Are You in Alignment?
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Are You in Alignment? by Kevin McManus

We all know what a car feels like when it is out of alignment. You get that shudder every once in a while as you drive down the road, and if you don't keep both hands on the wheel, the car will begin to drift towards the low side of the road. What is less obvious in our organizations is how they can also drift towards “out of focus” (often self serving) behaviors if they are not in alignment.

Unlike a car, a lot of effort is required to align or realign an organization. In many cases, even after the realignment is made the problem persists, as the organization is still not focused on the proper set of goals. Organizational alignment however is such an elusive issue that few companies know if they are in alignment between locations, between key departments, or between individuals within those departments.

Why is There a Lack of Alignment?

Three of the leading organizational effectiveness gurus, Covey, Deming, and Senge, all speak of the need for organizational alignment. Covey, known best for his “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, speaks to this need in his second habit, “Begin with the End in Mind.” The first of Deming's fourteen points stresses the need for a “constancy of purpose.” Peter Senge, of learning organization fame, includes “shared vision” as one of his five key disciplines. With all of this emphasis on the need for alignment of one type or another, one would think that more organizations would be in that position.

Many organizations think they are aligned. After all, the executive staff has gone off on the weekend retreat, come back with a mission statement, and quickly issued mugs, cards, and plaques proclaiming that mission to the rest of the company. Several executives and managers can even recite the mission from memory. With all of this tangible evidence that a common goal exists, how can anyone say there is a problem with alignment?

Part of the problem lies in trying to represent desired beliefs, behaviors, and tasks with a short paragraph of fifty or so words. The larger problem exists in that few employees outside of the management group actually feel any ownership towards those words. It is usually the case that the amount of ownership felt is directly proportional to the amount of personal time spent contributing to the statement's development.

Additionally, the compensation and performance measurement systems that are in place in most companies often work to defeat a shared vision. They instead create a focus that is individual, or at best departmental, in nature. This is what Deming referred to as sub-optimization, a situation where certain individuals or departments excel at the expense of the company in general. Do you pay your sales team more if they bring in more business, but keep others on a constant pay rate, even though these salespeople could rarely be successful in growing their account base without the support the customer service and operations teams?

How Can You Tell if You Have Organizational Alignment?

One way to search for alignment is to ask each department leader (and preferably others in the department as well) (1) what they think the main goals of the company are and (2) how their daily jobs are designed to help attain these goals. Another, perhaps more unnerving technique involves bringing a customer and their supplier together. The customer writes down his or her expectations, and the supplier writes down what he or she thinks the customer's expectations are. How many expectations are common to both lists when they are compared? How well do these expectations match up with the goals of the company?

So far we have only talked about alignment in general -- we have not touched the issue of whether that alignment is focused properly on the customer. Focus is the key word here, and developing it is the purpose of creating a shared vision. Each of us has only so much focus to go around. If some of it is being spent on non-customer goals, less of it is left for serving the customer. To visualize this problem, think of a laser beam. If a laser is passed through a prism, its power is diffused. The resultant rainbow might be pretty to look at, but it is ineffective in accomplishing its goal. Do some of your organizational systems act like prisms and diffuse your company's focus?

If employees never or rarely see the external customer, it is difficult to get them aligned with serving those parties. This problem arises for two reasons. First of all, no tangible, physical connection can be made -- a face cannot be put with a name. Worse yet, the opportunity for feedback does not exist. Most employees only get sketchy, filtered feedback or feedback of an indirect, negative nature. How do your employees form their perceptions of what their customers really want? Do they even know who their internal and external customers are?

How Do You Get More Aligned With the Customer?

By now you may be saying “Okay, I guess we are not as aligned as we should be. I'll take some action to make our external customers more visible.” Before going too far however, you also need to assess the degree of alignment that exists between internal customers in your organization! It is difficult to consistently provide a high level of service to the external customer if internal groups are not aligned with each other first.

If daily behaviors take place in the company that are inconsistent with its mission, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to gain a high degree of alignment. This is especially critical for formal leaders, who should be sharing their personal vision with their people each day. Alignment cannot happen if people are expected to serve the external customer in a manner that differs from the type of service they receive as internal customers. If you are a formal leader, do you see your role as one of service to your people? What expectations do your internal customers have of you? Are you meeting or exceeding those expectations? How do you know???

Alignment and commitment go hand in hand. As such, alignment cannot be mandated. In other words, creating compliance will not provide high levels of alignment. Both ownership, and a connection to the customer, are required to obtain lasting, willing commitment. The final piece of the puzzle involves knowing what you need to be in alignment with.

What are You Aligned With?

Most companies get caught up in thinking they know what the customer wants, and in turn do not invest enough time in asking the customers themselves. In those cases where interviews or focus groups are used to get feedback, it is often the case that the interviews are structured around the same “I know what they want” perceptions. For example, customers are often asked to select from a list of possible services or to evaluate possible product designs, instead of being asked what services or products they really need. Ideally, customer expectations are both asked for and anticipated by employing the use of a variety of listening posts.

You can also gauge your degree of alignment focus by looking at your annual planning process. Annual planning efforts should be structured around the expectations of the external customer in the sense that each organizational objective for the coming year can be linked to one or more expectation. It is no surprise that Hoshin planning, a tool which specifically does this, is rarely understood or used by companies in this country. Management does not seem to have the time or see the need for this type of disciplined approach to planning. They would rather rely primarily on their opinions to decide what needs to be done.

In summary, obtaining alignment takes time, an open mind, a lot of discipline, and some humbleness as well. It cannot be obtained during a weekend retreat or by issuing T-shirts emblazoned with the company mission. Most importantly, it cannot be obtained through the efforts of only a few company “leaders” -- all employees must feel ownership in the mission, be consistently involved in executing it, and receive regular feedback from the customer as to how well they are doing in meeting their expectations.

Organizational Alignment Tips

•  Use a visioning and planning process that involves all employees

•  Be willing to deeply question your current degree of alignment

•  Use your planning process to provide linkage between expectations and objectives

•  Don't try to obtain alignment without first creating commitment and ownership

•  Take action to both identify, measure, and anticipate customer expectations

•  Improve the direct connection between employees, their internal customers, and their external customers

•  Make sure that the daily behaviors of your leaders are consistent with the mission and values that they espouse (practice what you preach!)

•  Realize that organizational alignment is not a one time event -- it is a process to improve over time

Would You Like to Learn More?

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Last Revised - March 1, 2015
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