You Haven’t Died Inside Yet

Some time back I was giving a presentation to about 80 people who worked for a large state agency. I was asking them about problems they saw in their routine work, problems that wasted their time and state resources.

One employee wanted me to understand how frustrating it could be working in government and told the group the following story that went something like this:

A department meeting was underway and the team was discussing a problem that was causing a lot of extra work. An employee enthusiastically started firing off ideas for the group to consider for fixing the problem. The employee was visibly engaged and enthusiastic.

Another employee, a long timer in the department, looked in dismay at the enthusiastic employee and said, “Oh, you’re the new guy. You obviously haven’t died inside yet.”

Upon hearing this story, the group I was presenting to let out a collective sigh. It was hard to escape the feeling of dread the story left behind.

As humans our entire being seeks to make a difference. There may indeed be a small fraction of people who go to work with the intention of doing as little as possible, but that is anything but typical.

Then how is it that more people than we care to admit have “died inside” – not only in government but in every type of human organization that exists?

When we go to work we show up with the intention of doing it well and making a real contribution. But if you have ever worked in an organization where the ways of doing things were completely entrenched and fresh ideas were unwelcomed, you understand what causes the death of our fundamental human spirit.

In the one place where creativity would be especially valued – which is in government because everyone benefits when it succeeds – we have tied people down with bureaucratic policies and rulebooks so thick that not only can they not be understood, but in many cases the policy or rule can’t even be found.

We need motivated humans putting their talents to work creating new and better ways of doing everything in our society. That’s what made us the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

As a leader there is nothing more important than enabling your people to improve and innovate. No one is really dead inside, they’re simply waiting for the opportunity to be human.

Measures Give Work Meaning

Without measurement we have no idea if what we are doing is working. Without measurement we have no clear sense of accomplishment

A few years back I met with a gentleman who was heading the first Lean efforts within a large company. With great pride he showed me the thick binder with all the documents from their initial five Lean projects.

I asked him if he would mind sharing with me the initial measurable results of the projects. He explained there were none, because the company didn’t want to put pressure on the teams to have to get measurable results.

To this day I hope the shock I felt didn’t show on my face.

As humans we do work to get results. Lean projects have no other purpose than to cut costs, increase quality, improve timeliness and/or improve customer experience. Business and government exist to get results and without measures there is no way to know if what we are doing is working and to what extent.

As in basketball, football, baseball, soccer, volleyball, – sport inspires focus and validates what works. Team sports cause us to work together, make hand-offs, communicate, collaborate, rely on each other, and ultimately get better at what we do through shared learning. In all of these sports keeping score provides its own gratification – or frustration. Yet, at least we know where we stand so we can focus on how to improve our results.

Most organizations monitor some sort of outcome measures, such as revenue, profitability, costs, inventory turns, customer satisfaction, and employee satisfaction. While these are appropriate and are in fact the ultimate outcomes on which to focus, organizations also need measures that employees can relate to, connect with, and can genuinely impact through their actions. These measures are typically process measures, which are the leading indicators of performance. They enable early intervention so that the outcome measures (the lagging indicators) eventually reach their targets. For example, an organization may choose to monitor its call center response rate as one predictor of overall customer satisfaction.

Therefore, one of the most critical jobs of management today is thinking through measures in such a way as to connect every employee and to enable early intervention on the right measures. Few organizations do this well, yet it is the foundation of employee engagement.

As an employee when I understand the work I need to influence, I begin to engage; When I can see how that work connects to outcomes, I can see my part in the big picture of the organization. Connection matters.

Most people who go to work for our government do so in the hopes of making a difference in their society. Yet most government employees are not provided with adequate connection to process and outcome measures. Without measurement, how can our employees understand expectations and see the difference they make?

Clear outcomes and the connecting measures that drive them provide a direct feedback loop between action and impact. The connection inspires and guides us toward ways of doing things that work best.

Without measurements, as in the case of the gentleman whose Lean teams had no measurable results, work can quickly lose its sense of purpose. Measurements don’t create pressure they create meaning and give us purpose.