Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Changing Culture: Speaking Up at Boeing

Source: Wikipedia

Julie Johnsson wrote a story for Bloomberg this week about the attempted cultural transformation at Boeing.   The company has faced an uphill struggle trying to address safety deficiencies in the aftermath of the 737 MAX crashes and productio
n troubles with its best-selling Dreamliner. As many have documented (including in my case study about the 737 MAX), Boeing seemed to be characterized by an enviroment of low psychological safety in which engineers were reluctant to speak up about safety concerns. The article focuses on efforts led by Chief Aerospace Safety Officer Michael Delaney to transform the culture and improve problem detection in the manufacturing and engineering operations at the firm. Here's an excerpt from Johnsson's story:

Delaney, who took over the newly created position last year, is trying to instill a more open and transparent culture where employees speak up without fear of retaliation. That’s one facet of a larger framework he’s putting in place, known as a safety management system, that uses data and other tools to address risks before they flare into broader issues.  His deputy, Al Madar, pointed to one counterintuitive sign the approach is starting to take root: Boeing saw a record number of safety reports filed by employees in March and April.  “That data tells me what we’re doing is working,” said Madar, who oversaw American Airlines Group Inc.’s operational safety program before joining Boeing.

This point about the data is very important for any organization on a journey to improve quality and detect problems or errors more effectively.  Remember that improving pscyhological safety is often a key element of a program aimed at improving product/service quality.   In the early stages of a successful effort to enhance psychological safety, reports will (and often should) show MORE reports of incidents or problems, not fewer.   At first, these data may seem alarming. Could quality or safety actually be getting worse?    Actually, the rise in reported incidents typically means people are becoming more comfortable speaking up and sharing their concerns.  A failure to see a rise in reported incidents would be concerning, as it would indicate that perhaps people are still reluctant to come forward with bad news.   Naturally, you need to examine other metrics to be sure that the rise in reported incidents does not represent a serious deterioration in your operations.  Hopefully, some additional research will reveal that incident reporting is being driven by higher levels of psychological safety. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Quitting Your Job the Right Way

Image source: https://uvaro.com/blog/the-great-resignation

Over the last few years, I have heard alumni from my university (Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island) repeatedly stress the importance of "leaving well" when resigning from a company.   Many young people may not recognize the benefits of quitting your job the "right" way, but it is very important.  You never know when you may encounter some of those colleagues again in a future role.  Moreover, your reputation will spread in what are often small circles and dense networks.   Take great care to protect your personal brand when quitting a job.  

What does it mean to quit the right way?  For starters, it means giving more than the usual two weeks notice if possible.  Help make the transition smoother for the individual taking over for you.   Set them up to thrive, rather than simply "mailing it in" during your final weeks.  That individual will be incredibly grateful, and others at the firm, including your managers, will take notice.  Don't bad mouth your boss or the company either.  When asked why you are leaving, focus on the exciting new opportunity ahead of you, rather than the challenges and problems at your current employer.  Your frustrations may be very real, but expressing them publicly does little good in most cases.  Perhaps most importantly, reach out to those people who have mentored you, provided you assistance, taught you a new skill, or given you a key opportunity at your current employer.  Express your gratitude to them for these contributions to your personal development.  Finally, spend some time with any individuals you have mentored during your time at this employer.  Make sure they know that you are still available to act as a sounding board, and express your interest in their continued development.  If you take these actions, you will feel much better about your departure, and you will have build lasting goodwill that may benefit you in the future.  

Monday, May 16, 2022

Don't Eliminate the Small Talk


Like so many people, you might be tired of endless meetings.  Your calendar seems filled with a vast array of meetings, leaving you little time to do your own work.   You might be tempted to make meetings more efficient by just "getting down to business" and eliminating the "small talk" at the start.  I might suggest that you rethink that strategy. Small talk serves a useful function.  It helps us build relationships, create empathy and trust, and encourages us to seek to understand one another.  Dan Bullock and Raul Sanchez recently summarized a key finding regarding the science of small talk in an article for Fast Company.

Still, small talk has the power to make or break a job prospect, a networking encounter, and an intercultural relationship. Going beyond utility conventions and intentionally noticing the semantics of a conversation can land a new business deal or networking opportunity. In the business world, expertly crafted small talk can be used as the icebreaker that leads to the next business pitch, a fail-safe to get relationships back on track, or even simply as agency for building rapport with partners before a negotiation.

You may wonder why you sometimes feel like you’ve known a person after only exchanging a few words. The familiarity has its roots in interpersonal synchronization, where speech rhythms, walking patterns, and even breathing match with those of others simply from our shared perceptions that we notice as we acquaint ourselves with each other.

Findings from Princeton University in the act of human communication and storytelling revealed a powerful phenomenon called “neural coupling,” where our brains essentially get in sync during the act of storytelling. Researchers monitored audience members and storytellers via MRI machines and found that their brain waves synchronize during a powerful story, revealing that stories are one of our most powerful transcultural ingredients for communication. Just think of a networking situation where you jump-start a conversation with phrases like “Have you ever . . .,”; “What if . . .”; and “Did you know that . . .”

