Capitalizing on Strengths

Do you feel “stuck” in a job? Even before the workday is done, can you hardly wait to get out of the office? If so, you may be in the wrong job. 

Feeling stuck may be a sign that you are not using your strengths on the job. If you aren’t using your strengths, resentment builds and frustration ensues. Not only that, you are not being productive on the job – think “deadwood” and you’ll get the idea! Let me explain.  

Let’s say that you’re a decision-maker by nature. But you find yourself in a job where you neither contribute nor make organization-wide decisions. As a result, you second-guess the organization’s decisions and you start resenting its decision-makers. On top of this, you start to dislike your boss and co-workers because you see them as part of the problem.  

You might say that you can’t help it – you need to work somewhere. Fair enough – most of us end up in temporary jobs that are nothing more than a way to pay the bills. But for long-term career happiness and productivity, you need to understand your strengths.  

In addition to identifying our strengths, we need to understand how we work best. And how we work best depends on our personality.  

Our personality determines how we perform, no matter what it is that we do – from how we organize our breakfast in the morning to how we process our daily tasks to how we relate to people. Each of us has an inherent capability of how we manage our “to-do’s.” 

But consider this fact:  While our habits can be modified, few (if any) people can outright change either their strengths or habits. Instead, what we can do is identify our strengths and habits and then choose to improve both in a way that moves us further in our careers. 

Here are five ways that you can improve your strengths and use them to catapult your career to the next level. 

  1. Pay attention to feedback. What do others say about your strengths? What do they notice about you? Sometimes, we instinctively know what we’re good at, but for whatever reason, we become blind to our strengths. It may take several people to point out your strengths before you start to pay attention.
  2. Tune in to your performance. How do you produce your best work? Is it by working alone or in teams? Do you prefer to learn through reading, listening, or viewing? What time of day are you most productive and why at that time? By understanding “how” we work, we will be able to understand the unique characteristics of what comprises an ideal work day for us and when we are most productive.
  3. Notice what gives you energy. When working on a task, does it make you feel tired, bored, overwhelmed, interested, or is the work challenging? Does the task motivate you to work even harder to get the job done? Do you feel alive? If the work makes you feel so energized (even if you’re physically tired), then that’s the type of work you need to be doing.
  4. Do not comprise your values. The place where you work must reflect your own values. The organization’s policies should be in line with their practices. In other words, the organization should practice what it preaches. If your beliefs are in line with the organization’s culture, then you have a match made in heaven.
  5. Contribute like there’s no tomorrow. Based on your strengths, work on improving the organization’s systems, processes, methods, policies, and other practices. This will serve to not only make a positive difference to the organization, but also to help you feel a sense of accomplishment. If you can feel as if you have accomplished something, you know your strengths are serving you well.

Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Substitute “career” for the word “luck” and you can see how our strengths can be used to build happy and productive careers.

 

 

 

Improving Productivity by Working from Home

Does working from home improve productivity? A Stanford University study of a Chinese travel agency concluded that it does. 

The study found that employees working from home: 

  • Were 13% more productive (9% worked more hours, taking less breaks and fewer sick days and 4% had higher performance rates per minute – hypothesized to be due to quieter working conditions).
  • Had 50% less attrition.
  • Reported higher feelings of work satisfaction.

Total factor productivity increased between 20 and 30 percent (the increase was due from two sources – efficiency in calls per minute and capital input). In addition, the company estimated annual savings of $1,900 per employee.

The learning from the experiment included the following:

  1. Working from home improves performance.
  2. Allowing employees a choice generated a far greater effect than requiring employees to work from home.
  3. A large sample of treatment and control employees allowed the firm to evaluate the impact on different types of employees.
  4. Management was surprised by the dramatic drop in attrition.

In addition to benefits to employees and employers for working from home, society as a whole sees benefits. These benefits include people choosing where they wish to live (instead of close to the employer’s office), less pollution and traffic congestion from work commutes, and an overall better family and community life because of the flexible hours.

However, improving productivity and saving money by having employees work from home does not work (pardon the pun) for everyone. People need to be able to recognize in themselves whether they have the discipline to perform as well as, or better than, working in an office environment.

