Tag Archives: middle management

Thought Leader in Action: At Walmart

How do you manage risk when your company is the biggest employer in the U.S. other than the federal government? Very carefully — and very well, if you’re K. Max Koonce II, the senior director of risk management at Walmart, until recently, when he took a senior position at Sedgwick. You do that partly by taking advantage of an extraordinary amount of data to identify potential problems, to use outcomes analysis to greatly shrink the number of litigation firms you use, to be highly selective about doctors used for workers’ comp and even to set up a full-sized, in-house third party administrator.

But let’s begin at the beginning:

Koonce was born in Mississippi, but his family moved to Bentonville, AR, where he has lived most of his life with his wife and family. He attended Harding University, a private liberal arts university located in Searcy, AR, where he graduated with a BBA in economics. Thinking that economics was not as challenging a career as what he aspired to, Koonce attended the University of Arkansas William Bowen School of Law to obtain his J.D.

He was immediately hired by Walmart upon his graduation in the ’90s and was given the responsibility to set up Walmart’s internal legal defense system for the roughly 30,000 Walmart employees at the time. He and his in-house team of legal aides handled all of Walmart’s workers’ comp and ultimately much of its liability claims. The program worked so well that the governor of Arkansas appointed Koonce as an administrative law judge for the state workers’ comp commission in 1997, with Walmart’s blessing. With Koonce’s departure, Walmart eliminated the internal legal program and transferred its litigation to outside legal firms.

K. Max Koonce II

By January 2000, Koonce was appointed by the governor to the Arkansas Court of Appeals. With a vacancy in the State’s Supreme Court, Koonce ran for State Supreme Court in a partisan election. During the campaign, he shared fond memories of attending all kinds of civic events, fundraisers and county fairs around the state. When he failed to get elected, Walmart brought him back to head its risk management program that same year. The program grew dramatically with his return.

Apart from the U.S. government, Walmart is the largest employer in North America. Nearly 20 million people shop at Walmart every day, and 90% of the U.S. population lives within 15 minutes of a Walmart. If Walmart were a country, it would be the 26th-largest economy in the world. Walmart manages 11,500 retail units in 28 countries; generates $482 billion in annual sales; and has 2.2 million employees (1.4 million associates in the U.S.). Koonce exclaimed that there was no other retail company to benchmark to, so his risk management department had to make up its own risk benchmarks. Interestingly, with a tightly managed work culture and such huge numbers to work with, Walmart’s risk management statistical and actuarial claim calculations have proven to be consistently accurate for many years.

Walmart’s risk management department has grown over the years to more than 40 risk management support personnel. Walmart divides its risk portfolio by working with two competing insurance brokers. Koonce said he had an incredibly talented and dedicated team of risk management professionals working at headquarters in Bentonville. “The analytics and metrics achieved by my experts,” he said, “were as good as any in the insurance industry.” He said that no relevant risk factors in Walmart’s operation went unnoticed.

Walmart’s workers’ comp program is designed to include specific doctors and medical facilities to ensure consistent care of any injured workers. Walmart manages detailed feedback from all of its employees to continue to fine tune its workers’ comp program. Koonce stated that risk management has always been a part of the Walmart culture, going back to its founding by Sam Walton in 1962; Walton wanted to help individuals and communities save money while ensuring that the company’s operations adhere to ethical decision making, good communication and responsiveness to employees and stakeholder.

Using an “outcomes-based” approach to litigation management, Walmart’s team relies on claims data analysis and metrics to choose, evaluate and consolidate the number of workers’ comp attorney firms. Max notes: “This approach forms tighter relations with a smaller number of lawyers to create a ‘one team’ approach to litigation.” In California alone, for example, the mega-retailer reduced the number of legal defense firms from more than 20 to three. The outcomes-based litigation strategy relies on a multivariate analysis using Walmart’s own claims data. Metrics are used to benchmark attorney performance and align specific lawyers with cases depending on claim facts and knowledge about an attorney’s unique skills and experience. At Walmart, claims examiners generally choose specific defense attorneys to maintain a continuing team relationship.

Besides retail store risks, Walmart also manages the largest private trucking firm in the U.S. and delivers more prescriptions than any other retailer. Asked if he had experienced any highly unusual claims during his tenure at Walmart, Koonce said that Walmart is all about awareness, control and consistency and that claims were nearly always within an expected parameter (i.e. slip-and-fall claims) and not horrific, as some employers experience. Each store location, including Sam’s Clubs, have conscientious safety response teams that sweep the stores periodically during their shifts and respond immediately to any safety hazards like floor spills.

A unique feature of Walmart is its subsidiary, a third party claims administrator (TPA) called Claims Management Inc. (CMI), at which Koonce served as president. Located in nearby Rogers, AR, CMI administers the casualty claims, including workers’ compensation, for all Walmart stores. Although most companies with national operations use insurer claims administrators (for non-self-insured operations), or multiple regional TPAs, Walmart’s CMI operation is a sizable TPA of its own with 600 employees. As Koonce explains, “CMI provides the claims oversight the company feels is desirable to maintain good control, communication and consistency.”

