The broken radio at Duane Reade

I first noticed it a few months ago when I stopped in for some medicine. Something was wrong with the music in the store. It sounded like a staticky radio playing on a blown speaker. How annoying, I thought to myself. (Duane Reade, for those of you who don’t already see one every few blocks in NYC, is a part of a drugstore chain with 400,000 employees and $117 billion in revenue.)

A few weeks later, I was there again, and so was the same radio. Surprised that they hadn’t fixed it already, I asked the cashier if there was something she could do about it.

“I wish I could!” she said. “Isn’t it terrible? Customers complain about it, but there’s nothing we can do.” Another customer chimed in, “Yeah, it’s awful.”

Over the following few weeks, whenever I returned to the store, there were different employees and we had similar discussions about the radio. They were all nice and helpful - and frustrated.

A different approach: Fixing anything, anywhere in NYC

It just so happened that I had very different but related experience in my neighborhood when I noticed a stop sign was missing at an intersection near our local park. 

In this case, there was no helpful cashier to talk to about the problem, but there was something even better: 311. When I noticed the missing stop sign, I opened the app on my phone and reported it, including the exact location and a photo. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I got a reply within three days that the problem had already been investigated.

Service Request #: C1-1-1373798521
Date Submitted: 02/28/17 12:36:48 PM
Request Type: Street Sign - Missing
Details: Stop
The Department of Transportation inspected the condition and opened a repair order. Repairs of this type are corrected within 14 days.

Four days later, I got another mail that the problem was resolved. Still doubtful, I walked outside to see for myself, and there was a shiny new stop sign.

A simple way to fix the radio

My point isn’t to criticize Duane Reade management. They handle complicated supply-chain logistics and pharmaceutical regulations at a scale I can’t even imagine. Yet despite that sophistication, they’ve missed one of the best ways to improve their company and the customer experience: Give employees a voice.

I noticed this all-too-common situation five years ago when I was still working in a big company, and saw how customers often have more of a voice than employees.

“When something doesn’t work at home, you might complain on Twitter or use your smartphone to report the problem. Or you’ll search for a solution on-line and fix the problem yourself.
But what do you do at work? Probably nothing.”

Even back then, a simple solution was available. We let employees post a problem on our new enterprise social network so that anyone could share customer feedback or report an issue, and others employees could respond with related incidents and solutions. That would accelerate improvements, and make visible to management problems they might never be aware of otherwise. It was empowering.

The cashier at Duane Reade suggested I fill out the customer survey that's printed on every receipt, somewhat ironically named I had seen it many times before, and this time I filled it out.

What about your own organization? If you had the equivalent of a broken radio, what could your employees say or do about it? Do they even have a voice?


Changing habits: a personal experiment

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching how to change habits at work. (I captured some of those ideas here, here, and here.) But before I can change the habits of an entire company, I need to do some experiments and some fieldwork.  So I decided to start with a small set of volunteers: me.

Since I’ve already changed my work habits, I focused on 4 changes I’ve been wanting to make for years:

  • eating less meat
  • drinking less alcohol
  • yelling less at my 2-year old son, Hudson
  • exercising more regularly

Here’s what happened and how it applies to work.

2 common themes in the research 

Six different books on changing behavior - “Switch”, “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way”, “Power of Habit”, “The Progress Principle”, “This year I will...”, “Nudge” - all emphasize breaking down a desired change into small, achievable goals and making progress towards those goals very visible.

These simple ideas sound obvious, but I’ve overlooked them. Big, abstract goals - whether it’s “eating less meat” or “reducing service costs” - invoke fear in our change-averse brains.

It takes too much energy and attention to translate such goals into action, and so we simply go back to our more comfortable, unthinking habits.

The notebook

Inspired in particular by “Kaizen”, I took my 4 goals and turned them into more specific, achievable objectives:

“I won’t eat meat for 4 days a week.” 

“I won’t drink alcohol for 5 days a week.” 

“I won’t yell at little Hudson 4 days a week.” 

“I will exercise 3 days a week.” 

And I bought a notebook.

Each day, I write down what I eat and drink and, at the end of the day, I give myself a point for doing something towards each one of my goals. I also track progress towards my weekly goal.

If I meet my goals for a month, I’ll reward myself with a particular piece of jewelry I’ve admired to commemorate the change.

The results

What I’ve found is that specific, achievable goals combined with a simple tracking and rewards system made a big difference for me.

