Want High Performance? You Find it by Embracing Employee Variation

By David Creelman

Do you remember the person who served you last time you went to McDonald’s? Probably not, and that’s not due to a failing memory.

McDonald’s has worked hard to reduce variation in its servers. It is rare to get one who is noticeably bad or surprisingly good.

You do not see staff who are dressed badly or dressed well or wearing the jersey of their favorite hockey player. It is a standard experience and this is something customers like. The tactic of reducing variation has worked well for McDonald’s.

However, there is an alternative.

Walk into a cafe like Broadview Espresso just off the Danforth in Toronto and you likely will remember the server; maybe even getting to know them by name. Each server at Broadview Espresso is unique and this is something customers like. The tactic of embracing variation has worked well for Broadview Espresso.

Should your organization embrace variation in staff or work to reduce it?

From each according to his or her abilities

Henry Ford once joked “Why is it when I hire a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?” The question managers face is what to do with the human being. Dave Crisp, president and chief executive officer of Crisp Strategies, has an answer: use the differences to enhance performance.

“A big part of being a successful manager is getting to know your staff, their capabilities, their likes and dislikes and managing them accordingly,” said Crisp.

Crisp cites the example of a cashier. Some cashiers have a knack for making eye contact with everyone in line, so that even if five people are waiting they feel acknowledged. At the other extreme there are cashiers who, after serving one customer, duck out under the counter and earnestly walk off without a word. In their own minds they are going to do something important whether it is to fix a display or go to the bathroom, but the customers waiting in line are left fuming.

One management tactic is to try to fix the person and get everyone to handle cashier duties in the same way. Some managers even have a bull- headed attitude and will assign the person who hates doing cash to that job because “They have to learn.”

But the better managers strive to align the tasks with what people do well and what they like to do. Put the good cashier on cash and the one with poor interpersonal skills on something better suited to his abilities. This leads to better performance, better motivation and better retention.

In fact, in his book The One Thing You Need to KnowMarcus Buckingham claims that the one thing that separates great managers from average ones is that great ones leverage the variability that naturally exists in employees — making the tasks fit the person, not force-fitting the person into the task.

Buckingham’s view is, in a way, embedded into Gallup’s famous Q12 measure of engagement; one of the Q12 questions is “At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?” What one individual does best is not the same as what another excels at. Treating workers as individuals, instead of interchangeable parts has its own efficiencies.

That there are constraints and limitations on catering to individual strengths and preferences is obvious. Clearly people must adapt to the demands of the job and cannot just do the tasks that they are good at or they like. However, it comes down to a fundamental view of how best to manage the workforce. Do we try to suppress variability or do we embrace it; both Crisp and Buckingham argue forcefully for embracing it.

Encouraging variation at Broadview Espresso

Just as McDonald’s standardization of staff was a conscious strategy, so too Broadview Espresso consciously decided not just to accept variation but encourage it.

Owner Mike Cullen said, “I tell my staff I want them to bring their personality to work. I want a place that has a special feel and that comes from how the staff behave.” This emphasis on letting staff be individuals shows up in a customer experience where people are getting coffee from Kate or Kevin, not an anonymous clerk. Regulars get to know the staff by name and that is reciprocated in staff learning customers’ names. From there, customers get to know the other customers and soon people are commenting “Hey, this is just like Coronation Street.” It creates an unbeatable experience.

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Still, there are drawbacks. When a barista decides her personal choice in music is death metal, the customer experience may leave something to be desired. Most cafés would not leave the choice of the music to the whim of a staff member; it would be standardized. Yet, when things go off the rails, Cullen just has to step in and gently push people back on course. In the workplace that tries to leverage individual variation, the manager is like the gunsmith, filing off the rough edges.

