Monday, February 22, 2010

Function Assessment: A Basis For Improvement

Since becoming a consultant, I have had a number of companies ask for help evaluating an individual function or department.  Whether following an acquisition or a change in executive leadership, the desire for an objective assessment of one or more functions has become a fairly common occurrence for companies.

In an effort to help with the process, I though I'd provide my basic approach for assessing the effectiveness of a department, function or team.  The process can truly help with a company's internal issues, but must be done by an objective person who is not related in any way to the department being evaluated.  Open and honest communication is a necessary component of the process, so it is vital that those involved feel that the person conducting the assessment does not have a personal interest in the outcome or the process will fail to achieve positive results.

It is absolutely essential to keep the process focused on improvement.  Sticking to an improvement theme will help to the level of stress and resentment of those working in the function.  The fact that you are dealing with human beings, however, will make it impossible to completely eliminate the distrust that is certain to exist.  For this reason, it is important to spend time upfront - and throughout the process - clarifying your objectives and attempting to put those you are working with at ease.

Are Expectations Clear?

The first step in the evaluation of a particular function is to determine the level of consistency between the expectations from the organization's senior leaders and those of the local or department leaders.  In many cases, I find that a gap in expectations is the cause of most of the problems.  Improving a situation like this often involves improving communication through increased one-on-one meetings with the functional manager and/or formalizing some sort of personal planning process that documents objectives, planned actions in support of the objectives, and status of the actions.

Assessment Areas

After gaining an understanding of the degree of alignment between the expectations of the senior leaders and the functional manager, it is time to begin looking at other aspects of functional performance in order to gain a better understanding of the opportunities for improvement.

As mentioned above, it is extremely important to approach the assessment from the perspective of improvement rather than attempting to determine if anyone should be promoted, demoted, or fired.

With this in mind, the areas to investigate for improvement opportunities are as follows:
  1. How is the team organized?  Centralized or decentralized?  What is the reporting structure inside and outside of the department?  How consistent is the structure with the organization as a whole?
  2. What systems are utilized by the function?  Are the systems integrated?  Is the information timely and accurate?  Does it provide the type of information that will help the team meet expectations?
  3. What type of measures are utilized by the function and how well do they describe performance in relation to expectations?
  4. How well is the team performing with regard to the measures in place?  How do the functional managers and team members  feel about the department's performance?
  5. Has the organization clearly defined its values?  If so, have the functional leaders been assessed to determine that they possess and operate in accordance with the values?
  6. Which areas of the company does the function support?  How well are the function's objectives aligned with the needs of these areas?  Do team members focus on meeting the needs of those in the areas the function supports?
  7. How do those in the areas served by the function feel about the level of service they receive?
  8. Is there an active process for training and development of team members and the functional managers?  How consistent is this with the rest of the organization?
Additional questions are added based on the specific area being assessed.

Assessment Results

This is not the type of assessment that lends itself to a purely question-and-answer format.  The information must be gathered and processed through a series of interviews and discussions with individuals and groups related to the function.

Staying as objective as possible requires understanding and communicating how well the function supports the objectives of the organization, as a whole.  With this in mind, it may be necessary to point out when objectives drive focus on departmental results at the expense of organization results (which is a fairly common situation).

Because of the people issues related to assessment and improvement, it is not always easy to effectively evaluate a function.  Remember, however, that your job is to help the organization improve, and if you avoid the difficult issues, you will have little change of fulfilling your responsibility.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lost Jobs Never To Return?

According to a story in last Friday's Wall Street Journal (click here for video report), economists expect that about 2.1 million of the jobs lost during the recession will never return.  This is a scary prediction for those who lost their jobs and expect to return to the workforce as the recovery begins.

Reasons given for the permanent loss of jobs included process improvements as well as increased offshoring implemented as a means of survival during the recession.

A Normal Process?

The loss of jobs has been a normal economic occurrence for many years, but the lost jobs are usually replaced by new jobs created in new or growing industries.  According to those surveyed, however, the severity and length of the recession has resulted in a loss of balance among job losses and job creation - meaning that, in this circumstance, job creation will greatly lag behind the job loss.

My Thoughts

I am a business consultant, not an economist, but I don't necessarily agree with the outlook given by many economists.  There has been so much doom and gloom reporting over the last couple of years that I believe a bandwagon effect has taken place.  It's much easier to report negative news than attempt to restore hope when things have been bad for so long.  I see a couple of factors that, under the right circumstances, can actually lead to significant job creation.

Onshoring, or moving offshore jobs back to the U.S., is gaining in popularity.  For quality and cost reasons, many companies are beginning to move jobs closer to where they can be effectively managed.  Also, when fuel prices rise again - which they ultimately will - the cost of transporting materials over long distances may offset the savings in labor costs.

Another factor that can increase onshoring (or decrease the motivation to offshore) is tax breaks for companies that create jobs for Americans.  In addition to reducing the cost of unemployment-related benefits, more American workers pay more U.S. taxes, which can help reduce the growing deficit.  Unfortunately, the U.S. government relies so heavily on corporate taxes that giving breaks to growing companies will delay recovery in corporate taxes collected.  Something like this may have to be done, however, in order to break the down cycle and discourage companies from further offshoring jobs.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rapidly Integrating an Acquisition

Note:  This is a follow-up to an earlier post on preventing an acquisition from becoming a distraction (located here).

