"It was gloom, doom and despair," Liff says. The office's 450 employees had been toiling over veterans' claims applications in the half-dark for two decades because many of the overhead lights were turned off during the oil embargo in the 1970s-and never turned back on. Cubicles and walls were painted bureaucratic gray, nicotine yellow and sickly green. "It looked like a damn dungeon in here," says Richard Brandeburg, a Department of Veterans Affairs manager in California.
Piles of files towered over desks, tables and the floor. The ragged carpet was dotted with squares of different-colored fabrics held together by masking tape. "You could hopscotch on them," Liff says. Workers were crammed on one side of the office while rows of file cabinets took up the other side, getting more natural light than most employees. "The file cabinets had the best view of Southern California in the office," Liff says.
The poor physical conditions were matched by the office's poor performance. Employees came to work in sweat pants. Poor performers spent a lot of time wandering around talking and not enough time processing claims, but they weren't fired. Front-line supervisors had little credibility with their employees. Customer service scores were well below the national veterans benefits office average, while the claims backlog was well above the national average. During the 1980s and 1990s, the office somehow lost about 1 million files for a program that provides home loan assistance to veterans. And, not surprisingly, auditors said claims processors were making bad decisions on whether to grant benefits to veterans.
"This office was considered to be ultra-conservative," says Terry Tracy, a veterans advocate for the American Legion in Los Angeles. "They would deny if they could deny." In fact, veterans in L.A. were less likely to have their claims granted than were any other veterans in the country. In addition, the L.A. office's rehabilitation branch helped only 60 veterans get retraining in 1994. "The culture and attitude was almost anti-veteran," Liff says. "The attitude was almost, 'If only these veterans would go away, we could do our jobs.'"
In the early 1990s, the Veterans Affairs Department considered shutting down the L.A. office altogether.
Today, the L.A. office-while still not the best-is one of the better regional veterans benefits offices in the country. Its customer service scores and quality ratings are above the national average. Claims processors eliminated much of their old backlog and are just as likely as processors elsewhere in the country to grant benefits. In 2001, the L.A. office's rehabilitation branch retrained or got jobs for 376 veterans-six times the number of veterans helped in 1994.
Stewart Liff transformed the office from a bureaucratic nightmare into a rising star of the Veterans Benefits Administration while operating under the same bureaucratic constraints that executives throughout government do. He had to follow the same personnel rules, hiring processes, performance appraisal regulations and employee grievance procedures. What he did differently suggests that good managers can find a way to manage in any system, even one so widely criticized as the federal system. It also suggests that federal civil service reform-while it may help-is not essential to making the government work better.
DIFFERENT STROKESLiff's management style draws upon his background as an artist. Picture a passion-filled young painter in New York with a fresh masters degree in fine arts. It's the mid-1970s. He moves in art circles (though uncomfortably, as a middle-class guy from Queens) and paints at night in his New York studio. One day 25 years ago, with a wife to support, he decides to take a real job with the Veterans Administration. Though he spends the next two decades working his way up the management ranks, he remains a painter at heart.
What Liff knows from painting is that in a work of art, everything matters. The canvas, the initial sketch, the color scheme, the perspective, the texture and all the other details must work together. If one piece of the picture doesn't fit, the whole work suffers. Liff has taken what he knows about painting and formed a management theory that he calls "visual management." He believes that the elements of a workplace, like the elements of a painting, should all work toward the same vision, reinforcing the mission of the organization. In his view, a workplace that looks awful produces work that is awful.
When Liff arrived at the L.A. veterans office, the picture he saw was dreadful. So he decided to redraw it. He started with the canvas, the physical office. Liff turned the lights back on. He had the office painted in bright shades of maroon and white. He replaced the carpets. He moved the file cabinets to the center of the room and the workers to the windows. He ordered that the piles of paper be filed away. He made sure the tools employees needed to do their jobs were close to their work areas-a move that discouraged employees from wandering around. Workers mirrored the change in atmosphere; they came to work in professional clothing. "They've come out of the dark and into the light-and they can be seen," says Sherry Maxwell, a human resources specialist at the office.
Then Liff moved to the foreground. In rooms where veterans come to receive services, Liff hung huge "Welcome" signs from the ceilings. He also hung large posters with pictures of veterans-Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors-along with posters saying "We Honor Veterans" and "Grant When You Can." He displayed the Prisoner of War flag.
Soon, employees started posting pictures of local war heroes on the walls. Bulletin boards with lessons on the history of veterans benefits were set up near the elevators. Local veterans started donating guns, medals, knives and clothes for hallway displays. Veterans came to the office and spoke with employees about their wartime experiences. Liff videotaped veterans of the 20th century's major wars telling their stories, then set up a television monitor in the hall where people could watch them. Veterans set up 3-D life-size displays depicting a soldier in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, a World War II fighter in a bunker and nurses at a battlefield hospital. "The visual displays remind us who we serve," says Deidre Dickey, a loan specialist at the office. "You get a sense that each case is a real person," adds Robert St. Pierre, a claims processing trainee.
