Think Fast Service and Operations Leadership

Zombie Operations

zombies2yp4Disengaged employees and customers slog through the day completing their related, rote tasks within the required timeframes and quality levels.  Productivity experts review metrics to make process modifications within the operation as evidently suggested by reviewing relative performance, and the process of continuous improvement makes for glacial progress and comfortable status reports.  This describes a zombie operation to me and it seems especially prevalent in challenging economic and employment times.

My friend Tony Morse wrote a poignant blog yesterday on companies failing to effectively differentiate themselves, and I think it is a related problem in that people may be more reluctant to take what is perceived as a risk when the overall health of their company and the economy is uncertain.

So how do you break the spell of a zombie operation and infuse a new sense of urgency?  It isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy either.  These things have to be done very publicly and transparently with every one of the stakeholder zombies.

  • Engage people at the highest levels of the organization to ensure support
  • Make an honest assessment of where you are, gathering supporting data and information
  • Put together the imperative and vision on where you need to be
  • Experiment with small projects that demonstrate how you will get there (discard failures)

Today I had a sidebar Q&A on a Webinar with Jim Champy, co-author of “Reengineering” and author of the current book “Inspire.”  Jim made a point that I really liked when he responded to me that whether you can infuse the urgency to change in an organization is driven by fear and vision.

Perhaps the fear of staying the same simply has to be greater than the fear of change, and a thorough understanding of the reason for the change and the scope of the change will reduce concerns and make it an easy and urgent decision.



May 21, 2009 - Posted by | Leadership


  1. Bryan – I think you hit it … the fear of staying the same has to be greater than the fear of change. There’s a saying in Mike Bosworth’s Solution Selling … “No Pain. No Change.” Only those organizations that are driven to improve and are honest with themselves about their current situation will ever move forward.

    Those organizations that are moving (or can move) forward are the thought leaders who always consider “what’s next.” Those are the ones we LOVE to work with and end up being the “most admired” and “fastest growing.”

    Comment by Tony J. Morse | May 21, 2009 | Reply

  2. Bryan,
    I agree with Tony. The company where I work has always had a culture of constant improvement. Still, we have some people who are capable of managing projects but lack the vision and drive to ask themselves and others questions such as, what is this project, why are we doing it, and should we be doing it at all?

    Comment by Tom Aplomb | May 22, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks for the reply Tom. The common theme I keep hearing, and I heard from Jim Champy today, is vision and drive just as you note. Perhaps the key to consistent performance is simply vision and drive, in that order.

      Comment by ThinkWiki | May 22, 2009 | Reply

      • Bryan,
        When you have vision and drive at the top of the organization, execution tends to follow at all levels, because the project managers believe in what they are doing and want to do it well. Otherwise, they are, as you aptly point out, zombies.

        Comment by Tom Aplomb | May 22, 2009

  3. Bryan,

    First thanks for the invite. A few months ago we conducted a culture survey within the organization. (A 3rd party asked 10 open ended questions in a format in which employee anonymity was protected.) The feedback was interesting. Everyone understood the “what” they do, as you phrased it: the rote tasks within the required timeframes and quality levels. What we learned was not only did some team members not understand the “why” but in some cases failed to see the value of the “what”. We also learned that these beliefs did not only exist at the employee level but also with managers. The good news is we were willing to make an honest assessment of where we are. Our leadership team now understands what shifts need to occur in order for all members of the organization to truly be engaged because what fun is it working or doing business with zombies!

    Comment by Paul | May 25, 2009 | Reply

    • Thank you for the comments Paul. You might also want to consider the types of real-time information and feedback your organization receives via dashboards or other information systems. I think it is a great way to show people the “why” when they receive immediate or at least relatively speedy feedback on how their tasks are affecting the performance of the team.


      Comment by Bryan Schueler | May 25, 2009 | Reply

  4. Bryan,
    Your comment on real-time info & feedback is critical. Communicating the progress, hopefully success, of any project against its objectives, at milestones or most certainly at project end, promotes employee involvement & ownership. Both of which decrease zombieism. Most all employees want to succeed, they want to feel like they make a difference. But if we fail to ‘close the loop’ about the project’s accomplishment/success (aka the result of their contributions) they will never know. They won’t feel the success & hence we fail to leverage potential motivation onto the next project stage or the next project; albeit the zombieism will continue.

    Comment by vbf | June 4, 2009 | Reply

    • Absolutely agree Vince, thanks for emphasizing that critical point. As our friend Anne Sutton would say, it is all communication!


      Comment by Bryan Schueler | June 4, 2009 | Reply

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