Transcript – Heuristic Podcast w/ Marc Pons

Below is the transcript for Heuristic Podcast #12 Prompt Grassroots Decision-Making Often with Marc Pons.

Alicia Parr (AP): Hi this is Alicia with Performentor and this is another Heuristic Podcast and today we’re talking to Marc Pons. Marc is the President of Chapel Hill Tire, a growing chain of auto and tire repair shops that’s inspiring a drive happy, work happy movement. Anything you’d like to add, Marc, to that?

Marc Pons (MP): It’s inspiring a work happy, drive happy movement.

AP: Oh, I got it in the wrong order!

MP: Yeah. You got it in the wrong order.

AP: Shame on me. (laughter) I should know better. I should put work happy first because of what I do.

MP: Yeah. The premise behind it is that employees are only going to treat customers up to the level that they are treated. And if you want to have happy customers, you got to have happy employees, and that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s a service business. And if you want people to be inspired, go the extra mile, really touch the person’s life, make a difference in their day. You’ve got to make sure that you’re creating the right environment for them.

AP: It seems obvious doesn’t it.

MP: It just seems funner. What a more fun way of going about work! That work can be fun and that people can enjoy their work that can be engaged in the work it’s not a grind. It’s something fulfilling.

AP: It should be that way, I agree. I think that’s why we get along, one of the many reasons.

Well, the heuristic that we are going to talk about or that I thought that we could at least start with, but we don’t have to stay there, is prompt grassroots decision-making often. And where that comes from. In my mind, it’s easy if you want to move really fast and you’re a business owner and you want to make a change, it can be tempting to kind of force it down the pipe. Sort of like a very top-down approach. This is the direction we’re going guys, and we’re going there fast! Sometimes it might feel like going to grassroots– going out to the front line or the rest of the team– can be slower, but I find that it is better. So that’s where that comes from. What is your first impression of the heuristic?

MP: My first impression is that I don’t really want to be micromanaging people in their decision-making. I want to be growing people. I don’t want to be involved in every decision. And how are you going to do that at scale? If you want to be developing people, you got to be empowering them. Their growth and development should give you– well it does for me– a whole lot of self-satisfaction. A whole lot of gratification that you’re making an impact on people’s lives.

AP: So grassroots to you, means getting decisions out to maybe where they belong?

MP: Yeah. Certainly, you have been in a situation where somebody says “well I need to talk to my manager.” You want the relationship between you and your service provider to be such that your service provider will do the right thing.

I tell folks on their first day at our orientation. You’re not going to get a big, one-foot-thick employee manual on you do things. What you’re going to get is a discussion with me for about 30 minutes on the values of the organization. We’re going to come to a common understanding. That’s the glue that holds this organization together. As we get bigger, that’s how people make decisions that dictate their behaviors. That’s where they go when the situation is gray and they’re looking for the right thing to do.

AP: Core values really are a filter that helps. What could go wrong with grassroots decision-making? People can make all sorts of decisions that are not what you would want, right? But if they run it through the filter, then that problem is a lot less likely to happen.

MP: Yeah, I think, then you’ve got alignment. You’ve got, however big you are, we have 130 employees. You can’t be involved in every situation. But if everybody is thinking in terms of what the values lead my decision-making, then the values lead my behaviors. Then I think you have alignment in your grassroots decision-making.

AP: Yeah. I’m thinking about innovation. How Chapel Hill Tire did innovation before– you’ve always been innovative at least for as long as I’ve been working with you guys– and maybe some of the changes that you’ve made to implement this heuristic. Maybe you could speak to that a little bit?

MP: Sure, how far back do you want me to go? I tried to launch…we’ve always been innovative right I’ve always been creative and trying to stay on the front lines of customer service and making their experience at Chapel Hill Tire special…but I really that like how great would it be if we had 130 people all thinking about how to improve the company and making little tweaks everywhere they could. Would it not be fun to have everybody engaged and think about how do I do my job better? How do I serve my customer better? How do I create a better customer experience?

