I pulled into the leafy campus of a large San Francisco Bay Area company and reached the parking lot of Building D. I noticed how well marked and expansive the lot was but found it strange, as I looked for a parking spot, to see cars and motorcycles parked in non-marked and red-curbed spaces. All the visitor parking spots were taken but I found plenty of empty spaces at the back of the lot. I struggled to reach the front entrance due to the line of delivery trucks that were parked in the no-parking zone even though the building loading dock was empty and only a short distance from the main entrance. I thought to myself why have marked, defined parking parameters if people are just going to park wherever they want?
It turns out that this blue-chip company was suffering through a difficult period. In the past year there had been several quality and production problems that had became public knowledge and many internal growth projects were running behind schedule. The Executive Team spent much of their time putting out fires. One manager said to me that, “something was missing in the organization.” I offered the word, “discipline,” which I could see struck a nerve. When asked how I had reached this conclusion, I said that, “I could see it from your parking lot.”
Discipline in the workplace is a unpopular concept. Just thinking about it brings memories of tyrannical bosses, maniacal HR managers, and hierarchical silo structures that control the workplace through an expansive list of cold, ironclad rules all listed in a black covered manual called Corporate Policies and Guidelines. Discipline is old school – big time.
Today we monitor and control ourselves. Employees expect freedoms that help promote creativity and spontaneity. Discipline and the act of disciplining a worker is left for extreme situations when the company has few choices. We encourage people to change bad behaviors, even coach them on good practices – but disciplining them for negative actions – it rarely happens.
But, what happens when it goes too far? What if the attention to detail is lost by the workforce? What happens when the employees no longer have fear that their actions have consequences? And, if this happens, how do you take back control?
Whether we like it or not, discipline starts with a set of documented rules based on the values of the company. These rules are non-negotiable and result in immediate consequences. They include:
- Safety and security
- Respect and behavior towards co-workers
- Service to customers (internal and external)
- Standards of quality
- Attention to procedural details
For these rules there are no compromises. The company posts these rules, reviews them with employees, and clearly defines the consequences that they bring. I like to see leaders re-enforce these rules continuously at town hall meetings, team meetings, sales meetings, and during performance reviews.
What’s important is that the rules are consistently applied and visible to all. The rules must be clear and free of ambiguity. And management must live these rules. A senior leader that parks improperly in the employee lot, sends a message to everyone else that this behavior is acceptable (which it is not). The message must be clear – everyone in an organization is required to follow these rules or face the consequences.
The application of these rules can be handled as part of the development or learning process. Talking about them does not always have to be confrontational. I have often closed the door and discussed with others the negative impact of their actions (like being uncooperative, or disrespectful), to try to get them to see what effect their actions have on others. If this does not work, then I quickly move through the formal, documented disciplinary process (together with HR), that can ultimately lead to dismissal.
In the end, the workers of an organization have to take ownership of their behaviors and their commitment to excellence. Leaders of a company have to create the vision and values of the firm, set the expectations and define the non-negotiable rules of behaviors and performance. They also have to monitor compliance rigorously and deal with non-conformity quickly following a defined process.
The company I met with will be ok. There are some smart leaders in the organization who realize that to move forward they need to step back and re-define internal standards of excellence, performance and discipline.
I told them that in 60 days I will visit their parking lot again – let’s hope it reflects the positive changes that we discussed!