Bottle-Necks and Push-Back – Problems in Production Goal Attainment

Knowledge Check!Let me begin with an affirmation when you believe that a problem is insurmountable, you are 100% correct, and nothing will ever change.  If you tell me a problem is insurmountable, I will say to you BULL!  Every time!  Why; because if people built it, people can disassemble it.  We might have to push at it, swear at it, sweat at it, and kick at it some, but people can disassemble it!  When we believe no problem is insurmountable, we are more than ½-way to solving the problem!

At work right now, a colleague has a problem; trainers do not want to come in early and train new hires.  Because new hires cannot be trained in off-hours, his team is slipping in production goal attainment.  When he drops far enough, his regional bosses will decide more resources need to be spent, and public shaming begins to occur because public notice accompanies greater resource allocation.  The bottle-neck is training; the push-back comes from trainers.

Fishbone DiagramThe trainers are pushing back because they are already double and triple tasked to training new hires in two other more “important” departments.  Except, because those other departments are considered “more important,” production goals for the entire facility will never be met.  A core philosophy is missed; when quality fails, nobody meets production goals.  The vicious cycles keep going around; training cannot spare people to train quality, quality fails to meet goals, and production goals are missed due to training.

Exclamation MarkThere are times I have wished this was an isolated example; however, this repeats so often I should have cards made.  Breaking the training bottle-neck requires thinking outside the standard paradigm, or in more basic vernacular, get out of the box and start thinking anew!  While the following solutions are explicitly geared to fixing the training bottle-neck, the pattern for thinking is helpful as a conversation starter.  Start the conversation rolling!

Here’s some ideas:

  1. Off-hours shift training. Look at your operational schedules.  Do you have times when equipment is not operating, when the production floor is down, and when people can be trained?  Use that time!
        • I worked at a manufacturing facility where after the first three days of new-hire orientation, all manufacturing and warehouse employees worked the third shift for their first four months. Why?  Training could operate the floors and equipment and work around maintenance without crimping operational schedules or hindering production.  Then, new hires went onto the day shift where two extra managers could offer management-by-walk around for additional OJT.
        • I have observed warehouses where new hires work a split shift; they come in for 4-hours of training when nobody else is around but trainers, and then 4-hours when the rest of the warehouse is around—giving new hire equipment operators experience in operating in both a quiet environment and a busy environment.
        • The idea is to find times when you can safely train without hindering operation tempo. Use the calendar, use a shift rotation, be honest with people and be upfront on expectations and the reality of business needs.  Guess what, when you are honest, people respond!
  2. Appreciative Inquiry – Believe it or not, when you have a problem, a pressing business need, or an urgent issue, your people will pleasantly surprise you with solutions if you listen and act. Too often, I have been stunned ever to forget this lesson; people have brains and ideas, use them, give them credit, and watch them blossom into your best problem solvers!
  3. It should go without saying, treat people as the professionals you hired.
        • My first boss in supply chain quality control did not teach me basic stuff, e.g., this is a part, how you count the pieces, a SKU, etc. The boss presumed I knew or would ask questions, which saved both of us time and resources.  More to the point, by treating me as a professional, I grew into being a supply quality control officer and loved the job.  I have witnessed the opposite too often to know my experience is not the norm in supply chains, which is detestable.
        • You hired a professional; treat them as a professional. Set standards, show them, explain, train them, and build them into greater professionals, primarily by getting out of their way!
        • Encourage people never to stop learning through example!
  4. Who is your customer? Who are your vendors?  Who are your stakeholders?  Why is this information important?
        • Customer service is dead; however, if you do not know your customer, vendors, and stakeholders are, so is your business model!
        • Customer helping is alive and well; however, your business model is dead if you do not know your customer, vendors, and stakeholders!
        • Managers, let me give you a hint, your customer is your employees. When was the last time you got to know your customers?  When was the last time you helped your customers?  Why did you last help your customers?

LookWhen it comes to bottle-necks and push-back, knowing your customer is the first step in solving the bottle-neck and charting a positive path through push-back.  Consider my colleague, his customer are his employees needing training, his vendor is the training department, and the stakeholders are the rest of the business, those setting production goals, those relying upon his team meeting production goals, and ultimately the paying external customer.  Yet, my colleague, cannot see who his customer is, does not think of training as a vendor, and the rest of the business as a stakeholder, for this is not how he was trained.  Worse, his business unit refuses to accept this method of thinking to improve production goal attainment.

