When Performance Metrics Attack! Complete, Agile BI Requires Going Beyond Just the Numbers

I’m reading Howard Schultz’s Onward by Howard SchultzOnward: How Starbucks Fought for its Life Without Losing its Soul (2010). Schultz compellingly conveys his dedication and passion for the company and, of course, great coffee. Returning in January 2008 as Starbucks’ ceo (Starbucks uses lower case for all company titles), Schultz would save the company from its doldrums, rekindle long-lasting success and silence critics who had proclaimed Starbucks’ best days were over.

Just as important as what Howard Schultz did as ceo was what he stopped doing: Soon after returning to the ceo office, Schultz told investment analysts that Starbucks would no longer publicly report its same-store sales, or “comps.” Schultz’s wise decision would prove to be as critical to Starbucks’ revitalization as its new Pike Place coffee blend and Clover brewing machines.

Analysts were predictably annoyed by the move, but Schultz patiently explained that comps did not consider Starbucks’ grocery sales and other revenue beyond its cafes. But Howard Schultz had a far more urgent reason to stop reporting comps: comps had long become “a dangerous enemy in the battle to transform the company.” As Starbucks’ chairman, Schultz had realized the company had, slowly over time, “defaulted” to viewing the health of the company through the singular performance lens of comps; as long as comps were fine, the company was fine – except that it wasn’t.

Comps would eventually prove to be a harmful lagging indicator: as Starbucks persisted with excessive store expansion and a series of missteps that diminished customer experiences, comps remained highly favorable. Only long after “slow, quiet, incremental” damage did comps finally, and very suddenly, trend poorly. Schultz wrote:

Maintaining positive comp growth history drove poor business decisions that veered us away from our core… Once I walked into a store and was appalled by a proliferation of stuffed animals for sale. “What is this?” I asked the store manager in frustration, pointing to a pile of wide-eyed cuddly toys that had nothing to do with coffee. The manager didn’t blink: “They’re great for incremental sales and have a big gross margin.”

This was the type of mentality that had become pervasive. And dangerous…It is difficult to overstate the seductive power that comps had come to have over the organization…overshadowing everything else.

In hindsight, it was very fortunate that Howard Schultz had remained active as Starbucks’ chairman and was willing and able to step back into day-to-day operations as ceo. Having pioneered the company’s signature cafe stores, Schultz had the situational awareness to realize that “something wasn’t right” with the company’s customer experience years before comps finally tanked.

What about other leaders who also want true, long term success, but don’t have the same hands-on, ground-floor business awareness of a company founder? How do they acquire similar awareness to avoid overlooking slow, subtle damage to the company and instead make business decisions that promote genuine, long-lasting success? Here are a few essential requirements, based on some insights I drew from Schultz’s book.

Keep score based on how well you achieve your core mission. Howard Schultz had a true passion for revitalizing Starbucks around its core mission – its very reason for existing: delighting customers with its superior coffee and unique cafe experience. Pleasing shareholders was always part of Starbucks’ mission, but doing so slowly eclipsed its core mission, and eventually impaired shareholder value as well. Eliminating the rogue performance metric of comps gave the company “a new way to see” the business based on its core mission and “freed everyone to enthusiastically [re]focus on our coffee and our customers.”

“Get your hands dirty” in the “roots” of the business. Schultz rallied the company around its core mission – freshly updated with his global executive team – and aligned all operations, customer service, and decision making with achieving that mission. He called on everyone in the company to join him in that hard work, urging his executive teams to “get dirty, get in the mud, get back to the roots of the business” – a metaphor that resonated throughout the company. Long term leaders and managers must “get their hands dirty” – fully commit themselves to deeply understanding the key details of the company’s operations and its customers and take action accordingly.

Get a complete informational picture of the business. On his first day as returning ceo, Howard Schultz told employees that “to just go ‘back to the future'” of Starbucks would not be good enough to turn the company around. While the company would “need a piece of its past,” Schultz also believed “many of us at Starbucks had lost our attention to the details” – leading to Schultz’s drive to “get back into the roots of the business.”