Stories can be lightning rods that supercharge our conversations, actively “syncing up” our minds so that we’re not just sharing meaning with each other, but human experience itself.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Publix & Wegman's: Engaged Employees, Happy Customers

 Last month, Beth Kowitt penned a good article for Fortune about the unique organizational culture and work practices at Publix and Wegman's.  She tries to explain why the companies are highly popular with customers and well-known as good places to work.  She points out that employee turnover is usually very high in the supermarket industry, and it has only gotten worse during the pandemic:

Most striking about the Publix and Wegmans streak is that supermarket jobs, already notoriously low paying, have become even more grueling over the past two years as workers put their lives at risk by showing up every day in the middle of a pandemic. Layer on the stress of dealing with disgruntled customers, and it’s clear why so many workers have reached a breaking point. In December 2021 some 786,000 retail employees quit—a record in an industry already plagued by high turnover. The sector has become the melting pot of all the big labor market issues of our time: minimum wage, the Great Resignation, a desire for remote work and flexibility, the childcare crisis.

Kowitt explains some of the things that Publix does differently.  She stresses that Publix has not responded to the Great Resignation by trying to replace humans with technology. Publix is privately held and still partially owned by the founding family, providing some protection from the usual pressures faced by publicly traded companies. The chain invests heavily in worker training so that the employees know the products and can converse with customers about those items.  The firm has a "promote from within" culture. Kowitt writes that, "Store managers have an average of 24 years at Publix, and 90% of them started out working on the floor." She also explains that don't tend to hire meatcutters from other chains. Instead, they bring on entry-level employees into the meat department and train them how to become meatcutters.  Finally, the employee equity plan provides real skin in the game for everyone and creates an incentive for people to build their career for the long term at the company.  Kowitt explains:

"With 230,000 employees, Publix is by far the largest worker-owned company in the U.S., and that has a lot to do with why people stick around. Employees who work at Publix for a year and at least 1,000 hours receive shares that can only be traded with the company. Just like at a startup where workers are given equity, the model entices people to stay. It’s money on top of their salaries (last year, Publix employees who qualified got the equivalent of 8% of their earnings). But Jones says Publix benefits, too. By having skin in the game, workers are invested in the company’s success. It’s an ownership structure that has turned many Publix associates into millionaires—the kind of lore that gets passed down."

As I read about Publix, I thought about one other key benefit of largely developing their managers from within the company, rather than hiring from the outside.  The managers have a much easier time empathizing with the front-line employees. Why?  They have been there!  They have worked at the checkout counters, bagged groceries, unloaded trucks, and stocked shelves.  Having done that work creates a genuine understanding of the obstacles and challenges front-line workers experience every day.  As companies think about the benefits of developing their talent in-house rather than constantly going outside to attract managers, they might consider the power of empathy and the inherent advantage of building empathy by having people promoted from the front lines to managerial positions.  

Monday, May 02, 2022

Does Remote Work Harm Creativity & Innovation?

Source: Enterpreneur.com

Melanie S. Brucks & Jonathan Levav have published a new paper in Nature titled, "Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation."    The scholars conducted a laboratory experiment as well as a field experiment with 1,490 engineers from five nations around the world.  The researchers found that remote collaboration hampers idea generation.  However, they found that remote collaboration has no impact on the ability of groups to select the best ideas to be implemented.   Here's an excerpt:

Here we show that, even if video interaction could communicate the same information, there remains an inherent and overlooked physical difference in communicating through video that is not psychologically benign: in-person teams operate in a fully shared physical space, whereas virtual teams inhabit a virtual space that is bounded by the screen in front of each member. Our data suggest that this physical difference in shared space compels virtual communicators to narrow their visual field by concentrating on the screen and filtering out peripheral visual stimuli that are not visible or relevant to their partner. According to previous research that empirically and neurologically links visual and cognitive attention as virtual communicators narrow their visual scope to the shared environment of a screen, their cognitive focus narrows in turn. This narrowed focus constrains the associative process underlying idea generation, whereby thoughts ‘branch out’ and activate disparate information that is then combined to form new ideas. Yet the narrowed cognitive focus induced by the use of screens in virtual interaction does not hinder all collaborative activities. Specifically, idea generation is typically followed by selecting which idea to pursue, which requires cognitive focus and analytical reasoning. Here we show that virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation—we find that videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups due to narrowed visual focus, but we find no evidence that videoconferencing groups are less effective when it comes to idea selection.

Naturally, more research will be need to be conducted to see if others can replicate these findings in other contexts.   Perhaps the ability for remote work groups to collaborate creatively will be stronger in other circumstances or with the right type of leadership/facilitation.  However, this study highlights a very important phenomenon: the narrowing of cognitive focus.  Teams will need to be acutely aware of the negative effects of this "tunnel vision" as they work in remote and/or hybrid environments.