Six Sigma
Last Word


Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

Saying "Thank You"

This month's column is devoted to a very powerful act of leadership: saying "thank you." We'll talk about both the how and the why of thanking in the context of a quality process, using that component of the Complete Quality Process here at the Insurance Center as the primary example.

 Just as each of the first six components (which we've covered in previous columns) is absolutely required if an organization has serious hopes of garnering long-term success with its quality pursuit, there's no choice concerning this CQP component. The organization--and, specifically, the few people at the very top of the organization--must say "thank you" to all deserving employees. And, if it comes to a choice between taking a chance on extending a "thank you" to an undeserving employee in order to ensure that no deserving employees are missed or skipping the deserving employee to make sure that no one gets any undeserved thanks, the choice is simple: say "thank you." The worst thing that can happen is that an undeserving employee is reduced either to guilt or to bragging to his friends that he "put one over" on the boss. Imagine the boast: "He thinks I contribute good things to this company. Have I got him fooled!"


Why say "thank you"?

 To begin to understand why saying "thank you" is so vital, consider this scenario: It's the day after your ninth birthday. You're seated at the kitchen table with a stack of thank-you cards and a list of names your mother has made for you. The lessons your mother taught you about why you had to send thank-you notes are just as applicable in a corporate setting.

 You needed to write to your Aunt Hazel and thank her for those awful pajamas, your mother explained, because (a) Aunt Hazel's deed merited thanks; she had made the effort to buy those pajamas just for you and she deserved to feel that warm rush one gets when one feels thanked, and (b) if you wanted anything next year, you had better say "thank you" for this year's present. The corporate equivalents are: (a) your employees deserve to feel thanked when they have done something to benefit the company--that's the emotional side, and (b) if they "hear" you say "thank you," the odds are high that they'll do some more. That's the rational side of this aspect of CQP.


An act of leadership

 Saying "thank you" is an act of leadership. Managers understand fair payment, the exchange of agreed-upon goods for agreed-upon services or products--a neat, rational interaction. Saying "thank you" is, like leadership, both rational and emotional; it engages the mind and the heart. Leaders understand the emotional aspect of the gesture and prolong the moment just a bit as they take the occasion to personally connect with deserving employees. If managers had their way, all recognition ceremonies would be informal affairs, conducted by the person who delivers the internal mail.

 What makes effectively saying "thank you" difficult is that different people perceive thanks in different ways. The "thank you" that gets one person thoroughly excited may well only mildly amuse a second person, while putting a third person to sleep. For some folks, something material (including money) is what works to make them feel thanked. For others, money doesn't work: "You gave me money? You should, I'm underpaid. How are you going to say 'thank you'?" For some people it's a symbolic gesture or item that does the trick--a desk thing, a wall thing, a clothing or a jewelry thing--a constant reminder to the thanked person, and everyone else, that this person is one of the good ones who has been recognized by the company for noteworthy accomplishments. For others, it's public recognition (e.g., their names in a company publication) that does the trick. And for some, it's simply the fact that they have a chance to talk with the president of the company about what they did--and to be thanked personally by the president and other members of the senior staff. The only way to be sure that all deserving people hear "thank you" when they should is to say it in several ways to each deserving person.


How to say "thank you"

 The scheme used at the Insurance Center has focused on team accomplishments at the outset, as that was the behavior that needed to be reinforced. It borrowed heavily from the format defined at the Paul Revere Insurance Group nearly 17 years before.

 The beginning point was a three-tiered framework for recognition, an idea that lends itself easily to the best-known three-step award mechanism: bronze, silver and gold. Everyone instantly knows which is better than which.

 To achieve bronze, it was decided that a quality team had to do one of two things: implement (and have certified by one of the quality analysts) 10 separate quality ideas, or implement (and have certified) a lesser number of ideas that had a total financial impact (either in hard dollars or soft) of $10,000 on an annualized basis. Why 10 ideas? Because the average team has 10 members and asking for an average of one idea per person didn't seem too onerous. Why $10,000? Because it has a nice symmetry to it. Why the either-or choice? Because some teams are in a position to have major time-savings (computed at $15/hour) or material-conservation (mostly paper) impacts while others are more likely to implement numerous "little" ideas that simply made their jobs easier and more satisfying.

