I never heard from Art and Sean again that day. I passed by the break room a while later, but they weren’t there. I didn’t even want to imagine where they had wandered, or what was amusing them. It was past my normal quitting time, so I did a habitual end of the day quick check of my calendar for tomorrow, before shutting everything down. It was a good thing I did.
Sergiu had sent a meeting invitation for first thing in the morning in his office with Art and me, to get an update on our progress. When you are on a performance improvement plan, failing at something like orienting a new employee…something that everyone else would imagine to be easy enough for a child to do it…you have absolutely no right to expect anything other than immediate termination. If Art gave him an honest account of what happened today, and Sergiu saw how Art had no respect for me, or my work, I’dbe out the door with a box of my personal effects before lunch. Despite my good intentions and best efforts, I was failing in my assignment from Sergiu. Maybe I didn’t have what it took to do this job after all.
For a moment I thought about gathering up my effects now, and stashing them in the trunk of my car, just in case. That way I wouldn’t have to do the “box walk of failure” past everyone tomorrow. Right now, I didn’t care. I was too mentally exhausted from trying to wrestle Art into line. It was like having two Seans at the same time.
As I walked through the parking lot, I tried to draw some satisfaction that I had made it through another day. Tomorrow was another opportunity to get things back under control and moving forward. It was the most positive thing I could think of.
When I got to my car, I realized one of my tires was flat.
I opened the trunk and pulled out the spare. I jerked it free and let it fall to the ground. It landed with a thud and no bounce. It was flat too. That was my fault. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d checked it, but knowing that didn’t make me feel any better. I just hoped my cell phone had enough battery left in it for me to call for a tow.
I ran a red light on my way to work the next morning. The only thing that kept me from getting a ticket was that the cop already had someone pulled over, so he wasn’t paying attention. After getting a tow and a repair last night, I hadn’t gotten home until late, but I’d spend a lot of hours putting together a presentation for Sergiu, identifying the areas that I’d already covered with Art, and my plans going forward. It was a good plan…very comprehensive and very appropriate for a new employee. It seemed like the best defense to my failures of the previous day,and was a good offense identifying what I was planning to do in the future.
I was still confused about what they had been saying yesterday. The whole idea of a strategy for a KPI seemed like a lot of nonsense work. Anyone could see what needed to be measured, and with the predefined list of measures from SMT, it struck me as being nothing more than a waste of time.
When I reached my cube, the message light was flashing on my phone. I hesitated, and checked the time. I didn’t want to be late for my meeting with Sergiu, but at the same time the call might be important and would only take a minute.
I dialed in the voicemail and was surprised when I heard Sergiu’s voice telling me our meeting had been postponed, and that I was to join Art at the service desk facility for a meeting with Molly, because this was the only time she had available. He wanted me to get Art introduced and oriented with Molly, to ensure we were all on the same page. It was more checking on my PIP failings about not working well with others.
I quickly walked back to the parking lot. This was a terrible sign. Not only had I failed to get Art through very much yesterday, I now had my boss arranging my day for me. It seemed as if there was nothing I could do on my own.
I walked into the lobby of the service desk facility. Art was sitting in a chair up against the one wall, writing in a notebook. It looked like he was using that same pen he’d stirred his coffee with yesterday. He’d pulled the chair beside him around in front of his chair, and was using it as a flat surface to hold his folders and notebooks. Rearranging the furniture in the building lobby was not something one did at this company. Art needed to be careful, or he would get bounced out before my PIP was over. For an instant I wondered if that might not be a good idea. If only I could write a PIP about him, as Lee had done to me.
At Art’s feet were stacked three empty, disposable coffee cups and one half-full one. I almost laughed when I saw the poster behind him on the wall. It was a recycle-reuse message which was part of one of the major company initiatives to be more environmentally responsible this year.
“Art, glad to see you. How are you doing”?
“How did you find the service desk building, given that it is only your second day here and the building is unmarked”?
