Case 4: The Best-Laid Incentive Plans*
Hiram Phillips finished tying his bow tie and glanced in the mirror. Frowning, he tugged on the left side, then caught sight of his watch in the mirror. Time to get going. Moments later, he was down the stairs, whistling cheerfully and heading toward the coffeemaker.
“You’re in a good mood,” his wife said, looking up from the newspaper and smiling. “What’s that tune? ‘Accentuate the Positive’?”
“Well done!” Hiram called out. “You know, I do believe you’re picking up some pop culture in spite of yourself.” It was a running joke with them. She was a classically trained cellist and on the board of the local symphony. He was the one with the Sinatra and Bing Crosby albums and the taste for standards. “You’re getting better at naming that tune.”
“Or else you’re getting better at whistling.” She looked over her reading glasses and met his eye. They let a beat pass before they said in unison: “Naaah.” Then, with a wink, Hiram shrugged on his trench coat, grabbed his travel mug, and went out the door.
Fat and Happy
It was true. Hiram Phillips, CFO and chief administrative officer of Rainbarrel Products, a diversified consumer-durables manufacturer, was in a particularly good mood. He was heading into a breakfast meeting that would bring nothing but good news. Sally Hamilton and Frank Ormondy from Felding & Company would no doubt already be at the office when he arrived and would have with them the all-important numbers—the statistics that would demonstrate the positive results of the performance management system he’d put in place a year ago. Hiram had already seen many of the figures in bits and pieces. He’d retained the consultants to establish baselines on the metrics he wanted to watch and had seen various interim reports from them since. But today’s meeting would be the impressive summation capping off a year’s worth of effort. Merging into the congestion of Route 45, he thought about the upbeat presentation he would spend the rest of the morning preparing for tomorrow’s meeting of the corporate executive council.
It was obvious enough what his introduction should be. He would start at the beginning—or, anyway, his own beginning at Rainbarrel Products a year ago. At the time, the company had just come off a couple of awful quarters. It wasn’t alone. The sudden slowdown in consumer spending, after a decade-long boom, had taken the whole industry by surprise. But what had quickly become clear was that Rainbarrel was adjusting to the new reality far less rapidly than its biggest competitors.
Keith Randall, CEO of Rainbarrel, was known for being an inspiring leader who focused on innovation. Even outside the industry, he had a name as a marketing visionary. But over the course of the ten-year economic boom, he had allowed his organization to become a little lax.
Take corporate budgeting. Hiram still smiled when he recalled his first day of interviews with Rainbarrel’s executives. It immediately became obvious that the place had no budget integrity whatsoever. One unit head had said outright, “Look, none of us fights very hard at budget time, because after three or four months, nobody looks at the budget anyway.” Barely concealing his shock, Hiram asked how that could be; what did they look at, then? The answer was that they operated according to one simple rule: “If it’s a good idea, we say yes to it. If it’s a bad idea, we say no.”
“And what happens,” Hiram had pressed, “when you run out of money halfway through the year?” The fellow rubbed his chin and took a moment to think before answering. “I guess we’ve always run out of good ideas before we’ve run out of money.” Unbelievable!
“Fat and happy” was how Hiram characterized Rainbarrel in a conversation with the headhunter who had recruited him. Of course, he wouldn’t use those words in the CEC meeting. That would sound too disparaging. In fact, he’d quickly fallen in love with Rainbarrel and the opportunities it presented. Here was a company that had the potential for greatness but that was held back by a lack of discipline. It was like a racehorse that had the potential to be a Secretariat but lacked a structured training regimen. Or a Ferrari engine that needed the touch of an expert mechanic to get it back in trim. In other words, the only thing Rainbarrel was missing was what someone like Hiram Phillips could bring to the table. The allure was irresistible; this was the assignment that would define his career. And now, a year later, he was ready to declare a turnaround.
Lean and Mean
Sure enough, as Hiram steered toward the entrance to the parking garage, he saw Sally and Frank in a visitor parking space, pulling their bulky file bags out of the trunk of Sally’s sedan. He caught up to them at the security checkpoint in the lobby and took a heavy satchel from Sally’s hand.
