Monday, June 25, 2012

Manager Mondays: Do Your People Know Your Playbook?

Welcome to Manager Mondays, an ongoing series of posts designed to improve workforce communications.  This time it's about getting and keeping everyone on the same page with procedural compliance.

Walk into the lobby of any organization that strives for excellence, and you'll probably notice some predictable wall decor:
  • a framed mission statement, explaining Where the company aims to go
  • a list of "Corporate Values" showing What it considers important
  • a group of "Star Employee" plaques recognizing employees  Who have made noteworthy achievements
There's one other item you won't see.  It's just as important, because it shows How to translate all of those other idealistic elements into everyday actions.  The only problem is, it won't fit on a wall.  

I'm referring to a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs), the Hows that define the way things should be done and set behavioral expectations for everyone in the organization. 

It's been shown that, if employees have a firm grasp of what they're expected to do, they'll be much more likely to do it -- and much less likely to go rogue and engage in undesirable behaviors.  The problem is that, in many organizations, SOPs are often communicated to staff in a haphazard or mystifying way.  

What about your company's procedural standards?  Are your Hows coming across as Huhs?

Check off which of these assessments apply to your organization's SOPs:
  • They're overwhelming, distributed in an employee handbook during the first days on the job, mixed in with lots of other new-hire need-to-knows -- OR --
  • They're underwhelming, scattered randomly among orientation handouts, break room posters, email reminders, newsletter articles, or CEO pep talks, without any way to sort them by priority or save them for reference.  
  • They're incomplete.  They don't address all situations --OR --
  • They're too complete.   They tend to go into endless and sometimes obvious detail, leading readers to stop reading as they surmise that they "know all this stuff already." 
Plus, in many cases, the SOPs themselves are the problem :
  • They may be hard to read,  written in cryptic Legalese sprinkled with Business-School-Speak terminology -- a combo that makes ordinary employees' brains glaze over in stark incomprehension. 
  • They may be hard to do, because your people don't have adequate time, training, systems, and/or tools to do them. 
  • They may be intimidating and demotivating, phrased in such a demanding way, and setting such perfectionist standards, that the average staffer concludes she can't possibly achieve them.
  • They're probably outdated,  because everyone thinks that five-year-old codes of conduct still apply in this new age of internet searches, social media, and client cell phones that shoot video and post it on Youtube faster than a manager can cross the floor and apologize.
Setting procedural guidelines and behavioral expectations is a good thing.  It's not that your company doesn't want to do it.  It's probably made plenty of noble attempts.  But the chances are that those attempts have not hit their mark... and setting standards poorly might be just as bad as not setting them at all.   Fuzzy behavioral guidelines end up enabling risky behaviors.  Here's how it happens:

1.   The map is lost in bad messaging.  That is, due to factors listed above, standards for desired behavior fail to make an impression simply because employees give up trying to decipher what they are.

2.  Management assumes there's understanding, when there isn't.  "Well, I'm sure that procedure was covered in the [insert company name for SOP document here]," the thinking mistakenly goes.  "So now we can hold everyone accountable for it."  Good theory -- bad basis!

3.  Phantom expectations never get firmly executed.  When management thinks that certain things have already been said somewhere else, nobody ever ends up saying them anywhere.  As a result, performance is consistently inconsistent.

4.  Accountability is replaced by anarchy.  Without key knowledge, workers work to fill the vacuum, inventing their own responses to situations, and forming habits based on their own judgments.  Suddenly the company has several different approaches to getting a certain thing done.   Each one is fueled by  "grapevine guidelines" that issue from an assortment of strong personalities styling themselves as local know-it-alls.  Then, when an employee is discovered doing something outlandish, destructive, or downright evil, she can turn around and say, "So-and-so told me that's how we do it," or simply "Nobody ever told me I shouldn't."

Are your company's behavioral baselines treated as givens -- even though proper treatment has never been given them?  Think about your division's last few dropped balls, performance shortfalls, or disciplinary problems.  Then think about the behaviors that went haywire on those occasions. Were they rooted in wrong procedure?  Did you have to go back and explain the right way to a roomful of blank looks?

If you think your troops don't have a good way to figure out "the company way", take action to correct the situation.  Your team needs a playbook.  Get them one.

