Change the People or Change the Job

If the service you’re delivering is disappointing—if it’s average or spotty in a model you assumed would produce reliable excellence—a common explanation is a mismatch between your employees and the jobs you’ve tasked them to do. Sound at all familiar? If so, we advise companies to first try to get a sense of the size of the employee-job gap.

First: Go undercover. Get out of the politicized back office, and go see what’s happening on the front lines of your organization. A hidden identity isn’t easy to pull off in most companies, but the next best thing is almost as effective: Talk frankly with your people about their experience on the job, what makes it easy or hard, and how their roles have changed over time. Watch them in action. Try to do an average employee’s job for a day, and see how you fare. Take a seat at your call center, and try to respond to eight screens of information at once. We recommend spending the equivalent of at least two days on this exercise, gathering data from a range of perspectives. Most executives will discover some level of mismatch between employees and jobs, and will be able to determine whether it’s a serious threat to the service experience.

When a company identifies a gap between its people and the jobs they’re doing, it essentially has two choices: reduce operational complexity or increase employee sophistication. Said differently, change the people or change the job. On the people side, the two levers you have are selection and training. Selection might work in a high-turnover business, but it’s usually a daunting solution for any other organization. Most organizations lack the time, ruthlessness, or resources to swap out their employees. Training is an option, but there’s a risk of underestimating—often dramatically—how much of it is required. Overcoming a large skill gap requires a substantial amount of investment and management attention. A two-day training seminar won’t turn a flight attendant into a pilot.

So what do you do?

The goal is to get a closer match between employee sophistication and operational complexity. Go as far as you can on the people front, and then address system complexity. You can address complexity either by decreasing it outright or by decreasing the amount of complexity experienced by each employee. For the latter, it may be possible to more thoughtfully break up who does what—break down a job into smaller tasks and assign them to specialized employees.

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