First Line Manager: Mission Confused? Ignored? Aborted!

I wonder if we have gotten to the point where mission statements are ignored. Every organization seems to be creating a mission statement. How effective are these mission statements?

There are two reasons why anyone does anything; the one that sounds good and the real one. As a salesman, I learned if I could get to the real reason a customer would not buy; I had a better chance of selling my service. What is the real reason for mission statements? Who are they trying to sell the idea to?

Why have a mission statement? I looked into a book I purchased at the beginning of my career, “Management” by Peter F. Drucker. He states,” Only a clear definition of the mission and purpose of the business makes possible clear and realistic business objectives. It is the foundation for priorities, strategies, plans, and work assignments. It is the starting point for the design of managerial jobs and, above all, for the design of Managerial structures. (Page 75).”

I became interested in mission confusion this year when I read my college fraternity’s mission statement.

The fraternity stated mission is “To Develop Men of Principle for a Principled Life.” This is a great high minded concept. Is this stated mission part of an extensive marketing campaign asking for donations? The mission is written in large letters on my donation envelope. Or, is this stated mission the real purpose of our General Fraternity? If we look at the fraternity’s actions maybe we can determine its real mission? The fraternity has no formal training program to teach each member principle centered leadership. This would be very beneficial to our members. Also, our Fraternity will close a chapter for the improper actions of one or a few members. They will abandon the members of the chapter who do inculcate the fraternity’s stated mission. If the stated mission was “to protect the integrity of our fraternity” would 26 of the 138 chapters be under current discipline? This count does not include closed chapters. So it appears the real and hidden mission, as it should be, is to protect the integrity of our fraternity. The stated mission misleads chapters and causes them to ignore the actual hidden mission. So, my fraternity’s actions reveal the real mission; the hidden mission. Would the hidden mission if stated to the chapters be clearer? Absolutely. Would it make a difference?

In the “Addictive Organization (1988)” written by Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassell the authors make important statements about missions. Schaef states, “Grandiosity is one of the characteristics of the addictive system… It is gross self-importance. Grandiosity keeps the mission lofty and frequently unattainable… The mission is like a household god. As long as it is in the shrine, the organization is protected, even if what it is doing has little to do with the stated mission.” Here is the point. The real mission is hidden and the morale of the organization suffers. So, we have the blind leading the blind.

Why and for whom do organizations develop mission statements? This question led me to look back over my career to puzzle it out. Here is what I learned.

I started in management in 1971 with the following statement from the owner. He said, “Jim, we want our cost to be below 65% for food and labor.” It was understood to be common sense, the restaurant will have good service and food. I managed another restaurant and became the General Manager of his new motel. We had no mission statement; maybe, because I came in contact with the missionary every couple of weeks when I discussed issues with the owner.

I worked as a management trainee in a bread factory. We knew that our product quality could not slip if we wanted to stay in business. I saw the owner every day. No mission statement.

As a Territory Manager for Ecolabs (1975-78), I was trained in all our products, service requirements, and history. We had the best products and best service. We were the best trained sales force in the industry. Our products were not the cheapest, but, we guaranteed results for our customers. No mission statement.

In 1978, I started as a Junior Accountant with Alabama Power Company. I do not remember us having an overall mission statement. This came years later.

In 1984, I was chosen to head up a customer service committee for our division. We developed three programs featuring a video of examples of good customer service. The committee came up with a theme for our program, W.E.S.T – B.E.S.T. “Western Employees Striving to Be an Excellent Service Team.” This is the purpose we wanted to accomplish. We did not call it a mission. If we created this program today I bet we would have at least called it a vision, right.

On August 20, 1992, I was given a book by Carol Bennett a Tyson plant manager in Corner. The book is, “The Deming Management Method” by Mary Walton. The book changed the way I thought about being a first line manager. On page 135, it explains how Dr. Edward Deming and Henry Ford II worked together for three years to create a mission statement for the Ford Motor Company. This mission was presented in 1984 to the leaders of the company.

Here are some of the highlights of the mission. “Mission: Our mission is to improve continually our products and services to meet our customer needs… Values: How we accomplish our mission is as important as the mission… Our people are the source of our strength… our products are the end results of our efforts… profits are required to survive and grow. Guiding principles: Quality comes first… customers are the focus of everything we do… continuous improvement is essential to our success… We are a team… we must treat each other with trust and respect… dealers and suppliers are our partners… The conduct of our company worldwide must be pursued in a manner that is socially responsible and commands respect for its integrity and for its contributions to society… Our doors are open to men and women alike without discrimination and without regard to ethnic origin or personal belief.” If you notice this mission use common sense language so every employee can understand where the company is going.

Inspired by this book, I developed a similar statement for our office in 1993. I had been the business office manager of the Dora office for five years. We made great strides in our office operation. I wanted to solidify our progress push on to another level of service. Our program for the New Year was, “We Provide H.O.M.E Style Customer Service.” I wanted this program to focus on customer service and include “the how” we could do this best. So, the how was H.O.M.E. it meant; be HONEST with each other and our customers, be OPEN to others input and to change, be MOTIVATED to serve each other and our customers, and be ENTHUSIATIC about what we do. This program was effective because this is the way I was with them. We had developed a level of trust that made the program work. I left in 1996, several years later I went back to the office. The banner with our slogan was still there.

Years later I noticed in our company communication documents a phrase, “Always On.” All of us knew this was not true. Actually, my department was in charge of getting the power on when it went off. The statement was confusing to me. How about the employees in our call centers. What was their response when a customer without power said, “I thought you promised my power would be “Always On”? This statement was the wrong message. Maybe if it was “Always on duty to serve you.” More to the truth since we provided service 24/7/365. We did not know if this was a slogan or a mission statement? I do know we did not talk about it.

In 1998, I developed a mission statement for the dispatchers in our new control center. “When the lights are on, keep them on. When they go out get them back on as safety and quickly as possible.” I retired a few years ago. An employee phones me from time to time. He is in charge of training new members. He said, “Jim remember that mission you gave us about the lights? I always start the training with that statement.” This was internalized as our main purpose. Now that is a mission.

This is why mission statements are so important inside your organization. It is the statement of the most important purpose for your future endeavors. Your members are able to internalize this purpose and act accordingly. It has to be real; not one that sounds good. Most of this is common sense. If you have the wrong mission statement, the one that sounds good, you confuse everyone.