The Vital-Signs Assessment
Pat Lancaster's managers file weekly reports that unclog lines of communication and help keep his company in good health* * *
How's it going? -- that's all Pat Lancaster needed to know. But getting useful answers to that question from his managers was anything but simple. How do you get your leaders to tell you how they're doing without seeming overly intrusive? How do you get people to assess their energy level honestly, to say what they're worried about, or to discuss departmental morale, without sounding like a snooping boss?
Lancaster tried the usual management tricks. Management-by-walking-around, for example, yielded sketchy data at best. "People responded based on their most recent conversation or the latest customer interaction they'd had," claims the founder of Lantech Inc., a $50-million packaging-machinery manufacturer in Louisville. Hunting for clues in financial reports proved equally disappointing: "Numbers are great, but they talk about the past," he adds. "I needed current information reflecting human motivations and conflicts."
In 1986 Lancaster hit upon the solution: group-leader reports. Filled out weekly by his six top managers, the reports give "an aerial photo" of the entire company. Early on, though, Lancaster wasn't sure if his new form was the best idea or the worst. Week after week the write-ups brought bad news about his then-14-year-old company. "There was infighting -- departments blaming other departments for botched deliveries; promises to the customer not kept," Lancaster says. In Lantech's decentralized structure, departments such as the standard-products group, the custom-products group, and the research-and-development group are separate profit centers, and each is headed by one of Lancaster's top managers. The reports clearly pointed out that group leaders were spending far too much time protecting their profit centers and too little time attending to customer problems.
Armed with that feedback and more, Lancaster put his company through a complete overhaul -- -instituting team-building programs, companywide training, and regular customer-focus checks. The report results were not the only stimulus for the corporate make-over, but they provided key early warning signals.
Seven years later the reports are far less emotionally charged but no less helpful. "This form gives me comfort," Lancaster adds. "I travel 50% of the time, and I get these faxed to me wherever I am. They're the first pages I read on my stack." He figures he's gained at least 20% more time thanks to the reports -- time that used to be wasted either wading through garbled communications or refereeing conflicts between managers. "Meetings used to get bogged down by fuzzy communications." Now they're "snappy and to the point," he says.
"Anyone should be able to fill out this form in five minutes," Lancaster explains. That's why the entire exercise fits on two sides of a single page. Moreover, Lancaster veered away from a question-and-answer format, preferring to use a string of open statements that invite managers to respond. Rather than interrogating his people with a slew of accusatory questions, Lancaster hoped to initiate conversation and then allow each manager plenty of latitude.
But the 50-year-old CEO offers one cardinal rule: "Never use the information to play 'gotcha.' If you do, then you might as well not do it at all." He points out, "You have to be very careful." Sometimes he backs off to see how a problem develops; sometimes it's time to call a lunch to discuss the problem; and other times he's at the manager's desk within minutes of reading a form. Deciding on an appropriate response really isn't hard at all. "It's all a matter of attitude," he asserts. "If you're looking to support good people in a consultative coaching role and to surveil your company for early warning signs of trouble, then this form works very nicely.'* * *
[1A] Group Leader Report
[1B] (To be submitted every Thursday)
Morale and climate in your group
[2A] Personal energy level is: [High/Medium/Low]
[2B] Factors contributing to this level: [fill in]
 Morale in my group this week is: [High/Medium/Low]
Based upon the following events/issues: [fill in]
 Overall, the climate in the group feels: [fill in]* * *
Intergroup relationship and communications
 Group leaders with whom I am carrying issues (large or small) this week (place an * next to those issues to be addressed this week): [fill in/name/issue]
 Apparent deadlock issues which will probably require PRL's attention in the near future: [fill in]* * *
 Customer contact or feedback issues of the week: [fill in]
 Quality Objectives status (attach metrics, if available): [fill in]
 Important associate interactions this week: [fill in/name/action]
 Group issues on which I would like to consult with PRL: Issue: [fill in] Scope of requested assistance: [fill in]
 Current/upcoming events that I find myself ruminating on this week: Issue: [fill in] Intervention requested?: [fill in]* * *
Other Important Information
 Particular difficulties I'm experiencing with PRL this week: [Issue/Plan to confront?/When?]
