Mission statements: the whys and the hows

Foodservice distributors should realize the importance of establishing corporate mission statements. Such statements echo the company’s values and beliefs and serve as a moral guideline for its management and employees. To ensure the efficient implementation of mission statements, management should meet with officials and employees and explain the significance of the statements. Documents should also be created, recognizing the existence of the statements.

Foodservice distributors who have written mission statements have firmly riveted their corporate cultures in position. Furthermore, they have seized an excellent opportunity for a high-yield investment.

In almost all business situations, the notion of a fair return on an investment holds true. But, what exactly is a fair return? Five percent? Ten percent? Twenty?

If all of the expenditures involved in planning, creating, and implementing a dynamic mission statement were recounted, than it would be clear that it is “fair” to expect a return. And, that return is there. In practical terms, the increase in human productivity alone can be extraordinary.

True, many distributors feel that mission statements are simply the latest version of “snake oil” and are content to skip getting involved in what they regard as a passing fad. However, looking back over the results obtained by distributors who have drawn up mission statements, it appears that they are here to stay. The fad has become the rule.

Every day, distributors send out messages to their workforce, as well as to their customers and other members of the business community. Some of these messages are inadvertently of the wrong kind.

In one instance, DSRs were told, “We buy the best canned corn in the country.”

“But,” one rep responded, “even though it grades Fancy, it only scores 91.”

Is there a difference between “best” and “fancy?”

Or take the case of a day-shift warehouse supervisor who reported receiving three extra cases of drinking cups on an order for 50 cases. “If the vendor made a mistake, that’s his problem,” the warehouse manager said. “We can make a few extra bucks to take care of our shipping mistakes.”

Is this really the kind of message a company’s management wants to send out to its warehouse personnel?

Or take the case of a distributor owner who told a staff meeting that the company had to be more responsive to customer needs. Gently, almost fearfully, a customer-service rep asked, “Then why do we cut off the phones at 4 p.m.?”

These seeming inconsistencies, or misinterpretations based on language, are frequently sources of disruption, chagrin, and loss of profit.

THE MAJOR BENEFITS

It doesn’t have to be this way. You have the opportunity to make sure that your message is clear, that your particular set of beliefs and values is understood and utilized throughout your organization.

This is the first benefit of mission statements. They are a clear communication of what you believe. It is the owner, president, or top manager saying, “I hold these truths dear and these are conditions of working here.”

However, a second, more compelling benefit emerges as a natural outgrowth of writing a mission statement. All employees become focused since their company is forced to define its market, its individualized niche.

This happens because there is an immediate need to prepare a strategic plan, a course of action which will lead the company forward. Done properly, this means the involvement and empowerment of executives, managers, supervisors, and workers. Everybody in the company begins to move in the same direction.

STEPS TO IMPLEMENTATION

Six major steps insure a successful journey to understanding and implementation of a mission statement:

  1. Schedule an hour-long meeting for company executives to talk about a mission statement. Have one person lead the discussion. This leader should have a flip chart available and record the answers to these two questions:

First, “What are the values and beliefs of this company?” As the words describing the company flow, they should be noted on the chart.

The second, equally important question is, “What else?”

A sample of words that might come forth as descriptions includes honest, fair, profit-oriented, dedicated to customer service, growth-oriented, customer-driven, value of employees, treat people fairly, strive for perfection, and technology leaders.

The potential list goes on and on. The leader should not limit discussion, but encourage it. Don’t let anything interfere with this all-important step in giving voice to your company’s mission. Just let it roll out.

  1. Similar meetings should be held with groups of sales reps, office people, drivers, and warehouse employees. These groups can be mixed or matched. It doesn’t matter at this point. The important thing is to get these employees talking. There’s no need for the leader to question “Why?” People say what they say. It is only important to make sure that the words you put on the chart are what the person really means.
  2. Surprise, surprise. When you compare the two sets of words or phrases, the similarities will be remarkable. So, when the executives reconvene for a one- or two-hour session, the next task is to group the words in units. For example, “honesty” and “truth” might be considered the same. “Customer-driven” and “service-driven” might be similarly linked.

During this meeting, the team should take the words and state them in simple sentences. This might turn out to be be the most difficult part of the exercise. A sure-fire method to make this step work is to try to limit each sentence to no more than 15 words. By forcing yourself and those on your team to be concise, you will set the stage for understanding.

Several weeks later, there should be still another meeting to re-examine the statements and gain consensus. Letting some time pass before holding this meeting allows those involved an opportunity to get away from the project and return with a fresh perspective. Everyone should agree on the language.

  1. Now it is time for the owner, president, or chief executive to think about these statements. After a two-week gestation period, this person should offer additional comments and/or an agreement that this is what the company stands for. It is always wise for the entire executive team to meet with this person during this process. In fact, the president should sit in on all meetings.
  2. Now that the document exists, preferably on one typed page, it is time to bring it back to the rest of the company. This can be done through a series of meetings, each attended by about 20 people from different departments, until the entire organization has met and discussed the mission statement. Since the statement will have been circulated beforehand, employees will be familiar with it, so these meetings might last just about an hour.
  3. The final series of meetings is scheduled to present the finalized mission statement at department meetings: sales, warehouse, delivery, office, etc. At least two members of the management team should be present at each of these.

The question to pose at this final meeting is, “How do we intend to carry out our mission statement?” It should be repeated over and over so everyone in the company commits to a form of work behavior that is consistent with the beliefs and direction of the company.

It is possible to complete this entire mission-statement process in about two months. There is no rush. After all, the company has probably been around for quite a while. It is in the area of implementation that time is needed.

GIVING LIFE TO THE STATEMENT

There are a number of methods to breathe life into your mission statement. For example, copies should be sent to suppliers, customers, community leaders, bankers, and newspapers.

One customer called the president of a company who had just publicized a mission statement and asked, “You really believe this stuff?” Even over the phone, the president’s smile came through, “Believe it? I live it every day of my life.”

Every entrance to the building should have a sizable plaque reproduction of the mission statement. Other plaques should be posted at crucial places around the building.

Business-card-size reproductions of the mission statement should be in the wallet of every employee. A now-classic story tells of a warehouse worker who challenged a manager by whipping out his mission statement and saying, “What you want me to do is not following our mission.”

When a significant number of new employees have been hired, they should attend a meeting to discuss the mission statement. Naturally, it should also be presented in your employee manual and during job interviews.

There should be annual review meetings to make sure that all employees continue to understand and use the mission statement as a guideline for their behavior.

OTHER BENEFITS

There are occasions in which mission statements can lead in strange directions. A customer-service rep complained to the sales manager one day that a customer was making sexual remarks over the phone. Thinking about it, the manager said, “That is not the way we treat people and it isn’t the way we expect to be treated. I will call this customer and explain that the behavior has to change or we will have to stop doing business together.”

When the sales manager told the story to the company president, the president said, “People who work here expect to be treated with dignity. Thank you for adhering to the mission statement.”

There is something cleansing about engaging in the process. It represents an opportunity to state once and for all exactly how you want the company to be run. It is a clear set of doctrines in which you believe.

Along the way, you transfer significant power and authority to all of the people in your company. This sets them running on the same track, striving to reach the same goals and objectives as management.

A mission statement is not a perfect device. People will still misconstrue and confuse language and meaning. But, it is a definite way to capture the energy and devotion of employees, and convert those precious resources into a high-yield asset.

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