People and Stories Drive Change – Charts, Graphs, and Statistics Don’t

By on August 18, 2020
People and Stories Drive Change

For a number of years, I worked for a major company in the performance improvement industry. And I often went on sales calls with our account managers. As I observed them in action, one thing became very obvious. The clients we were meeting with weren’t buying because of the charts, graphs, and statistics contained in folders we shared with them. What they were buying was the account manager making the presentation. Our most successful account managers were great story tellers. Our most successful account managers were also really liked by their clients. They trusted them. They wanted to buy from them.

And for a number of years, working as a Lean/Continuous Improvement Consultant, I’ve gone on walks through factories with plant managers. As I observed them in action, one thing also became obvious. Those plant managers who had made a career of only going to the line when there was a production problem were met with looks that varied from disinterested, to fearful, to sullen. On the other hand, those plant managers who had regularly gone to the line and talked with workers, sharing stories with them and asking if there were any ways in which they could better support them, were greeted with smiles and “Hi, Toms.” Employees looked forward to talking with these plant managers because they liked them. They trusted them. They wanted to interact with them.

Also, as I’ve walked through factories with plant managers, all too often the first stop on our walkthrough has been to look at bulletin boards filled with charts, graphs, and statistics. Typically, these plant managers have explained that their bulletin boards were positioned so all employees passed by them on their way in to work, and out. As they explained this, I often asked myself, “I wonder how often employees on their way to work, or out, actually stop and study the charts, graphs, and statistics displayed on this bulletin board?” Based on many observations, the answer was virtually none.

While the charts, graphs, and statistics often presented information of which employees could be proud, they simply didn’t capture their interest. They were dry abstractions, devoid of humanity. They showed the results of performance, they were not the drivers of performance. Employees found them boring.

Plant managers on the other hand typically found the charts, graphs, and statistics quite interesting, some becoming quite animated as they explained them to me. And some were annoyed by their observation that many employees didn’t have the same interest in them as they did.

People and Stories PosterIn other factories I’ve seen bulletin boards that were virtually devoid of charts, graphs, and statistics. Instead, posters like this one were mounted on them. I’ve noticed that employees often stopped and looked at these kinds of posters, many times commenting on them.

Why? Because they told stories and the stories were interesting. They were also about people they knew. Employees in the plant that had this poster mounted on bulletin boards throughout the facility knew Bob. And they were proud of the work Bob did. And seeing the way Bob was recognized for his intelligence and creativity motivated them to also think about ways to improve their work processes. Clearly, these plant managers understood the power of stories.

These plant managers also understood the power of the personal. They understood that their employees liked to read about great work done by their fellow employees. They appreciated the power of mailing hand-written notes to an employee’s home, expressing appreciation for the employee’s contributions to the success of the company. They knew that this form of recognition had a very potent impact on performance. And they also understood why walking up to an employee and saying how much they appreciated the great work the employee did had a potent impact on performance.

So, what are the key lessons I’ve learned from the experiences I’ve just described?

  1. Stories are remembered, numbers aren’t.
  2. Stories drive change, numbers don’t.
  3. People buy from, and learn from, people they like.
  4. People respect and trust people they like.
  5. Respect and trust are the twin drivers of positive change in any organization.
  6. And with respect and trust comes candor, without which continuous improvement is not possible.

Certainly charts, graphs, and statistics provide important data. They should reside on managers’ computers, where they can be studied to follow the impact of those stories that nurture environments filled with respect, trust, and candor.

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of resources that will help your organization unleash the power of respect, trust, and candor in your company. We would greatly appreciate having the opportunity to review these resources with you. Call us, Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022, or George Friesen at 314-303-0612, and let’s arrange a time to talk. We’re confident you’ll find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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