Candidating for the Unemployment Line

I used to be an early adopter. I got my first cell phone in 1988, when it was a big, bulky thing that had to be installed in the center console of my car. As phones became smaller and lighter, I stayed abreast of the shift from car phones to truly mobile phones, but I hung on to my Palm Pilot through its declining years before switching late to my current Droid.

Even before that, I was so enamored with the original Apple II that I upgraded to the Apple III in its infancy. Unfortunately, the III never got out of its infancy, failing to thrive due to a lack of well-designed, dedicated software. Ever since, I’ve held a grudge against Apple for wasting my money on a product that bombed. I took a pass on the Macintosh; I took a pass on the Apple public offering; I took a pass on the Ipad, Ipod, Iphone. I even took a pass on Steve Jobs, in both his first and second incarnations. I simply wasn’t a fan.

For the mobile part of my life, I’ve been supplementing my Droid with a little Asus netbook. Pretty basic, but it ports all of my Dropbox files, accesses Wi-Fi and the Web at my clients’ sites and elsewhere, and provides a tactile keyboard for touch-typing. However, for the past year or so it’s been without the cap to the “I” key (my “I-less” pad), which has the effect of defacing the whole thing and making it appear – and feel – pretty clunky.

So last weekend, I made the leap to an Ipad. Yeah, I know, that hardly qualifies me as an early adopter. I also know that my 5-year-old granddaughter, Abby – by definition an early adopter – is already more adept with it than I am. But I will catch up to her soon, and I figure if I can just match her pace at adapting to technology over the next ten to twelve years – even if I have to go to her for lessons – I’ll manage to stay in the game.

Unfortunately, there are significant elements of the American work force that don’t see learning as a life-long process. Some of these folks continue to queue up in the unemployment lines, but many of them are committed to maintaining the status quo in smaller companies, especially among those firms that have been around for a while.

As an example, push came to shove in the management meeting of one of my clients last week:

President – “We absolutely have to get the installation and service guys out the door faster in the morning. It’s costing us a ton to have them standing around waiting until the warehouse people finish pulling product and supplies for their trucks. What happened to the flow chart exercise we went through last fall that was supposed to expedite all this?”

General Manager – “Multiple action items came out of it. People learned a lot and got excited about improving efficiency out back. A number of improvements have occurred, but…”

President – “But what?”

G.M. – “Dick [the Warehouse Manager] is a bottleneck. He pretty much insists on doing things the same way that he did 15 years ago when he ran just a stockroom. He’s dragging his feet on 5S [Ed: from Lean Manufacturing: Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain], he’s been slow to implement the bar-coding system, he hasn’t set up the software to integrate the bills of material into the costing models as we agreed. It’s just same old, same old with him. We’ve grown to the point at which we need an experienced supply chain manager in there, and he’s not it.”

President – “What are we going to do about him? He’s a good guy, really loyal and he’s been with us forever…”

H.R. Manager – “There’s nothing at his pay rate that we can move him into. He’d have to take at least a 30% cut.”

President – “I know it’s time to bite the bullet, but I keep thinking of his wife and kids…”

So what are you going to do? We went back and forth on it for two hours. Among other things, the discussion resulted in education and training becoming a major element of the revised goals for 2013, as follows:

Goal #1. Elevating expectations – The Company will require each employee to initiate and implement an individual professional development plan with milestones of accomplishment against a one-year time line.

Goal #2. Process improvement – The Company will achieve a competitive advantage by maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of all of its routine procedures, a process known as value stream mapping (for which I am indebted to a long-time consulting running mate, Teg Rood).

Goal #3. Stretching individual capacity – Job descriptions will be rewritten not simply to list current duties and responsibilities but to incorporate the next stage of professional achievement for each employee.

Goal #4. Professional development – Qualifications for each level of professional capability will be explicit, measurable, and subject to periodic testing. The Company will commit $50,000 to internal and external training during the next six months; everyone is expected to take the initiative in making steady progress toward significantly enhancing his/her competencies.

Goal #5. Rewarding performance – Evaluation criteria and compensation rewards will be skewed heavily toward “stepping up,” e.g. applying new knowledge, discovering cost savings and/or revenue enhancements, achieving professional development objectives, contributing to the creation of a much better learning environment within the Company.

Goal #6. Succession planning – The Company will plan its staffing requirements two years forward in the context of its overall growth plan. New positions expected to be added to the organization chart will be described now in order to provide existing staff with realistic expectations about opportunities for internal advancement.

Had this program been in place two years ago, it might today be easy to make the call on Dick – painful, perhaps, but clear-cut for everyone. Without performance criteria and appropriate metrics, the decision becomes a subjective one, difficult to explain without apparent bias, not only to Dick but to the rest of the staff, many of whom may see his loyalty being unappreciated. The compromise is a severance package which rewards his longevity at the cost of his ineffectiveness, adding to the Company’s short-term expense and leaving Dick on the unemployment line.