1.  Look up whatever's there now.  Maybe it's been a long time since you perused your firm's new employee orientation materials, or thumbed through the HR descriptions of roles and responsibilities for the positions under your supervision.  Review them now.  Root out any other official reference material used for procedural guidance.  Verify that it's still reliable.  Are there vital things left unsaid there?  Were they ever said anywhere?  If anything needs revision, reinterpretation, or updating, find the people in your organization who incur the biggest risk when standards aren't followed, and recruit them as allies to whip the SOPs into shape.  In the meantime...

2. Add a Playbook Review section to your team communications.  Regularly feature one aspect of procedural compliance in your weekly calls, memos, or team meetings. Start with the area that seems to produce the most chronic confusion.  Take it upon yourself to reproduce relevant portions of your manual, new hire materials, or whatever other resources pertain to SOPs.   State the proper procedures, then relate them to your team's present activities.  Give explanations, examples, and answers to the questions that keep coming up. (There are leadership development possibilities here.  You may want to assign different topics to different team members in turn so they can  research, write and present short How-To segments on hot-button procedural controversies.  They get some practice developing their communication skills, and the whole team benefits from hearing fresh voices.)

3.  Send out a Procedural Update Alert for any critical compliance issue or for a change in procedures. This type of communication needs a clear-as-day subject headline.  Example:  Urgent! New Procedures for Autoclave Sanitation. State-Mandated Changes Will Take Effect July 1, 2012.  Note: for any regulatory compliance matters, consult your Legal or HR departments to determine whether documentation requirements exist.   For example, employees may need to get a hard copy in the mail and return a signed acknowledgement to show that they received the new instructions. 

4.  Use "do it this way, NOT that way" language, photos, graphics, videos, etc.  to make correct procedures extremely clear.  State what is acceptable and what's not.  Find out where the source of misunderstanding was, and address it.   If homegrown shortcuts, bootleg cheat sheets, or pernicious urban myths have clouded the picture, you may need to debunk them specifically, but do so graciously, without pointing the finger of blame at anyone.  

5.  Provide systems to store and retrieve vital procedural information.  This may mean buying a Procedures Playbook binder for every employee and encouraging them to keep their updates in it.  It might mean keeping a central binder in every location with a copy of all relevant procedures, and assigning someone to keep it current.  It may mean hosting a directory on your company employee website.  Whichever system works best with your company's resources and business model, make it easy for employees to use. If they don't have ready access to the correct procedures, they will soon forget them and fall back on their folklore versions.

6.  Establish a dialogue about good procedures.  Invite feedback, suggestions, and even arguments about all of your company's How's.  Remember that it's possible that your troops have figured out a better How.  Sometimes homegrown variations show up for the simple reason that the real procedures don't work!  Pay attention when employees create workarounds; their front line perspective may be giving them insight you lack.  On the other hand, if they're clinging to an alternate method that incurs risk or sabotages other company processes down the line, a discussion will bring those facts to light and allow you to explain the larger picture. 

If procedures aren't properly understood, management can be blind to the consequences for a long time.  It's rare that an average employee will go directly to his boss to say that he needs more clarity on what to do, or what not to do.  He doesn't want to look stupid.  And if he does ask for clarity, it won't help one bit if he's directed right back to the gobbledy-gook guidelines that initiated his confusion in the first place.

When the Hows are Huh?s, the answer is not just sending out more dense verbiage, or explaining the same correction fifty different times in fifty different conversations with fifty different people.  The challenge is to convey what your company expects your staff to do in efficient, understandable, actionable ways.  This is an area where a proactive manager can make a great deal of difference.   

When you replace your staff's hazy ideas with firm understanding of your company's authorized procedures, and why they matter, they will apply those procedures more consistently.  This means that metrics can be tracked more intelligently, and issues can be addressed more accurately.  Your people can get out of the make-it-up-as-we-go-along business, and onto the fast track for developing your business.  And that increases the likelihood that some of them, or maybe you yourself, will soon be featured in that illustrious "Star Employees" display in the lobby.  

Demystify your procedural playbook.  Coach your players until they have all the plays down cold.  Then they can focus on playing the game right -- and scoring big wins for the team.

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