By necessity, acquiring a deep, detailed understanding of the business at its “root” level requires a complete picture of the business far beyond numbers alone. Leaders and managers dedicated to long term success will therefore not be content with analytics limited to such superficial questions as, “So how are comps doing?” They will demand answers to far deeper, probing, “get your hands dirty” business questions, such as:

  • How do our sales performance, new product launches, employee retention, etc. correlate with customer sentiment expressed on social media sites, our online surveys, email and chat logs?
  • What complaints, compliments, and/or suggestions keep coming up? Is this customer feedback correlated to specific regions or locations?
  • What other factors we may not yet be fully aware of affect our sales, costs, and customer service: Changes in weather? Changes in local/regional tastes and preferences? And on and on…

Leaders cannot, and will not, wait weeks or months for answers from unresponsive traditional BI processes and legacy IT systems. Answering such vital questions that “dig into the roots of the business” requires a powerful new enterprise information “rototiller”: a new platform capable of providing complete, agile BI – drawn from the widest spectrum of enterprise information: not only structured data (databases), but also unstructured data (social media, knowledge bases, web content and other text-based information).

Take action in person. Make house calls. Howard Schultz used a medical analogy to emphasize the vital need for “root-level” business understanding:

Like a doctor who measures a patient’s height and weight every year without checking blood pressure or heart rate, Starbucks was not monitoring itself at a level of detail that would help ensure its long term health.

Extending Schultz’s leader-as-doctor analogy, the “doctor” must not only prescribe well-informed action for revitalized business health, but also administer it with a lot of house calls.

Once leaders and managers achieve that essential deeper “root level” of business understanding, they must take action based on those insights in a timely – and public – manner. Leaders must be visible to the managers and workers whose daily dedication and effort are critical to achieving the company’s core mission:

I sensed that people inside the company needed to see me… Showing up, listening to and talking with Starbucks’ partners was one way I got my own hands dirty… Whether I was in front of one person or thousands… I strove to be authentic and frank while threading optimism into every communication.

Onward provides substantial insight into authentic leadership. The book is a primer on reigniting internal excitement for the company and its mission, refocusing on the customer experience and growing through innovation with the customer and mission in mind. Leaders driven to achieve these goals and realize long-term success will reject superficial metrics in favor of gaining deep “root-level” business understanding. Doing so requires a cutting-edge, rapidly deployed BI platform capable of eliminating information silos and providing a truly complete business picture, drawing from all information sources – structured and unstructured, internal and external.

Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter” at Work?

the-fighter-movie-poster

The Fighter (2010) is an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg), a professional boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for him. Stymied by his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) badly mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of embarrassing defeats and considers ending his boxing career.

The Fighter led me to wonder how many people are out there today with similarly high potential being similarly squandered. Does this suggestion ring true to you?

I am certain the vast majority of people (certainly not just product marketers and product managers) have felt the same gnawing cognitive dissonance during their careers that Micky Ward felt: an awareness that one’s work and skills were somehow being stifled.

I believe the root cause behind the vast majority of struggling products (and, therefore, struggling businesses) is people not living up to their potential due to a non-supportive organizational environment. Like Micky Ward’s frustrations early on with his family members in The Fighter, too often executives and senior managers fail to lead effectively and treat workers with respect and civility.

There are many types of managerial dysfunctions that contribute to a non-supportive environment that adversely impacts people, which cannot help but adversely impact products. Here are a few that might ring true to you (though I hope not!) …

Leadership that is disengaged from the company’s original innovation and brand equity. Beware of management who was not around and/or not emotionally invested in the company’s original innovations that earned its success and brand equity in the first place.

Starbucks is one example of post-founder management that missed the mark badly. After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued a nearly ruinous ‘management by the numbers’ strategy along with massive over-expansion that made the company less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

There are many far worse examples out there, from so-called “professional” turnaround management teams to the likes of James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, who simply abdicated his responsibility to cultivate innovation to grow the top line and revitalize the company. Instead, Kilts simply declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead fixated on shareholders as the only company stakeholders, overseeing massive layoffs and cost-cutting. With a compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold Gillette in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, became just another division of Proctor & Gamble.

