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Re-Engineering Employees

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Re-Engineering Convenience Store Employees
By Bill Scott

Information Engineering - “The application of an interlocking set of formal techniques for the planning, analysis, design, and construction of information systems on an enterprise-wide basis or across a major sector of the enterprise.” James Martin – Information Engineering – 1989

In 1990, I became obsessed with the subject of Information Engineering as it applies to the construction and maintenance of expert computer software systems design. Over the next several years, I conducted seminars that were presented to IBM employees and IBM’s customers on the development of software applications using computer assisted software engineering (CASE) tools.

The ‘design’ and ‘construction’ phases of information systems is the job of data processing professionals, however the ‘planning’ phase is a much higher level view of the enterprise as a whole and includes the analysis of goals and problems, critical success factors, technology impact analysis, strategic systems vision, the overall model of the functions in the enterprise, and finally entity-relationship modeling.

Rethinking what I learned in my studies and how that knowledge could be applied to the convenience store industry, I began to wonder, “How much does top management really know about the structure of their enterprise with regards to goals, problems, critical success and most important of all, the “assumptions” that oil the gears of the machine of business.

Most of us, from childhood, are familiar with ‘management-by-results’ techniques, the first time we taught our pet a new trick – roll-over and you get a biscuit. Do nothing … no biscuit. In my younger life I was scolded many times by superiors when my results did not come up to their expectations, but few (if any) ever thought to consider my ‘assumptions’ about my job and to make an effort to correct how I thought about what I was supposed to accomplish.

Here’s a simple example I used, with regards to the airline industry, in the seminars I gave:

  • Goal: To become a leader in the transportation industry by giving superb customer service at competitive prices.
  • Assumption: The cost of fuel will continue to increase.
  • Problem: Current route structures include unprofitable trips
  • Objective: To develop a more profitable route structure
  • REALITY: Fuel is free and there’s plenty of it.

Each day, our brain receives billions of pieces of information through our senses. It is impossible for us to absorb everything we receive. Our “assumptions” act as filters to accept or reject information that may be critical to our survival, but reality changes - everyday. We must constantly re-evaluate our assumptions and those of our employees if we are to be successful. It is said that, “If a cat sits on a hot stove, he will never sit on a hot stove again.” The problem is that the cat will never sit on ANY stove again.

An ‘open mind’ means that a person is willing to allow his or her assumptions to be changed through the introduction of new information. A ‘closed mind’ means that they are not. When we allow our assumptions to guide us, instead of the other way around, we become unwilling to change. Management-by-results techniques give no credence to the assumptions that are held by the people around us. How do their assumptions, guide their work?

Conflicting assumptions can be catastrophic. Recently I worked with a company where the owner was determined to install scanning in all of his stores. His assumption was that ‘scanning’ was the key to the inventory control he felt he needed. His manager, on the other hand, believed otherwise. Even though the manager went through the steps with apparent cooperation, he subconsciously sabotaged the project at every step of the way. If the owner and the manager had taken the time to align their assumptions prior to embarking on the project, thousand of wasted dollars could have been saved.

Employees are among the most valuable assets of an enterprise, and ignoring their assumptions is dangerous to our enterprise’s health. When I talk to customers about their convenience store employees, their interface between their company and their customers, I am appalled at the assumptions they hold about them.

Your business consists of many separate systems controlled by separate teams of people. As an enterprise grows, people begin to take over more and more responsibilities as tasks are redistributed among them. The critical success factors that are so important to maintaining the overall health of a business change, you encounter new problems and your goals are constantly in jeopardy of sabotage and destruction. Monitoring and changing the assumptions of your employees should be a primary objective in growing your business in the direction you want it o go.

New goals and objectives are often alien to the prevailing culture of an enterprise. Employees spend most of their time on specific problems and internal politics. Changing the prevailing culture of an enterprise is not always easy. A new idea that you may feel to be of paramount importance in reaching your goals may never make its way past the conflicting assumptions held by top management, supervisors and store managers, unless you take time to manage the assumptions of the people that are critical in interpreting your objectives in the way you want them presented.

In Marcia Layton Turner’s excellent book “K-Mart’s 10 Deadly Sins”, she pointed out that K-Mart employed technology mainly to “cut cost and reduce waste”, where Wal-Mart “sought to use technology to revolutionize how it did business, exploring the myriad ways computing systems could support its MISSION to provide ‘everyday low prices’.” There is a subtle, yet enormous difference in the assumptions held by the two enterprises. Sam Walton believed that “You are either ‘operations driven’ – where your main thrust is toward reducing expenses and improving efficiency – or you are ‘merchandise driven’. The ones that are merchandise driven can always work on improving operations, but the ones that are ‘operations driven’ tend to level off and begin to deteriorate”. The differences in their assumptions about the value of technology governed the culture in which the two companies operated.

Ed Yourdan wrote in his book, “Rise and Resurrection of the American Programmer” that the “social contract that bound worker and employer together in an atmosphere of trust and respect has been destroyed.” Large companies have demonstrated repeatedly that they cannot or will not make long-term commitments to their employees and employees have responded by withdrawing their loyalty, as well as their commitment and dedication to the well being of the company they work for. It is fair to say that the social contract between convenience store enterprises and their employees has been broken, probably forever.

In surfing the web for information to include in this article I ran across the following:

“This focus on re-engineering and downsizing has transmitted a demoralizing message to employees. It may not be the message management intended to transmit. But it is the message that has come through. The first part of the message is: "Our corporate vision promises to give us success in the new global economy. We know the only way it will become a reality is if you, our people, give us every ounce of dedication." But the second, contradictory half of the message is: "Our No. 1 goal is to maximize shareholder value. In the pursuit of that goal, you, the employee, are expendable. We expect loyalty and top performance from you, but you must understand that we owe you nothing in return."

In Marcia Layton Turners book, she recalls that for years K-Mart executives were paid outrageous sums while its store-level employees got little, or were let go. Employee incentives need to be “expanded to benefit employees who come into direct contact with customers and therefore have the greatest impact on a customer’s experience.” The prevailing culture in the convenience store industry is to treat employees as expendable. Among our most important assets, our interface between our company and our customers, how can they be expendable?

I see little effort, if any, given to repair the trust and loyalty that must exists between an enterprise and its employees if it is to survive. But the current culture is a cancer that needs to be cut out and cast aside. What assumptions do your clerks and managers hold with regards to you and the company they work for? Do your managers assume that they are expendable? Do these mixed messages violate their sense of fairness and undercut their commitment to the company? Are they beginning to withdraw their loyalty and to make plans either to leave the company or, more commonly, to give less to their jobs than in the past? And more importantly, do we ‘assume’ that they are such and there is nothing we can do about it?

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