Unlike most national companies, Walmart has been able to maintain a highly efficient and focused risk management program through a tight-knit organization consisting of mostly local or regional employees who live and work in Benton County, AR (pop. 242, 321). Most of Walmart’s managers have been employees who have worked their way up the corporate ladder. Sam Walton once said: “We’re all working together; that’s the secret.”

Koonce left Walmart in September to serve as senior VP of client services for Sedgwick Claims Management Services. He was succeeded by Janice Van Allen, director of risk management at Walmart, who started as a store department manager in 1992. Koonce said he’s doing what he loves most at Sedgwick — helping risk managers achieve success with their internal programs.

How ‘Cascades’ Can Build Work Culture

Most of us have heard the phrase: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It could be restated as, “Your actions speak louder than your words.” This means that management can dream up any strategy they want, but their behaviors and actions are what create the culture of an organization.

Culture drives how efficient an organization’s processes are. Culture drives the success or failure of an organization. Culture is the product of leadership decisions or the lack of decisions.

The best-articulated corporate vision and strategy are of no value if they cannot engage the hearts, minds and work habits of employees at all levels and convey a purpose beyond just profit.

A vision states where an organization wants to go; a strategy defines the path to get there; and the work culture describes how business processes are actually executed along the path toward the vision. The health of a work culture can range from a contagiously high-performance work culture to mediocre or all the way down to a disruptive, confrontational culture that can’t get much done on time or done right the first time. A disruptive culture can trump the best vision and strategies every time. On the other hand, if a work culture is nurtured and groomed to align with a carefully crafted vision and strategy, the positive momentum could be unstoppable.

Figure 1 shows possible scenarios of vision, strategy, culture and performance alignment and misalignment. Business process performance (small white arrows) is more correlated with the work culture (small red arrows) than with the vision or strategy (big blue arrow) of an organization. Work culture — not vision or strategy — culture drives business performance. The challenge presented by this dilemma is that the work culture is an invisible force that is hard to measure. It shows its good side when you watch it and only displays its bad sides when you look away. The work culture is the product of complex cascade effects inside an organization and is as much affected by leadership actions as it is by the lack of appropriate actions. If left unattended, it will create its own random world of hidden agendas, which will probably not be aligned with the priorities of the organization.

Figure 1
– 3 Possible scenarios of vision, strategy, culture and performance alignment

Corporate visions and strategies are usually rolled out in formal three- to five-year plans. Work culture management and monitoring is too often not in sync with that plan and referred as an “HR thing,” even though it is the gate-keeper of business performance. If you do not understand and actively manage the work culture, it will manage you.

Measuring Cascade Effects Risks

It would be wonderful if we could just plug a measurement device into an organization to check its health and the risks of cascade effects (Figure 2). The work culture defines how employees work with each other through communication, coordination and cooperation. It generates multiple slow-motion and rapid chain reactions, ripple effects and cascade effects that greatly affect the mood and attitude of the organization. It predestines an organization for success or failure.

Figure 2
– The challenge of measuring work culture health and risks

How can we measure the health of invisible cultural chain reactions that can drive the success, mediocrity or failure of an entire corporation? I suggest a series of management and employee surveys and brainstorming assessments to test for the presence of 56 different elements of risk that can be present at any level in an organization. (See Figure 3 for a partial view of the survey.) The culture assessment tool shown in Figure 3 should be used for at least three different levels of management in an organization. These three levels of perception will offer triangulation data points, which will show how common or diverse the perceptions are that describe the organizational culture.


Figure 3 – Partial view of a gamified organizational health survey

The Organizational Force-Fields That Drive Success or Failure

Chain reactions, domino effects, ripple effects and snowball effects are similar in that they are defined by the single acts that created them. Once triggered, they will play out their effects depending on the amount of resistance the system presents against them. Cascade effects are different. They are fueled by a hierarchy of multiple interacting triggers at different levels in the system.  Time delays between cause and effect are common, making the direct correlations between cause and effect more difficult to identify. Each element of the cascade effect can create dramatic outputs involving as many as three degrees of separation, rippling through an organization. There are three types of organizational cascade effects:

  • Destructive tsunamis of non-cooperation and negativity
  • Expanding groups of  status quo herd followers
  • Constructive waves of cooperation, empowerment, motivation and positivity

If all of the cascade effects are present in an organization at the same time, the result will be conflict, employee frustration and lack of momentum in the right direction.  A random mix containing equal parts of motivated, frustrated, positive and cynical employees co-located for 40 hours a week is not a formula for success; it is a recipe for mediocrity or even disaster.

