National City improves tech group productivity by applying lessons learned at a fish market.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 7, 2001

12 Min Read

Last year, Jim Hughes laid down the gauntlet for his project-services group. As executive VP of IT for National City Corp., a financial-services company with nearly $90 billion in assets, Hughes knew the group would be moving into a custom-designed facility near Cleveland in January. It would have no offices with doors--only cubes with window views--and plenty of open spaces with portable whiteboards for brainstorming. But Hughes wanted something more to accompany the new facility: a new work ethic.

A cultural sea change has taken hold at National City during the past year. Executive VP Hughes (left) and senior VP Hai shook up the company from its roots, while also improving its delivery time.



A cultural sea change has taken hold at National City during the past year. Executive VP Hughes (left) and senior VP Hai shook up the company from its roots, while also improving its delivery time.

Hughes' mandate: Cut project delivery time in half. The goal was ambitious bordering on unreasonable. "Most companies would say, 'Let's get 10% efficiency improvement.' The crazy ones would go for 20% improvement. But only the lunatics would go for 50% improvement," says Tony Hai, National City's senior VP and director of project services.

Cutting delivery time in half presented a formidable challenge for Hai, whose performance review was tied to those metrics. What's even crazier than the goal is its outcome: The group will fall just a few percentage points shy of Hughes' mandate. Year to date, Hai's group has cut project time by 47%, but he expects that figure will drop to 43% by year's end. "We began a lot of longer-term projects in the early part of the year. When they come in, they'll bring the average down," Hai says.

Part of the achievement came from process optimization, but that was actually the smallest, easiest part of the equation. The real driving force was something much more pervasive, elusive, and for many managers, downright off-putting: Culture.

During the past year, a cultural sea change has taken hold of National City's project group. For Hai, it was the only way to get the job done. "If you set 10% or 15% improvement as a goal, that's always achievable through process optimization or getting some of your best people to work harder." The real challenge was to get from 15% to 50%. "We wanted to shake up the organization from its roots, to really challenge people," Hai says.


National City's Hai (left) and senior VP Bobby Nehez at one of its game tables. Staff meetings about culture are held quarterly.


National City's Hai (left) and senior VP Bobby Nehez at one of its game tables. Staff meetings about culture are held quarterly.

It's worked, according to Hai's boss. "It's gotten people to think differently, to act differently, to get creative, to be more passionate," Hughes says. And employees did so not because it was a job requirement, but because they bought into "the vision," as Hai is fond of saying. Both Hai and Hughes be-lieve completely in grassroots power. "This isn't senior management with edicts saying, 'Here's how we're going to make things improve,'" Hughes says. "This has been a bottom-up transformation." And it happened with a little inspiration from some Seattle fishmongers.

National City's IT group didn't always function like greased lightning. Two or three years ago, when Hai would ask why a project was taking six months to, say, enter code into a system, he could almost predict the answer from veteran developers: "We've always done it that way."

Another culture trouble spot was a very "cover-your-ass attitude," Hai says. Employees were very intent on having check-off lists, which Hai says is "a CYA exercise. I did my thing, so it must be somebody else's fault."

Worse, the old culture rewarded bad attitudes. "When we did annual evaluations, people would say of a developer, 'This guy, we couldn't live without him; he's the only one who knows this application inside and out.'" Then Hai would ask, "What's his attitude like?" Time and time again, he heard, "Oh, he's a pain in the butt," or "He does things on his own time." Those aren't quite the ingredients for a confidence-inspiring team, but such attitudes were accepted out of fear. "We rewarded those people because we were afraid they would leave," Hai says.

The cultural issues weighed heavily on Hai last year as he faced the challenge of meeting the new delivery mandate. For Hai, a company's culture is represented by its values, so he and his management team came up with the perfect group that demonstrates the following attributes: shows inspiration and energy, exemplifies integrity, provides creative solutions, and is client-driven rather than tech-driven or tech-distracted and quality focused.

The challenge wasn't identifying the values. Rather, Hai knew he had to make those values more than a plaque on the wall. Hai needed something that employees would believe in freely, not because the boss said so.

Hai's epiphany: When a company's strategy is in conflict with its culture, culture always wins out. That's not a new idea by any means, but Hai made the choice to take culture very seriously.

Most managers shun anything that smacks of touchy-feely, Hai argues. "They can't deal with stuff like that. They say, 'Let me just put procedures in place.'" But compared with procedures, cultural shifts require a lot more dedication and stamina to ensure success, he says.

Hai didn't want a manual. He wanted a model, a living, breathing corporate culture that his people could appreciate and emulate. He found that very thing one dreary, damp Seattle morning, in a pile of fish and ice.

Hai planned a visit to Redmond, Wash., in September 2000 for a Microsoft briefing. He knew he'd be in marathon meetings, so when a consultant insisted he visit a Seattle fish market called

Pike Place, Hai resisted. "I don't know how I'll find time to do that," he told her.

Still, he managed to get up at 5 a.m. on the second day and grab a cab to the fish market. It was well worth the trip. A group of fishmongers were up to their elbows in ice and slimy fish at 5:45 a.m. They were having a really good time, joking with each other and with a beehive of spectators.

Hai didn't know at the time that he was witnessing a cottage industry in action. Years ago, Pike Place's management had transformed the culture from a fish market to something more akin to a circus with performers who knew how to work a crowd. Employees enjoyed themselves, despite a harsh physical working environment.

