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Barbara A. Cleary

Quality Insider

Summer Job Tedium Relieved for PQ Systems’ Apprentices

At PQ Systems Inc., Donald Trump’s vehement "You’re fired!" has taken on a whole new meaning.

Published: Monday, September 13, 2004 - 22:00

Donald Trump’s dramatic, “You’re fired!” on the reality show “The Apprentice” is just entertainment to most people. To teams of summer interns at PQ Systems Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, however, it meant a challenge for the ensuing work week.

The young interns, faced with the tedious task of contacting the company’s customers to verify contact information, saw a long summer ahead of them when they began in May. Cleaning up databases is a notoriously neglected job. And with the repetitive script, the mountain of names, and the difficulty of making a dent in the task, it’s neglected for good reasons.

That all changed when Larry Knight, a sales representative who had been a PQ Systems intern prior to his graduation from Wright State University a year ago, helped the six interns to develop a team approach to the task. Ultimately, they adopted the model of Trump’s popular television series.

Every two weeks, teams would gather in the company’s conference room and present the results of their activities with respect to numbers: contacts made, fax numbers gathered, e-mail addresses verified, database changes made, etc. An additional category—sales generated—was added after the interns discovered that some customers wanted to talk about the company’s products.

The latter category generated the greatest attention in the final round, for the teams’ work was responsible for more than $100,000 in new revenue for the organization. Adding sales as a category “made it a whole lot more interesting,” according to Jamie Heckman, WSU senior. “The final weeks were really exciting, as we competed in dollar terms.”

Contrary to being fired, the “losers” in the PQ Systems version joined their mentors in the company’s board room after each round, where they reviewed their strategies, brainstormed about possible approaches and developed plans for the following week. These sessions clearly had an effect, because the teams that were declared “losers” in one session were often the “winners” in the next. Winners were rewarded with attention for their efforts, supplemented by a variety of gift certificates—sometimes used for lunch meetings with team members at local restaurants.

Rebecca Englebrecht, a senior at Wright State University, was a member of the team named “Productivity.” Reflecting on the experience, she pointed to the skills that team members honed while working together toward a common purpose: “It really helped us all with our communication skills within the company as well as outside the company.”

Knight points out that team settings “bring out the best in everyone. Some are good in one area, others in another. By putting them together, we get the most from these skills.” He adds that they learn from one another as well.

Because PQ Systems supports data-based decision-making with its software products, training and consulting services, the skills garnered by the interns are among those most valued in the organization. “We believe in working together to bring the best possible products and services to our customers,” says marketing manager Beth Savage, who played a key role in the interns’ team experience.

“Beth was really our Donald Trump,” says Knight.

PQ Systems president Michael J. Cleary, Ph.D., adds, “No matter how talented someone is in a specific area, we want employees who bring problem solving and teamwork abilities to the company, in addition to their specific skill areas.”

The benefits that accrued to the company through the work of the interns go beyond profit generation, according to PQ Systems’ Webmaster Matt Jansen, who worked with Knight as a team mentor. The process provided an “accelerated way of training” new employees, he says. It also gave opportunities to evaluate these interns’ abilities and work with them to develop new areas of strength. They learned how to give and receive feedback which are key factors in improvement.

Team members often sought their mentors’ advice about strategies for improving their record and at the same time, mentors encouraged interns for their efforts. “Learning to ask for help is a fundamental skill that new employees must develop,” says Knight. “The Apprentice” model gave interns opportunities to get to know their colleagues better, eliminating the isolation that new employees might feel. “Sometimes students leave jobs at the end of a summer without knowing anyone in the company they’ve worked for,” he points out.

To enhance their performance records and create variety in their tasks, the interns came up with a panoply of creative strategies, from specific call campaigns to e-mail approaches. They evaluated what worked well and which strategies should be scrapped.

Feedback garnered through evaluation surveys at the conclusion of the project reflected positive responses from the interns. While database cleanup hadn’t gained in its appeal, they acknowledged that working together to get the job done gave them motivation and excitement to do their work. On a 5-point scale measuring 11 aspects of the game (from, “I have learned/improved since I started” to, “I would use this strategy in another company” and, “I thought the game was fun”), 83 percent of the responses to all questions were “Strongly agree” or “Agree,” while there were no “Strongly disagree” or “Disagree” responses.

Larry Knight is planning next year’s “better organized” simulation, although he knows Donald Trump often makes up rules as he goes along, rather than having a well-defined system in place for each competitor. Managing interns is time-consuming and “The Apprentice” added complexity to the interns’ supervisors’ roles, but the experiment was worthwhile.

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About The Author

Barbara A. Cleary’s picture

Barbara A. Cleary

Barbara A. Cleary, Ph.D., is a teacher at The Miami Valley School, an independent school in Dayton, Ohio, and has served on the board of education in Centerville, Ohio, for eight years—three years as president. She is corporate vice president of PQ Systems Inc., an international firm specializing in theory, process, and quality management. She holds a masters degree and a doctorate in English from the University of Nebraska. Cleary is author and co-author of five books on inspiring classroom learning in elementary schools using quality tools and techniques (i.e., cause and effect, continuous improvement, fishbone diagram, histogram, Pareto chart, root cause analysis, variation, etc.), and how to think through problems and use data effectively. She is a published poet and a writer of many articles in professional journals and magazines including CalLab, English Journal, Quality Progress, and Quality Digest.