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Why Is that Last Mile Such a Challenge?

Photo of long empty roadby Derek Irvine

Recognize This! — Aligning individual behavior to core values can be a challenge, but recognition is one way to win over that last mile.

Those who know transportation logistics or supply chain management are very familiar with the “last mile problem.” Fans of online retailers may also have some personal experience with this challenge: a package is sitting in a distribution center in the next town over instead of on your doorstep. The last mile refers to that short amount of distance between a major hub and a product’s final destination, often a disproportionately costly portion of the entire shipment.

There is an analog to this problem in the business world when it comes to executing strategy.

Many organizations can readily develop a strategy for their business, one that ties their mission and ambitions to the larger competitive context. Executives spend a lot of time getting the strategy right, and then communicating it to their divisional leadership. These leaders are subsequently tasked with making the strategy actionable, creating initiatives and business plans to deliver on key goals. The “last mile” involves the challenge of aligning individual employee behavior to the strategy and initiatives, as the final part of the cascading process.

As in transportation, figuring out how to win in the last mile is often a challenge.

What is one key to success in cultivating the right employee behaviors? It turns out that a company’s values are critically important. In fact, ModernSurvey found that close to 60% of employees say that their organization’s values actually guide their behavior at work. As Patrick Lencioni has written, “values can set a company apart from the competition by clarifying its identity and serving as a rallying point for employees.” They are a cohesive force that aligns the “last mile” micro dynamics (rallying of individual employee behavior) with macro dynamics (organizational identity and strategy).

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean values are necessarily easy to get right.

As Lencioni continues, “coming up with strong values- and sticking to them- requires real guts.” So what makes a set of company values strong? I’ve addressed this topic previously, but two components from that post bear repeating. Strong values have:

  • Internal strength, ensuring that values are truly core values that remain central over time. Differentiated from either aspirational or accidental values that can draw leaders’ attention astray, core values lend meaningfulness and context to the set of behaviors that are expected to achieve organizational outcomes.
  • External strength, or the extent to which employees understand and are able to act upon those values as a rallying point. This means more than having a set of values on a plaque on the wall. Values are given external strength when employees behave in a values-consistent way every day, and are recognized for that behavior.

If core values are clear and employees are empowered to act upon them, the last mile will be won.

Social recognition offers a powerful tool for reinforcing alignment to core values, much like other technologies have been leveraged to solve the last mile challenge in transportation. It can bring values down off the wall and into the hearts and minds of employees, establishing sets of behaviors that are immediately recognized and shared across people. It is the mechanism that reinforces continuous cycles of values-aligned behaviors, ultimately resulting in greater engagement and returns.

What has your experience been over the last mile of aligning employee behavior?

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