Over the last decade, acquisitions have become very common in the world of business.  With all the collective experience gained from the enormous amount of M&A activity that has taken place, you would think the process of integrating a newly acquired company would have been perfected.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Studies continue to show that up to 70% of M&As fail to meet expectations in terms of financial performance.

There are a variety of reasons for making an acquisition, but all relate in some way to benefiting the acquiring organization.  With this in mind, the longer it takes to integrate the newly acquired company, the longer it will take to reap the benefits of the transaction.  The process of assimilating the new organization needs to be planned and executed with at least as much care as the due diligence process, and quickly enough to prevent the acquisition from becoming a distraction to the business.

The Focus of the Process

Integrating an acquisition requires focus on the technical (processes, systems, etc.) and human elements.  Although the technical element often gets most of the attention, it is the human/cultural issues that cause most of the problems.  In fact, the majority of technical issues could be handled much more easily if enough focus is given to the human element of the integration process.

This post will deal with the human aspects of acquisition integration with specific attention to two areas:  fear and alignment.  With serious and proper focus on these areas, integration can be done quickly and with surprisingly few problems.


Fear is an obvious by-product of any acquisition.  Mergers almost always lead to job losses, and it is most often the acquired company that loses the most jobs.  With this in mind, the integration plan needs to include honest and open communication about potential job cuts, as well as some type of bonus for those who stay until the end of the process.  Ignoring this subject will serve to demotivate employees, break down teamwork, and increase the length of time it takes for full integration.


Alignment refers to indoctrinating those in the newly acquired organization with the purpose, values, and focus of the parent company.  Indoctrinating the new team members with this focus clarifies expectations quickly by communicating to the employees of the acquired company that they are now part of a new, larger, and different organization.

The Integration Plan

Just like any change initiative, integrating the acquisition needs to follow a carefully developed plan with a responsible person leading the effort.  The process must include frequent reviews with senior leaders to assure that problems are addressed quickly and effectively.

Specifics of the plan will differ depending on the size, type and culture of the company, but need to include the following components:
  1.  Indoctrination with Purpose & Values (Alignment)

    Time must be spent discussing the fundamental purpose of the company (mission and vision) and how they will operate (values).  Every organization is different and integration will most likely involve some type of shift in purpose and values.  I have found that this is best accomplished in two phases.  First in a general message from a senior leader (preferably a C-level executive), and followed up by smaller group discussions led by a function leader and HR representative.

  2. Leadership Coaching (Alignment)

    To protect the organization's values, it is important to work with leaders at all levels of the acquired company to assure they possess the values of the acquiring company.  A good amount of coaching will most likely be required to give those who don't display the values a chance to modify their behavior and leadership style.  Obviously, some people will need to be replaced when it is determined that they are not capable, or do not desire, to change their style to fit in the new organization.

  3. Employee Survey (Fear)

    A survey of existing and new employees can provide information about the fears, concerns, frustrations, belief in leadership & direction, and confidence in the future as related to the acquisition.  To be effective, however, people must believe in the confidentiality of the survey and that action will be taken based on its results.

Remember the People

The people issues increase the complexity of successfully leading an organization.  It is a difficult and never-ending responsibility to keep people united toward a common purpose in a way that leads to continual growth in revenues and earnings.  This complexity grows exponentially when a new group of people with a unique set of values and concerns are added to the mix.

Recognizing the complexity of the process and attending to the human elements of integration - specifically, fear and alignment - can greatly increase the speed and potential benefit of the acquisition.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Toyota Bashing

It seems we have a new pastime in this country: Toyota bashing.  It started when the first round of accelerator problems were announced and became a full-blown fad after the issue resulted in suspending sales of the company's most popular products.

Even Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood got into the act, saying that anyone who owns a Toyota vehicle should "stop driving it" (he later recanted his statement).  Call up virtually any news site today and there's a good chance you'll find something negative about Toyota.

I'm not here to downplay the seriousness of the accelerator problem.  The company deserves some of the criticism because of the massive scope of the problem.  We spend a lot of money on our cars and expect them to work safely and reliably.  Toyota's reputation for quality has also most likely contributed to the fallout in this situation.  They have been a hugely successful company for many years now and they have to take their licks just like any other company facing a massive recall.

The problem I'm having is that some of the criticism seems to be based on politics or ignorance rather than facts.

Lean is Not the Problem

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran a story last week entitled, "How Lean Manufacturing Can Fail," claiming that the Toyota Production System contributed to the accelerator problem because of standardization of parts across models and a reduced number of suppliers.  I can see how someone who doesn't understand lean could think this, but the WSJ is a respected business news source and its reporters should know better.

Lean has been a key to the company's success (in terms of quality and profitability).  Standardizing parts across models - which, by the way is not just a "lean" concept - is what makes cars affordable.  It's the way the high volume automakers (as well as manufacturers in many other industries) do business.

