July 19, 2009
My husband is a wonderful guy, constantly giving back to the community in so many ways. One example, he donates blood – he knows that the community counts on him especially in the summer because there is always a shortage. Drip, drip, drip…yesterday morning, he got up early to donate blood.
When he returned from donating, he expressed frustration about the service. As he recounted a tale about the person who handled his “in-take” – they wasted his time, denigrated his offer of assistance to find his recent travel destination on the map, and was rude. I realized once again how lucky the world is that he is so calm, unflappable, and honorable. Had I been in the same situation, frustrated would not be the word choice to describe how I would have felt…
Considering the importance of keeping eligible donors returning at regular intervals to donate blood to create blood supply (the only source of raw material), it is simply shocking that the blood center does not ensure that donors have an amazing experience.
As my husband recounted his blood center tale, I recalled the advice I gave previously in Proverbial Zebra about the importance of knowing the organizational constraint and understanding the pivotalness of staff roles. That key advice came from Beyond HR: The New Science of Human Capital (Bourdeau/Ramstad) and applies directly to a customer service organization like the blood center. In fact, the authors use two different customer service roles at Disneyland to describe pivotalness – Mickey Mouse and the street sweepers.
At Disneyland, there is not too much differentiation from a “guest” point-of-view between the worst Mickey and the best Mickey – not pivotal. However, there is significant differentiation between the worst street sweeper and the best – very pivotal. Sweepers who go out of their way to help a lost guest or find assistance make a big difference in the overall Disney experience of guests and, thereby, the success of Disneyland. Thus, Disney makes a great effort to hire the very best street sweepers – those with initiative and courtesy. Pivotalness is determined by the attributes that relieve an organizational constraint.
In the bloody supply business that is in chronic shortage and in need of donors, the organizational constraint is recruiting eligible donors. So, if the Blood Center were to review staff roles relative to the constraint, there is not too much differentiation from a “donor” point-of-view” between the worst lab technician and the best lab technician (assuming baseline competence) – not pivotal. However, there is a significant difference between the worst “in-take” technician and the best “in-take” technician – very pivotal. “In-take” technicians that are knowledgeable of world geography (where has the donor visited in the last six months that might exclude them), charming (able to make comforting small talk through the finger-prick and blood pressure testing), and efficient (every donor minute wasted reduces the chance of return) make a big difference in the overall blood center experience and will affect the willingness of donors to continue to donate.
My long view advice to any blood center is that they need to be proactive about deploying excellence in “in-take” technicians. It is not an entry-level position that can be delegated to the lowest common denominator in the organization or the blood supply will suffer over the long-term. As noted before, pivotalness is determined by the attributes that relieve an organizational constraint — access to blood NOW and in the FUTURE. Do not count on a donor’s sense of duty or Oreo cookies to sustain donor returns. Select staff for “in-take” positions that are knowledgeable, charming, and efficient and then compensate them for doing these things well because it matters!
Do you know what staff positions are pivotal in your organization?
April 6, 2009
When I first started working professionally in chemical engineering, I only worked on technical problems. As such, I only saw, knew, and understood technical issues – my level of abstraction was limited. As my career matured, I realized that logistical issues often trumped technical issues for achieving the goals of the organization. So I gained mastery in solving logistical problems. Then, as I understood even larger levels of abstraction, I realized that organizational issues often trump both technical and logistical issues and so I gained mastery in solving organizational challenges.
I have found that in order to be effective in the development and commercialization of emerging technology over the long view, one must recognize the domain of the system constraint and be attentive to changes (as the organization progresses and the marketplace matures). Mastery of all three domains is required to successfully develop and grow an emerging technology business.
Domain differences are assessed by level of concreteness (or the level of insight that can be achieved through measurement, modeling, and computation):
- Technical challenges are addressed through physical/chemical/mathematical models and measurements of physical quantities. Direct quantitative comparison of competing phenomena creates optimized technical processes that meet stated goals.
- Logistical solutions rely on intuitive understanding of outcomes. Discrete event simulation can build intuition and help to create optimized processes, but there is no direct analytical optimization.
- Strategies for resolving organization issues are least concrete. Detailed logical analysis (if-then scenario analysis) provides direction for solution but requires experience and excellence in future projection.
Why is it hard?! Because the situations are all too common. For example:
The organization must improve conversion at step X (upstream) to stay within market costs, so a technical team is deployed to address it. It is also recognized that the separation at step Y (downstream) must be improved to achieve scalability, so a separate technical team is deployed to address it. Then the business team makes the case that they need more products to sell (to potential clients, to show investors breadth, ….) so yet another technical team is deployed to develop processes using key technology at step Z (finishing) in new applications or markets. However, technical resources are limited (the technical organization is small) and many of the same people are working on X, Y, and Z simultaneously.
By trying to do too much, organizational constraints emerge from technical constraints. Because these types of problems emerge slowly, they are often unrecognized and unaddressed until damage is done (insufficient progress is achieved for X, Y or Z to satisfy stakeholders). Although some tolerance for multitasking is inevitable, not all technical specialists are equipped to recognize and manage progressions from technical → logistical → organizational constraints effectively for success.
Does your business have a technical challenge now, but an organizational challenge waiting to happen?
March 19, 2009
When I speak to executive recruiters, they are often surprised by the breadth of my success, which includes serial cross-pollination across several industries (semiconductors, high performance materials, and biotechnology) bringing emerging technology to commercialization. However, this breadth makes me the proverbial zebra when technology leadership profiles are tilted toward acute technical demands and expertise, rather than sustainable (long view) technical organization development (technical challenges are heard as hoof beats connected to horses rather than zebras). Although it is unusual for technologists to seek adventure in uncharted territory, for me, the allure of mastering new technology and contributing to commercialization brings me joy.
How can one tell whether the organizational constraint* occurs in the specific technology or within the technology organization? An understanding of the needed roles (technical problem solving, organizational leadership, strategic planning) and the degree to which they are pivotal determine the profile of the desired candidate. In Beyond HR: The New Science of Human Capital (Bourdeau/Ramstad), the authors use a Disneyland example to describe pivotalness – Mickey Mouse and the street sweepers. It turns out, that there is not too much differentiation from a “guest” point-of-view between the worst Mickey and the best Mickey – not pivotal. However, there is significant differentiation between the worst street sweeper and the best – very pivotal. Sweepers who go out of their way to help a lost guest or find assistance make a big difference in the overall Disney experience of guests and, thereby, the success of Disneyland. Thus, Disney makes a great effort to hire the very best street sweepers – those with initiative and courtesy. In a sense, pivotalness is determined by the attributes that relieve an organizational constraint.* In a technical organization, there is differing pivotalness for technical specificity and organizational leadership.
I will be most successful and valued in an organization whose constraint* is sustainable development and can capitalize on my system strengths (generalizing core concepts to new environments) that enable fast forward execution. I will not be successful and valued in an organization whose constraint* is an immediate technical issue for which I have no deep personal expertise and limited access to leveraging others’ expertise.
As I embark on seeking my next adventure, I am buoyed by the rise in sustainable (long view) advice for organization building. From Pfeffer, What Were They Thinking: Unconventional Wisdom About Management (pg.129): “In companies, particularly entrepreneurial companies, persistence and resilience are crucial for success. That’s because it is almost invariably the case that products will need to be redesigned and strategies and tactics changed on the path to market.” The zebra is the new high-value breed.
(*Note: The organizational constraint is the thing that prevents the organization from making more money now and in the future.)