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Reframing the Conversation on ManagementRemarks by William A. Eaton
Assistant Secretary of State for Administration (2001-2005)
Good morning, everyone. I want to talk to you today about reframing the conversation on management in the State Department. Let me start out with some bad news. And that is, Secretary Powell is going to be leaving us. Maybe not right away, but he's going to be leaving in 2005, or 2009, or some time. And the question that brings to mind is, how do we sustain the sorts of management improvements that we've seen over the last several years once Secretary Powell leaves?
As a culture, we tend to look for knights in shining armor to come in and save us from ourselves. We look at the Secretary of State, and we hope that the Secretary of State is going to do great things, because we can't do it ourselves. We have to change that mindset. There's only one Secretary of State, and there are thousands of us with a vested interest in making sure the State Department works well.
In the past, we've abdicated a lot of our responsibility for good management in the department. We've thrown up our hands. We've resorted to cynicism and pessimism that nothing will ever change in the State Department. And that's how we've gotten ourselves, I think, into the mess that we've had over the years. That's what generated a lot of the reports -- you know, the OPAP report and so forth. It seems like everyone was critical of the State Department in its management. And the problem is not so much Congress, it's not OMB -- the problem is us.
And so, I wanted to talk a bit about how do we sustain this sort of improvement over the years -- how do we change the conversation on management in the State Department? I've got a number of points I wanted to raise.
A Focus on Quality Not CostFirst is, I think that we as an organization need to focus not so much on cost as on quality. We in the past have always said we don't have any money, so we've got to cut services. And that puts us in a downward spiral.
It’s easy to cut costs. All you do is just stop doing things. It's harder to improve the quality of services. We have an obligation to our employees to have good services. If we are always focusing on cutting costs, we're naysayers saying, "You can't do this, you can't do that."
How do you, then, change the conversation from the cost to quality? One of the solutions, I think, is listening to our employees. What's important to them, listening to how we can change the quality of our services -- support services.
I'm not sure if any you have read the book by Michael Abrashoff, a retired Naval commander, who inherited one of the worst ships in the Navy. He’s written a book about it called, "It's Your Ship." From all indications, it was a terrible ship. Bad morale, they were losing money, they couldn't recruit people to serve on the ship because everybody knew that the ship was a terribly run ship.
And so, when he took command, he started listening to the sailors that worked on the ship. What were their ideas for improving the ship? One of the sailors said, "Captain, do you realize that we wouldn’t need to paint the ship so often if we used stainless steel nuts and bolts on the ship?"
It seemed like a fairly simple question. What had happened was, over the years, the Navy had replaced all of the bolts on the ship with iron bolts. Well, the funny thing about iron bolts is, when they come into contact with salt water, they rust. And so, every two years, the members of the crew of this ship would have to re-paint the ship. Something every sailor hated to do. It cost a lot of money, wasted a lot of time, and was a drain on morale.
So, what Abrashoff did was to systematically replace all of the iron bolts on the ship with stainless steel bolts. That meant less re-painting and higher morale because he eliminated one of the things that all the sailors hated to do. By doing so, he also cut costs for the ship by 25 percent almost overnight. By listening to his people, he got a very simple solution to the problem. Rather than focusing on costs -- (iron bolts are a lot cheaper), he focused on quality.
I'm sure you can find a lot of analogies in the State Department, where we’ve put iron bolts into place because they're cheap. And we end up causing our employees a lot more work and a lot more heartache. And so, I think when we focus on quality, we need you to think about those things where we can make investments for the future, and thereby improve quality of service, improve morale by just doing the smart thing.
So look for those penny-wise, pound foolish aspect of your operations that we need to change to improve the quality of our service and the morale of our post.
Innovation Not the Status QuoThe second thing we need to focus on is innovation, and not on status quo. We're a risk averse organization. Many resist change at all costs. From my perspective, it's an absolute necessity for us to change. The world is passing us by, and we were still up until last week, using outdated versions of Wang computers.
