The VA investigation – Can the agency provide our veterans with a great customer experience?

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 20, 2015

Last week, the Veterans Affairs Inspector General issued a damming 78-page report on an investigation started 10 months ago into the operation of the Philadelphia office of Veterans Affairs. The types of problems identified in this report were consistent with those found in other VA offices across the country that were made public last year.

Nine months ago, Robert McDonald, the former chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble and a successful leader from the private sector, was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as the new secretary of Veterans Affairs to fix the widespread failures of his predecessors and to improve the customer experience of our veterans when dealing with the VA.

The Inspector General’s report on the VA Philadelphia office indicated that among other issues, over 31,000 inquiries by veterans to the Philadelphia call center went unanswered for an average of 312 days, records were falsified regarding the backlog of claims, quality reviews were altered and staff received credit for uncompleted training. Serious instances of mismanagement and employees’ mistrust of VA managers were uncovered. Our veterans deserve better than this.

Allison Hickey, the VA’s under secretary for benefits, has indicated that management and other changes have already been made at the Philadelphia VA office to improve operations and the level of service to veterans, and that the Inspector General’s report identified issues prior to these improvements.

Let’s go back prior to the confirmation of McDonald as the new VA secretary and prior to the management, system improvements and cultural changes he is implementing, and ask: Why was the VA mired in disarray? Let’s compare the difference between private sector companies and government organizations.

Companies operating in the private sector, whether they are publically or privately owned, need to provide a return to their shareholders. Most operate in a competitive environment. The more effectively the leaders of private sector companies operate their businesses and delight their customers, the higher the return to shareholders. Great companies strive to reach a level of preeminent customer experience, which differentiates them from competition and permits these companies to grow their market share because customers want to deal with them.

To experience a preeminent customer experience, all one has to do is visit an Apple Store. In addition to being driven by the need to provide a return to shareholders and the need to compete in the marketplace, Apple had one advantage that is rare with other companies – the visionary leadership of someone like Steve Jobs, who created a preeminent customer experience culture.

The senior leadership teams of successful private sector companies focus on tone at the top and nurturing the right institutional culture, as well as hiring and developing the most effective leaders who engender the trust of their employees. These leaders create an environment in which their employees develop a sense of ownership in what they do, and they inspire their employees to achieve great results.

Effective leaders encourage their employees to break their paradigms, embrace the philosophy of continuous improvement and empower their employees to pursue these improvements. The most successful private sector companies strive to be the best in the world at what they do, a journey that never ends. This is what the VA needs to do.

The VA and other government organizations, however, do not have stockholders which hold management accountable for generating great results, and do not have competition driving them to continually improve their operations and how they treat their customers. Most leaders of government organizations do not get the type of training or experience that leaders get in the private sector, and are not exposed to the mindset of leading private sector companies.

As secretary of Veterans Affairs, McDonald has a huge job ahead of him. He needs to bring to the VA a mindset that private sector companies have that drive the journey to preeminence, without having the imperatives of meeting stockholder expectations and going up against competition. Not only does he need to fix the current issues facing the VA, but also to understand which managers need to be replaced, introduce and change attitudes, and nurture a new culture at the VA. This will take time. Our veterans as well as anyone else who deals with the VA deserve a preeminent customer experience.

Stan Silverman is a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership, and serves as the Leadership Catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Website:

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