Refocusing Your Frontline from Activity to Results

Thirty years ago, the red-hot leadership topic was time management. Its essence was focusing on priority results and not getting distracted by low-priority activities. A popular time management technique was to begin each workday preparing a "to-do" list, ABC each item, and complete the A's (high priority) first. The caution offered was the intense seduction of first tackling low priority "C's" since there are always so many of them, and you get an incredible feeling of accomplishment when they are off your list.

One unfortunate byproduct of this checklist ("to do") type thinking is the focus on a "nose to the grindstone; get 'er done" mentality. Applied to frontline employees, it can produce a fixation on completing tasks to the exclusion of accomplishing results. Frontline employees get a false sense of success since a check mark can be placed by the tasks finished. And it feels good, just like knocking "C's" off the time management list. This myopia can seduce leaders into judging employees by how hard and how long they work, a false flag in the efforts to build customer loyalty. That narrow view has been exacerbated by the advent of virtual workers whose "out-of-sight" roles are much easier to supervise when zeroing in on verifiable task completion. Here is an example.

My doctor has several assistants, one we will call Florence. Florence is the liaison between my doctor and me. I recently had a CT scan done which needed to be sent to a specialty physician (we'll call Dr. No) who has been monitoring a part of my anatomy. I texted Florence that Dr. No needed a copy of my recent test. She texted back that she had taken care of it. After a few days, I contacted Dr. No's assistant to ensure she got the test results. She did not. Back to Florence with a follow-up request, back came her text that she again had taken care of it. I finally unraveled the frustrating treadmill after the third attempt with identical results. Florence was focusing on her "checklist" activity (send the test results) and not the goal I had in mind (make sure Dr. No gets the test results). It turns out she was using an incorrect fax number. However, without a goal focus, she was doomed to a vicious cycle of effort without advancement. Texans call this phenomenon "three feet and a cloud of dust." Customers today demand more and faster progress with a lot less dust.

As Florence's customer, I am frustrated by her inability to get done what I need. As an employee, I am confident her boss (my doctor) is impressed by how busy she is and how much work she gets done. Peter Drucker, father of management, did not write, "The purpose of an organization is to get a lot of stuff done." However, he noted that "The purpose of an organization is to create and retain a customer." This healthcare organization is at risk of losing my loyalty and is likely oblivious to that fact. Here are four ways leaders can help associates avoid the "activity trap?"

Be the Customer

When at bat, little leaguers are coached to "be the ball." It is a mental tool to get a ten-year-old to keep an eye on the ball after the pitcher hurls it toward them. Frame every assignment with a customer rationale. Florence could have heard, "Since our patient is eager to get an informed perspective from Dr. No, make sure Dr. No gets the test results." Share customer feedback information with frontline associates—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Invite select customers who will be candid to provide direct feedback to frontline associates. Give direction in terms of outcomes, not tasks. Follow up with customers frequently to ensure they are happy with the outcome, not just the process. Ensure customer surveys include questions about assessing desired results, not just style, process, or experience.

Revisit Your Mission

Frontline employees are more likely to think and act beyond "task completion" when they are clear on the mission and precisely how their performance impacts that mission. Ask frontline associates to describe what the mission means to their role. If you are sure you have an effective, compelling mission, redirect their focus if it is unaligned. For example, Florence could periodically hear, "Never forget, we are here for the health and well-being of our patients. Well-being includes their pleasure with what we do for them, not just how we do it." Missions are alignment tools aimed at fostering focus and consistency. Tell stories about associates who acted in ways that were in sync with your mission. Encourage employees to visit high-service organizations and return willing to talk about what they observed that appeared to be mission-aligned.

Trust Your Associates

Goal-focused associates need to be trusted to do what it takes to turntask completion into results achievement. If they are only allowed to "just do what you are told," even if they have the bigger picture, they will feel constrained. Ensure they have the authority to act on behalf of the customer. It is also imperative they have the competence and confidence to do so. learn the details of their barriers to serving customers in a fashion that builds loyalty. Florence has no aversion to hard work; she simply lacks what she requires to do smart work.bSecure associates the resources needed to be effective. Ensure they have the time to achieve customer outcomes and are not forced to labor under an unbearable "todo" list. Be their champion and affirm their successes.

Update Your Scorecard

Associates are more apt to do what is expected if they experience it is also inspected. Follow-up and accountability both signal it counts. Scorecards are more than performance review forms; they reflect an attitude of discipline and a user of consequences. When customers' goals are hardwired into the leadership focus, employees learn their role is customer welfare not just task completion. They learn to backward plan from what a happy customer views as completion. Approach the performance of your associates donning your coaching hat, not your surrogate parent hat. Assume innocence. Florence would never intentionally do the wrong thing; instead, she would shine in the eyes of her customers with different leadership guidance.

My granddaddy loved to go coon hunting. He would sometimes allow me to join him when I was a young boy. Before you get on an animal rights soapbox, coon hunting is not about demolishing a raccoon; it is about listening to the hounds. While a few people kill coons for food, Granddaddy was not among them; he admired their craftiness. I learned the sounds to listen for as his three or four blue tick hounds pursued and finally treed a raccoon.

A sound you dreaded came from the bark of a lone hound. It meant one dog, usually a youngster, had separated from the others. "Oh no," my granddaddy would tell me, "He's found a rabbit hole." The hound likely picked up the scent of a rabbit and abandoned the coon hunt. Granddaddy would find the distracted hound and drive him in the truck to join the rest of the pack to get his mind off the rabbit. The captivating scent of rabbit holes (aka, activity) can pull  associates away from the real focus—taking great care of customers' needs and expectations. It means leading from the outside in—customer to associate. And it requires helping associates know that if they retain a loyal customer, all other important metrics will fall into place. Finally, never forget that your customers' experiences are only as great as your customers think they are.

Chip Bell, June 15, 2023