He unfolded a paper napkin with a drawing on it, and held it up for me to see. “Sean gave me directions after we talked with Sergiu and Jessica last night. Well, that’s not really true. Sean was there with me having a beer, but it was my call and conversation.”
“Last night? When”?
“Sometime after you went home. We would have asked you to come with us, but it seems you went home before everyone else. Not a good thing to do when you are on a PIP would be my advice. I called Sergiu at home last night to give him a quick update, so we wouldn’t need to waste time meeting today. While we were on the phone, Jessica called Sergiu, and when she found out what we were talking about, Sergiu just conferenced her in. No sense in adding another layer to the communication. It just wastes time.”
I stood in front of Art, totally stunned. This just wasn’t done…especially not on your first day at work. How was he getting away with this? If I even tried that kind of behavior, I’d get fired. What kind of feedback had he given Sergiu and Jessica? Had he told them what really went on, and how little we accomplished? I’d never even gotten to present my own defense.
Art scowled at me and said, “Relax. I’ve never seen anyone so in fear for their job before. If Sergiu or Jessica had been so upset about what I said that they wanted to fire you immediately, don’t you think they would have had HR and security cut you off at your cube this morning”?
Art was right …again…as usual. I was really beginning to hate him for that.
Before I could say anything in response, the doorway from the lobby into the facility slammed open, and Molly came running out.
She looked at me and then turned to Art, “You’re both here, good. Are you ready to…”?
Molly froze for an instant, and all the energy seemed to flow out of her, as if she saw something about Art she hadn’t expected.
I pointed to Art and said, “Hi Molly. Good to see you again.” I gestured toward Art and said, “I’d like you to meet…”
She cut me off and extended her hand. “Art, yes I know. We’ve met before.”
Art’s expression never changed. “Good to see you again, Molly. Hope you are doing well.”
In an instant, it was over, and Molly was back to her normal, perky self. “Then let’s go get started.”
The heavy soundproofing was evident when Molly closed the door to her office, and the incessant din from the service representatives disappeared. I reveled in the soundproofed quiet of Molly’s office for a moment, while standing in front of a wall of glass, and watching the rows of representatives appear to silently field customer calls. Directly opposite her desk was a wall of monitors giving real-time updates in charts, and the number of calls in queue, abandoned call rates, average call time, and a number of other key performance indicators for the day, the week and the month. That was why we were here.
Without waiting to be invited, Art sat down in a chair directly in front of Molly’s desk, and rearranged some of the things on her desk, so he could lay out his notebook and folders. Molly frowned, but Art didn’t seem to pick up on it. If he did, he chose to ignore it.
“I’m so glad you could adjust your schedules and meet me now,” said Molly. “I really appreciate your flexibility.”
“Thanks,” I said. “We’re here so we can get introduced and understand what we are trying to accomplish, and how the service desk can be an example for other organizations to model in the development of KPIs. I really appreciate your…”
Art cut me off. “Actually, we’re here to take a look at your measures…your metrics, and determine the alignment with those in the SMT tool, and those that are also useful to the company. Then we will know where you need to make adjustments.”
Art was definitely not subtle, and he was definitely abrasively offensive.
“I’m happy to go through any of our KPIs with you,” said Molly, ignoring Art’s denigrating comments. She quickly called up historical trending charts and data onto the monitors on her walls, replacing the real-time measures currently displayed.
Satisfied she had the right elements displayed; Molly got up from behind her desk and walked to the monitors. Molly seemed to be more comfortable…more confident, when she was up and moving, as if sitting behind a desk were a prison for her. She pointed to the first monitor and began to explain it to us. It displayed a series of three dimensional ribbon charts for each of 10 measures over the last few months, on a week by week basis, against their performance expectations. The numerical values for each measure were contained in a large data grid, directly under the graphs. Each value in the grid was color coded based on its value. It was almost overwhelming in its thoroughness.
“Each data point on this chart represents one week’s results in meeting our performance standards. Measures that exceeded performance commitments by at least 10% are green. Measures that merely met the performance commitments are yellow, and those that failed to meet their commitments are in red. As you can see from this historical chart, our performance in each of the 10most important measures has exceeded our commitments, every week, by at least 10%. In fact, the performance of this team has not only exceeded our commitments, it has remained consistent over the entire time-frame. I’m very proud of our team.”