PERFORMANCE PALETTEEmployees are also surrounded by images of their performance. Monthly reports showing how employees rank against each other on productivity measures are posted on the walls. Employees are identified by secret numbers rather than names, but they can see how they stack up against their peers, and how they are performing relative to the goals that have been set for their work groups. Graphs and charts on bulletin boards show how work groups compare with each other, how the office's overall performance has changed each month and how the office rates against other veterans benefits offices across the country.
"Everyone knows what they have to do every day," says Mary Freeman, a front-line supervisor, or coach, as her position is called at the office. "It's not going to be a surprise when a coach calls someone in to talk about performance."
Employees say they like knowing where they stand. That's particularly true of top performers, who received little feedback prior to Liff's tenure. Liff hangs the pictures of high-performing individuals and work groups each month near the employee meeting room. To Liff, the posting of performance indicators is another part of the visual management system, designed to constantly focus employees on the mission of the organization-serving veterans. Images posted around the office concern everything from top-level strategic plans to the minutiae of day-to-day performance. On the top level, one illustration Liff drew and hung in the office shows a yellow brick road charting the office's major goals from 1995 to 2001, while another depicts a rocket flying through goals for the next few years. At the lowest level, television monitors throughout the office turn red if a veteran has been waiting on the phone for more than three minutes. Not coincidentally, veterans spend less time on hold today than they did a few years ago.
"When you visit most offices, do you get a sense as to what the goals and objectives are? I think not," Liff says. "Most of the time, they are hidden in books, binders or someone's drawer. The less attention they get, the less likely it will be that an organization will be able to achieve them."
Liff's management philosophy isn't limited to pretty pictures. He gets rid of people who don't meet minimum standards or engage in misconduct. He has fired numerous poor performers and bad apples-or encouraged them to move on-during his tenure. He refuses to accept the conventional wisdom that poor performers in the federal government cannot be fired. "You're not going to keep your best people, they're not going to want to stay, if your weakest people are not being dealt with," he says.
Liff also moved more than half of the front-line supervisors at the office into nonsupervisory jobs or replaced them. He says they lacked credibility because they had failed to deal with performance problems or recognize strong performers. Worse, managers didn't treat employees with respect, so employees responded with poor attitudes. "None of those people were bad people," Liff says. They were just bad supervisors. He found other employees with leadership potential and trained them as coaches and supervisors.
Liff himself tries to send messages that he cares about the office and its employees. He holds a thank-you breakfast for employees each year. He walks around all the time, observing operations and talking with employees and supervisors about their performance. (Everyone calls him "Stew.") Walking around, Liff says, allows him to keep his finger on the pulse of the office and helps him come up with new ideas for improving the workplace. "Employees desperately want to see their leaders as frequently as possible," he says. "It provides them with a high degree of confidence."
THE DARK SIDELiff's efforts have not resulted in a complete turnaround at the L.A. office. Like veterans benefits offices across the country, the L.A. operation saw its backlog of claims applications double almost overnight after a recent court decision and legislative changes. The heavy workload is taking a toll on the office's workforce, which was downsized from 467 to 324 employees over the past eight years. A high percentage of trainees-hired in the past two years after a decade of almost no hiring-means many workers aren't operating at their maximum potential. "It takes three to four years for employees to be comfortable with what they're doing here," says Donald Myles, a claims processor.
Not all of the new front-line supervisors at the office have the confidence of employees yet.
Alberta Franklin, the local union president, says some managers aren't providing enough guidance to their employees to help them improve performance. In addition, not every employee has bought into Liff's vision. Preventing employees who have resisted his changes from poisoning the workplace is an ongoing challenge for Liff. "There are a core of cynics who are the last bastion of an institution that is gone with the wind," Liff says.
But the cynics are being replaced by new employees who don't know the L.A. office as anything but the operation that Liff created. "There are always going to be people who are set in their ways," says Sue Nguyen, a claims processing trainee. "You hear the same complaints about management in any workplace."
Liff's success shows that managers who set expectations, motivate and develop employees can improve their offices' performance, even in the federal system. Liff operates under the same constraints as other federal managers. In high-priced L.A., for example, he has to compete with the lofty salaries offered by private sector employers.
Then again, Liff isn't looking for people who are motivated by pay alone. The employees he has hired recently say they were attracted to the veterans office because they think they can make a difference. "I made the move to government for other reasons than private sector rewards. Anyone who made the move to the government sector expecting those rewards was either misled or was naive," Nguyen says. "If you're in this business, the true reward is being able to serve the veterans who gave us our freedom."
That attitude fits right in with Liff's vision for the L.A. veterans office.