Dec. 29 2006 11:05 AM

Recently, I was working with a client to draft a service level agreement (SLA), a common practice with good operators. Under the SLA, the mail processing unit would agree to complete all bills within a defined time period after receiving the print files. The intent of the SLA was to improve service levels and raise the customers' expectations. The unit was operating under the standard that all bills must be processed on the same day received. Daily progress reports were sent to a few people in customer service.


But what was the actual standard? We looked for a copy of the existing SLA. None could be found. Not even a draft. With no SLA, we probed further. Every operator, supervisor and manager had the same answer. The standard was to print and mail all bills the same day the print file was received. With no documentation, we asked how they knew this was the correct standard. The answer:  It must be true, because everyone says it is.


This wasn't the first time I had heard that answer. I've been lucky to work in and visit many shops across the country. In most cases, standards and SLAs are not well-documented. Even if documented, they haven't been reviewed in years or have never been read by the operators and front-line supervisors. This is not the right way to run an operation. You should have clear, written standards and SLAs. These standards should be posted in plain sight of operators. Reviews should be conducted annually.


There are probably other pieces of information that your staff believe "must be true, because everyone says it is." The top five are:



  • attendance and absenteeism policies


  • performance standards


  • training policies


  • incident reporting procedures


  • emergency procedures


    Each of these topics is critical to your operation and is information that everyone should know. Each subject should be documented and reviewed annually.


    Attendance and absenteeism polices are normally published by human resources in the employee handbook. Don't assume your employees have read, and more importantly, understand the policies. At least once a year, conduct a class for all employees to review the policies. Give your employees the exact phone numbers to call if they'll be arriving late or calling in sick.


    Performance standards should be established at review time. An individual's standards should be written down with the employee and her supervisor signing a copy. At least twice a year or quarterly, if possible, supervisors should have a one-on-one meeting with their employees to review standards.


    Human resources may set the company policy for formal training. Managers should establish training guidelines for their units, including training on procedures and equipment. It is important to create a system that allows employees and managers to track who has completed what training. Make sure everyone understands what training needs to be completed before consideration for advanced training or promotions.


    Surprises may be good for birthdays but are bad for business. Publish clear guidelines for reporting all incidents large and small. Consider using an incident reporting form, either electronic or paper. Create an atmosphere that rewards, not punishes, the messenger.


    In emergencies, people tend to act first, think later. Easy-to-follow procedures, with regular practice, will help keep people safe. Hang large posters in the work area, near phones and next to exits. Periodically rehearse and conduct drills. Hold "after action reviews" to identify areas for improvement.


    Check how well your unit measures up. First, find out if you have written procedures for each topic. Next, verify that the policies have been reviewed in the last year. If you can't make it past these two steps, you have important work to do. ·


    The steps for drafting a new policy and reviewing an outdated policy are the same: Discover, draft, refine, publish and review.


    To discover what's actually happening, hold sessions to map out the process. Remind people there are no "right" or "wrong" answers, just the truth. Establish a positive atmosphere and encourage active participation.


    Using the information from the discovery phase, draft an outline or workflow diagram of what is actually happening and what should be happening. Distribute to all members of the team for comments. Refine the document from the responses, and then hold a review session. Attempt to get buy-in from all participants. Create the final document during the meeting.


    Publishing a standard is more than sending an e-mail with an attachment. Conduct training sessions for employees. Hold informational meetings with other departments that are impacted by the policy. Explain how the policy was created and why it's important. No policy lasts forever, so schedule an annual review. When possible, assemble the team that drafted the original policy. Refine, publish and schedule the next review.


    Every so often, conduct an informal poll of your employees. Don't send out a questionnaire or survey. Walk the floor and engage your employees in conversation. While talking, ask about a certain policy. Whether the answer is right or wrong, ask the employees how they know they're correct. It's important to remember that this isn't a test of the employee's knowledge. It's a test of your effectiveness as a communicator and an employer. If most people don't know all the correct answers, it is time to take a hard look in the mirror. The reflection that you see is showing you who needs the most improvement.


    Put together a plan to improve the situation. Assemble a team on each detailed subject and involve clients, operators and supervisors. If needed, bring in external help like human resources, vendors or consultants. Well-documented standards and policies are the hallmarks of a good operation. Effective managers communicate these standards to their employees. Conducting regular reviews will ensure that standards are up-to-date and are consistent with existing conditions.


    Don't wait until someone makes an error based on what "everyone says is true." Make sure people take action because they know what's true.


    Mark M. Fallon is president and CEO of the Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document processing strategies. For additional information, visit

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