Monthly Archives: July 2008


What price customer service?

I am on holiday this week so I thought I would just share with you a shortened account of a conversation I had last week.

I was having a breakfast meeting, in an hotel in Brussels, with a Bayard Associate when the conversation turned (again) to the incredible cost of employing staff in Belgium and the extortionate level of taxation and social security that has to be paid over and above the actual salary.

I commented to my breakfast companion that it is amazing how the major hotels (across the globe) seem to be getting away with employing illegal immigrants in a way that smaller companies could never do. His reply was:
“But Harley, speaking on behalf of the hotel, our hotel does not employ illegal immigrants; the staff you might be referring to are representatives of an international workforce who come to Brussels on an international training program, and all this to improve your level of enjoyment and comfort while staying with our hotel!”
“is that true?” I asked,
“No” he replied, “I just made it up”
“You could have fooled me”, I replied “it sounds just like the plausible nonsense that one might read in the hotel information brochure.”

So that’s it, no more illegal immigrant workers, from now on everyone is on international training programs, and why not? Who give’s a dam who does what and where? Most business people want a global economy and freedom to work and travel where they like.

I, for one, would like to see are more international training program employees, so that, when I am having breakfast in an hotel, I can simply place my breakfast order with a waitress (or waiter) who will then have the courtessy of briniging it to me at my table, without my having to wander around trying to find it for myself. Is this really too much to ask? In some four and five star hotels they do not even bother bringing tea and coffee to your table anymore!

I am fed up with having to do everything myself, ‘self banking’, self breakfast’, I just don’t see the point! Who benefits? I do not see any real evidence of reduced bank charges or hotel bills as a result? Go to a cheap Bed & Breakfast hotel in the UK and you will pay a fraction of the price of a four star hotel (often with exactly the same amenities) but have the added benefit of a really sumptuous breakfast, served at your table, by a friendly and sympathetic employee. If the only way giant hotel chains can do this is by employing a few extra Asian or East European trainees, then so much the better. I might even be tempted to learn to order breakfast in a few additional languages, to make the exchange of information a little more fun and reliable!

2016-11-17T08:25:48+00:001 Comment

Avoiding Disappointment

It is holiday weekend here in Belgium (today, Monday, is a national feast day to celebrate the formation of Belgium). Usually it is a day of pageantry; of kings and politicians. This year is special however; because after several failed attempts to form a government, Belgium’s national political structure is in crisis. As if to match the empty feeling of the political vacuum, the weather is cold and damp making even the most optimistic of people depressed.

In keeping with this national malaise, last night at a family BBQ (held indoors due to the treacherous weather) we discussed the variance age has on our outlook on life. Comparing how it is from the eyes of our elderly relatives to that of their children and their children’s children. The result was a general acceptance that even with old age there is still much room for optimism and making plans, busying ourselves with activities that give our lives meaning. (As John Lennon aptly put it “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans”).

However, I do not think that anyone has put it better than Mark Twain “'Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do”. With this wisdom, I have decided to enjoy my national feast day to the full, and not to slip back into completing business plans and dealing with unanswered e-mails. Today I am going to spend what little of it I have left, lazing around and achieving absolutely nothing.

Tomorrow the sun will shine, Godot will come, and I will be full of new energy ready to take on challenges that give my life meaning.

If you are reading this in a warm and sunny climate, in a country with a long and deep seated sense of history, with political stability and optimism, then I can understand if you think “what is Harley on about this week?” If not, I know you will not need any explanation of how bad weather can determine our prevailing mood?

Have a good week,


2016-11-17T08:25:48+00:000 Comments

Creativity in the workplace – who needs it?

What do successful leading edge technology and high end fashion apparel companies have in common? Answer: The need for creativity.

I need some help here because there is a difficult compromise that is hard to identify.

For both the above mentioned types of companies to perform, they need highly original designers to come up with stunning new ideas year in, year out. They also need extremely creative marketing people to find new ways of targeting and attracting their public. The problem is that by encouraging highly creative working environments, the net result can be that everyone ends up trying to be creative and having their own say, even on matters that are obviously way outside their area of expertise and responsibility.

In the good old days companies used to have an ‘ideas box’. (This was usually strategically placed by the exit to the canteen). The assumption was that during the lunch break, employees would eagerly discuss business opportunities and exciting new ideas would be materialize. The employees would then scribble them down on a napkin and, as if by magic, wonderful things would emerge such as: a whole new product range, or, a new way to assess staff performance that everyone would agree with and support.