Also, some individuals need the socializing that comes with working in an office – these individuals cannot thrive in isolation. For others, a careful balance must be struck.

As John James Jacoby (proclaimed lover of naps) writes: “For me, home was always where cool stuff happened, and the office was where I spent time waiting to go home to make more cool stuff happen.”  

Self-control and pride in one’s work is mandatory for working from home. An ability to complete tasks and communicate effectively with others is also a requirement. Trust is also a big element when working from home – employers need to trust that their employees are doing their best, but they also need to respect schedules and expectations.

I work from home most of the time and I cannot be happier about this arrangement. In fact, my most rewarding client work is done at home. This is likely because I am disciplined and have the necessary self-control about my work. It also helps that I love what I do.

Service – Now!

When you’re in line waiting for service, how long is too long?

Studies show that on average, waiting more than three minutes is too long. And customers that wait more than three minutes? There is a strong likelihood that they are dealing with the only available service provider. If customers have choices, they will leave.

This is not good news for providers of service.

How good is your company at providing top-notch customer service? STELLAservice, an online customer service rating company, found that DisneyStore.com ranked among the top ten for both speediest e-mail support (1 hour, 47 minutes, 40 seconds) and phone support (12 seconds). For the full survey, click here.

In addition to speed (or time), customers are also looking for the following qualities in service (source: Evans and Lindsay, The Management and Control of Quality).

  1. Timeliness. Is the service completed on time? For example, is an overnight package delivered overnight?
  2. Completeness. Is everything the customer asked for provided? For example, is a mail order from a catalog company complete when delivered?
  3. Courtesy. How are customers treated by employees? For example, are catalog phone operators at Sears nice and are their voices pleasant?
  4. Consistency. Is the same level of service provided to each customer each time? For example, is your newspaper delivered on time every morning?
  5. Accessibility and convenience. How easy is it to obtain the service? For example, when you call Sears, does the service representative answer quickly?
  6. Accuracy. Is the service preformed right every time? For example, is your bank or credit card statement correct every month?
  7. Responsiveness. How well does the company react to unusual situations (which can happen frequently in a service company)? For example, how well is a telephone operator at Sears able to respond to a customer’s questions about a catalog item not fully described in the catalog?

When working with customers, service providers are in a more precarious situation than are producers of manufactured goods. Because service can be intangible (unlike a product or good that is tangible), it is sometimes hard to know a customer’s expectations. A service’s “fitness for use” is often in the eyes of the customer.

By building quality into every dimension of service, organizations will not only attain excellence in service, but happy and loyal customers – and a healthy bottom line.

Value: Defined

Lots of people are talking about value these days – especially in light of Lean culture.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides eight definitions for “value.” The definitions relate to market price, luminosity, and denomination. From a business perspective, value is related to market price and the customer’s perception of a fair return on an exchange.

From a Lean perspective, value is anything that the customer is willing to pay for – as long as it meets these three criteria:

  1. The customer cares about it.
  2. The product or service must be physically transformed or the step toward transformation must be an essential prerequisite for another step.
  3. The product or service is delivered “right the first time.”

“Non-Lean” organizations sometimes have a tough time determining what it is that their customers’ value. But determining value is actually not that difficult. It comes down to ensuring that the above three criteria are met – all the time. Look at it this way:

  • An organization with efficient processes is able to keep its costs down. This results in a greater ability to attract more customers and translates to value for the customer.
  • An organization with inefficient processes incurs higher production costs. These costs get transferred to the customer. The customer does not see this as value.

Inefficiency can be a business killer. This is where Lean organizations have an edge over non-Lean organizations.

Lean cultures enable waste reduction in business processes that directly contribute to value for the customer. Lean cultures help businesses thrive.

If your customer values your product or services, they will pay your asking price. If your offering does not meet your customers’ criteria for value, the customer may still pay for it, but will definitely be shopping around next time they want the same thing.

Next time you complete a transaction with your customer, ask them to rate the value that they just received from you. Their response will tell you how well you are actually doing compared to how well you think you’re doing. Consider it a reality check.

Value is the key to organizational survival. If an organization consistently delivers poor value to its customers, it goes out of business. It’s that simple.