If death metal is the downside, the upside is something like Costume Fridays. Two staff members, Laura and Lindsey, decided it would be fun to dress up on Friday’s according to a theme. The theme might be straight-forward like “cowboys,” more imaginative like “spring,” or downright obscure like “the G20.” Customers look forward to seeing the costumes and guessing the theme. Cullen did not think up Costume Fridays, but it a direct result of creating a certain atmosphere and encouraging variation within broad limits.

The payoff for treating staff as individuals first comes from the customer experience: engaged staff lead to engaged customers. A second payoff is retention. The workplace is fun and — within reasonable limits — people get to do what they want. Instead of being faced with spending endless time hiring and training new staff just to keep the place running, Cullen can concentrate on improving performance.

The value of creating a great place to work goes beyond getting and keeping competent staff. The cafe is able to attract staff who are entirely overqualified for the work. While many organizations struggle to find hourly staff who can handle basic tasks, the café can count on having some extremely capable people. Cullen does not hesitate to head off on vacation; he knows he is leaving his business in safe hands.

Lessons for organizations

The reality is that variation among staff exists; you have to make the decision whether to fight it or embrace it. Reducing variation worked well for the peasant armies of the 17th century and works well for the modern day armies of fast food workers.

Reducing variation is always important in some parts of a job, and in these areas, employees really do have to fit themselves into a mold. The problem is that management’s natural tendency, like that of Henry Ford, is to prefer staff who are just an interchangeable pair of hands, not a whole person. In fact, at higher levels it is impossible to do anything but deal in the abstraction that all workers conform to some average.

If we want to take advantage of the value variation can bring, there are several steps to take:

  • Set broad directives like “Always do what is right for the customer” and ensure that measures reinforce achieving this goal rather than undermining it.
  • Hire and develop front line managers who are capable of actually being managers, not just rule enforcers.
  • Invest in getting to know the staff as individuals; and work to improve retention so that this is practical.
  • React calmly in the face of errors and complaints. Some customers will complain about the operatic barista’s rendition of Carmen; that does not mean that song choices suddenly need to all be approved by some vice president.
  • Resist the tendency to see standardization as the solution; the world  is not machine-like and a machine-like approach may not be the best solution on the ground no matter how good it looks on a spreadsheet in a boardroom on the 32nd floor.

Remember, back on the Danforth in Toronto you can always see people walking right past a string of coffee shops like Starbucks, Timothy’s, and Second Cup to seek out the special experience at Broadview Espresso.

Back in Kuala Lumpur you can see people paying a premium, not so much for a prettier room at the Ritz-Carlton as for the exceptional personal service.

And somewhere, in a nursing home, some widower is thanking his lucky stars he is being taken care of by a low-performer and not a high-performing caregiver.

Excerpted from Elements of Successful Organizations: Achieving Strong Leadership, Smart Management, and an Engaged Workforce from the Workforce Institute at Kronos. Copyright 2011 by Kronos Incorporated. Reprinted with permission from The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated.

David Creelman, CEO of Creelman Research, is a globally recognized thinker on people analytics and talent management. Some of his more interesting projects included:

  • Conducted workshops around the world on the practical aspects of people analytics
  • Took business leaders from Japan’s Recruit Co. on a tour of US tech companies (Recruit eventually bought Indeed.com for $1 billion)
  • Studied the relationship between Boards and HR (won Walker Award)
  • Spoke at the World Bank in Paris on HR reporting
  • Co-authored Lead the Work: Navigating a world beyond employment with John Boudreau and Ravin Jesuthasan. The book was endorsed by the CHROs of IBM, LinkedIn and Starbucks.
  • Worked with Dr. Wanda Wallace on “Leading when you are not the expert” which topped the “Most Popular List” on the Harvard Business Review’s blog.
  • Worked with Dr. Henry Mintzberg on peer coaching, David’s learning modules are among the most popular topics.

Currently David is helping organizations to get on-track with people analytics.

This work led to him being made a Fellow for the Centre of Evidence-based Management (Netherlands) for his contributions to the field.



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