As a result, Pike Place has its own management consulting company, with training videos and workbooks. Companies ranging from Amazon.com to Motorola to Sprint have taught their employees about the "Fish! Philosophy."

Those companies saw the same thing Hai did. The employees weren't just clowning around--they were doing good business. "It was exciting, but guess what? They were selling a hell of a lot of fish, too." They certainly did a good job with Hai, who walked away that morning with $300 worth of salmon. "It was the perfect model for us to emulate, not duplicate. It was the culture that we wanted to implement," Hai concludes.

Fish! Philosophy is based on four concepts:

Play. Embrace your inner goofball and have fun at work. If fishmongers can do it slinging stinky fish before the crack of dawn, you can, too.

Be there for each other and for your customers. Multitasking has become such a business badge of honor that people forget to listen in a meaningful way. Or they're just too busy thinking about what they're going to say next.

Make their day. That's what the fishmongers did for Hai. Find unique ways to achieve that pinnacle of customer service.

Choose your attitude. While you can't always control the events in your daily life, you can control how you respond to them. You can also choose not to let your bad day rub off on those around you, whether it's co-workers or customers.

In November 2000, Hai's big moment came. He held a meeting with about 350 of his staff members and told them about the values he believed would help the group succeed. Hai described his experience at the fish market, and how Pike Place had changed its own culture. He talked about the fact that employees spend the majority of their waking hours either working or thinking about work, and he told them about his belief in making work fun and fulfilling.

But Hai didn't tell them they had to do anything: "I needed them to volunteer, to believe in it because they thought it would make their lives better."

Four months after that presentation, and after many hours of culture workshops, Hai knew his vision had taken on a life of its own. He walked into his office building one morning and saw that someone had anonymously posted a huge computer printout that said, "TGIM." Thank God It's Monday. "I stood there with my jaw all the way down to my knees and with tears in my eyes," he says.

More moving testimonials would follow. A few months ago, Hai received an E-mail from an employee who explained that his presentation way back in November had changed all aspects of her life. His words had inspired her to action. The employee protested her health provider's policy, which denied coverage for obesity treatments. "I wrote a grievance to them and said that I thought it was discrimination; that if I were anorexic or bulimic I could get help." The employee went on to make the case that her weight was adversely affecting her health both mentally and physically.

The employee won, and soon began seeing a doctor who helped her lose nearly 50 pounds. As a result, the employee's health is better, she's missed fewer days of work, and she's taking more pride in her work. "Sometimes," she wrote, "all it takes is one person to say that you have the power to accomplish anything you want to."

Hai never foresaw this kind of result. "People saw what was in it for them," he says. "When you do things that combine personal aspects of people with professional aspects, it has more profound meaning than I could ever imagine."

Plenty of changes are afoot in Hai's group. Now, as part of yearly evaluations, attitude matters--unlike the old days, where it was OK to be a pain as long as you had the right technical skills. Companies that are serious about changing culture need to have the spine to evaluate people according to their values, Hai says.

Employees establish their own behaviors and goals for achieving each of National City's core values. Here's what one developer wrote down as personal commitments for being client-driven: "I will identify and deliver the 'Wow' in each project for my business lines. I will continue to increase my understanding of their business. I will be a better partner to my clients."

Positive reinforcement plays a critical role in any culture change, and that's certainly been the case at National City.

National City co-workers nominate each other and themselves weekly for The Big fish award. It's a highly coveted 8-foot stuffed fish that publicly recognizes a winner and is a conspicuous company event.



National City co-workers nominate each other and themselves weekly for The Big fish award. It's a highly coveted 8-foot stuffed fish that publicly recognizes a winner and is a conspicuous company event.

Take the aptly named Big Fish Award. It's an 8-foot stuffed fish that changes hands each week. Co-workers nominate each other--and sometimes themselves--by describing how they used creative problem-solving skills, such as finding ways to cut a month out of a project time line. Winners keep the fish in their workspace and usually decorate it with pins or other items. And, because the award is so conspicuous, it provides some pretty public recognition.

"It's not something that we spent a ton of money on, but people love to have that big fish." Hai says.

To help maintain the momentum that began back in November, staff meetings dedicated to culture are held quarterly.

Hai also took a cue from customer-centric Ritz-Carlton. The luxury hotel chain provides culture orientation for every new employee and shares the company's philosophy, how employees are expected to interact with customers and more. Now, after new National City IT employees go through regular orientation, they also have a half-day cultural orientation.

It's difficult to quantify the new culture's effect on all areas of the business. It may have affected IT retention, although the economic slowdown has played an undeniable role. Still, attrition has improved dramatically in recent years, dropping from 22% in 1999 to 10% in 2000; it's now down to about 6%. And National City is still hiring IT workers--about 30 have signed on in the past three months.

Many employees are excited about working at a company that continues to see eye-popping increases in its IT discretionary spending, which jumped 33% for 2001 and 40% for 2002--at a time when most IT budgets are anemic at best.

But Hai's group didn't get there by just having fun at work and gazing at their navels. Hai may sound a bit New Age-ish, but he works in the IT department of a bank. Full-time philosophizing isn't an option.

"I'm not saying we should be all soft and touchy-feely," he says. "Believe me, I'm all about project delivery, financial discipline, and holding managers very responsible for that. I'm all about numbers." But Hai is also about managing by values, not managing by crisis.

Which brings us to Hai's secret for happiness: Know what your values are and live your life accordingly. "With companies," he says, "it's the same thing."

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