Think of it this way — if someone in your family gets brain cancer, would you check out oncology textbooks from the public library and try to chart a treatment plan by yourself? Of course not; you would schedule an appointment with an oncologist who knows everything there is to know about resolving brain tumors. Attempting to fix the problem yourself would be ineffective at best and downright harmful at worst.
The same core idea applies in business. Leaders can’t see or solve operational problems when their only intelligence comes from a 50,000-foot view. They need frontliner perspectives, first-person insights from the workers on the ground. After all, who do you think is going to be better at spotting breakdowns — the people who spend their time in far-away boardrooms, or those tasked with cleaning up the mess?
I’ll give you a real-world example of what frontliner support can do for a business.
Some years ago, I was brought in to consult for a private equity firm that had recently purchased a chain of 34 hotels. These hotels were, to put it tactfully, a good deal. The buildings were so wracked with problems that the seller had given them away for what amounted to pocket change and a handful of mints.
Of course, the PE firm knew going into the purchase that the project’s real expense would be the renovations, not the upfront cost. To that end, they had set aside a massive war chest and planned to spend three full years finding and solving operational problems.
They also called me — and were taken aback when I told them to toss their timetable.
“Listen, you don’t need three years to find out what’s wrong with these hotels,” I told them. “You don’t even need one year. I can tell you everything you need to know about the problems you’re dealing with and how to fix them in thirty days.”
A bit of laughter went around the table.
“Thirty days,” they scoffed. “Come on, be reasonable. That’s not possible. It can’t be done.”
“Okay,” I said. “Then what’s the harm in giving me a month? You’re already planning to spend three years on this project, thirty days isn’t going to hurt you.”
Eventually, they agreed I could have a month to prove my point.
So, what did I do? I polled the hotel workers.
The fact is, no one knows more about a hotel than the people tasked with keeping it functional. Of course the maintenance guys are going to know what’s broken; of course the cleaning crew will know what slows down room turnover; of course the plumbing team will know which systems keep failing and why. They know where the proverbial skeletons are buried; half of them buried them there.
The tricky part is convincing those frontline workers to share their insights. After all, most people prefer to do their job and clock out; no one wants to rock the boat by criticizing an employer’s operations. My task was to convince workers that it was not only okay to come forward, but that doing so would benefit them in a tangible way.
So, I put together a contest on the company’s intranet.
For each suggestion a team member made (for any department), they would receive one chance to win a prize. Rewards varied according to employees’ positions in the company but were universally attractive: an extra week of vacation time, a spa trip, a weekend getaway to a luxury resort. The more suggestions a worker offered, the higher his odds were of taking home a prize.
The suggestions were divided into categories by department (housekeeping, engineering, gardening, maintenance, etc.) as well as subsections like efficiency and cost-cutting. With these insights and suggestions in-hand, departments would have a vastly easier time identifying and resolving process breakdowns, faulty machinery, inefficient operations and countless other problems.
Think of it this way — if you can activate your frontline employees, you suddenly have hundreds of people to help you work the problem. Of course, activation isn’t something you can achieve by offering a pizza party or free T-shirt; you need to understand what people want and put it in front of them.
One of the most enthusiastic respondents in the hotel chain’s contest was a housekeeper. She was a hardworking single mother with two children, and all she wanted was a proper vacation. As soon as she saw that one of the prizes available to her department was a sojourn away, she began contributing all of the ideas she could think of — and when she ran out, she started to ask others for ideas. She ultimately contributed over 400 suggestions. While the raffle didn’t ultimately end in her favor, company leadership was so impressed by her enthusiasm that they gave her the vacation she needed so desperately anyway.
It’s simple: if you activate your frontline staffers, they’ll give you the insights you need to improve your business.
By the end of the raffle’s first week, the private equity firm had received over 20,000 responses. Many were duplicates; however, even those provided value by underscoring significant problems. After the deadline closed, the hotel chain started using the feedback to identify issues and compose solutions. Department leaders were no longer working in the dark; with the information they had at hand, they could set up repair schedules, purchase necessary tools, and make efficient improvements in a timely manner.
I’ll return to the neurology metaphor I used at the beginning. If you’re trying to surgically remove a cancer, you carefully target only the important tissue; poking around in exploration or, worse, making unnecessary cuts could be actively detrimental to the patient’s health. Well-informed surgical cuts are always better than those that carve out good tissue unnecessarily. The key is getting the necessary information on where to make these proverbial cuts — and in a business context, this means talking to your frontline employees.
If the private equity firm had gone ahead with its original plan and conducted surveys without activating front line employees, they would have wasted months (or years) and a significant amount of money trying to locate — let alone address — issues that their frontline staff already knew how to solve.
The private equity firm had planned to spend three years and a small fortune rehabbing the hotel chain. By motivating their employees to contribute their insights, the firm managed to finish the project in just over eight months and at a fraction of its original budget. The leaders’ expectations, and doubts, were blown out of the water.
Never underestimate the value of your frontline workers. While you’re standing in the C-suite office trying to spot problems from 50,000 feet, they’re seeing them up close. If you can activate your team and turn them into your eyes and ears, you’ll learn more about your business and what it needs to thrive than you ever dreamed possible.
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