  1. Leadership must lead by first embracing new thinking and possibilities.

Previously in my career, it was a pleasure and adventure to be on a project where the leadership wanted a solution to their problem.  However, the leaders did not want to change, at all.  They wanted a solution, but refused to change in any shape, form, or method.  Worse, the leaders did not admit they did not want to change because they themselves had not considered that a solution would require change.  Thus, when the solution was delivered, it looked like a great idea, on paper.  But, the second it was implemented, reality bit, change was coming, and this scared the leadership team into panic mode.  Add in the coming economic downturn that had already started to hurt the company, and panic turned into a full-on disaster.

?u=http3.bp.blogspot.com-CIl2VSm-mmgTZ0wMvH5UGIAAAAAAAAB20QA9_IiyVhYss1600showme_board3.jpg&f=1&nofb=1Leaders, it is imperative that you lead first by example personally, then by actions professionally, then only if necessary by words.  When you observe new thinking on an old idea, embrace that and see where it goes.  Even if the new idea fails, build people!  Production goals are about human efforts distilled into statistical symbols.  Never forget about the human element.  Build people, and you meet production goals.  Build quality into every single transaction, and you meet production goals.  Fail people, and you will never meet production goals!  Fail quality, and you will fail to meet production goals.

I cannot make this any simpler!

© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.

Communication – A Tool of Improving Call Centers, a Leadership Guide

A call center recently asked for some help. They have an “open-door” policy for employees to use. The call center meets all the designated training directives and compliance mandates. They believe they are the “best of the best” in providing customer support and have won awards from third-parties to back up these claims. Yet, employee churn remains high, employee morale remains low, and the leaders are becoming wary of the employment pool attracted to the call center.

ProblemsIn making observations, the consultant team tested the “open-door” policy and found that those sought were never in their offices even though the doors were open. The training was occurring, but the training offered had little to no value for the front-line customer-facing staff. It was generally considered a zero-sum game, providing time off the phones and causing stress and overtime costs. Worse, the front-line supervisors and employees’ perception was the existence of a chasm, separating them from higher organizational leaders.

Yukl (2010, p. 7) stated the definition of leadership as a “… multi-directional influence relationship between a leader and followers with the mutual purpose of accomplishing real change. Leaders and followers influence each other as they interact in non-coercive ways to decide what changes they want to make.” Fairholm (2001) built on the definition by Yukl (2010), insisting that leadership is a social event specific to the group of followers and leaders. Leadership and followership is a social contract; a call center is one of the most unique social environments possible. Due to this social environment, the leader who inspires communication is the call center leader who will be highly successful and train others to be highly successful.

Inherent to a fruitful and lasting social environment that promotes growth and development, leadership requires non-coercive methods to inspire and empower and provide aid to followers during change. Leadership in call centers is a social event specific to that group of followers, and leaders requiring mutuality in action to influence objectives being appropriately met. Coercion is a poison that infects like cancer into social environments; unfortunately, coercion is an easy trap to fall into as it is effective in the short-term.

Using the definition of leadership by Yukl (2010), we find why coercive leadership is ineffective; coercion cannot touch the followers’ hearts and minds to empower action towards objectives. A coercive action is any activity performed to harm or ensure the compliance of the action’s target. Coercive practices take many forms, from withholding benefits, including praise, to overt action, including threats and force. Coercive measures are used as leverage to force an individual or team to act in a way contrary to their individual or team interests. Covert coercion is rampant in many call centers and takes the form of restrictive policies, carrot/stick incentives, and human treatment policies that allow favoritism to rule instead of results.

Coercion is pernicious, and coercive practices are preventable. Yukl (2010) further elaborated that the follower only gives the coercive leader power out of fear or acts as a coercive agent to oppress others.  Furthermore, Yukl (2010, p. 137) specified that coercive leadership produces fear as the only motivator, and fear is dysfunctional, making nothing but more dysfunction in followers. Academic researchers often use the military as an example of coercive power and coercive leadership. Yet, having served in the US Army and the US Navy, I can attest coercion does not work in the military just as it does not work in any other industry. Coercive power is an acid destroying everything, building nothing, and dehumanizing people into animals.

The opposite of coercion is persuasion. Persuasion is the mode of being effective in collaboration, and persuasion requires trust and communication. Trust is an operational factor that builds the relationship between followers and leaders. It is the single most crucial factor in collaboration; but, collaboration and trust, as operational concepts, require two-directional communication to reach maximum effectiveness (Du, Erkens, Xu, 2018).

Internal-CS-Attitude-Low-ResCommunication as a tool in expressing confidence in the follower/leader relationship gains strength to clear misunderstandings and reach the desired consensus to meet organizational goals and operational objectives. The operational concept of trust and communication requires the third leg of the trust relationship agency. The follower needs to possess agency to act, informed agency requires training to employ, and the power and support of leadership to feel confident in action as detailed by Boler (1968), Avolio and Yammarino (2002). Which is where concepts meet reality, where theory is tested, and the leader is needed.