Kaizen to the Rescue

Successful organizational improvement initiatives depend on successful follow-up and maintenance. To this end, a very effective continuous improvement approach is Kaizen—“change for the best” or “good change.”

Kaizen is a Lean methodology that includes a set of activities applied continuously to all functions in an organization. What sets Kaizen apart from other improvement methodologies is that it involves all employees in the organization—from the CEO to the front line workers.

And it is easy to apply in any type of organization and to all processes within the organization.

Kaizen originates in Japanese businesses, but its influence since the Second World War is worldwide. The reason is simple: Kaizen humanizes the workplace by involving all employees to spot and eliminate waste in business processes. The process is transparent and inclusive of all those involved in the process: from suppliers to customers to employees to all other stakeholders.

The continuous improvement from Kaizen is a daily process of evaluating workflow and eliminating waste on the spot. In many organizations bogged down with policies, directives, and other “checking” mechanisms, workflow is slow and wasteful. But with Kaizen, eliminating waste directly targets these checking mechanisms to improve efficiency and productivity, enabling a faster workflow.

Another benefit of Kaizen is that usually only small improvements are delivered. Over time, these small improvements add up to big improvements because many (all) processes are involved throughout the organization. And this compound productivity improvement means huge savings in time and money for the organization—systematically replacing inefficient practices with customer value-adding practices is a win-win for all.

Kaizen replaces the command-and-control mid-twentieth Century models of improvement programs. Because changes to processes are carefully monitored by those who directly work in the process, Kaizen’s continuous improvement is sustainable. In addition, changes are typically done on a smaller scale, so it is easier to monitor and sustain improvements in the long term.

While Kaizen events are usually week-long blitzes of improvement and limited in scope, issues identified at one event are very useful in informing subsequent improvement events. This type of “paying it forward” approach of “plan-do-check-act” helps maintain a cycle of continuous improvement in all of the processes in the organization.

What is also interesting, but perhaps not surprising, Kaizen has evolved into personal development principles because of its simplicity. Check out Robert Maurer’s book on this topic: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.

Peak Performers: Not Always Good for Business

Are you a peak performer? According to organizational psychology, the five fundamental peak performance proficiencies are:

  • Awareness of self in all domains
  • Control of effort
  • Visualization
  • Cognitive skills
  • Self-programming

These proficiencies are common to all top achievers. However, a top achiever on a team when all other members are not top achievers may be counterproductive. Why? When one team member is working harder (or less hard) than other members, workflow is hindered. In their book, Learning to See, Mike Rother and John Shook illustrate this concept.

In this graphic, you can see that individual process steps, if not optimized to the system, can create an inefficient system. A system’s parts (or team members), if synchronized, enable the system to run smoothly. This means that no one piece of the system is running faster or slower than it should. What this means for service or manufacturing settings is that workflow needs to be balanced among all individuals if the organization is to function efficiently.

There is a prevalence of advice on managing underperforming employees, but an equivalent amount of literature is not available for managing over-performers. Perhaps this is because over-performance is not seen as a problem. But it can be a problem on teams, especially in a manufacturing setting, but it can also affect service.

I am not espousing that everyone should be an underperformer—far from it! But organizations can benefit if they ensure that their systems are free of waste (especially travel and motion waste), so that their employees can be as efficient as possible. By eliminating waste and creating flow, underperformers and over-performers can work together more productively, creating efficient workflow.

Performance psychology teaches us that workers want to succeed in an organization. By extension, these same workers want the organization to succeed. What is not clear is what motivates workers to want this success.

Regardless, organizations need to remember that their front-line workers are often the face (or voice) of the organization’s brand to the customer. Organizations that provide their workers with tools and systems that enable efficiency will help their workers want to continue to succeed. It’s that simple.

Measures of Control

Several recent experiences force me to the same conclusion: Organizations that place many controls on their processes do so because their processes are flawed in the first place. Let me give you an example.

A process mapping exercise with a service provider revealed the following:

  • 37.3% of the steps in the process add value to the end product/customer
  • 21.9% of the steps add no value to the process (“wastes”)
  • 40.8% of the steps add no value, but appear to be required for some business or regulatory purpose (“necessary wastes”)

The striking thing about this process is that the majority of the tasks (i.e., 40.8%) are business non-value adding (BNVA)—existing solely to manage the process. The problem with BNVA tasks is that they inhibit workflow in any organization and should be minimized. In efficient organizations, typically less than one percent of process tasks are BNVA. These BNVAs are necessary to comply with legislation.

