Let’s talk about operating principles: what are they and why are they needed?
I would like to use a hypothetical example from our organization. Each month we teach a series of public and private classes in facilitation skills, consulting skills, strategic planning, management and leadership. Let’s say a call comes into our office. The caller says, “I took your class last month in consulting skills, and I hated it. It didn’t cover any of the topics that were important to me and I want my money back!”
Like most leaders, I want the person from our organization who takes that call to respond to the caller in the same way I would. However, for this to happen, the employee has to understand three basic principles of the way we operate.
- We are in business to make money.
- We only deserve to make money when we have satisfied a client need.
- We do not fix problems, we eliminate them so that they don’t occur again.
Understanding the Principles
Suppose the person from our organization who takes that call understands only the first principle. How will he answer the call? He will likely say, “You didn’t like the class? I’m sorry. We don’t give refunds. Click.”
Of course, that is not the way I would want that call answered.
Suppose the person understands the first two principles but doesn’t understand the third. How will he answer the call? He might say, “You didn’t like the class? I’m sorry. We’ll gladly give you a refund. And here’s an extra 10 percent because we wasted your time. I hope you will consider us in the future.”
That response is better than the first. However, the root cause of the problem was never determined, so the problem will likely occur and have to be fixed again in the future.
However, if the person from our organization who that takes that call understands all three of the principles, he will likely respond as follows:
“You didn’t like the class? I’m sorry. We will gladly refund your money. Can you take a minute to help us out? What were you looking for in the class? When you called to register and talked to our salesperson did they ask you what you were looking for? Oh, you didn’t talk to a salesperson. You registered online. It sounds like we might need a follow-up process for online registrations. The reason I say this is that the skills you were looking to improve are covered in our facilitation class, not our consulting skills class. We had you in the wrong class. The facilitation course appears to address each of the specific skills you are looking for. If it is OK with you, instead of a refund, I would like to transfer your registration into the next facilitation class at no additional cost to you. Is that OK? The next class is … “
As you can see, we really are in business to make money!
If your people don’t understand your operating principles, they will likely not make the same decisions, or respond in the same way, that you would. Typically, when there is an absence of clear operating principles, people respond based on their own principles, which may or may not match yours!
Great leaders understand the power of clearly defined values and operating principles. While values tend to be at a higher level, operating principles tend to provide a much more specific set of guidelines for making day-to-day decisions.
Steps for Developing Operating Principles
- Start by building a list of some of the common issues or circumstances, which your people might face on any given day.
- Identify how you would respond, or how you would want your people to respond, in each of the situations.
- Ask yourself, “What are the key beliefs or guidelines that determined my reaction?” These beliefs or guidelines will likely form the basis for your operating principles.
- Document the draft of the operating principles along with the sample situations that triggered them.
- Engage your team in a discussion about the sample situations and how they might react based on the draft operating principles.
- Make changes or additions to the operating principles as needed.
- Publish the operating principles and make part of new employee orientation.
- Discuss the operating principles periodically to maintain awareness. (Note: Some of the best customer service organizations in the world review their values and principles daily!)