So we put together an innovation committee where we got representatives from each location. I lead that and there was just something missing in my leading it and what I realized it was, it was made getting in the way. It didn’t have legs. So then we shifted it to an employee-led innovation team, and people became much freer open to share ideas and have discussions. Maybe they weren’t worried about saying some stupid or, they were freer and the ideas flowed, in a much greater volume.

We created a method for keeping track of all the ideas, and that the innovation team would review the ideas and decide, what they were going to act on. They would approach this from a design thinking standpoint. We have had some great ideas as a result.

AP: I remember earlier on, we would talk to the store managers and say, “here’s your task, you’re supposed to go collect some ideas from your teams.” Then we would hear back, “They don’t have ideas they don’t share anything.” Right? We’re like okay.

Well, maybe we need to flip this on its head. My observation is that part of the reason there’s some of that fear. What if I say a stupid idea? Am I going to be, I don’t know, made fun of?

But I think a bigger part of it was that people weren’t sure how to go about it and once they got some training on design thinking and realize how fun and easy. Anyone can do it. That really opened the door quite a bit. Sometimes people just don’t have the tools. If they just don’t know how to do it then they’re not gonna.

MP: I think there are a couple of things. One, they need to see how the process is going to work and see an idea come to fruition. Two, the organization can say, “we value your opinion”, but they still may not actually believe it or believe it’s worth their energy to push forward an idea. And three, I do think it’s the fear of looking foolish in front
of your peers.

And the first thing when you have a great idea, what do you do? You look for confirmation that this is a good idea. And if the person you go to first says, that’s a stupid idea, you’ll go around them and go to somebody else and be like, don’t you think this is a good idea. Right? You’re looking for confirmation. But I think that encouraging the foolish ideas can be where the genius happens. So you really need to encourage all ideas in great volume. Nobody critiques an idea and calls a dumb because often, the foolish idea can be the thing that is incredible for your organization.

AP: Wow. Well, people are different in terms of their willingness to stick their neck out there. You or I will be “I have an idea.” But if we get 2 or 3 people saying, “stupid idea”, we’ll just say “you just don’t understand it.” Right? But then there are some people, and I think, very often people who are good technically, which is a lot of your team because they need to be, might be a little bit more black and white. Thinking, well, that didn’t work. I ran it through its diagnostic and it did not work. So fail, I’m stopping. Done. I don’t know if you are seeing less of that now?

MP: The other thing about the sort of workers we have is that we are very much in a process-driven kind of company, so a lot of their ideas are, “let’s incrementally improve the process.” So we do get a ton of those. That’s the bulk of the ideas we get. What we’re shooting for are completely outside-of-the-box ideas. That’s harder for us to get the completely outside-the-box idea that no one’s really been thinking about.

But yeah, it really takes work, Alicia, and as soon as …it does require someone managing the process and constantly soliciting ideas, and making sure that the committee is engaged. The second that you get really busy or you get thin at work, people get distracted and maybe skip a couple of meetings. It loses its steam and you’ve got to bring everybody back together again. It’s very much a process. It’s got to be managed and driven.

AP: It’s gotta be a habit. It’s got to be like automatic, like breathing.

MP: Yeah.

AP: It’s got to be baked in. Whereas getting cars fixed and out the door is sort of– that’s baked in.

MP: It’s iterative. You just do it. It’s awkward at first, but you gotta stick with it and keep trying different things and keep talking to your folks. Like you said, keep reminding them that their opinion counts and that we
want their ideas. Oh hey, look at this! We can point to this idea and this idea and this idea that were all employee created and employee-driven. Look at the impact you’re making on the lives of your co-workers. And the lives of your customers.

AP: Yeah. It can get really easy to get disheartened because things aren’t moving as fast as we want them to. But then– I know that you and I have both done this before– well let’s take a pause and look back a year or two and see where we were before. Well look at all the things that we’ve implemented, so far that are ideas that were grassroots generated. It’s so easy to forget that if it’s not right there in your face.