In reality, after three months, the only thing you were likely to find in the ideas box would be a very old sandwich, a cigarette butt and, just possibly, a badly written request for a longer lunch break!

When I punch in an equation into my desktop calculator, I do not want it to be creative, so why is it that we encourage all our staff to think and behave in this way? Being ‘creative’ (= questioning the way our bosses and colleagues in other departments do their work) is obviously more fun than carrying out the tasks we are expected to perform to justify our take home pay. But I see it far too often. In some companies 'creativity' is like a contagious disease. So much so, that they become extremely inefficient.

After listening to 'creative' ideas we far too often feel depressed, simply because even in the unlikely event that the idea might be a good one, we instinctively know that it has no chance in hell in getting through.

I gave a training course last week on assigning tasks to people. The course also included modules on ‘finding peoples’ hidden agendas’ and ‘motivation’. What came to the surface is that a good manager needs to be extremely creative in the way they motivate people to take on and execute tasks, especially tasks that come in as extras on top of their normal workload.

As an interim manager, I make it my duty to realize genuine improvements, no matter who suggested them, and I do this by finding ways of empowering people to make a difference to the environment they find themselves in. However, I firmly believe that for a company to become really succesful, every manager should be encouraged to focus their creative energies on motivating others to do what they are best at (this sadly, too often, has very little to do with the job they currently have). In this way, companies become far more efficient and much more fun places to be in. We all know that when we are motivated to deliver, the hours fly by and we find more time to laugh and be creative in the way we solve the problems confronting us.

Most companies start out with good intentions by promoting creativity in the work place, but often end up in a negative spiral of criticism and general apathy. One of the secrets of good management is to listen to others and be receptive for new ideas, but listening is not the same as encouraging the moaning of wise amateurs that have no intent of trying influence real change. You can detect these people easily because they normally come out with statements like “If I were running that department, I would… (the word ‘would’ is usually followed with a radical idea that has obviously not been thought through, such as:’ fire half the staff and send the other half off for re-habilitation’, or ‘show them that financial control is not about knowing the numbers’).

Have a good week!


2008-07-11T16:00:00+00:000 Comments

” Why? ” Is the most important question

In the past few weeks I have been surrounded by a bunch of people all wanting to implement change projects. This, in itself, is not unusual because I am currently the Change Manager for an international client with its eyes set on improvement. However what is surprising me is that many of the young managers are not asking the most basic of questions. ‘Why’

Here’s the scenario, they start off by coming to me with a problem, typically something like this:
“Jane in Purchasing won’t take me seriously”
“And why is that?” I ask
“Because she’s too busy” is the reply.
(It’s at this point that I put on my two year old questioning head, simply repeating one word: Why?)
“And why is she too busy?”
“Because she’s got too much work”
“and Why has she got too much work?”
“Because she can’t say no, I guess”
“And why can she not say no?” I continue.

This line of questioning continues for a few more minutes until my enquirer begins to get irritated by the level of detail, but the result is something like this:

“OK, so you have a problem. You are going to Jane for help, knowing that she is overworked and stressed out. You know that she is someone that can not say no to management, that she is not as efficient as she could be and her workload simply makes it worse. You are getting frustrated because she will not set aside some time for you to consider seriously a proposal you want to make to her, the result of which she fears is going to give her even more work? And you are junior to her?” - And you want me to solve this?’

“Yes’ is his reply…

I think for a minute. The one thing I am missing is, what is the change being proposed? After some lengthy explanation, which nearly sends me to sleep, trying to follow the complexity of it, I interrupt and recommence with my ‘why’ questioning.

“But why do you want to improve the efficiency of the purchasing process?”
“Why do you want to speed up decision making?”
“Why do you want to etc.…”

The end result is that after the in depth questioning, my enquirer understands that the result of the proposed change is in fact that there could be a significant reduction in unnecessary company overhead costs and what’s more without too much risk and fuss. I then ask him who else in the organization would be interested in the savings, and then he understands what I have been driving at the whole time.

In change management it is essential to understand exactly what the objective is of a proposed change, not at the implementation level but at one level below increasing shareholder value. Once you know this, you simply need to use your findings as the angle to draw attention to your crusade.


Purchasing process improvement Objective (as announced to senior management):
‘I want to reduce 0,5MEUR unnecessary company expenditure off the overhead budget per year.’
This can be achieved by xyz…
Additional benefits are: improved company / supplier relationships, better deployment of employee resources, lower carbon emission footprint.

All this is not magic, it’s simply having the strength to ask the most important, yet, irritating question of all, ‘Why?’

2016-11-17T08:25:48+00:000 Comments