Moments later, they were at a conference table, each of them poring over a copy of the consultants’ spiral-bound report. “This is great,” Hiram said. “I can hand this out just as it is. But what I want to do while you’re here is C7C8to really nail down what the highlights are. I have the floor for 40 minutes, but I guess I’d better leave ten for questions. There’s no way I can plow through all of this.”
“If I were you,” Sally advised, “I would lead off with the best numbers. I mean, none of them are bad. You hit practically every target. But some of these, where you even exceeded the stretch goal. …”
Hiram glanced at the line Sally was underscoring with her fingernail. It was an impressive achievement: a reduction in labor costs. This had been one of the first moves he’d made, and he’d tried to do it gently. He’d come up with the idea of identifying the bottom quartile of performers throughout the company and offering them fairly generous buyout packages. But when that hadn’t attracted enough takers, he’d gone the surer route. He’d imposed an across-the-board headcount reduction of 10% on all the units. In that round, the affected people were given no financial assistance beyond the normal severance.
“It made a big difference,” he nodded. “But it wasn’t exactly the world’s most popular move.” Hiram was well aware that a certain segment of the Rainbarrel workforce currently referred to him as “Fire ’em.” He pointed to another number on the spreadsheet. “Now, that one tells a happier story: lower costs as a result of higher productivity.”
“And better customer service to boot,” Frank chimed in. They were talking about the transformation of Rainbarrel’s call center—where phone representatives took orders and handled questions and complaints from both trade and retail customers. The spreadsheet indicated a dramatic uptick in productivity: The number of calls each service rep was handling per day had gone up 50%. A year earlier, reps were spending up to six minutes per call, whereas now the average was less than four minutes. “I guess you decided to go for that new automated switching system?” Frank asked.
“No!” Hiram answered. “That’s the beauty of it. We got that improvement without any capital investment. You know what we did? We just announced the new targets, let everyone know we were going to monitor them, and put the names of the worst offenders on a great big ‘wall of shame’ right outside the cafeteria. Never underestimate the power of peer pressure!”
Sally, meanwhile, was already circling another banner achievement: an increase in on-time shipments. “You should talk about this, given that it’s something that wasn’t even being watched before you came.”
It was true. As much as Rainbarrel liked to emphasize customer service in its values and mission statement, no reliable metric had been in place to track it. And getting a metric in place hadn’t been as straightforward as it might’ve seemed—people had haggled about what constituted “on time” and even what constituted “shipped.” Finally, Hiram had put his foot down and insisted on the most objective of measures. On time meant when the goods were promised to ship. And nothing was counted as shipped till it left company property. Period. “And once again,” Hiram announced, “not a dollar of capital expenditure. I simply let people know that, from now on, if they made commitments and didn’t keep them, we’d have their number.”
“Seems to have done the trick,” Sally observed. “The percentage of goods shipped by promise date has gone up steadily for the last six months. It’s now at 92%.”
Scanning the report, Hiram noticed another huge percentage gain, but he couldn’t recall what the acronym stood for. “What’s this? Looks like a good one: a 50% cost reduction?”
Sally studied the item. “Oh, that. It’s a pretty small change, actually. Remember we separated out the commissions on sales to employees?” It came back to Hiram immediately. Rainbarrel had a policy that allowed current and retired employees to buy products at a substantial discount. But the salespeople who served them earned commissions based on the full retail value, not the actual price paid. So, in effect, employee purchases were jacking up the commission expenses. Hiram had created a new policy in which the commission reflected the actual purchase price. On its own, the change didn’t amount to a lot, but it reminded Hiram of a larger point he wanted to make in his presentation: the importance of straightforward rules—and rewards—in driving superior performance.
“I know you guys don’t have impact data for me, but I’m definitely going to talk about the changes to the commission structure and sales incentives. There’s no question they must be making a difference.”
“Right,” Sally nodded. “A classic case of ‘keep it simple,’ isn’t it?” She turned to Frank to explain. “The old way they calculated commissions was by using this really complicated formula that factored in, I can’t remember, at least five different things.”
