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  • Writer's pictureMichael Hughes

Raising the Bar on Standards in your Workplace

Changing people's behaviors in the workplace (and at home) is one of the most difficult challenges for any leader. It takes real skills of influence rather than authority and even then, requires the leader to set a vision and hold firmly to that vision until better habits are formed. The prize is higher standards that become the norm in your organization, leading to better results. Once properly established they can take very little effort to maintain.

NYC Subway Standards & Behaviors

Back in the mid 1980's, crime in New York City Subways was not in a good place. The train cars were riddled with graffiti, windows scratched, seats torn etc. David Gunn was brought in as the President of the Transit Authority for the city. He subscribed to the Broken Windows theory put forth by social scientist George Kelling, which implied that people's behaviors are strongly impacted by the environment that they exist in. Gunn decided to invest tens of millions of dollars cleaning up each and every train car, bringing them back to standard. As he did this, the crime rate on the refurbished cars dropped precipitously. The same individual, who might otherwise have behaved badly on a messy train (say, snatching someone's purse and jumping off), was far less likely to do so when in a neat, tidy organized environment.

"When you fail by your own standards, it is a form of success" - Bonnie Hunt

Professional Application

After reading this theory and the associated stories, I conducted some experiments in the manufacturing facility I was responsible for. I wanted to see if higher standards could really change people's behaviors around practices that impacted areas like safety and quality. Every time I put effort into driving higher standards, the results proved themselves out, everything got better. People were far less likely to cut a corner if their workspace was tidy and well organized. If a toolbox, for example, had tools thrown in any which way, the likelihood that the mechanic would just pull out the closest tool that might work and subsequently damage the machine or worse hurt herself, was far higher than if she approached a toolbox where all of the tools were ordered in size so that the correct one could be quickly accessed. The same concept applied when the next shift team came into the workplace. If it started out in a clean and organized state, they were far more likely to keep it that way through the shift...and a virtuous cycle was born. If applied correctly, the system can sustain itself, as people do not want to drop the standards. Results improved not only in areas such as safety and quality, but also in productivity as working in a neat environment improves morale and speeds up many steps in the process.

“I have my standards. They're low, but I have them” ― Bette Midler

Wall of Fame, Wall of Shame

Having learned the effectiveness and impact of working in a higher standard environment, I was given my first truly "influential" leadership role. I was responsible to role out the lean manufacturing program of a large factory, with zero direct reports. I was flummoxed and frustrated as I tried to convince entire teams to raise the bar with little or no direct authority.

So, I got creative. I decided it was critical to start with the leadership team. In a world of servant leadership, we should not be asking our teams to do work or live to standards we were not willing to commit to ourselves. The obvious place to start was with leadership office and desk spaces.....something they were individually accountable for. I proactively shared a standard of what a well organized desk looked like to all leaders and notified them that I would be doing an inspection a week later. Several days later I went around with my camera and took photos of the 10 best and then 10 worst desks on a Sunday afternoon. I built two display walls in the entrance to our cafeteria, where every employee passed by every day, and titled one the "Wall of Fame" and the other the "Wall of Shame" and I posted the photos on the appropriate wall, with the desk owner's name under each photo. You can imagine the attention this got at break time on the Monday morning. It was a bold move and I wasn't the most popular guy in the building for a while, but it paid off. To get your photo off the wall, you had to illustrate that you had improved the standards on your desk. Two days later the Wall of Shame was empty.

We moved from leaders desks to tool boxes, to warehouse racks, to break rooms, to filling equipment. There were no surprises and the standards improved steadily throughout the facility. Along with the place looking better, the results sky rocketed as well. Even the improved office organization drove better productivity and a higher sense of pride for those walking through on a daily basis.

Order is Everything

A word of warning, the order you execute the above approach is critical. If you skip a step, the reactions can be detrimental and can backfire very quickly:

Step 1

Pick Your Battles - Rome was not built in a day and you are not going to improve every standard overnight either. Be very deliberate on the ones you want to tackle. I always like to start with ones that show leaders leading by example. After that, focus on standards that people can tie directly to improved results or less hassles (think Airplane Model).

Step 2

Define the Standard - It is not fair to put someone's picture on the wall of shame if the standard you are holding them too is ill-defined. Take the time to think through what "good" really is. Document it, ideally on a one-pager, with photographic examples of the standard as well as written description of the boundaries.

Step 3

Share the Standard - This should not be a secret, you are not trying to catch anyone out. Put together a 'marketing campaign' to ensure everyone understands and can question the standard. Quick Trick: post the standard in bathroom stalls....guaranteed attention time!

Step 4

Enable & Empower - Make sure everyone has the time necessary to reach the standard. Check if your team need the tools (desk organizers, for example) and support them in attaining these resources. Nothing is more frustrating than being held to a standard and not supported by leadership to reach it.

Step 5

Get what you Inspect - On the allotted date, complete your inspection. This takes both discipline and conviction. If you slip here, the entire effort was for nought. People will follow the path of least resistance, so if they think they can 'wait you out', they will do so. If they know you are going to be rigorous and follow through, they will quickly learn that they better get on board with the new standard quickly.

Step 6

Post Boldly - This part takes courage and definitely depends on the where the organization is on the cultural journey. Be warned though, if you are too timid, the effectiveness of the entire program is at risk. You might post virtually vs physically in this day and age. You might chose not to use names and still have the desired impact. You may increase the focus on the Wall of Fame part instead of the Wall of Shame. But do not underestimate the power of sharing. People will do amazing things to get on that Wall of will strike their competitive nerve in ways that might surprise you.

Step 7

Rinse & Repeat - Pace is key here. Before you roll out the next standard you want to improve, ensure the habits around the original one are well baked in. Depending on the level of change you are driving, this may take some time. It's ok to repeat the inspection/posting process above 2 or 3 times to show everyone you are serious about where the bar is before moving on.

It might seem like a lot of work to drive systemic behavior changes in an organization....and to be honest, it really is. The rewards on the other hand however, are both gratifying and sustainable. In a world where we believe that Culture eats Strategy for breakfast, the above set of tools can genuinely help positively impact your organizations culture, leading to improved results.



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