Positive Organizational Cascades

These are acts of positivity that multiply and can also spread from person to person. In 2010, researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Harvard published the results from their experiments in an article titled: “Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks.” They showed that cooperative behavior can be just as contagious as bad behavior. They showed that positivity can spread from person to person to person by displaying random acts of cooperation, generosity and other positive behaviors. This creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens of people who were not involved in the initial trigger event.

Mediocrity and Consensus Cascades

These cascades are the result of contagious personal decisions to blend in with the crowd and not make any waves (also known as “group think”). Many researchers, including those from the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, have confirmed this phenomenon. Forces in organizations and society like peer pressure, blending in, the herd mentality and the band-wagon effect can cause an individual to follow the herd, even if that violates personal preferences and value systems of what is right and what is wrong. This is often done to save one’s reputation in a group and gain acceptance. Efforts to achieve team consensus can create the same phenomena, resulting in conclusions that might not always be the best ones. Teams can assign a “devil’s advocate” role to a participant to deliberately challenge “herd decisions” to counter this cascade effect.

In 2013, Forbes wrote an article titled: “Brainstorming is Dead…,” which summarized recent criticism by many about how creative people can get suppressed by other personalities during brainstorming events when the main priority is to get consensus on all brainstorming conclusions. Forcing consensus is as useful as it is dangerous. To avoid ineffective and dangerous group-think cascade effects, group decisions should build on each other’s ideas, when possible, to create innovative hybrid solutions and not pick one idea and totally discount another idea that might have a flicker of genius.

Negative Organizational Cascades

These are acts of negativity that multiply and spread from person to person in an organization. Risky, combative and uncooperative behaviors all have the unfortunate ability to multiply and spread to three degrees of separation from the original act. This can have a negative impact on dozens and even hundreds of downstream people not involved in the initial negative triggering acts. Negative human interactions can break the bonds of humanity and teamwork. These cascades can destroy the work culture, effectiveness and performance of an entire organization.

The Broad Influence of Cascades

Behavioral researchers have demonstrated with team experiments that positive, mediocrity and negative cascades can all have affect three degrees of separation (friends of friends of friends). Other researchers and computer models have determined that only three to four degrees of separation is what separates everyone in the USA, and only six degrees of separation separate everyone in the world. Exceptions to this rule are the secluded tribes in the Amazon jungle and other remote places. Yes, the world is smaller than we think, and actions really do speak much louder than words. Actions and behaviors can reach beyond the horizon and into different time zones.

The Organizational Forces Survey

The Organizational Forces Survey tests the health of the individual organizational forces that drive chain reactions, cascades and other behavior propagation phenomena. This survey asks participants to assess the presence of positive and negative organizational forces shown in Figure 4 by identifying the forces they believe to be present. This survey is given to all levels of employees and management.

Figure 4
– The Organizational Forces Survey used to assess the health of the work culture.

Figure 5 shows an example of survey responses, using the form in Figure 4, that were attained from the survey for three different levels in an organization: top leadership, middle management and non-management. One sign of healthy communications between management and employees is when organizational risk assessments are similar between different levels in the organization. However, that is not the case here.

In this survey response example, top leadership rated the health of the work culture as overwhelmingly positive (green). They perceived their environment to be a Grand Organization in the making. Unfortunately, non-management employee responses to this survey were at the opposite end of the scale (red). They rated the forces in the organization as overwhelmingly negative, filled with high risk and knocking on the door of a Grand Disaster. Middle management rated the work culture as mediocre (yellow), with some responses slightly positive and others slightly negative. This group of employees was apparently influenced by perceptions of top leadership and non-management.

Figure 5
– The range of survey responses from various levels in this organization shows major discrepancies in their perception of the health for the organizational work culture.


Grand investigations are often done after a loss of life disaster occurs, such as a NASA space shuttle disaster, a passenger airplane crash or an accidental employee death on the job. However, it is hard to find this level of effort and analysis applied to prevent such disasters. Deep and thorough disaster investigations often find flawed undisciplined leadership practices and organizational cultures at the root of the problems. It is also common to discover a zealous ambition to grow the business without really ensuring that a healthy work culture foundation is put in place to safely support such expansion.

Huge opportunities for organizational productivity improvements still exist today by cultivating a high-performance work culture. Breakthroughs can be made when organizations appreciate the fact that  “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” a phrase coined by Peter Drucker, a famous management consultant, educator and author. True organizational greatness can be achieved when organizations look beyond trying to just manage the bottom line and learn how to manage, analyze and monitor the cultural forces and cascade effects that drive success or failure.

A grand vision and strategy can only revolutionize a company when the work culture is healthy, engaged and aligned with those concepts. Taboos on talk must be broken. Open, frequent and candid communications must exist between all levels in the organization. Employee issues and concerns must be addressed in a timely manner as proof that a functioning communication and countermeasure system are in place. Only then can an organization really have a chance to break its barriers to greatness.