The following are proposed actions to build trust in organizations, improve communications, and empower the agency in employees to act. One of the worst things a leader can do when coercion is suspected is “trust exercises.” Trust exercises like standing a person on a chair and having them fall back into the team’s waiting arms. A call center leader colleague tried holding team and department meetings using “trust exercises,” and the result was best described as a catastrophe. The actions proposed are practical and can be employed in all call centers, including those working remotely due to COVID.

  1. Employ praise! Honest, truthful, fact-based, and reasoned praise is the most powerful tool a call center leader can employ to build people. With many call center workers working remotely, using praise as a recognition tool is critical to improving employee performance.
      • Use QA calls to issue praise.
      • Use non-cash incentives to recognize powerful deeds.
      • Make praise public through company newsletters and leadership emails.
      • Be specific, direct, and honest in your praise.
      • Be consistent in offering praise.
  1. Saying you have an “open door” is not enough, be the support mechanism your people need.
      • Respond to emails. Even if you cannot offer a substantial response immediately, personalize the email response, set a follow-up date, and meet those follow-up dates for additional communication.
      • Respond to employee questions with enthusiasm for listening and acting, not merely speaking.
      • Stop active listening; begin immediately to listen to meet mutual understanding through reflective listening. Mutual understanding and a promise to act on a concern are essential to support “open-door” policies; failure to listen and act is the number one failure of “open-door” policies.
  2. Training must change. If training is not a value-added exercise to the person receiving training, training has not occurred, resources have been wasted, and problems are generating.
    • Does your trainer know how to gather qualitative data from front-line workers to make curriculum developments?
    • Does your trainer know how to collect quantitative data from the training program to gauge decision-making in curriculum improvement?
    • What adult education theories are your trainers employing to instruct, build, and motivate adult learners who are employed?
    • How do you measure training effectiveness?
    • Does a “trained” employee know how to use trainers’ information to change individual approaches?
    • Do team leaders take an active role in training, or are they just “too busy?”

All these questions and more should be powering your training of the trainer discussions. If these questions are not being addressed, how will you, the call center leader, know your training investment dollars can return a positive investment? Training remote workers, especially, requires training programs that can motivate learners to change personal behavior. Thus, the training must have the ability to reach the student’s honor and integrity.

Leadership CartoonCOVID has provided many opportunities, and only through collaboration, communication, trust, and empowered agency, can help call centers to survive this difficult period. Regardless of how long the government shutdowns occur, your call center can survive, and call center leaders can prosper, provided they are willing to be leaders indeed, not managers in disguise.

References

Avolio, B. J., & Yammarino, F. J. (2002). Transformational and charismatic leadership: The road ahead. San Diego, CA: Emerald.

Boler, J. (1968). Agency. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 29(2), 165-181.

Du, F., Erkens, D. H., & Xu, K. (2018). How trust in subordinates affects service quality: Evidence from a large property management firm. Business.Illinois.edu. Retrieved from https://business.illinois.edu/accountancy/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2018/03/Managerial-Symposium-2018-Session-IV-Du-Erkens-and-Xu.pdf.

Fairholm, Gilbert W. Mastering inner leadership. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.

Ruben, B. D., & Gigliotti, R. A. (2017). Communication: Sine qua non of organizational leadership theory and practice. International Journal of Business Communication, 54(1), 12-30.

Yukl, G. (2010, April 23). Leadership in organizations [Adobe Digital Edition Version 1.5] (7th ed.).

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.
All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:
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Uncomfortable Truths: Department of Veterans Affairs, are you listening?

It was surprising that the Department of Veterans Affairs will automatically share health information with third parties without the veterans written consent unless the veteran opts-out in writing or submit a revocation in writing submitted in person or by US mail.  Especially surprising is that the official form for opting-out is not legally active until October 2019, and the deadline for opting-out, in writing, is 30 September 2019.  While this news if significantly troubling, let us define the full problem, courtesy of the Department of Veterans Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG).

I-CareOn 12 September 2019, the VA-OIG completed their investigation into the Beneficiary Fiduciary Field system (BFFS), who handle benefits payments for veterans and other beneficiaries who, due to injury, disease, or age, are unable to manage their financial affairs and are thus vulnerable to fraud or abuse.  The veterans affected are those who are the most susceptible in the veteran population, and the government agency charged with protecting, helping, and supporting these veterans is vulnerable to fraud and misuse.  In fact, the VA-OIG found that the BFFS, “… lacked sufficient controls to ensure the privacy of sensitive data and prevent fraud and misuse. Specifically, finding the VA’s Office of Information and Technology inappropriately set the security risk level for BFFS at moderate instead of high. Risk managers did not follow established standards and did not consider whether information for beneficiaries and fiduciaries stored in the system’s database was sufficiently protected.”