Reducing the number of vendors also contributes to improved quality because it enables the company to work much more closely with each supplier.  Also, more suppliers means more variation in incoming products - thereby increasing assembly time and quality problems.

CEO Visibility

Another issue that's causing problems for Toyota is the lack of visibility of Akio Toyoda, the company's CEO.  Although I agree that this problem was large enough to warrant more media presence from Toyoda, it's really not how Japanese executives operate.

To demonstrate the difference between U.S. and foreign companies, how many people can name the CEO of Honda?  Volkswagen?  Total?  ING?  These are among the world's largest companies, but very few people can name their chief executives.  CEOs of foreign companies don't tend to grab the spotlight the way American executives do.  Toyota is learning a difficult lesson right now that Americans expect swift assurance from the chief executive that the problem is being resolved.

Japanese companies (especially Toyota) also tend to study problems methodically and do not jump to implement fixes until they feel they truly understand the causes.  Unfortunately, when we're talking about an issue like this, those using the product get very nervous about their personal safety while the problem is being analyzed.


My guess is that the media bashing is also heavily political, in nature.  American automakers have been beaten down so badly - mostly by Toyota - over the last several years that the buy American sentiment is driving many of the attacks. I guess we'll learn more about this when Volkswagen takes over as the world's number one automaker as a result of this crisis.

Several months ago, I wrote that Toyota had taken its eye off the ball and, as a result, problems were starting to surface (see Taking Your Eye Off the Ball).  It was evident to me back then that, in its push to supplant  General Motors as the world's largest automaker, Toyota seemed to forget what got them there in the first place.

I also wrote in the blog that it appeared that their problems were being addressed.  They have a new CEO and he seems to be refocusing the company on its fundamental purpose (to enrich society through carmaking).  I also don't believe that the bad habits the company developed had been around long enough to cause major damage to their culture.

My guess is that they will survive this slip-up and return to the number one spot over the next few years.  Toyota tends to be a very long-term focused company and I'm betting that they won't take short-term action that will result in hurting their future.  The company undoubtedly does not want anything like this to happen again, but if it does, they really need to channel their obsession with learning toward improving the way they deal with the American media.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Is Strategic Planning Dead?

The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week on the downfall of strategic planning.  According to the article, companies learned during the recession that flexibility and quick decisions are more important to a business than planning, and that strategic planning as a practice is becoming outdated.  I hope anyone who decides to scrap a company's strategic planning process based on this article clearly understands the ramifications before doing so.

As I read the article, I found that the authors pointed out many of the misconceptions of the strategic planning process more than the problems with the concept itself.  People often mistakenly utilize the process as solely a financial review and confuse strategic planning with budgeting.  The article mentioned several examples of companies that realized during the recession that they were not reviewing sales and spending numbers often enough to react to quick changes in their markets.  By itself, this realization makes perfect sense as the last two years has been characterized as the worst since the Great Depression.  With that said, however, the need to stay on top of budgets has nothing to do with the value of an effective strategic planning process.

Strategic Planning 101

Strategic planning is a process by which an organization defines its strategy to successfully achieve its fundamental purpose.  The outputs of the process include high-level objectives (critical improvement areas) and initiatives (action plans to address the barriers that prevent achievement of the objectives).  It is a valuable process to assure the organization understands its strategies to improve its competitive position and be successful for many years into the future.

Periodic review is required to (1) assure that the initiatives are progressing as intended; and (2) assure that the initiatives - if they are progressing - are actually resulting in achievement of the high-level objectives.  For example, an organization may create an initiative to change its ERP system in order to support the objective of improving inventory management.  If the new system is implemented but inventory turns do not improve and stock-outs continue to delay shipments, it may be that the ERP system was not the problem and, therefore, should not have been an initiative.  The management team needs to revisit the inventory management system in order to determine how to improve the situation (e.g., identify other initiatives that will result in achieving the objective).

There is no single approach for strategic planning that will work for all organizations.  The process must be tailored to the specific circumstances and culture of each company.  The depth, frequency, and type of review will be different for everyone, but it must still be done if the organization is to become and remain successful.

Remember the Future

Eliminating the strategic planning process will only serve to increase the number of attention deficit disorder (ADD) companies that already exist.  The short-term behavior that has severely weakened so much of western business will continue, resulting in a continuation of dramatic swings in earnings and share price.

Let's be clear - I am not discounting the value of quick decision-making to a business.  Problems occur, though, when "quick" becomes "careless."  A company can benefit from continually focusing on speeding up decision-making without sacrificing quality.  Improving information systems and training can speed up decision-making without putting the company at risk.  If this is what a company needs, though, it will become evident through the planning process.  Those who believe that strategic planning is a slow process that does not add value are not doing it correctly.  If the process is too slow and is not helping the business grow and succeed, it needs to change.

The leader is responsible for assuring that the organization survives the short-term so it can succeed in the long-term.  Quick decision-making and frequent reviews can help take care of the short-term while effective planning (and successful implementation of the plans) is the key to taking care of the long-term.  Stop strategic planning and you might as well forget about the future of the company.