“That’s very impressive,” I said. “Can you please tell us what is on the…”?
Art interrupted. “Before we move on to other areas and start handing out awards, I have some questions. I’ve got three comments about the mechanics of the charts. First, they are practically illegible because of all the chart junk on them. Drop that 3D effect. It has no place in business. Save it for the movies. Second, decide if you want a data table of numbers or a chart. You don’t need both. And third, don’t just show me lines or numbers. Show me conclusions and recommendations. What actions should I take based on these results? It doesn’t matter whether you are a C-level executive or a line supervisor, no one can get anything useful from this chart other than as a piece of abstract art.”
Molly’s attitude never seemed to change. She remained positive and upbeat despite Art’s attack.
She smiled at Art and said, “I know you just arrived here, Art. I also know that you are very intelligent and experienced, so you will understand why this company places a priority on using the tools and reports from the SMT system without customization. I’m sure you’ve seen the chaos that results when you do otherwise; how it becomes impossible to upgrade, and ultimately you spend more of your time trying to keep the system from crashing, rather than using it to provide information for decision makers.”
Gesturing at the charts displayed on the monitors, Molly added, “These are part of the standard report set that comes with the SMT tool. Is it perfect? Of course not. Nothing ever is. However, it does provide information for people that prefer to look at data this way, versus a written summary. More importantly, it is what the service desk teams are now accustomed to. The disruptive effect on our users of changing their behavior for some cosmetic alterations in how a chart is presented, is simply not worth it at this time. You know that. You know there are more important issues in play here now.”
Art dismissed her comment with a wave of his hand. “It is your area to manage, Molly. Do whatever you want. Just understand that I am trying to help you with some perspective and suggestion. Better for me to point out the wasting of resources on activities that add no value, than to have leadership do the same. You know how that would look. Regardless, can you simply show us what you think your KPIs are, and what their values have been”? With a slightly sarcastic tilt to his voice, he added, “Can you possibly do that without violating that questionable rule about customization”?
“Not a problem,” said Molly, still not showing any response to Art and his aggressive approach. “Just give me a minute to whip up an ad hoc report especially for you. I must reiterate that there is a great deal of evidence that not customizing is the best path in the long run.”
A legible data table appeared on the monitor. Every KPI measure exceeded its goal by at least 10%. It appeared that there had never been a yellow warning, much less a service breach, over the entire measured timeframe. There was nothing of note, except rows of green numbers for each of the measures. As Molly paged through the 27 different measures, very little changed.
Finally, Molly brought us back at the first screen. Without looking up, she said, “These are some of the most important metrics to running a good service desk for your users, which is why it is at the beginning. It has tried and true measures like mean time to answer, and percentage of calls to abandoned; measures that virtually every service desk uses, and you will note that we are over-performing in every case.”
Molly gestured out through the glass wall to the rows of desks and service representatives responding to user calls, and said, “I’d stack this service desk team up against any I’ve ever worked with. Look at that performance. Have you ever seen a service desk team…”?
I jumped in. Art was not going to run this show as he did yesterday. “Art, these charts show how the service desk is doing a great job and we should be…”
Art cut me off. “We should be concerned that the measures have been solidly green for so long.”
“What’s wrong with green? Don’t you want to see success”? I asked.
“I want success more than you can know,” said Art. “But more than that, I want reality. If this team has never had to adjust to reality at any time, it tells me something will be out of alignment, and will have been that way for some time. Unfortunately, because it’s been invisible to us, we’ve only let it get worse, and eventually it will fail in a big way…in a way that will hurt our users.”
“What”? snapped Molly. “You think it’s good if my team fails? Are you crazy”?
Art shook his head. “No, not crazy. Just try to help them succeed…really succeed, not just track a number. And succeed in a way that doesn’t waste company resources, and gives users what they want.”
