By Karen Utgoff
I have been keeping my eye on the disturbing news about General Motors and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Recent reports describe deep dysfunction that appears to have resulted from failing to both acknowledge and then address systemic problems — some of life-and-death significance. While both organizations are huge and complex with many layers of bureaucracy, leaders of smaller, simpler businesses or nonprofits should not assume such problems are entirely a result of size and scope. Here are some thoughts on spotting and preventing such situations in your own business:
Recognize that no one is immune. Individual weaknesses differ but we all have them. Understanding your individual (and team) susceptibilities can help you to nip a potentially alarming systemic problem in the bud rather than assuming it away as an aberration.
Watch for symptoms of trouble brewing. Most business problems are made worse by ignoring them. Be alert to early warning signs of problems in general. This will help you prevent difficulties of titanic proportions as well as smaller ones that can interfere with routine operations and performance.
Create a quality-focused, high integrity-based culture. A culture that values honesty and questioning assures employees that they will be listened to — and not punished — for calling management’s attention to potentially significant problems. A culture of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is dangerously disrespectful of your employees and their moral compasses. If you are not sure how to characterize your culture, here is one approach you can use to get a fresh perspective on it.
Manage by walking around. The leader who regularly walks among, talks with, and listens to employees throughout the organization is more likely to learn about problems individuals on the frontlines are seeing. Don’t stop there. Follow up on the information, demonstrate that you want to know about and will act to solve problems. Then, communicate with employees about what you’re doing and why; consider publicly thanking the individual(s) who brought the issue to your attention.
Encourage individuals to do the right thing. Do job descriptions, financial incentives, and other recognition motivate employees to bring such issues into the light of day or to sweep them under the rug?
Lead by example. None of the above will make a difference if your actions don’t match your words. This is as true day-to-day as it is when a crisis hits. If your employees see you cutting corners with products or product safety, they will get the message that they can — and perhaps should — do the same.
Start now. If you are concerned that significant problems are being overlooked, start to address them now. Ask questions and show that you would rather have accurate but unsettling answers than false comfort. It will take time and effort to overcome the status quo but keep at it.
Learn from the mistakes of others. To start, check out “Top Investigator Has Blistering Criticism for V.A. Response to Whistle-Blowers” (NYTimes, June 23, 2104) and “GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistle-Blower” (BusinessWeek, June 18, 2014). Two key takeaways:
- Problems take time to develop. In both cases, there were multiple warning signs over many years with many missed opportunities along the way.
- People were trying to do the right thing but couldn’t.
If you do all of the above will you be immune from the sorts of crises that G.M. and the V.A. are now experiencing? No (remember item one), but you will be more likely to catch and fix significant problems with a minimum of injury and expense.
© Copyright 2014 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.