When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Do Maintenance
The loose seats reportedly found on American Airlines planes are rattling around in my mind. American Airlines is already in bankruptcy, but it looks like more turbulent times are ahead. The two things no business should ever neglect are the customer experience and workplace quality. In the loose seats episode, American messed up both in one highly visible act of neglect.
Much has been written about customer moments of truth or boss-employee interactions that set the tone, but relatively little has been said about employees' physical environment, which is more permanent, harder to alter, and in people's faces constantly. Failing to keep it in tip-top shape is a powerful visual signal to customers, but also to employees.
Maintaining a high-quality physical environment is central to employee motivation and performance. The physical environment surrounds them from the moment they arrive at work to the moment they leave. Everything about it signifies how much the organization cares. One large company that was trying to cut costs let trash accumulate and supplies run out in the rest rooms while peeling paint dotted the walls, thereby reminding people several times a day that their needs came last. To financially-oriented top management, such cuts are prudent. To customers and workers, they are daily insults.
When the going gets tough, the tough should do maintenance.
Maintenance is never as exciting as new investment. Repairing roads and bridges might be necessary, but the very mention of infrastructure provokes yawns. Spending big money to end up with pretty much the same thing afterwards doesn't whip up taxpayer support. It's easier to let things crumble until there's an outcry. This happens in all realms. A friend of mine sells the family house and moves rather than invest in maintenance. She'd rather abandon the old house and buy a new one where at least the money gets her something fresh. Companies are governed by the same impulse when they prefer to make acquisitions rather than refurbish existing business units, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy when the neglected businesses start to under-perform.
But that reasoning is wrong. It would be wrong even if we were willing to tolerate a landscape littered with failing businesses and run-down neighborhoods. My research has shown that neglecting the physical environment and failing to invest in upkeep is one sign of a downward spiral, the start of a losing streak. Let a little bit slip, and you're on a slippery slope.
Turnarounds — and avoiding the need for them — often begin with fixing the loose seats. As the broken windows theory suggests, sprucing up the physical surroundings can encourage better behavior from everyone. When broken windows were fixed in New York City, other aspects of the bricks and mortar were better maintained, and crime rates declined (though there might have been multiple causes). Professional sports franchises that have deteriorated have begun their comeback with better player training facilities and new or improved stadiums. A public school district went from last in its state to a leader in technology and student performance by first asking teachers for their wish lists. Improving the school building in appearance and amenities was at the top of the list, and making those investments initiated the turnaround. A similar thing happened at the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) a decade ago when its audiences were eroding. Groups of employees brainstormed about action steps, but first they wanted to fix up their own studios and offices. The BBC example is particularly interesting because its product is virtual; customers were never meant to see the facilities. But once refurbished, BBC units hosted regular open houses for the public, which built goodwill and increased audiences.
Economic times are tough around the world. The winners will be the ones that don't use tough times as an excuse to neglect maintenance. By keeping everything well-repaired and upgraded, they will be ready to soar when the economy takes off.