Molly said nothing, but she was clearly upset, too angry to say anything. It looked like Art had finally found her weak spot.
“Thank you,” said Molly, as Art collected his notebook and materials. It had been a brutal hour, with Art attacking Molly’s team and performance measures at every junction, while Molly reacted as the consummate professional. She refused to respond in kind, merely nodding at his assertions, and continuing to present her team in the best light possible.
Art and I stood up together. Without waiting for me, he headed out. He had just opened the door when Molly said, “Chris, will you stay behind for a few minutes, I want to follow up with you on that other project we were working on. I can get someone to help Art find his way back to the lobby.”
“I hardly need someone to help me with something so trivial,” said Art. “Chris and I came in separate cars, and I am capable of traveling on my own. I have too much to do. Unless of course, Chris feels the need for assistance in finding his way back home.”
Molly spoke up before I could. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Chris finds his way out.”
Without even a goodbye, Art left and closed the door behind him.
Molly and I stood silently for a moment before I said, “What project are you talking about. I don’t know anything about another project”?
“There is no other project,” said Molly. “I needed to talk to you without Art.”
“You seem like a good person who has the best interest of the company, its employees, and its customers at heart. That’s why you should know that I have worked with companies before at the same time Art was there, and I think that you should be very wary of him.”
“What do you mean? Sure he is annoying, but so are lots of people.”
“He’s a new employee. Sergiu asked me to help orient him as part of my PIP.”
Molly shook her head. “I think you were lied to by omission. As far as I know, Art is a consultant, not an employee.”
“What? I’ll have to check with Sergiu and Art when I get back to the main building.”
“I wouldn’t advise that,” she said. “If Art hasn’t told you, he doesn’t want you to know. The fact that Sergiu hasn’t told you, suggests they are in league together. You are on a PIP, so if they suspect you are on to them, you may be out of here immediately.”
“Then what do you suggest I do”?
“Do what you’ve been asked. Work your way off the PIP. Just know that things are not as they seem. Your job, and the jobs of many others at your company, may be at risk. I can’t tell you more at the risk of my own situation. If my employer found out, I’d be fired. We are not supposed to do anything that could jeopardize the successful conclusion of our business arrangement with your company.”
“I don’t understand.”
Molly walked over to the door. She opened it, and the cacophony from all those service representatives taking calls filled the room.
I walked to the door. Standing in the doorway with me, Molly said, “Just be careful, and find out why he is here. Don’t let ignorance blind you. That’s all I will say.”
As her door closed behind me and I headed back to the lobby, I wondered if there was any truth to her comments, or if she wasjust upset at the way he attacked her team’s results. And if she were correct, what did that mean about the tasks Sergiu was giving me?
Tips that would have helped Chris
KPIs need a purpose
KPIs are tracked for many reasons. Unfortunately, very few of them are tracked for the right reason. KPIs are not just about reporting a number. They are about measuring progress towards an objective, via the critical success factors necessary to make it happen.
Whispers are dangerous
When a person takes you into their confidence for the purpose of warning you that someone you are working with is not to be trusted, it creates a challenging situation. You need to ask yourself why they are sharing this with you. It may be because they are trying to help you. It may be because they are working an unrelated agenda involving that person. Or it may even be to damage you professionally. While it is appropriate to be appreciative and gracious about the extension of trust, make sure you consider all the possibilities before you act. Remember the con artist. They will always extend you their trust first. They know that you do not get trust unless you give trust.
Some people think they can manage initiatives by controlling all lines of communication, so they try to manage what is said and to whom. In practice, this is impossible to accomplish. For example, others may talk to your manager about you, and about your work, or your manager may talk to them about the same things; all outside of your presence and awareness. You cannot control those dialogues, so don’t try. Run your initiative transparently, so that there will be no content in those conversations that you have not already shared with the relevant parties. Knowledge is like water. It wants to be free. You can hinder its path, but in the end, it will become free. Rather than trying to prevent it, embrace it. Use it to your advantage, and build a reputation as an honest, straightforward practitioner who keeps people informed, and doesn’t try to hide things.