But organizations heavy with BNVA tasks not only include necessary tasks for regulatory purposes, they also impose upon themselves BNVA steps because they do not trust their processes or systems. To overcome this lack of confidence, more controls are added to the processes or systems in an effort to make them more efficient. This exacerbates the problem.

Where BNVA tasks are truly necessary, they cannot be eliminated, but it is good practice to reduce their cycle time by simplifying the process. In essence, BNVAs are part of the cost of doing business—customers don’t see the BNVAs, but they do pose a time and cost on the business. For example, completing forms for regulators or inspectors in relation to products developed and shipped or services provided.

To enhance business process, organizations should focus on eliminating the non-value adding steps (wastes) and enhancing the value adding steps (activities for which the customer is willing to pay). The best way to do this is by measuring your process, since you can only improve that which is measured—i.e., let data/evidence be your guide.

Realistically, no organization can expect to be 100% productive all of the time, but baseline data will provide you with the means to measure your continuous improvement implementation. Continuously improving your processes will not only help you to decrease control steps (BNVA) and eliminate non-value adding steps (wastes), but it will also provide more value adding work that the customer is willing to pay for and accept.

Only through a continuous improvement approach will your company be able to assure productivity gains in the long term. Not only that, a continuous improvement program will help free up time in your day, so you can focus on more creative and strategic objectives to help you and your organization be even more productive and profitable.

Customer Service

Organizations exist to serve customers. That’s obvious. What may not be as obvious is that organizations in turmoil often forget this fact.

When an organization’s focus shifts from serving their customers to serving their own needs instead, problems arise. For instance, if your staff is exerting great effort to try and get customers to follow the organization’s internal processes, this is a problem. Typically starting in one area of the organization, this problem can permeate like a mushroom cloud throughout the organization. The results can be disastrous.

Let’s face it. Customers don’t care about your organization’s internal processes. In fact, they don’t care about your processes at all. Customers want only the end product or the end service that they believe you can provide. How you deliver that to your customer is outside of the customer’s concerns.

But your customers do care if they get the run around from you. Sometimes they care enough to leave your organization altogether. This includes both internal (e.g., staff) and external (e.g., public) customers.

Here are some telltale signs that your organization is losing touch with its customers:

  • Customer queries are met with reasons or excuses about why something has or has not occurred.
  • Your staff points to the customer as the problem when the organization’s rules are circumvented.
  • There is a high staff turnover in your organization.
  • Staff on extended sick leave is a regular occurrence.
  • Work overwhelm is the norm.
  • Customer complaints are increasing.
  • You are losing customers.

Whether it’s from internal or external customers, treat customer complaints as an opportunity—an opportunity to improve both services/products and your relationship with your customer. Here are things to consider:

  1. Above all, acknowledge the customer’s complaint with an apology. Don’t give reasons (or excuses) for why things may have turned out the way they did.
  2. Provide options for rectifying the situation. Ask the customer if any of the options are satisfactory. If not, ask the customer to provide options.
  3. Immediately follow through on delivering the agreed-upon option.
  4. Check with the customer to ensure that the final delivery is satisfactory.
  5. Ask for customer feedback.
  6. Take customer feedback seriously. Implement changes in your organization to ensure that your focus is on the customer.

To this last point, if your internal processes are a regular hindrance to both you and your customer, it may be time for an overhaul. Instead of experiencing up to 98% waste in your practices, why not turn that wasted time, effort, and resources into superb customer service?

Be the customer! Look at your internal processes and ask yourself how you would change the process if you were the customer. You may be surprised at how much waste you might uncover in your processes in just a few short minutes or hours. It won’t take a lot of money (if any) to make small process changes for big customer satisfaction gains.

Time and Money—An Organizational Focus

Poorly run organizations waste time (and time is money). This inhibits the company’s ability to hit markets at optimum times. Allow me to give you an example

Several years ago, I worked with a company in the wastewater treatment industry that consistently put in long hours to meet deadlines. Why all the long hours? The owners relied on one individual to make all of the decisions. This was far from a wise use of corporate time and resources. The result was burn-out, missed deadlines, and in the end, the company went out of business.