Yet, the VA is now making available to third-parties, the health records of veterans.  Does anyone else see a problem?  Previously I have written about the continuing risk of veteran’s files from being accessed by persons unknown, and how this problem does not slow, simply how the VA has stopped reporting how bad the problem continues to be.  Personally, I have been a victim of ID Theft from VA Data breaches three times.  I have had VA Employees surf my medical records and then use this data to discriminate against me.  I have witnessed blatant HIPAA violations by VA Employees without hospital leaders taking any action.  Now, the VA is going to “share” my medical record access with “interested parties.”  I have some concerns!

Just in case your attention was drifting due to fallacious impeachment proceedings, the VA inappropriately sole-sourced contracts for ambulance services in three separate Veteran Health Administration Regional Procurement Offices (RPO).  The significance of this event is evidenced in the lack of competition for government contracts.  Designed incompetence was the origination of this issue, the contracting officer claimed, “I didn’t know.”  The contracting officer, who must go to school to obtain authority to enter into contracts for the Federal Government, somehow “didn’t know” about the regulations and rules for sole-sourcing a contract.  I have some doubts!

In further news from VA-OIG investigations, we find another contracting officer who claims, “I don’t know,” to hide behind designed incompetence in sole-sourcing contracts.  From the VA-OIG inspection report, “15 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO West with a total value of about $19 million, were inspected to determine whether they were properly justified and approved, and found that this was not done for five contracts worth about $6 million.”  The contracting officers in RPO West, who “misunderstood who the proper approval authority was.”  Are you kidding me?

Blue Money BurningThe VA-OIG reports, “when contracting officers violate federal regulation by failing to obtain the required approval for sole-source contracts, they exceed their contracting authority.”  Contracting officers work with the approving authority, how can they not “know” who they work for and how to obtain proper authorization?  The excuses are weak and inexcusable; as an operation professional, the first step in getting to know the business is to know who answers the questions, who has the authority, and where that person is located.  For contracting officers, the approving authority is the boss, either the employees do not know who they are working for, or there are significant issues in lines of authority, and both situations speak of phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership.

Just like the Home Shopping Network is always claiming, “But wait, there’s more!”  RPO East, not to be outdone by RPO West, had the VA-OIG inspect “20 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO East totaling $41.4 million. The OIG found RPO East contracting officers did not obtain required approval before awarding 10 contracts worth about $14.2 million.”  The reason these contracts were not appropriately sole-sourced, “because officials did not follow the proper approval process, did not receive the correct guidance, and misinterpreted regulations.”  If RPO West is suffering from “phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership,” then RPO East is beyond saving under the current leadership, and I call upon Secretary Wilkie and his team to scrub RPO East leadership and start over under strict quality review teams to ensure compliance and correction.  I repeat, only for emphasis, this situation is inexcusable.  The contracting officers must attend school, must know the regulations, and must not “individually interpret” the purchasing rules, and they know this from the first second on the job.  I was made aware of sole-source contracting regulations, and I was not a contracting officer.

RPO West has the follow-through needed to boil someone’s blood.  “The VA-OIG reviewed 15 sole-source contracts awarded by RPO West with a total value of about $19 million to determine whether they were properly justified and approved, and found that this was not done for five contracts worth about $6 million.”  The reason these contracts were not appropriately sole-sourced, “because officials did not follow the proper approval process, did not receive the correct guidance, and misinterpreted regulations.”  I rescind my earlier comments about the ability to save RPO West, I call upon Secretary Wilkie to personally ax the leadership at both RPO East and West, to start on a clean slate the contracting officers, leadership, and then strictly observe and implement a quality control mechanism to protect the taxpayer.

