make a disclaimer here. The above five paragraphs are simply a oversimplified introduction to the area of employee responsibility. Several blog articles could be written on all the causes and ramifications of employee discipline. So please don’t stop the flow of this article with a lot of “Yes, buts….” Just take these introductory comments for what they are–an introduction.
I observed the way Missouri Star Quilt Company (MSQC) treats their employees first hand. I am telling this based on observation. I have not read their employee manual or talked with management. I have simply seen them in action.
Each employee is involved directly in the management of the company within the accepted guidelines of the business. Apparently each employee learns what the company is about and what the employee’s actions contribute to the ultimate success of the whole company. Let me explain the observations that lead me to this conclusion.
The company’s retail business is divided up into a number of themed stores. Some are seasonal, some relate to licensed fabrics, some to traditional fabrics, some to technical supplies like sewing machines and templates, and so forth. All the clerks are floaters. Their jobs consist of helping customers, running the cash register, stocking new bolts of fabric and other merchandise. But their fall back activity is to cut fabric into squares to create the charm packs that are the basic staple of the company’s operations. Some packs are made up for special order, others just the replenish the stock on hand.
I did not visit the warehouse and distribution center, so I do not know if there are fabric cutters stationed there, or if all the charm packs sold–whether by retail or online–are created by the store clerks. It does not matter for the purpose of this discussion, because I’m sure what I’m about to tell you is true in either case. I do know that warehouse employees bring bolts of fabric to the various stores. More about that in a bit.
I saw the clerks consulting tablet computers with a list of the merchandise that needed to be prepared. I assume each employee gets their daily assignments in this fashion, either by email or through a company software package. Well, this is great in itself. But there is more. When one of the warehouse employees came to a work table to deliver fabric, the clerk engaged the delivery guy in a conversation about the flow of merchandise scheduled for the day and the week ahead. The clerk was questioning whether the fabric she needed for her assignment was in the pipeline. The deliverer got out his tablet and they compared notes. She even asked about the availability of a fabric pattern based on her observation that customers in the store had been asking about it, which her role as cashier gave her access to.
Clearly these employees were not simply waiting to be told what to do and when to do it. They had a direct involvement in both the operation and the ultimate success of the company. They were acting in anticipation of what would be needed in the future, not just reacting to what had happened. And they were also doing this at various levels of the operation, from marketing (noting customer’s perceived wants) to production (cutting fabric) to logistics (verifying and anticipating material flow) and actual sale (as cashier).
I also observed another kind of employee moving from work table to work table, store to store. I assume this was a management person, but she certainly was not bossing. Rather, the times I observed her, she was simply involved. Are things moving well, are you getting what you need, did the transfer of product from the other store to here go well? These were the kinds of questions I heard her discussing with the employees. Her job was coordination.
You’ll recall the earlier post about Unified Business Practice. There I described a customer service event involving a refund. I did not mention there that one of these supervisory personnel was present at the exchange when the error was noted and corrected. The supervisor (I repeat, I don’t know the actual MSQC title) did not take a disciplinary action, or even step in to do the correction herself. She only observed. This indicates to me that there is the kind of tolerance for error I’m talking about here.
So that’s it. Employees seem to take more responsibility when they know that they are considered part of the success of the business, not just another asset like the delivery truck or cutting tables. And they also know that an occasional error is not the end of their jobs.
I am not a Pollyanna, of course. I’m sure there are employees at MSQC that do things that get them fired. I’m also sure that sometimes the employees get disgruntled and could care less if the fabric that’s needed gets cut. Even a supervisor may have been guilty sometime of excessive discipline of an employee.
But I think it is clear that involving employees and expecting them to be responsible, not just robotic, in their actions for the company creates a better work environment, which includes happier customers.
So what does that mean for your company? Many of you reading this have no employees, of course. But responsibility also applies to the solopreneur. If you act responsibly, your clients or customers will be happier.
Evaluate your business practices. Get your employees on board with mutually developed operating procedures. You will find out that most employees want to see the success of the company they work for. Not only does it make their job more secure, it also gives them pride to be able to say they work with a company with a good reputation. And in these discussions, include yourself as one of the employees.
Have you ever had a good or a bad experience with something that you screwed up? How did you react? How did your boss react? How did the client react?