12 Heroic Processes, Positive Policies, and the Space Between the Boxes – Ruthless Consistency: How Committed Leaders Execute Strategy, Implement Change, and Build Organizations That Win



For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.

—Benjamin Franklin


A LARGE, INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE was suffering. Not only were sales being siphoned away by online retailers, but customer satisfaction was slipping. Finding books in the store could be confusing, availability was hit or miss, lines were often long, and overwhelmed staff would at times show their frustration. All things considered, the bookstore’s future did not look promising.

When they asked us to help, our first and most obvious concern was that they weren’t yet offering online sales. Yet we wanted to know if there was more to the story. Our assessment 165uncovered 19 root causes underlying customer dissatisfaction. Most were related to organizational design—processes, policies, and structure:

Engagement-Performance Model™

The configuration of the store was confusing and uninviting.

The organization of book subjects wasn’t intuitive.

Signage was poorly located.

The book-ordering process was cumbersome.

The return policy was overly restrictive.

Staffing was inadequate.

The hours of operations were limited.

At the same time, we determined that the staff very much wanted to provide great customer service and understood its importance. Their frustration bubbled up from how “the system” was keeping them from providing great service. The problem here wasn’t one of purpose, incentives, training, or coaching. The problem was the bookstore wasn’t designed to provide a great customer experience.

Once we addressed the root causes by redesigning processes and policies, and changing elements of the structure and infrastructure, then the customer service metrics—as determined by post-purchase surveys—improved dramatically. The survey findings: 78 percent of respondents said it was faster and easier to locate books, 76 percent noted greater availability, 90 percent spent less time waiting in cashiers’ lines, and 94 percent 166found the service attitude of the staff had improved. While, like many independent booksellers, this bookstore would only survive by offering online sales, improving the in-person customer experience was essential to maintaining the store’s viability.


All of us have been on the receiving end of a service employee making a “heroic effort” to meet our expectations. We are deeply grateful, the employee feels a sense of satisfaction knowing she made a difference, and her company may recognize her as a role model for all employees.

It’s a trap. Heroic efforts aren’t sustainable and aren’t scalable. What happens if the team member gets burned out? What happens if she leaves and isn’t replaced by someone who makes similarly heroic efforts? What happens as your company grows, and heroic efforts are increasingly needed to make up for faulty processes? And what is the time and cost incurred from making heroic efforts?

Better to invest in “heroic processes”—processes that are sustainable and scalable, that survive individual employees coming and going, that can accommodate growth, and that are time and cost efficient.

We once worked with a trucking company that would go to extreme lengths to meet its delivery commitments. Managers vigorously encouraged employees to do whatever it took to get the packages delivered on time. Yes, they put the customer first and, yes, deliveries were largely made on time. Yet the conse167quences were that, overtime, contract labor costs, and employee turnover were all out of control, and vehicle accidents were far too frequent.

The new VP of operations realized the company needed to stop the insanity. He decided to form a team to redesign the package sorting and loading process. Identifying and fixing numerous inefficiencies, the company was able to significantly reduce the cycle time of package processing, allowing trucks to leave the warehouse earlier. As a result, overtime, contract labor costs, employee turnover, and vehicle accidents all declined. The need for heroic efforts was replaced with a heroic process.

Is there ever a need for heroic efforts? Yes, but they should be the exception; heroic processes should be the rule.

Where should you start? Which processes should you make heroic? Start with the processes relevant to your SCIs.

Envision yourself in this situation:

You’re out at a well-regarded restaurant for dinner. The server has taken your drink order, and you’re now scanning the menu. Nothing jumps out at you. Best to see if there are any specials.

After a delay that’s longer than it should be, the server returns with your drink, and asks, “Have you made any decisions?”

“Do you have any specials this evening? And what’s your soup of the day?”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure. Let me go check.”

Let me go check? You don’t know?

After another delay, the server returns and says, “No specials this evening, sir. Just our regular menu. And the soup of the day is the minestrone.”

“OK, I’ll have the pan-fried trout. And a spinach salad to start.”

“Very good. Thank you.”

A few minutes later the server reappears. “I’m sorry, sir,” he says. “It turns out that we don’t have the trout this evening.”

“No trout? Then I’ll need to see the menu again.”

“OK, I’ll go get one.”

What just happened? The server didn’t know if there were any specials, didn’t know the soup of the day, and didn’t know that the trout wasn’t available. And he didn’t anticipate that you just might need to see the menu again! You’ve now been at the restaurant for over 15 minutes, the server has been back and forth several times, and you still haven’t ordered. You’re understandably irritated.

Now imagine you’re the manager of that restaurant, and your SCI is to provide an outstanding dining experience. You should want to assess every process and every touchpoint that influences that experience, including the reservation process; the arrival, greeting, and seating process; the server introduction and ordering process; the meal presentation and dining process; the check delivery and payment process; and, finally, the departure process. If your goal is to provide an outstanding dining experience, then every detail, no matter how small, should be scrutinized.

Here’s an example of a small but relevant process detail: At the end of your meal, the server may approach your table and say something like, “How was everything this evening?” If you’re like most people, you’ll reflexively answer, “Fine” or “Good.” Which means that information is useless. The restaurant just squandered an opportunity to get valuable feedback that could help it enhance your experience.

Instead, imagine the server says, “Thank you for dining with us this evening, sir. If there was one thing we could do to make your experience even better next time, what would that be?”

You pause, taken aback by the question but, nonetheless, appreciative.

“I would have liked the scallops to be warmer.”

“Very good, sir. We’ll note that.”

