Secret CIO: Listen To The People On Your Front Line - InformationWeek

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6/17/2005
01:31 PM
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Secret CIO: Listen To The People On Your Front Line

Employees do just what you pay them to do -- and that's the problem.

It's odd how you can learn something important to your job from doing a chore around the house. Start off with a task that's distracting you from thinking about an intractable work problem, and sometimes the answer winds up staring you in the face.

Cindy asked me to fix the access to our prescription-plan Web site. Her flawed logic was that because it had something to do with a computer, I could figure it out quickly and resolve it even faster. I explained, to no avail, that I was probably competent to deal with a problem if it needed a budget presentation but that I was kind of rusty when it came to real work.

After a few minutes, I realized there was nothing wrong with her machine, user ID, or password, so I called the plan's customer-service line. The person I got, Irene, was helpful. She said secure sign-on for the site was down and only the home page and FAQs were working. When I asked why a notice hadn't been posted on the home page, she sighed and said that wasn't how her company did things, and then added that she wished company executives understood the customer-service department was being flooded by phone calls from irritated people such as me. When I inquired whether anyone ever solicited her or her colleagues' input, she chuckled sadly and said, "You've got to be kidding."

After I got off the phone, I realized the solution to a problem at work was staring me in the face. It was so simple that I felt stupid, except for the fact that no one else on the Executive Committee had come up with the solution, either.

Like most companies, we're concerned with service quality and responsiveness to customers. About once a year, we do something so stupid that it winds up on the Executive Committee agenda--customer service isn't notified that a plant has stopped shipping, or credit is wrongly denied to an important customer, or a product is introduced that the salespeople know will flop. The meetings always go the same way. We discuss ways to resolve the issue and appoint a SWAT team or hire consultants. For a while, everyone is happy, and then thm cycle starts over again.

My epiphany was realizing that we were fixing problems, not anticipating them. Once the crisis du jour is solved, people go back to concentrating on their primary operational responsibilities--until the next predicament. Managers and staff focus, quite logically, on the things we pay them to do--their day-to-day operational responsibilities. Championing any idea outside their specific job description would take a lot of time with a relatively low personal reward/risk ratio.

What we need is a permanent way of asking the people on the front lines what issues are causing them grief and what new opportunities exist. Their ideas should be evaluated outside the chain of managers busy running the business, but with their oversight. To make sure the process doesn't break down, status presentations have to be an integral part of management reporting.

Next week, I'll sit down with key players on the Executive Committee. Perhaps one of them will champion the proposal or come up with ways of improving upon it. On the other hand, I have a feeling Kratmeyer, head of International Operations, will pooh-pooh the idea because "it will be disruptive" or "raise expectations unrealistically." It will be interesting to see what happens.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty). Send him E-mail at [email protected].

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