MP: Yeah, there are things we take for granted now that we’re doing every day. People forget this was Troy’s idea, this was Presley’s idea. Look at where it’s coming from.

I do think laying out the system for people to see– here’s the process– so they can understand where the idea goes, how it gets vetted, and how it gets acted on. I think that gives us a better sense of what’s happening. I think that when they see the path, they’re more likely to give their ideas as well.

AP: Yeah, that innovation, and I imagine it’s still a journey. I think it’s come a long way. So it’s very neat.

Another thought that I had, to go off on another thread here is with grassroots decision making, is that it can feel like it’s inefficient. But I think it ends up being so much more efficient because I also think about times where you’ve had some innovative ideas. Maybe updating systems, like the texting and that sort of thing, and uptake by the front line was slow. Looking back on that, I wonder, and I don’t have the answer to this I’m just thinking out loud here, was there more that could have been done grassroots to have sped that up? I don’t know.

MP: I think, yeah, I think well…maybe from good to great… with people slow is fast. If you cut corners and try to jump over people and it takes people to get something done, and you don’t explain the why very well, you’re going to stumble. So there’s a lot of emphasis, when we do something new, on explaining the why. To everybody explaining how we got here, we also have to be explaining the whole process so that it makes sense because people don’t like it when change happens to them. They’re okay if they make the change happen. But if the change is happening to them, you got to go the extra mile to explain the why.

AP: One idea that I use in our HR consulting practice, and this is not quite grassroots but sort of, I don’t know, it rhymes. Maybe it is co-authorship. So I find it’s the same kind of thing. Some HR firms are “here’s the right way that you should do things”. I know that anybody who’s running a business is not exactly the kind of person that says ‘please give me instructions and I will follow them.’ They’re just not. That’s just not what you find usually at the head of an organization. So what I’ve learned is that it should be– it should be! Because any solution over here is really just a hypothesis, even if it worked over at this other place, it’s not necessarily going to work exactly the same way that this other organization. So I this whole idea of co-authorship is really powerful because you’re bringing your expertise to bear, or maybe your leadership to bear, your perspective to bear. For example, I see you’re posting videos of robots changing tires. For example, right, so you can spark ideas. So it’s not like you’re advocating involvement. Grassroots doesn’t mean giving up any authority. It’s just a different role, maybe.

MP: Yeah, so I looked up heuristic to make sure that I had a clear definition. It said, enabling someone just to discover or learn something for themselves. And so yes we can. You can. You can be provocative in certain ways. But ultimately, what you’ve got to have happen is people learning and growing for themselves. They’ve got to fail. That’s how you learn right? You fall off the bike and then your next time to get back up and ride a little better.

So, to me, there’s only so much telling you can do. The real learning happens, and this is, again, this is where the energy gets kicked up in your organization, is when people are really learning and growing and discovering things on their own journeys.

AP: Yeah, well that’s one of the heuristics too. To unleash people energy or unleash capability. Depends on how you want to say it.

MP: That’s what you want for your children, right? You want them to learn and grow and discover and be able to grow on their own. And that’s what you want for your people. You want to set them free, right? You want to set them free. And then when you set them free, you get that engagement. There’s so much power that they bring to the organization that is so much better than central command or top-down structure.

AP: It’s so rewarding to see people thriving and growing. And we want that too though, right? Business leaders want to feel like you’re growing. There’s something about, as a business leader, growth happens through other people.

MP: Totally. And if you if you’re. I mean, at the end of the day, you want to impact lives. And you’ve got people who are becoming better versions of themselves, or more skilled versions of themselves because you help them on that way. That’s to me just what it’s all about.

AP: The pinnacle. Yeah.

MP: Yeah.

AP: Well, looks like we’re kind of wrapping up on time Is there anything that I should be asking, Is there anything that you want to be sure to share.

MP: I think we’ve covered a lot. Again, I just think that work becomes really gratifying when you’re impacting the lives of others who work with you.

AP: I agree with that. Thank you.

MP: You bet. Thank you.

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