Fishing For Excellence

Ask any manager at Time Warner Houston about why the system is so successful and they’ll likely cite the corporate culture that has been established by leadership, especially division president Ron McMillan. One key component of that culture is to encourage employees “to be entrepreneurial in each of our areas,” says marketing vice president Darrel Hegar.

It’s an especially tough job to be on a cable company’s front lines. One has to learn all the acronyms — HDTV, DVR, VOD — as well as the price points, installation and service schedules that go with them.

“I marvel at how our employees are able to absorb all the changes. We have a great employee group,” says McMillan. “It’s hard on customer service. If a customer’s not happy, they won’t buy our new products, but they will if you go the extra mile. We celebrate when we find that happening.”

To acknowledge how difficult it can be to face that grind every day, Time Warner Houston executives have instituted a plethora of reward and employee-inclusion programs. They’re designed to reinforce the team mentality and tie in with the Fish! Principles.

The Fish! philosophy is patterned after the workplace practices of the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. The program urges Time Warner Houston employees to have a good attitude; to “be there” emotionally for fellow employees; to strive to make a good day for each other and the customers they touch; and to have fun at work. Success, such as winning last year’s Chairman’s Award, warrant parties that touch employees of every rank.

Managers recognize that besides a paycheck, a pat on the back is a valuable reinforcement tool — that, and maybe the occasional car.

Employees can earn rewards for everything from perfect attendance, to participating in task forces to improve work processes, to being the best at their respective job title.

Like many Time Warner Cable systems, Houston participates in a program that annually sends winners to a corporate retreat in Puerto Rico. These “Gold Team” members “represent what we stand for. They remind us of the golden rule, that you treat others as you wish to be treated,” McMillan says.

Co-workers and supervisors nominate employees each quarter. Nominees are picked up by limousine and treated to lunch with the executive team.

Another reward program provides incentives just to show up each and every day. “We don’t want people to come in sick, but there are people who can take advantage. This [program] eliminates those who want to call in well,” quips Marla Barnard, vice president of human resources.

The perfect-attendance program is targeted at non-exempt (hourly) employees. It’s designed so participants will not be penalized for single absences in non-sequential months. For instance, if a call center worker is out a day in February, but is there every shift in March, they regain eligibility.

Last year, 400 employees qualified for the program prize: a new Ford Explorer. The award ceremony generated great excitement: in addition to vacation trips given as prizes, 10 names were drawn, and each lucky employee got to pick a car key. The person with the right key won the SUV.

More important, the program improved attendance by 4%.

“I have a big budget for fun stuff,” Barnard says. The executive, a two-year veteran with the division, noted how happy she is, too, to come to work.

“This is the job I was looking for. We have a great atmosphere, we play, we have fun. It puts you in a great frame of mind.” (Barnard says her last employer, Enron Corp., was also a fun place to work. But unlike that company, which went bankrupt amidst charges it manipulated energy prices and contributed to the West Coast power crisis, at Time Warner, employees are having fun “doing the right thing,” she says.)

Managers also have gotten the message that employees like to be heard, so the division has task forces that allow front-line workers to effect how the business operates.

“I started out in New Orleans in the ’70s, driving a warehouse forklift for Cox [Communications Inc.], and I’ve done every job in between,” says Keith Coogan, vice president of operations. That experience taught him that technicians will do every dumb thing management demands they do, but given the chance, workers will advise you how to make things run better in the real world.

That’s the idea behind Houston’s Heroes program, a task force of technical employees and supervisors who meet monthly to assess workflow.

“We focus on removing obstacles,” Coogan says.

One simple suggestion has increased technical output by two jobs a day per worker. Employees asked to take their work trucks home, that way they could be scheduled for a service call closest to their home on the way in, and on the way home from work. Employees get their daily routes in their driveways via wireless laptops each day.

That change helped improve the system’s two-hour service window goals.

The division also used to have six dispatch groups but, based on suggestions, consolidated the operations into one. “Now everyone does things the same way. It’s much easier to update customers on their call,” Coogan says.

The task forces are in addition to the performance-reward program for technicians dubbed the Big Dog program (see story, page 30).

The employees have adopted the Fish! philosophy, and generated programs of their own. One, the “Be There” fund, collects worker donations. If a worker encounters a crisis, such as residential flooding that occurred with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and with the heavy rains last year, that worker knows his fellow employees will “be there” with the victim. Right now, there is $600,000 in the fund, says Barnard.