Joseph J. Lacroix

Finding out what's going on in an organization -- both the good and the not so good, is a skill not regularly taught in the college curriculum. Financials are typically used as a barometer of organization health, but the trouble with using financials alone is that they provide their warnings too late. The cause of financial decline has already taken its toll and the declining-trend already set on a path often too late to reverse. It is like inspecting for quality at the end of the line and having to scrap the whole product for something that occurred at step 2. There is a better way!

An organization is an awkward entity. Most organizations, be they government or commercial, are comprised of a collection of us humans complete with our shortcomings and strengths. Organizations are entirely vulnerable to the whims of the marketplace, and more disastrously they are vulnerable to the ebb and flow of internal factors that spell success or failure. These vulnerabilities (external and internal) are connected more closely than many people think. Here's how.

People in any organization come from a marketplace. It may not be the same market to which the organization provides its products and services, but it is a marketplace none-the-less. One of the best resources for an organization's success often lies dormant totally within its structure -- its own people. Yet, more often than not, the external customer is lauded as the sole source of wisdom for making improvements. The courtship for marketplace wisdom must begin internally before its full potential can ever be realized outside the organization.

Managers must realize that they cannot always command the willing commitment of their employees as associates in improvement efforts. Management's commitment to the process of continuous internal improvement is, however, an essential ingredient to finding out the health of the organization before it affects the bottom line. Managers can let something happen, encourage something to happen through their words and actions, or make something happen through full participation. All three strategies are required. Knowing when to engage which strategy is often more artful than scientific.

Full participation.

Full participation is often required at first. Associates and employees alike will need to know that management is committed to continuous improvement. The proof is full participation in initial efforts. Showing up at appropriate meetings, participating (but not so much that dialog is stifled), and following through with team decisions is critical. When managers ask people to suggest solutions to problems, they must follow through with those suggestions. Often, it is better to follow through with a less than optimum solution than to disregard the recommendation altogether.


People want their managers to have faith in their ability and to trust that they can follow through too. Once a continuous improvement effort has begun with management's full participation, it is time to encourage others from a reasonable distance. That means regular visits to team activities, providing guidance when asked, listening deeply to the rationale for any recommendation, and charging forward with implementation when appropriate. Managers must reward people for taking risks. The reward need not be the dangling carrot of a monetary gain, but it ought to have meaning for those who receive it. Encouragement in continuous improvement of efforts is best practiced publicly.

Letting Something Happen.

At some point in the continuous improvement process, managers must come to grips with letting go. Encouraging a rebellion and letting the rebels go underground to find and solve problems for the good of the organization is key to this strategy. Those who are closest to the work are usually better equipped to find problems and fix them than are managers who may be removed from the work by several layers. When the loyal rebellion has taken hold in an organization, new methods for recognition must be adopted. The formal recognition system may no longer hold the value that unofficial symbolic recognition will hold.

Initial benefits of this technique are often first felt internally. Finding out what is going on internally is the safest possible, and often least expensive step in the business success formula -- yet it is often overlooked. The external customer benefits will come as improvements are made that will more directly effect them. In an impatient business world, it is often difficult to make the investment required internally for the external marketplace to feel the benefit and for the financials to reflect the improvement of market performance

The use of organization surveys (both internal and external), style inventories; interviews, focus group sessions, and observations by an impartial person are often adjunct means to finding out how things are going. All too often, these kinds of data collection efforts tend to validate what people in the organization knew all along -- some things that need attention aren't getting it. This proof will make it easier to commit resources, if a large-scale commitment is essential. Plus, an initial snapshot will make it easier to determine if the effort is doing what was intended, or if the return on investment is on track.

An organization's own people are the best possible problem-solving mechanism money can buy. External consults can help when effectively used but ought not to be continuously engaged in any organization. The investment in people as an organization's primary problem-solving tool is as essential a tool to attracting new customers and satisfying the current customers as a growing bottom line. Finding out what's going on in an organization can easily start with asking people who are closest to the potential problems.

To start finding out what is going on in your organization, select what you think is a well-known and pressing problem. Charter a small group of non-management people from deep in the organization to explore the problem thoughtfully and come up with recommendations for solutions. At first, management must participate fully in the activities (not too fully!), but don't chair the group yourself. Follow through with the recommendations. Then keep on doing it until the marketplace feels the effect of your initiatives and the financials reflect your organization's new commitment to excellence. You'll be finding out more through this mechanism than you ever thought possible.

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Word count: 1,036 words

Copyright 1998 Leadagement Technologies, Inc.
(757) 886-9386

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Copyright 1998 Leadagement Technologies, Inc. - All rights reserved.
(757) 886-9386
Reviewed: 12/98 as ""