 Items of interest to Lantech overall or information which helps PRL to grasp the big picture more fully: [fill in]
 Potential areas where I'm gaining awareness of inability to meet strategic goals: [fill in]
 Self-inventory on expectations this week (place an * next to areas where you would like some dialogue on the topic): [fill in]* * *
1A. "It doesn't matter to me whether group leaders handwrite this or do it on the computer. It's short and shouldn't take more than five minutes to fill out."* * *
1B. "I ask for it weekly -- as fast as our organization is moving, we can get out of sync in only a week. I want it on Thursday because I meet with these six leaders every Monday. I want to be aware of any issues before then so I know what to keep my ears open for."* * *
2A. "When personal energy is heading south, there's a good chance a leader isn't feeling good about his job, so this is a critical issue. I've tried to make my query uncharged and nonjudgmental. I'm asking about the leader's fuel gauge. It's rare that anyone checks low. Answers usually range from medium to high. Also, as I review the reports, I know to keep each individual in mind. Some people smile all the harder when things are tough."* * *
2B. "This fleshes it out -- tells me what's sapping people's energy. Here, if I see someone is tired, he might be overcommitted, and it might help if the two of us review his schedule."* * *
3. "I match this answer against the personal-energy response. In this example, the manager's energy is high, but his group's is low. I can see that his people don't share his optimism. I'll keep a very close eye on this situation to see how they work together. Also, if group energy is low, it might indicate that the manager's energy is low despite his claims."* * *
4. "The answers here point to the future. Usually, I see a longer view -- more upbeat. Frankly, if there weren't a more optimistic spin here, I'd really get worried."* * *
5. "When we first started using these reports, you'd see finger pointing among departments with no hope of resolution. If I see someone laying blame or hear a one-sided story, I step in. But if I see people working together to resolve the problem, I stay out of it."* *
6. "Some people have a hard time asking for help, and they invariably leave this blank. You have to have some knowledge of each individual, and if there's no direct request for help here, I can check other sections of the report for indirect appeals...say, for example, number 14."* * *
7. "Here's where I want the managers to tell me what their customers are doing and what's new with them. I want to know that managers are spending time with the customers; otherwise, I start to worry that we're too internally focused."* * *
8. "This is what I call an alignment question. The leader attaches charts showing how his profit center is doing against such predetermined measures as on-time delivery, reduced start-up defects, and shortened lead time. These standards are set yearly and are similar from profit center to profit center."
9. "Was anybody fired, given an award? I'm looking here for signs of leadership ability."* * *
10. "My managers use this as an opportunity to ask me for help with compensation questions as well as personnel-management problems. I try to respond to these quandaries within a day or two."* * *
11. "This item offers one of the most useful opportunities for those who use it. It's another nonpejorative way to get people to tell me things they might not otherwise mention. Lots of times the responses here underscore comments made elsewhere in the report. I'm a better coach when I know what's on someone's mind."* * *
12. "If something I've said has caused any confusion, here's where I find out about it. This manager heard me say two conflicting things and wants to know the score. Also, this query sends the message that I am a CEO who is willing to be told that things aren't always perfect, or even great."
13. "Each one of these six leaders knows a lot, and I want them to pull away from their day-to-day duties to think for a moment about what's going on in the world around us that I might have missed."* * *
14. "I want to know as soon as there's any indication a deadline might be missed. Here's a tip-off that perhaps explains why there's anxiety in this report or in other reports. If one guy is not meeting deadlines, I often see the ripple effect in other reports."* * *
15. "Each leader has a set of personal objectives against which he is measured in his quarterly review. But rather than having the leaders glance at these measures only once a quarter, I want them to look at them weekly. The idea is to keep them intimately aware of the expectations so they're not surprised at review time. It saves me from rude awakenings, too."