Why Frontline Judgement Makes a Difference

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Dr. Noel M. Tichy is a Professor of Management & Organizations at the University of Michigan. He has been the director of Global Business Partnership, and for over a decade he ran the Global Leadership Program, a 36-company consortium of Japanese, European and North American companies to develop senior executives and conduct action research on globalization in China, India, Russia and Brazil.

Dr. Tichy is the author of numerous books and articles, the most recent of which is JUDGMENT ON THE FRONT LINE: How Smart Companies Win by Trusting Their People, co-authored with Chris DeRose.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Can you tell us a little bit about the Turtle Tank and how it relates to Frontline employees?

Dr. Noel Tichy: It was actually a wonderful concept that Chris DeRose came up with. It came out of a discussion he had with a store manager. The store manager said, well you know the problem is the turtle farm. Chris shook his head, and said I have no idea what he meant. He explained it: If you put a turtle in a small tank, even though it has the potential to grow much bigger than the tank, it’s growth will be stunted. That is the same thing that happens with people on the frontline. If you set low expectations and don’t give them the opportunity to grow, they will become stunted and it is your fault as the leaders. That is the “turtle tank.”

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: As organizations work forward being frontline focused, you talk about how the objectives must start at the top. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Noel Tichy: One of the things that we want to make clear, and what we have seen in the field and what we write about in the book it’s not about anarchy at the frontline. The top of the organization; Bezos at Amazon, for example, has a very important responsibility to set the framework for unleashing talent at the bottom. It starts with what we call a teachable point of view. What are the ideas, products, distribution channels, customer segments that are part of Amazon for making money. Then what are the values; another part of your teachable point of view is to be on the team, what is our value set around openness, around trust, around those things that people have to behave in order to support the ideas.

Then the third element of a teachable point of view is emotional energy; how do we motivate and energize people using rewards, opportunities to grow, opportunities to learn and contribute. The final part of a teachable point of view, which does come last, is what we call edge or judgment. Once you have got good ideas, good values, good emotional energy, you now have earned the right to make “yes/no” decisions; who is on the team, off the team, to invest in this or not invest in that.

It is the responsibility of the senior leadership to set that framework but then use that framework, and this is the paradoxical part: top – down, and then to go bottom – up, top – down, both ways, but once you have that then the people on the front line at Amazon or at Google, within that framework can come up with innovations that are then driven from the bottom because that is where the interface with the customer is. They know more about the customers and about what is going on at that interface than the CEO does.

Those at the front line of your organization are more than just the customer interface. They are the best source of knowledge about how your organization is actually working, how customers and the market are changing, and whether your company strategy is being well executed. Frontline employees are uniquely positioned to create value in three distinct ways:

    1. Generate Ideas: Most organizations have an untapped reservoir of creativity and latent innovation in the thousands, or even tens of thousands, of frontline workers. These employees can offer new ideas for products or services based on firsthand dialogue with customers about their needs.
    2. Solve Problems: No company is free of undesirable bureaucracy. Frontline workers not only see where the gears get stuck in serving customers as a result of organizational processes or policies, but they often know the solution.
    3. Avert Crises: Frontline employees often know where danger lies on the job. They see if safety rules are skirted, hygiene standards relaxed, or security standards breached. If they feel they will be listened to, they are able to help companies avoid disaster by providing early warnings.


Learn more about frontline employees and what they can do for your company. Find out what The Turtle Tank and the HiPPO Corollary are. Listen to the complete recording of our discussion with Noel, without commercials, above.


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