In an organization with a management team that has merely inherited the fruits of innovation from previous leaders, innovation becomes devalued and “leaders” take short-sighted actions, often based on their “knowledge” of the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Leadership that punishes unsuccessful innovation.

If you say, ‘I want people to take risks,’ and then fire the guy if the outcome fails, it becomes clear how your organization really feels about risk.

~ Anthony F. Smith, consultant and author

There’s a great old movie sight gag featuring an overworked bus boy at an understaffed diner. Hurrying with two full armloads of stacked dishes, he slips and drops one armload of dishes that fall shattering to the floor. The slave-driver boss roars, “You idiot! You’re fired!”

The bus boy looks his boss in the eye, shrugs his shoulders, lets the other armload of dishes fall crashing to the floor as well, and walks out.

The lesson is clear: a company culture that burns out workers and punishes them for honest mistakes, and even worse, for taking a risk and trying out a new idea that doesn’t work out, deserves the plentiful fallout it creates. Nothing stifles innovation (or, for that matter, careers, information sharing, customer service, etc.) like a ham-handed “slap on the wrist” from an authoritarian boss.

Leadership that fails to reward (or even recognize) successful innovation. Failing to appreciate or acknowledge innovation success might even be worse than scolding unsuccessful efforts. I recall some years ago reading the 1985 book Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot. The book described an ingenious manager who single-handedly created a new multimillion dollar stream of revenue for his employer. The manager discovered an innovative breakthrough that transformed tons of scrap material previously hauled away as waste into a vital component of a new product.

Great job, right? Tell that to the manager’s employer. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded or recognized in any way for his multimillion dollar innovation (!!) – an injustice that Gifford Pinchot seemed to gloss over and almost excuse:

[The manager] doesn’t seem bitter that he barely received a thank you for creating a new business…He is from that loyal generation who is thankful for a job, and my questions about recognition and rewards made him uncomfortable.

This feeble conclusion debunks the book’s own premise; after all, an entrepreneur in charge of his or her own company actually reaps the rewards of his or her innovation, rather than having them gobbled up without even a “thank you” by an indifferent executive team!

In addition to conveying the cynical notion that the manager “should just be thankful he has a job,” the company made a very loud and clear statement about how little it valued innovation and those who engage in it. I’m sure that message was received loud and clear, and remembered, by others across that organization.

Leadership that is preoccupied with “problem solving,” not innovating. Referring to the previous sad example, problem solving would have amounted to simply finding a new vendor willing to dispose of ‘all this worthless material waste’ for a few nickels less than the current cost. Innovating is what that manager actually did, turning that scrap material into revenue-generating gold.

An organization unduly focused on such “problem solving” will readily recognize the former and often underappreciate the latter (even if the innovative efforts prove successful!), perhaps even going so far as to label those innovative efforts as indicative of “not taking direction.”

I discussed this issue in a recent article exploring the Hierarchy of Imagination, in which I suggested that many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination, such as a highly “creative” person reporting to a “left brain”-focused, “problem solver” boss – more likely to be focused on “the numbers” while paying lip service at best to innovation.

Once again Mr. James Kilts comes to mind. After selling off Gillette, he authored a book, paradoxically entitled Doing What Mattersin which he proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Successfully mandating a dramatic reduction in the company’s product SKU count. Wait, what? This is an example of a keystone “achievement” by the CEO of a global company?! This is not leadership; it’s an example of executive tinkering over administrative “problem solving.”

Source: New York Times (click for source page)

In The Fighter, Micky Ward’s fortunes begin to change when he begins to surround himself with professionals who set the right environment and agenda to start setting him up for success.

Similarly, in the world of work, I hope your company’s leaders and managers are also setting the right environment, agenda and vision to innovate – thereby setting up the company, your co-workers, and you for success.