But we're an organization that hangs onto old technology. The rest of society of the 21st century uses PDAs, and we still can't use them. We ignore the fact that technology's advancing, giving us tools so we can do our jobs better, but we rationalize why we can't use them. Will Rogers has a great quote. He said something to the effect that "Even if you're on the right track, if you're standing still, you’re going to get run over."
If we want to be a state-of-the-art, world-class diplomatic organization, we need to keep up with what's going on in the world. But often, our people swing between two extremes. Some of us see our jobs as keeping the trains running on time, when, in fact, the question should be do we need trains? And you've got the other extreme, where you've got people who are what I call "bungie bosses," who bungie jump into a job, and change everything around just for change’s sake. I'm sure you all have worked for people like that.
There was a great cartoon in "State Magazine" a couple of years ago. It was a series of cartoon shots of JOs coming in and rearranging the furniture in the office, and eventually in the end, the furniture was back where it originally started. In an organization like ours with 260 locations around the world, and thousands of people, it doesn't take much for bureaucracy to creep in and strangle initiative and innovation.
Ideas, then, start to get lost in this maze of official channels and communications and requirements. And what happens after that is that employees start to lose faith in their ability to make a difference, so they stop trying. And they start thinking, "Well, I can't do anything, or somebody else is going to take care of this. I'm not going to worry about it." And that's how you start this downward spiral in terms of management of an organization. That's where you lose your edge in terms of being a world-class organization.
But, where does real innovation come from? There seems to be this unspoken assumption that innovation has to come from the top. We say that we wouldn't have had innovation in the State Department unless Secretary Powell told us we could be innovative. We all seem to think that somebody else is going to come up with the good ideas. And I think that's crazy.
One of the first things I did when I went into this job, was to create what I called the "Center for Administrative Innovation." When I first launched that center, people laughed, because they said that was an oxymoron. "Administrative" and "innovation" in the same phrase didn’t compute. But what it did was, it communicated to everyone in my organization that innovation was important. Not only were we open to new ideas, but we were expecting new ideas.
I told people in my bureau that if they weren't making mistakes, they probably weren't trying hard enough. So I wanted them to try new things, to be out on the edge, looking for new ways of doing business. By sending that signal to the bureau, what happened was, it unleashed this wealth of creativity within the bureau.
A lot of employees, for example, who had been in their job for 30 years or so and were used to doing their job a certain way, suddenly felt liberated. That maybe we don't have to do things the way we used to. The boss likes innovation, so let me try to think of new ways of doing business. And so, many of the initiatives that have come out of the A Bureau came from people in the bureau who just had good ideas and then the initiative to take those new ideas and turn them into reality.
3M is one of the most admired corporations in the United States, and they require that every employee devote 15 percent of his or her time on coming up with new ideas. If you look at the sorts of innovative things that have come out from 3M, it's because the organization has set a tone, and a mandate, for its people to look for new ways of doing business. If people see that management places importance on innovation, creativity and initiative, the organization will respond.
The Army is also an interesting initiative. They have a process in place where every major and minor command designates at least one person in the organization whose job it is to look at everything that's happening in the command, and look for new ways of doing business. And they reward the people for coming up with those new ideas.
You may say that at your embassies and consulates, your people are so busy that you don't have time to devote to innovation and creativity and initiative. And I would say that if you don't do that, then who's going to do it? You just need to give people encouragement. You need to let them know that you're going to provide a safety net for them if they try something new. They need to know that you're going to protect them, and that their career isn't going to come to a crashing halt if they try something and it doesn't work. You want them to try new things.
I hope you've noticed that in the A Bureau, we're doing a lot of pilot projects, and almost exclusively overseas. And we're doing that consciously as a strategy, because in any large organization, any new idea is going to be attacked by the thousands of antibodies that are going to come out of the woodwork and try to kill those good ideas. We'll have meetings out the wazoo, we'll have decision memoranda and so forth, and ultimately postpone doing anything new.
But in embassies, you have a lot more leeway to try new things. And so we've been giving seed money to folks that have good ideas. The goal is, that if it works, we're going to advertise the hell out of it so that then it spreads from post to post, and it's like a tsunami that overwhelms the naysayers back in Washington. And Washington, then, capitulates to this overwhelming pressure from the field.
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