An inaccurate assessment of the time needed to conduct a project, write a report, develop a product, etc. is critical to organizational success. If the estimate of time is over or under, money is wasted. And if your company is in the business of bringing products to market, the window of opportunity is open only for so long.

Another huge time and money guzzler that takes away from strategic organizational focus is technology. If an organization is “wedded” to its technology and refuses to alter its approach, it often consumes more cash before realizing too late that it must change direction. Don’t keep throwing good money into bad software under the assumption that it costs less to “update” what you already have. It usually doesn’t.

A recent client was sometimes spending upwards of seven or more hours trying to print a 15-page report. If software is causing so wasted time, why spend time and money trying to fix a problem that in all likelihood cannot be fixed? Stop, scrap, and start over to save money. Knowing when to let go of technology is a management skill that cannot be underestimated.

Mismanaged organizations consume budgets without ever hitting milestones necessary to achieve success. In the process, they produce frustrated and burned-out staff along with the possibility of business shut-down.

Don’t be afraid to let go of products and processes that no longer work effectively or efficiently, regardless of the cost to replace them. In the long-term, replacement will yield far greater productivity results.

Benchmark studies over the past 15 years have shown that organizations can reap tremendous rewards with modest or no capital investments. Some of these gains have resulted in, for example:

  • Doubled outputs and profits with the same staff allocation
  • Doubled productivity across all levels of the organization
  • Reduced throughput time and defects by 90%
  • Reduced supply chain inventory by 75%
  • Reduced space and unit costs by 50%

What’s your organization doing? Is it surviving or thriving? If it’s not thriving, take a look at how your staff’s time is being used. You may be surprised at the potential savings that can be had through simple changes.

The Little Things ARE Important

When we focus on getting things done, we typically focus on allotting time for the important and time-consuming tasks. If it’s very important and it’s going to take a long time, we must get it done first, right? Yes and no.

In prioritizing, it is easy to forget to take care of work that can be done in a minute or two; regardless of its importance. When we consistently defer doing the little things, they can become big things. And big things can be a lot harder to manage.

When we end up facing a mountain of big things, we can become overwhelmed. Overwhelm may lead to procrastination which may lead to more little things piling up and becoming big things. It becomes a vicious cycle—little work becomes big work that leads to overwhelm that leads to procrastination. This can lead to stress that eventually leads to poor health and in extreme cases, death.

Take e-mail as an example. How many opened e-mails do you have right now in your e-mail inbox? Any number above zero is too many. Why? Because as soon as you open an e-mail, an action is required that will allow you to remove it from you inbox.

If you open an e-mail and leave it in your inbox (whether or not you acted on it), the accumulating open e-mails in your inbox become electronic clutter that contribute to mental clutter. And mental clutter contributes to overwhelm. For e-mail management, follow the B-F-A-T rule.

For any task that can be done within a couple of minutes, do it immediately. If you do, you will decrease your workload almost instantaneously. You will also decrease your mental clutter. The goal is to start working on tasks that can get done quickly and then follow through to completion.

In other words—if you start, don’t stop until it’s done.

Any tasks that keep nagging at you such as the bill that needs to be paid, the appointment that needs to be made, the paper on your desk that needs to be filed—all of these things can take less than a few minutes, but as soon as you get them done, you are saving yourself from carrying them in your head as a “need to do.”

If you have thought about something more than once, but have not taken action to complete it, this is an item that must be taken care of right away; especially if you can get it done in a few minutes.

In addition to taking care of the little things immediately, do not write the little things on your “to do” list. If it takes you longer to write down what you need to do than it does to actually do it, then start doing it and don’t stop until you’re done.

A little known side-effect of doing quick tasks right away is that the action of not stopping something that you start can translate to developing good habits. For instance, if you know you need to go for a workout (the thought keeps nagging you), putting on your runners (starting) will take less than a minute. Once you’ve got them on, follow through on the task (don’t stop).

Whether at work or at home, turn nagging thoughts into actions and start working on all the little things to completion. When you do, the inertia of your actions will result in good habits that can last a lifetime.

All you need is to get started.