People ProcessesSpeaking of “phenomenal incompetence and failure of leadership.”  Please allow me to prepare the groundwork for the subsequent VA-OIG investigation.  To be a supervisor in the VHA, VBA, or National Cemetery, you first must work in the positions you will be supervising.  This information was passed during a job-interview by the hiring authority and confirmed by several VA directors since.  From the VA-OIG Report, we find, “a supervisor at the VA regional office in Boston, Massachusetts, incorrectly processed system-generated messages known as “work items.”  The supervisor, “incorrectly canceled 33 of 55 work items out of 110 reviewed (that’s a less than 50% accuracy), and improperly cleared another nine work items from the electronic record. Because of these incorrectly processed cases, VA made about $117,300 in improper payments to veterans or other beneficiaries, along with about $8,600 in delayed payments.”  Best of all, the supervisor claimed these work items were improperly handled because, “he did not intentionally process the work items incorrectly, and the errors were the result of working too quickly and misunderstanding procedures.”  You are the supervisor, you are in charge, you should know who to approach for guidance and clarification, you have caused significant harm to veterans who either are not being paid or now must repay funds improperly provided.  There is an obvious question here, “If the supervisor is less than 50% accurate, what is the accuracy of the supervisor’s team?”  While the VA-OIG cannot investigate this question, is the director investigating this question?

If the accuracy of claims handling personnel is less than 50%, how can any veteran be sure their claim has been handled properly?  Having been forced to repay funds to the VA, I can attest to the financial impact these over and underpayments cause for veterans.  When will these decision-making officers be held personally accountable for improper decisions?  Senators, members of the House of Representatives, what are you doing to support improving the VA, in conjunction with Secretary Wilkie?  From what I witness, not enough!

You're FiredFrom the files of “Not Enough,” comes another egregious example.  A patient in a psychological ward in the Philadelphia Pennsylvania VA Medical Center was killed because of a drug-to-drug interaction, were due to insufficient observation, insufficient monitoring, and inadequate action when the patient coded, and a veteran died at the hands of caregivers.  When a patient in a hospital ward, which is monitored electronically and physically, commits suicide, I become very agitated.  When any patient dies at the hands of the healthcare provider, I have officially lost my “cherub-like demeanor” and begin resembling a grizzly bear with a bum tooth, hemorrhoids, and woken too soon from my winter nap.  The VA-OIG Report states the following, “… providers did not monitor the patient for electrocardiogram changes or drug-on-drug interactions.  Staff and providers documented signs consistent with over-sedation but did not intervene, communicate directly with each other, or add team members on as additional signers to the electronic health record.  The facility did not comply with the Veterans Health Administration requirements for issue briefs, root cause analyses, and peer reviews.  The staff did not follow the facility’s observation policy.  Facility providers did not adhere to policies requiring discussion, documentation, and patient signed informed consents prior to initiating methadone treatment.”  The providers knew they had a problem, before the patient got into trouble, and did nothing!  In any civilian hospital, this is called malpractice; but in the VA Hospital system, “this is an unfortunate incident.”  While I am undoubtedly glad leadership acted to remedy this situation in the future; I am very displeased to note it ever occurred.  With all the publicity over the power of methadone as an opioid, with the technology to remedy these problems before the patient dies, I cannot accept this situation could occur in the first place!  This veteran’s death should never have happened and the fact that this veteran died at the hands of providers from over-sedation, is a testament to the incompetence designed into the VA processes that excuses accountability and rewards malfeasance.

Speaking of opioid medication problems, the VA-OIG inspected 779,000 VA patients prescribed opioids, and for 73% (568,670) of those patients there was an insufficient investigation by the primary care providers in consulting the state-operated prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to ensure over-medication did not occur.  The VA-OIG estimated that 19% of those files improperly handled placed patients at risk because of medications prescribed outside the VA Medical System.  With the constant harangue from the mainstream media over opioid addiction and deaths from opioids, a person might ask, where is the concern?  Why isn’t this a talking point in a Congressional Investigation to understand why, and then begin to implement changes to ensure the VA is not stained with more veteran deaths over opioids.  Finally, with an accuracy rate of less than 25%, it appears to me this problem needs immediate rectification using technology and quality control measures at the local level to improve adherence.

blue-moneyI would like to take a moment and thank the VA-OIG for stepping up to the plate and correcting pre-award contract pricing to save the American taxpayer $515 million because the contracting officer on 16 of 22 proposed pharmaceutical contracts was improperly priced.  In case you are wondering, the accuracy of the contracting officers was less than 75%.  I know of no industry, business, or service organization that can have a 75% or less accuracy rate and remains in business.  As a business operation and purchasing professional, these numbers appear to suggest that the contract officers are either intentionally neglectful, or they are counting on pre-award review to protect them from price gouging; both situations are inexcusable for a contracting officer for the Federal Government.

Thank you!As the Los Angeles Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program (LA VOCREHAB) was recently featured in an article, I am pleased to see that hiring additional staff has improved performance, per the findings of the VA-OIG.  The VA-OIG Report found accuracy in spending money had increased, compliance, and helping veterans to gain employment had all increased since the damning report from the VA-OIG; thus, congratulations to the LA VOCREHAB program!

© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.