Thursday, February 28, 2008

Following Directions

Somewhere in grade school, I remember an exercise. We were handed a sheet of paper and told to place it face down on our desks. We were told that this was a very important test and that we shouldn't look at the paper until instructed. We were told that we had five minutes to follow all of the instructions on the page. The teacher then told us to begin. Papers turned over and everyone looked at a very long list of instructions. The directions at the top of the page told us to read all of the instructions before doing anything else. I recall immediately setting about completing the instructions as I read them. There was furious writing and dead silence as we all struggled to get through all the directions. You could hear the seconds ticking away. About four minutes into the exercise, there was nervous laughter, which seemed to build. I recall being heads down and thinking that it was crazy that anyone would want to be joking around. I had a lot of directions to follow yet!. How could anyone be finished?

The teacher told us, "Pencils down!" and the laughter was suddenly very loud in the classroom. Half of us were looking around trying to get the joke. The teacher said, "Read question 50." This was the last item on the page. Question 50 said, "Write your name on the paper and do nothing else." Ever stood in front of the stove with the gas flowing and the igniter clicking -- but no flame? There was a spark deep inside my brain, but I still didn't get it. "Read the directions at the top of the page." Ooooooooo..... We have ignition!!!!!

That was a very vivid lesson. But it is sometimes clear that other folks never performed that little exercise. At the Day Job, we're in the midst of our annual certification exercise. We ask every employee to certify that they have complied with our records policy for their records from the previous year. They are supposed to do a number of things like filing their records, checking for legal holds, reviewing retention schedules and then follow an intranet link to certify that they have performed these tasks. It all seems very simple. Everyone gets an email with those instructions, the website has the same instructions, and the reminders repeat them again. They get a two month period at the beginning of the year to do all this, although we'd really like this to get to be an everyday thing.

Well, this week my ghostwriters sent out about 30,000 emails from me, reminding folks who had not certified that they had a week left to do so. The replies began immediately. It was pretty clear that many people had just skimmed through the instructions, if they read them at all. We offer a mandatory training class on records management. We like people to take it every couple of years, but we haven't pushed it much. Well, the folks who got my email seem to think that the certification process somehow involved their taking the training course -- even though the instructions had a highlighted line that stated that taking the class did not fulfill the requirements for certification. I guess that was my mistake. I highlighted the negative. So I had to make several hundred replies on Tuesday to people explaining that they needed to certify, not take the class. A few then replied, sending me the completion certificate from the class, because my records were clearly not correct. *Sigh* It was a long couple of days.

This morning I was standing in the shower wondering how many people I would have to correspond with today about this misunderstanding. I stood and pondered how I could write the email differently next time and how I could modify the website to be crystal clear. It then dawned on me that of the 30,000 or so emails I had sent out on Tuesday, I had to clarify the requirements to 300 or so people. My sleepy brain crunched the numbers and I realized that only 1% of the reminded population was having trouble following directions (and actually .5% of the whole company!). I got frustrated worrying about my directions when 99%+ of the people who got them had no problem following them!!!!

I related this to one of my ghostwriters (who was helping me manage the reply mailbox and was also very bemused the day before). Her reply was, "Well, aren't you the glass half full guy today!" She grinned and acknowledged that perhaps it wasn't all that bad after all -- although we wouldn't be measuring the result as a Six Sigma Quality process, seeing as how Six Sigma means 3.4 defects per million items. Oh well. At least now I know why I was feeling like the wheels had come off. In Six Sigma terms, a 1% (or even .5%) defect rate is an abject failure.

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