 For the silver level, 25 is the key number. This can be thought of as reflecting the idea that implementing one idea every other week over a year's time would be laudatory--or it can simply be remembered that the silver wedding anniversary is the 25th one. In short, it seemed right. To reach silver status, a quality team has to either have 25 certified ideas or a lesser number of ideas with $25,000 annualized impact.

 At this point, gold should be easy to predict: 50 certified ideas or $50,000 in annualized savings.

 Remember, it's the intent of the recognition, gratitude and celebration component of the Complete Quality Process to say "thank you," not to extend fair payment. It must be assumed by those in charge of the quality process that fair payment in the way of pay, pay raises, bonuses and promotions is already being appropriately given and that each individual's actions as a contributer to the quality effort is taken into account when that fair payment is determined. After all, with the program as described here, if an average team of 10 people make it to the gold level, they will have received two $5 gifts each, a $25 and a $50 gift certificate, and about $5 in desk plaques and stickers. That's a total of $85 per person or, for a team of 10, $850 in gifts for $50,000 in savings--nearly a 1-to-60 ratio and unfair by any standard if the intent was to "pay" directly for the thinking and implementation represented by the implemented idea.

 Gift certificates were used instead of cash for a pragmatic reason: to extend the memory of the people receiving the thanks that they had in fact been thanked. Twenty-five dollars in cash tends to get slipped into a purse or wallet or pocket and get spent casually on gas or groceries. A $25 gift certificate must be consciously spent on something specific--something that is then likely to forever be the "thing I got with that gift certificate from the quality process at my company." Money with a memory.

 As for what happened to a quality team when it reached each successive plateau, following is the complete list of the gifts given to each team member as he or she reached the various goals (all gifts have the quality process logo somewhere on them):


Bronze (10 ideas or $10,000)

* Two $5 gifts or one $10 gift

* Desk plaque with a bronze sticker

* Bronze pennant


Silver (25 ideas or $25,000)

* One $25 gift certificate (each person has a choice of five stores/malls)

* Silver sticker for the desk plaque

* Silver pennant


Gold (50 ideas or $50,000)

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque

* Gold pennant


Double Gold ($100,000)

* One $5 gift

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


Triple Gold ($150,000)

* Two $5 gifts or one $10 gift

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


Quadruple Gold ($200,000)

* Catered lunch in the building

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


Quintuple Gold ($250,000)

* Lunch with the president of the company at a nearby restaurant

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


Sextuple Gold ($300,000)

* Portable CD player

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


Septuple Gold ($350,000)

* Pen and pencil set

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


Octuple Gold ($400,000)

* Electronic organizer

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


Nontuple Gold ($450,000)

* Camera

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


Decituple Gold ($500,000)

* Watch

* One $50 gift certificate

* Gold sticker for the desk plaque


 At the time this is being written, one quality team has reached nontuple gold, and we're not sure what happens after "decituple" (besides not being sure that any of the award level names after "sextuple" are even real words). As I've told people, "We're running out of 'tuples.'" The best guess on what's next? Elevensies, followed by twelvesies and so on. It's a delightful problem to have.

 When the anniversary of the process is reached on Sept. 14, every team's counters will be reset to zero, and everyone will start off even, in pursuit of making it to bronze. Teams will know this in advance, of course, and it's expected that most teams will attempt to "game" the system. The most noticeable impact will be that teams will sandbag the system in that they won't note on the Quality Idea Tracking Program that an idea has been implemented. Sept. 14, 2001, is a Friday. On Monday, Sept. 17, a flood of "newly" implemented ideas will most likely appear. Regardless, getting the whole quality process off to a running start is a good way to start a new year.


About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999). Pat Townsend has recently re-entered the corporate world and is now dealing with leadership.com issues as a practitioner as well as an observer, writer and speaker. He is now chief quality officer for UICI, a diverse financial services corporation headquartered in the Dallas area. E-mail the authors at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .


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