Judgment On the Front Line: A book review by Bob Morris

Judgment Front LineJudgment On the Front Line: Why the Smartest Companies Trust their People to Make Real Decisions
Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy
Portfolio/Penguin Group (2013)

How to Build and Then Sustain a Front Line-Focused Organization

The implications of the title of this book are much more complicated than they may at first seem. Frontliners in any organization are entrusted with some of its most important responsibilities but seldom empowered with the [begin italics] authority [end italics] to exercise judgment. Frontliners can determine the success or failure of an organization’s customer relations. With rare exception, the health of those relations determines whether or not an organization will survive, much less thrive. The Ritz-Carlton Company offers a highly informative case in point: All of its more than 25,000 employees (including members of the custodial crew and serving staff as well as bellhops and valet parkers) are authorized to resolve a guest complaint or concern to a limit of $2,500 before involving a supervisor. Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy thoroughly discuss Ritz-Carlton’s policies and procedures in Chapter 2 (Pages 17-42). To those in need of additional information, I highly recommend Joseph Michelli’s The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

Those who have read Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, a book Tichy co-authored with Warren Bennis, that was published by Portfolio/Penguin, already know that he has an insatiable curiosity about the relationship between great leadership and the decision-making process. Moreover, he insists that all organizations (whatever their size and nature may be) need great leadership at all levels and in all areas, and that is especially true of frontliners, those who interact directly and frequently with “the world out there,” one shared with customers, of course, but also competitors, strategic allies, and others within what has now become a global chain. He and DeRose are eminently well-qualified to address the complex issues that

Early in their book, DeRose and Tichy introduce and then thoroughly explain a five-step process for building a front line-focused organization: (1) Connect the front line to the customer, (2) Teach people to think for themselves, (3) Experiment to implement, (4) Break down the hierarchy, and (5) Invest in frontline capability. As they point out, “While we depict this process in a step-by-step fashion, the building of a front line-focused organization may not occur [and probably won’t occur] in such a neat, linear manner. Nevertheless, we have found that all of the elements are necessary whether building an organization from scratch or transforming a decades-old institution.”

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of coverage in the material.

o Leadership in a Front Line Organization (Pages 19-21)
o Building a Front Line-Focused Organization (22-41)
o Making It Local (59-62)
o Judgment on the Front Line for SEALS (67-74)
o Taking the Time to Think (78-81)
o Innovation Models, A Culture of Experimentation, and Providing Structure for Innovation (89-97)
o Making Everyone a Genius at Intuit (99-106)
o The Mayo Clinic’s “Plus One” Protocol (109-113)
o Making Time for the Front Line to Think (118-120)
o When Radical Change Is Needed (125-128)
o The Human Factor, and, Creating Supervisors Who Empower the Front Line (135-141)
o Bringing Customer-Centricity to Life (152-154)
o Frontline Leadership in the Social Sector (175-178

Following the tenth and concluding chapter, DeRose and Tichy provide a “Handbook for Judgment on the Front Line” (Pages 188-255) that, all by itself, is worth far more than the cost of this book. It consists of Nine Sections that contain a wealth of information, insights, and counsel that will enable companies to develop “more productively engaging frontline workers to solve customer problems, fix broken work processes, and innovate new products and services.” In the chapters preceding the Handbook, Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy examine real frontliners in 20 real organizations. Then, in the Handbook, they serve as their reader’s tutors, focusing on how they can help build a front line-focused organization.

This is a process, not a destination, during which senior leaders must frequently find ways of listening to and learning from the front line in order to adopt to changing environments. “Frontline employees and customers can be senior leaders’ source of early warnings about shifts in the market, so that they may in turn exercise their own judgment about the organization’s overall strategy.” I presume to add that most of the companies on the annual lists of those highly admired and the best to work for are also on the lists of those that are most profitable, have the greatest cap value, and dominate their competitive marketplace. However different these companies may be in most other ways, all are front-line focused, and, mutual respect and mutual trust define their culture.

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