“Including sales, I hope?” Frank smirked.
“I’m still not sure!” Hiram answered. “No, seriously, sales were the most important single variable, but they also mixed in all kinds of targets around mentoring, prospecting new clients, even keeping the account information current. It was all way too subjective, and salespeople were getting very mixed signals. I just clarified the message so they don’t have to wonder what they’re getting paid for. Same with the sales contests. It’s simple now: If you sell the most product in a given quarter, you win.”
With Sally and Frank nodding enthusiastically, Hiram again looked down at the report. Row after row of numbers attested to Rainbarrel’s improved performance. It wouldn’t be easy to choose the rest of the highlights, but what a problem to have! He invited the consultants to weigh in again and leaned back to bask in the superlatives. And his smile grew wider.
Cause for Concern
The next morning, a well-rested Hiram Phillips strode into the building, flashed his ID badge at Charlie, the guard, and joined the throng in the lobby. In the crowd waiting for the elevator, he recognized two young women from Rainbarrel, lattes in hand and headphones around their necks. One was grimacing melodramatically as she turned to her C8C9friend. “I’m so dreading getting to my desk,” she said. “Right when I was leaving last night, an e-mail showed up from the buyer at Sullivan. I just know it’s going to be some big, hairy problem to sort out. I couldn’t bring myself to open it, with the day I’d had. But I’m going to be sweating it today trying to respond by five o’clock. I can’t rack up any more late responses, or my bonus is seriously history.”
Her friend had slung her backpack onto the floor and was rooting through it, barely listening. But she glanced up to set her friend straight in the most casual way. “No, see, all they check is whether you responded to an e-mail within 24 hours of opening it. So that’s the key. Just don’t open it. You know, till you’ve got time to deal with it.”
Then a belltone announced the arrival of the elevator, and they were gone.
More Cause for Concern
An hour later, Keith Randall was calling to order the quarterly meeting of the corporate executive council. First, he said, the group would hear the results of the annual employee survey, courtesy of human resources VP Lew Hart. Next would come a demonstration by the chief marketing officer of a practice the CEO hoped to incorporate into all future meetings. It was a “quick market intelligence,” or QMI, scan, engaging a few of Rainbarrel’s valued customers in a prearranged—but not predigested—conference call, to collect raw data on customer service concerns and ideas. “And finally,” Keith concluded, “Hiram’s going to give us some very good news about cost reductions and operating efficiencies, all due to the changes he’s designed and implemented this past year.”
Hiram nodded to acknowledge the compliment. He heard little of the next ten minutes’ proceedings, thinking instead about how he should phrase certain points for maximum effect. Lew Hart had lost him in the first moments of his presentation on the “people survey” by beginning with an overview of “purpose, methodology, and historical trends.” Deadly.
It was the phrase “mindlessly counting patents” that finally turned Hiram’s attention back to his colleague. Lew, it seemed, was now into the “findings” section of his remarks. Hiram pieced together that he was reporting on an unprecedented level of negativity in the responses from Rainbarrel’s R&D department and was quoting the complaints people had scribbled on their surveys. “Another one put it this way,” Lew said. “We’re now highly focused on who’s getting the most patents, who’s getting the most copyrights, who’s submitting the most grant proposals, etc. But are we more creative? It’s not that simple.”
“You know,” Rainbarrel’s chief counsel noted, “I have thought lately that we’re filing for a lot of patents for products that will never be commercially viable.”
“But the thing that’s really got these guys frustrated seems to be their ‘Innovation X’ project,” Lew continued. “They’re all saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread, a generational leap on the product line, but they’re getting no uptake.”
Eyes in the room turned to the products division president, who promptly threw up his hands. “What can I say, gang? We never expected that breakthrough to happen in this fiscal year. It’s not in the budget to bring it to market.”