Asking that question prevents a reflexive answer and prompts the customer to think of one thing that you could improve. This “One Thing Better” approach was one of our recommendations to a restaurant owner whose goal was to consistently provide an outstanding dining experience. The servers would then record the “one-things,” and the managers would chart their frequencies and, most importantly, take action to improve the most frequently mentioned one-things.


As surprising as it might seem, yes, a simple policy could undermine your SCI.

One of our clients, a manufacturer of high-tech parts, decided to compete on speed. The company believed it would gain a competitive advantage if it were quick to respond, quick to quote, quick to manufacture, quick to deliver, and quick to repair. That was communicated to every employee.

There was just one problem. The company’s expense reimbursement policy said it could take up to six weeks for employees to get reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses. What do you think that did for the culture of speed? Exactly. It poisoned it. People became cynical. “Speed? Ya, right. Nobody seems too concerned about speed when it comes to my money. How about a little more speed in the accounting department?”

Contrast that with the policy at Signet Health Corporation, a healthcare management company with employees working across 18 states. Signet Health reimburses hospital-based employee expenses the next day. As Signet Health’s president, Jerry Browder, explained: “It’s one of the few, regular touchpoints we have with our remote employees. It’s important they know we’re there for them. And when new employees send in their travel and marketing expenses for the first time, they’re always surprised to learn they will be reimbursed by direct-deposit the very next day.”

Consistency. Signet Health’s objective is that field-based employees feel well supported. Its policy is consistent with that objective.


When you think of organizational structure, you probably think of the org chart—the pyramid of boxes and arrows, what reports to what, and who reports to whom. Inevitably, it results in silos—“us-versus-them.” Whenever you have an SCI that involves more than one box on the org chart, ask yourself, “How should we manage the space between the boxes?” Here are five ways to do that:

1. “Parachute” Team Members into “Foreign Territory”

It’s easy to make assumptions, typically negative, about them—the other departments, functions, or locations. A classic example involves sales and manufacturing. The sales rep thinks the manufacturing people are lazy because they “never” get the product delivered on time. The manufacturing supervisor thinks the sales reps are liars because they keep making promises to customers that manufacturing can’t fulfill.

The best way to break down assumptions is to have people walk in each other’s shoes and see through each other’s eyes. “Parachuting” a team member into another department (or location) for a day builds a deeper understanding of what goes on in that department and the challenges that people face. Just as important, it builds rapport, and it humanizes “them.” People spending a day together always find common points of interest.

Even more important is to leverage the experience by having the person who parachuted give a five-minute “Here’s what I learned” presentation to the rest of her team. Then capture quotes for the company newsletter. Here is what one field employee in the restoration industry had to say after parachuting:

I learned how important the Project Coordinator role is. Their work isn’t given enough credit; the field has no idea how important they are. Omar’s team really have their act together, and Jasmine is amazing at her job. Being a Project Manager isn’t as glamorous as field techs think, either. There is a lot of work behind the scenes; it’s not just schmoozing and golfing. And you have to be really good at time management to succeed.

Parachuting people across the spaces between the boxes goes a long way to breaking down “us-versus-them.”

2. Establish a Representative Team

It’s surprising how often SCI teams are made up exclusively of those designing the change without representation from those affected by the change. Always allow those affected to have a representative at the table. Not only do they need to feel heard, but they often have insights that can aid in the success of the SCI and help avoid what could cause it to fail.

Another situation that can benefit from a representative team is when an SCI touches more than one department, function, or location. An SCI to reduce customer complaints, for example, might have representatives from sales, operations, customer service, and technical support.

3. Create an Integrator Position

Sometimes it’s helpful to create a high-level “integrator” position, someone tasked with ensuring consistency across the spaces between the boxes. For example, a VP of the customer experience can help to ensure that customers receive a similar standard of service regardless of the department they’re dealing with. Such a standard might include setting a maximum call-wait time, providing a first name when engaging the customer, or making time-specific, follow-up commitments.

4. Handcuff People Together

If different functions need to collaborate to produce a desired outcome, then make it in their common interest to do so. Handcuff the functional heads together by tying part of their financial incentive to what they collectively achieve. If your SCI is to reduce the cycle time for construction projects, then 173a common incentive can drive collaboration and coordination between trades when it wouldn’t otherwise occur.

5. Spotlight the Space Between the Boxes

Make managing “the space between the boxes” a standing agenda item in your Strategic Leadership Team meetings. Identify gaps and friction points, and discuss ways to overcome them. Anticipate potential gaps and friction points, and discuss ways to prevent them. In either case, commit to specific, time-linked actions.


Are your facilities large enough and configured in a way that enable you to achieve your objectives? Can your equipment reliably produce a quality product at the speed required? Is your equipment durable enough to produce the volume required without excessive maintenance? Do your IT systems provide you with the capability to capture, analyze, and interpret the information needed to successfully execute your SCIs?

Facilities, equipment, systems—the right infrastructure is essential, just as the right processes, policies, and structure are, to successfully execute your SCIs.


Institute heroic processes. Put positive policies in place. Establish the right structure and manage the space between the boxes. Ensure you have the necessary infrastructure. Do all of it . . . and you could still fail. Because to be successful, your people have to believe that the processes, policies, structure, and infrastructure enable them to be successful.

What you do is not as important as what they experience. Is their experience aligned with your intentions?

•   Heroic efforts can be a trap—they’re not sustainable or scalable. Better to develop heroic processes.

•   Beware of policies that send mixed messages. Revise or eliminate them.

•   Proactively manage the space between the boxes on your org chart.

•   Ensure your facilities, equipment, and systems meet the requirements of your SCIs.

•   Validate everything you do from the perspective of your people.