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Mandatory versus Voluntary Best Practices

June 12, 2014

Quick question.  Are best practices mandatory where you work, treated like stopping at stop signs, or optional…, a choice, if it’s convenient, or “if you feel like it”?  The issue has come front and center with GM in the spotlight this year, but this one reads like any company you and I may have worked at, and/or are currently working, keep reading and let’s see.

At GM, Mary Bara, is facing the consequences of best practices not being mandatory.   Like most things, consequences often don’t popup until later, so they seem disconnected from behavior and decisions for a long time.  In this case the consequences resulted in 31 car crashes of 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalts, and 13, mostly teen-agers and young adults losing their life.  Not to mention the possibility of up to 1.2 Billion in penalties.

So what is GM so guilty of, that it required Mary Bara to appear before a congressional subcommittee on April 1?  They were investigating why GM waited years to recall Cobalts and other vehicles that could lose power because of a faulty ignition switch; and then go on to meet with the families impacted at the request of their attorney, Robert Hilliard.

OK, so they didn’t issue a recall on a 57 cent default ignition switch that they’ve known about for years.  And this year they’ve been doing damage control to the order of an original recall of “700,000 vehicles was announced on Feb. 7, and twice expanded, to a total of 2.4 million vehicles. Since then GM has stepped up its safety reviews and recalled some 13.6 million vehicles for everything from faulty tail lamps to potential seat belt malfunctions.”  So doesn’t that cover it?

Well step back for a moment and see if any of identified causes of the problem (they were described as “cultural failings”) and the painful and expensive outcomes… are any different that what is tolerated where you work:

– “While everybody who was engaged on the ignition switch issue had the responsibility to fix it, nobody took responsibility.”
(hm, sound familiar?)

– “‘the GM Nod,’ a seeming acquiescence or sign of approval given at meetings which then, in fact, lead to no action.”
(bet you’ve seen or experienced that before)

– “There appears to be little sense of engagement, and no connection to a real outcome among the teams involved in the ignition switch debacle. Even the loss of 13 lives as a result of this problem – with more possibly to be cited in the coming weeks – wasn’t enough to spur decisive internal action.”
(didn’t Gallup find that 50% of US employees are unengaged at where they work?)

– “There were silos, and as information was known in one part of the business… it didn’t necessarily get communicated as effectively as it should have been to other parts, for instance the engineering team.”
(who hasn’t encountered silos?)

You see I think things like:
– taking responsibility,
– following through instead of just nodding, and
– being engaged, because there are ultimately consequences…

are best practices that are not treated as mandatory (like stopping at a red traffic light) where you work.  It’s relatively easy to let what should be mandatory shift to voluntary.  It avoids messy confrontations and the slide into “if you feel like it” is something that creeps around the edges of the staff at every place I’ve worked.  Most of the time the culture tolerates it on some level.  I bet it does where you are working right now.

Executive_shruggingWhat if that changed?  What if it changed where you work?  What if it changed when it comes to you and your direct reports, your peers?

Maybe you’re disagreeing, but I think it’s pervasive, and although thankfully it doesn’t usually cost lives like the GM problem, it still has negative consequences.

For me, since I run a company that sells an extended set of people and project management tools, the mandatory versus voluntary debate costs me immediate money as one of the consequences.  Because deploying productivity tools, but not making their adoption and utilization mandatory, is a common “kiss of death” to the deployment.  “Use it if you feel like it”, kills every best practice, including using a tool like ManagePro.

Another way to frame this, is that in the US, we have a huge tolerance for “resistance”.  Somehow we get that mixed up with the benefits of being independent.  They aren’t the same.  If you get a moment, read the book, “I Don’t Want to, I Don’t Feel Like It: How Resistance Controls Your Life and What To Do About It.”

Or just absorb the title for a second, because resistance is a major factor in accounting for why so many change initiatives, improvement efforts, business re-engineering and merger and acquisition initiatives… fail.  I bet you have best practices right now that need to become mandatory, and resistance to follow-through or engage that needs to be resolved, not tolerated, and that you unfortunately are generating consequences that will come to roost miles down the road.

Bottom Line:

GM is in the spotlight for the consequences of not making best practices mandatory.  They are in the spotlight because the consequences are so huge and painful, but the drivers for that consequence are pervasive.  Things like:
– allowing best practices like taking responsibility, following through on problem resolution and supporting change initiatives to be voluntary instead of mandatory, and
– tolerating resistance and the operation of silos to protect information and not collaborate.
The point is, it’s common in the work place, not just at GM.  Do you think it’s time to make a switch, to through the “voluntary option” in the trash?  It is for GM, how about you and me?

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