Lew Hart silenced the rising voices, reminding the group he had more findings to share. Unfortunately, it didn’t get much better. Both current and retired employees were complaining about being treated poorly by sales personnel when they sought to place orders or obtain information about company products. There was a lot of residual unhappiness about the layoffs, and not simply because those who remained had more work to do. Some people had noted that, because the reduction was based on headcount, not costs, managers had tended to fire low-level people, crippling the company without saving much money. And because the reduction was across the board, the highest performing departments had been forced to lay off some of the company’s best employees. Others had heard about inequities in the severance deals: “As far as I can tell, we gave our lowest performers a better package than our good ones,” he quoted one employee as saying.
And then there was a chorus of complaints from the sales organization. “No role models.” “No mentoring.” “No chance to pick the veterans’ brains.” “No knowledge sharing about accounts.” More than ever, salespeople were dissatisfied with their territories and clamoring for the more affluent, high-volume districts. “It didn’t help that all the sales-contest winners this year were from places like Scarsdale, Shaker Heights, and Beverly Hills,” a salesperson was quoted as saying. Lew concluded with a promise to look further into the apparent decline in morale to determine whether it was an aberration.
The Ugly Truth
But if the group thought the mood would improve in the meeting’s next segment—the QMI chat with the folks at longtime customer Brenton Brothers—they soon found out otherwise. Booming out of the speakerphone in the middle of the table came the Southern-tinged voices of Billy Brenton and three of his employees representing various parts of his organization.
“What’s up with your shipping department?” Billy called out. “My people are telling me it’s taking forever to get the stock replenished.”
Hiram sat up straight, then leaned toward the speakerphone. “Excuse me, Mr. Brenton. This is Hiram Phillips—I don’t believe we’ve met. But are you saying we are not shipping by our promise date?”
A cough—or was it a guffaw?—came back across the wire. “Well, son. Let me tell you about that. First of all, what y’all promise is not always what we are saying we require—and what we believe we deserve. Annie, isn’t that right?”
“Yes, Mr. Brenton,” said the buyer. “In some cases, I’ve been told to take a late date or otherwise forgo the purchase. That becomes the promise date, I guess, but it’s not the date I asked for.”
“And second,” Billy continued, “I can’t figure out how you fellas define ‘shipped.’ We were told last Tuesday an order had been shipped, and come to find out, the stuff was sitting on a railroad siding across the street from your plant.”
“That’s an important order for us,” another Brenton voice piped up. “I sent an e-mail to try to sort it out, but I haven’t heard back about it.” Hiram winced, recalling the conversation in the lobby that morning. The voice persisted: “I thought that might be the better way to contact your service people these days? They always seem in such an all-fired hurry to get off the phone when I call. Sometimes it takes two or three calls to get something squared away.”
The call didn’t end there—a few more shortcomings were discussed. Then Keith Randall, to his credit, pulled the conversation onto more positive ground by reaffirming the great regard Rainbarrel had for Brenton Brothers and the mutual value of that enduring relationship. Promises were made and hearty thanks extended for the frank feedback. Meanwhile, Hiram felt the eyes of his colleagues on him. Finally, the call ended and the CEO announced that he, for one, needed a break before the last agenda item.
Dazed and Confused
Hiram considered following his boss out of the room and asking him to table the whole discussion of the new metrics and incentives. The climate was suddenly bad for the news he had looked forward to sharing. But he knew that delaying the discussion would be weak and wrong. After all, he had plenty of evidence to show he was on the right track. The problems the group had just been hearing about were side effects, but surely they didn’t outweigh the cure.
He moved to the side table and poured a glass of ice water, then leaned against the wall to collect his thoughts. Perhaps he should reframe his opening comments in light of the employee and customer feedback. As he considered how he might do so, Keith Randall appeared at his side.
“Looks like we have our work cut out for us, eh, Hiram?” he said quietly—and charitably enough. “Some of those metrics taking hold, um, a little too strongly?” Hiram started to object but saw the seriousness in his boss’s eyes.
He lifted the stack of reports Felding & Company had prepared for him and turned to the conference table. “Well, I guess that’s something for the group to talk about.”Should Rainbarrel revisit its approach to performance management?
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