For example, I’ve wanted to eat less meat ever since reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma” years ago, but “becoming a vegetarian” was daunting. Yet I knew I could avoid meat for one day and starting there relieved my apprehension. I also found myself wanting that point each day.

This little process - it’s almost a game - simply makes me more aware of my choices. My food choices, for example, went from unthinking (“I’ll have a burger.”) to conscious (“Hmmm. I’m behind on my goal this week, so I’ll be sure to ask for vegetarian options.”)

For the 3 goals that required on-the-spot decisions - what to eat, drink, or say - the greater awareness made a big difference and I was able to easily meet or exceed my goals by the second week. As time went by, I started to visit new places, started to get used to different options, and started to develop new habits.

Exercise, though, required something more. Since it involved a specific amount of time, it required planning in addition to a decision. And without that, I fell short of my goal for several weeks and learned I'll need to make adjustments to my system.

Experimenting at work

It’s nice that I feel healthier and happier. And little Hudson is certainly pleased with my experiment. But what about work?

The connection is that changing work habits - how we fill our days with meetings, how we run those meetings, how we spend our time processing email - will also require the same elements I've used: simple steps towards a goal that matters, greater awareness, visible progress, and rewards.

The next step is to plan small experiments at work that include all these elements with the hope is that we can create a concerted, comprehensive approach to changing habits at work. If we can do that, we can finally get rid of the practices we all know are wasteful and that sap time, energy, and fulfillment from our jobs.

What to do in the face of “We tried that and it didn’t work.”

Maybe your original idea wasn’t so great. Or maybe it was.

Often, the failure isn’t a fault with the idea, but with the incentives and feedback mechanisms you implemented.

Maybe you should try again.

The story of “Charity Flights”

A former colleague told me about a great idea he had:

“What if people at work could choose to fly coach instead of business class and a portion of the savings went to a good cause?”

We did some quick arithmetic:

  • Say, on average, that coach is 75% cheaper than business class.
  • Assume 5% of business class travelers opt for the cheaper fare.
  • Split the savings 50/50 between charity and the firm.

In a large firm, the cost of business travel can easily exceed $100 million. So, even if only a small percentage of travelers choose to fly a cheaper class, that could mean $2 million for the firm and $2 million for charity.

That’s enough to give clean drinking water for life (for example) to 80,000 people in just the first year. Or 400,000 people in 5 years.

I was excited. But when I talked to corporate travel experts, they sighed.

“It’s a nice idea. But we tried it before - several times - and it didn’t work.”

3 problems 

I was shocked. Asking people to give up the comfort of business class is no small thing, but I thought doing so 1 of every 20 times was a conservative goal.

Yet the travel administrators had hard evidence I was wrong.

“We did a lot of work to make it happen but nobody chose to fly coach. After a while, we discontinued it for lack of interest.”

The problem wasn’t the travel processes or administration. Or that people were generally donating less. Rather, after carefully reviewing the earlier attempts to implement Charity Flights, we identified 3 main problems:

  1. There wasn't enough reason to care. There wasn’t a strong enough emotional component to the campaign. Instead of focusing on a specific cause, we let employees choose their charity. That diluted the impact and wasn’t enough to compel people to change behavior.
  2. There was too little benefit for the employee. All they had was a brief moment of feeling good about their choice compared to hours of discomfort. There was no recognition of what they did or any way to share their action with others.
  3. There was no feedback. A check was sent to a charity a few weeks later but employees never knew what happened to the money or whether it really made any difference.

A better way

Links to a post on driving enterprise change in a scalable way

All around us, we see so many examples of people giving and driving change. “The Dragonfly Effect” describes numerous case studies and provides an overall framework for programs like Charity Flights. Efforts from Alex’s Lemonade Stand to Kiva to charity:water are all successfully connecting people to drive change.

With Charity Flights, we had a good idea and we failed. But we’ll learn from our failures - and from the successful programs - and we’ll try again.

  • We’ll focus our efforts on just 1 or 2 specific causes so we concentrate our message and have a bigger impact.
  • We’ll tell more stories and use more video so people can feel the need to change.
  • We’ll recognize people’s actions on their corporate profiles and use social platforms to share what they’re doing.
  • We’ll make the impact visible. Employees will visit people and places being helped and record their stories so everyone can see the effects of their actions.

We’ll try again. And we’ll make a difference.