People First Operations – THE Keystone Habit

by | May 18, 2023

When I first moved into the engineering manager role back in 2013/2014, I realized that I was unprepared from a leadership skills perspective. I will tell more of my story soon in another post but suffice it to say, I quickly dove into many Audible books on my daily commute and used that 1 hour of commuting per day to invest in myself, my team, and my family with absorbing great wisdom from books. In another post I will share my “most beloved books” list for you so stay tuned for that also. Now, I’ll just say that you’ll here me reference numerous books in my posts that have helped me in my journey of discovering the massive wins of using People First Operations and using it as my “North Star” for leadership.

Charles Duhigg, in his book “The Power of Habit”, defines the term: the Keystone Habit. He states that these are:

“small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives”

Further in his book (which is most certainly on my favorite book list) you learn that great keystone habits lead to many other downstream positive changes in that person’s or organization’s “life” that serve to transform that life in radical and significant ways.

Today, I want to highlight one such example that Duhigg uses in his book, that of Alcoa – The Aluminum Company of America. He highlights how Mr. Paul H. O’Neill was brought in to be the CEO when Alcoa was really struggling as a company. Mr O’Neill assessed that the company must make workplace safety the highest priority for the company, and Duhigg points out, correctly, that “workplace safety” became the keystone habit that turned the company around, growing Alcoa’s market value from $3 billion in 1986 to $27.53 billion in 2000, per wikipedia. Needless to say, when the investors heard about the new CEO’s direction, they were not encouraged and many divested themselves of the stock and much to their detriment as they would later find out.

The account of this story is fascinating and well worth studying; however there are two important things that I’d like to point out in this story.

The first thing is that when Mr O’Neill revealed his #1 priority of workplace safety, that marked the beginning of his extensive use of People First Operations. Not only did workplace safety overtly put Alcoa’s people first, caring for their physical well-being and safety, but it also allowed for the complete overhaul or modification of any operational process in use at Alcoa to ensure that each and every individual was safe. This led to an incredible overhaul of Alcoa processes that ultimately resulted in more engagement from every employee, more efficiency from every process, and a business that thrived in much improved service and execution to and for their customers. I don’t know the before and after metrics on employee retention/turnover but almost guaranteed, those all greatly improved over time as well.

The second thing to point out is that People First Operations are typically and almost always counterintuitive. Just as the investors yelled “sell, sell!!” to their brokers over the phone after that first investor meeting, many managers at Alcoa also likely polished their resumes expecting the worst.

But as some say today “if you know, you know” and that is the power of People First Operations. It’s counterintuitive to make the priorities of the Win-Win-Win as #1 for our people, #2 for our company, and #3 for the customer, because aren’t we supposed to put our customers first?? (See my first blog post for more to this) But, as you will find out over journeying with me at People First Operations, I love counterintuitive things that work. They’re everywhere and you just have to have eyes to see them.

To wrap things up for this blog, the very same keystone habit of People First Operations will have transformative effects on any company or organization, including yours. Therefore, for organizational leaders, it is of paramount importance to continuously reevaluate their operational processes so that their people can do their jobs with satisfaction, fulfillment, safety, efficiency, and even enjoyment while also bringing the valuable goods and services to their customers. This allows the organization to operate with infinitely sustainable operations, which leads to more and more success over time.

Watch for my next blog post on why infinite sustainability is so important and what it can do for you, your team, your company, and every decision that you make.

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