Thursday, January 10, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For: Getting the Mission Wrong

Be Careful What You Ask For: Getting the Mission Wrong
Is your Mission statement leading you to new and greater accomplishments or down the road to perdition?

No, this is not a rhetorical question. Although everyone today is aware that they need a mission for their organization, just having one doesn't mean you will automatically be successful. In fact, many mission statements are simply meaningless. They've been wordsmithed by marketing types and vetted by the lawyers to a point where they no longer really say anything.

The mission should bind the individual to the organization. It should give him or her a clear statement of what the organization is all about. Then the person can make decisions and take actions by asking one simple strategic question:

Will this decision or action move me closer to or further from accomplishing my mission?

No firefighting. No knee-jerk reactions. No crisis management...or at least not as much!

The first step is to have a clear concise mission statement. It should be short and to the point. It should provide guidance for action.

Ritz Carleton Hotels stated in its credo: We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen. Every employee can view his or her work through this clear lens.

It's 2 AM and you're the desk clerk facing a disgruntled guest who just got in from a grueling trip. He's tired and cranky and taking it out on you. What do you do? In most hotels the rest of the story would not be pretty. At Ritz Carlton, the clerk goes through something like this in his or her head: 'I'm a gentle person and that guest is a gentle person having a very bad day. What can I do to help?' And then the clerk acts accordingly...the key word is 'act' not 'react.'

A couple of decades ago the city of Portsmouth, Virginia was down on its luck...but not completely out of luck. The City brought in a remarkable and talented City Manager who set a new -- simple -- mission for the city: ‘Clean City, Economic Development, and Customer Service.’ And then George Hanbury spread that mission and it's meaning to every official and employee.

The city turned around under Hanbury's leadership. Eighteen years later they invited him back for a special 'George Hanbury Day.' At the reception a man came up to him. "I'm sure you don't remember me but I drove a garbage truck when you became City Manager. I still remember that mission you gave us, 'Clean City, Economic Development, and Customer Service.' It changed everything."

That's the power of a good mission. It's transformational.

But there is a nasty little problem hiding under the surface in many mission statements. They can contain the seeds of their own destruction. And when you get it wrong and follow it successfully, you can destroy yourself. A major utility company presents an object lesson. The company decided to reinvent itself and implement a new quality philosophy. They stated their road map for action this way.

"During the next decade, we want to become the best managed electric utility in the United States and an excellent company overall, and be recognized as such."

On the surface it looks fine. It is striving to be well managed and excellent. These are admirable goals if a little vague. But the problem comes in the final part of the statement, 'be recognized as such.' At first it seems reasonable. Come up with a measurement that will demonstrate this excellence. Sounds OK. It helps counteract the vagueness.

Here's where things took a wrong turn. The CEO and his team decided that the 'recognition' would be winning the Deming Prize. This was the prestigious Japanese quality award named for the great guru of quality, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who had been pivotal in helping Japanese industry recover after World War II. A special foreign division prize had just been announced. So the company decided to 'go for it.'

Now this in itself was not necessarily a bad thing. The prize required great rigor, dedication and leadership to be achieved. It would certainly be an important recognition of excellence. So far so good...

They set off on their excellence journey. Without meaning to or even noticing it, the mission shifted to emphasize the 'recognized as such' part of the mission. This happened slowly, imperceptibly despite a lot of good intentions and excellent improvement results that were well documented. As the prize itself slowly refocused people's efforts, a 'quality bureaucracy' materialized. As a former employee quipped, 'you couldn't plan lunch without doing a 7 step storyboard!'

The great day came and sure enough the company achieved its mission measurement -- the Deming Prize. It was a Pyrrhic victory.

First they were attacked in the local paper and then Public Service Commission got into the act. Who was going to pay for all of this? The rate-payers didn't want to foot the bill! This was despite the fact that the company made significant strides and reduced costs. There was that initial investment that people did not want to pay for. Later that year there was a freak storm and service was interrupted significantly. The howling media jumped all over the notion that the company was 'excellent' or 'well-managed.'

It wasn't long before the CEO was out of work and a memo was 'leaked' to the papers announcing the dismantling of the quality improvement program and its infrastructure.

What went wrong? That decision to add 'be recognized as such' led to choosing to win a prize and then to a distortion of the company's focus. No one meant it to happen. These were bright, experienced and well intentioned people. And the media weren't fair but by that time it was really too late. Chasing the prize (which Dr. Deming himself always criticized) did the damage long before the papers got into the act.

The point here is not to 'put down' the company. In fact, I was a great admirer of their efforts and accomplishments. I used much of their methodology to accomplish some great results. The point is to be very careful in constructing your mission. If you use it right, you will accomplish it, unintended consequences and all.

The mission requires regular scrutiny. Is it still leading us in the right direction? Is it as powerful in achieving results as those of the city of Portsmouth and Ritz Carlton Hotels? Have we slipped off the path without noticing it? Does every single person understand it, embrace it and use it every day? Are we on the happy path or the road to perdition?

There's a wonderful old country tune that the Carter Family used to sing:
Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,Keep on the sunny side of life. It will help you on your way, It will help you every day,If you keep on the sunny side of life.

Keep your mission on the sunny side.

-- Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, Ph.D., President

Advantage Leadership, Inc.

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1 comment:

bentleybeth said...

Someone asked me what my mission as an artist was which seemed an odd question to outside of a business context, yet I answered immediately:
"to have fun". I haven't yet realized monetary gain with this as my artistic mission, so perhaps my statement could use some tweaking with your help, but at least the questioner agreed my work does reflect my mission statement.