By Bill Catlette and Richard
Unless you were in a self-imposed news blackout
during the last week of 2004, you probably know
about what USAirways CEO Bruce Lakefield called
an "operations meltdown" - the fiasco of epic
proportions that besieged the bankrupt airline
when "a large number" of flight attendants, baggage
handlers, and ramp workers called in sick on
Christmas weekend. Some of you, we're sure, were
part of the story, as yours was one of the nearly 400
flights cancelled and/or the 10,000 or so pieces of
luggage that ended up short of their final
Union leaders denied any organized
effort to slow operations. Of course there was no
organized effort. None was needed. Maybe
there was a little "peer encouragement", but by and
large, all it took was for each of those USAirways
employees to decide on his or her own to withhold
their services for a couple of days. As the work rules
allow people to call in sick, no rules were broken.
Which brings us to our point. Work is
contractual; effort is personal.
As many of
you know, we're in the throes of writing a book that
deals with the whole topic of "Discretionary Effort"
(DE) - that increment of human labor whose
expenditure is entirely at the discretion of the
individual who owns it. Some (not all) of the articles
in our Fresh Milk series this year will explore what
we're learning about DE.
In purely economic
terms, Discretionary Effort is by far the most
profitable morsel of human effort ever offered up to
employers. By definition, you can't pay for DE; you
can't beat, cajole, or entice it out of anyone. It's
what we do willingly, because we want
And in that respect, it's more valuable than
gold. Or a portfolio full of Berkshire Hathaway
In our book (literally and
figuratively), the organization that figures out how to
corporately maximize the Discretionary Effort of its
entire workforce wins. Simple as that.
Game vs. 'C' Game
While we're sure that
most of you who read Fresh Milk are above average
on the DE scale, we'd all probably have to admit that
there are days when we play our "A" Game, and
other days when we offer no better than our "C"
Studies have repeatedly shown that, in
fact, most of us operate far short of our potential
much of the time. In 2004, we asked 158 of our
readers to complete a survey on DE. Correction - we
asked all 5000 of you do the survey; 158 of you
obliged. What you told us suggests that most people
routinely expend only about 62% of their physical,
mental, and emotional capacity while at work.
Everyone's entitled to a bad day now and then, but
that's like taking every Thursday afternoon and all
day Friday off!
When asked how much of their
capacity they thought most people routinely expend
on non-work activities (hobbies, sports, volunteer,
family, etc.), the same respondent group pegged the
ol' 'effort meter' a little higher, at about 75%
By their own admission, 41% of the
respondents to our survey indicated that they "could
contribute substantially more at work, if they wanted
to." Fewer than 30% disagreed with that statement.
Calling to mind our respective performance on the
last few 'honey-do' lists we each attempted around
the house, we suspect this phenomenon isn't
confined to the workplace.
So what makes the
difference? Why do some people work "flat out" most
of the time, and others' work can best be described
Some of this, we think, is
institutional. Places like Wegman's Supermarkets,
Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, and FedEx, seem to
have more people playing their "A" game more of the
time than most of their competitors. Do you really
think it's purely coincidence that the Christmas airline
luggage fiasco involved USAirways, and not
Southwest? We don't.
Another part of the
equation - and from what we can tell so far, a large
part of it - simply has to do with how we're wired.
Call it what you like - character, Commitment, work
ethic - some of us are simply more devoted to giving
our all than others, regardless of the presence or
absence of outside motivators. Everyone has an "A"
Game and a "C" Game. But for some folks, "A" just
seems to be the default condition.
How else can
you explain what happened at USAirways less than a
week after the aforementioned meltdown?
nearly everyone's shock and amazement, the
airline's management, knowing that hundreds of
dispirited employees had just feigned illness rather
than show up to do what they were being paid to do,
asked employees to volunteer to work, with no pay -
nada - gratis - pro bono if you
will, as greeters, traffic directors, and coffee
dispensers, at the Philadelphia hub, over the New
The only thing more astonishing
than the airline's temerity in asking for volunteers
was the fact that a couple hundred of their
employees actually bellied up and did it!
These people work for the same company, in the
same locations, with the same managers and surly
passengers as the "sickies". They've been asked to
take the same pay cuts, and have been subjected to
the same remarkable disregard as their fellow
workers, and yet they volunteered to help the
company out in a pinch. In our view, that can only
be explained by individual differences in what each
person is willing to do for the sake of the
So What Can You Do?
Let's say you're a manager who wants to
do what you can to maximize the DE of the people
you work with. What can you do? You can be sure
that'll take up the lion's share of the book we're
working on right now, and it's a topic that can't be
squeezed into a quart of Fresh Milk, but here are a
few ideas for starters:
1. Hire people with
a proven record of going the extra mile. Look for it in
resumes, and listen for it in interviews. Watch for
signs of self-initiated development efforts like taking
courses outside of work, taking on unpopular
assignments, and volunteering in the
2.Take strident efforts to
build, maintain, and protect trust between
you and the people you work with. We'll do an awful
lot for those we trust, and precious little for those
3. Don't take undue advantage
of those who customarily give their all. Everyone has
a limit. The fastest route to an "A" player's "C" game
is to make "heroic" efforts the norm. If you expect
people to work 70 hours week after week after week,
with no end in sight, you'd better be putting
something mighty tasty in the Kool-
4. When people do, indeed, go
above and beyond the call of duty, let them know
you appreciate it. Really appreciate it. Thank
them, genuinely. Reward them, acknowledge their
work as truly special, and let them know you know
the difference between doing the minimum required,
and playing one's "A" game.