Changing the Tires While Driving the Car December 13, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, strategy.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, change management, leadership, management, process, strategy
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That’s a phrase we often use to describe a chaotic work environment, but what if anything can be done when you’re faced with this situation? How should we manage when the current processes are incomplete, insufficient, ineffective, or even missing? How do you evaluate and implement process improvements without jeopardizing commitments to deliverables and performance metrics? Is there a logical way of managing these changes, or do we muddle through it, and later smile sympathetically when we hear about another manager’s struggles?
Obviously the whole point of introducing a new process or making a process change is to gain some improvement in performance, output, and/or cost. However there’s no getting around the fact that any process change will be accompanied by at least a short-term loss of productivity until you’re past the learning curve.
Will the current activities or projects continue long enough to benefit from an immediate change? If the benefit doesn’t outweigh the “distraction cost,” then it’s probably better to wait for scheduled downtime or a natural break between projects (in other words, wait until the car is stopped before changing the tires). If there is no natural break, then at least one project will have to pay the price so that future projects can realize the advantage. Which project can best tolerate the cost, or the risk of failure to meet scope or schedule requirements?
One practical question is whether it’s even possible to switch processes in mid-stream. If you’ve already started with the old process, can you finish the job with a new one? Starting over again from the beginning should be considered a last resort, only practical if the existing process is so unsatisfactory that you’re willing to sacrifice time for better results.
Another key concern is whether or not the organization as a whole is aligned with the need for a process change. It may be politically useful to roll out the new process on a small scale in order to build support for broader implementation. On the other hand, if there’s enough critical mass, it can be highly effective to “burn the boats,” essentially making it impossible to return to the old process.
If it’s the right thing to do, it’s just a question of when. If the benefits can’t be clearly articulated, it will never be the right time.
Starting a Product Development Team November 12, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Product design, Project management, Quality.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, early stage companies, management, organizational models, outsourcing, product development, project management
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A few weeks ago I interviewed for a job with a local company that decided they wanted to bring product development in-house and transition out of a contract engineering partnership. I didn’t get the job, but that experience got me thinking about how I would create a product development team from scratch, specifically how to organize the team and what skills are required.
In this case the firm had an established product line with suppliers and a contract manufacturing partner, so the general “make vs. buy” decisions had already been made. Regardless of the status quo, it’s a good idea to review those decisions from the standpoint of the firm’s expected source of competitive advantage. In other words, how does the firm plan to differentiate itself in the market? What are the critical-to-function or critical-to-performance characteristics of its products? Can these be reliably sourced from external suppliers today, and can those suppliers keep up with the anticipated trends in technology to maintain that advantage? If not, then those design elements and product characteristics should be developed internally.
In order to keep the internal staff at a small and manageable size, this suggests three distinct (but possibly overlapping) functions within the product development team:
1. Specialized engineering with domain expertise in the critical design functions that must be developed in-house. These are the people who have deep technical understanding and design experience with the key parts and sub-assemblies. The skills needed here are engineering expertise in the target areas of differentiation.
2. System-level design architects and product integration engineering. These are the people with responsibility for high-level product design and system integration issues. This could include overall project management for the entire product development effort.
3. External supplier and partner management. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as traditional supply chain management because it requires technical oversight to the designs and other deliveries from the suppliers. The skills needed here include remote management and communication.
Two other considerations are the lead time for any invention or innovation required for new products (possibly leading to a dedicated concept or research team); and the expectations for ongoing support or upgrades for products already sold (possibly leading to a dedicated sustaining engineering team).
My inclination is to avoid separate teams for these purposes, unless the expected volume of work in either area is significant. Without morale-boosting attention from management, sustaining engineering teams tend to suffer from an inferiority complex, working within design constraints and fixing problems created by others. I’d rather assign product maintenance to the same team that designed the product, which also avoids the need for knowledge transfer. Similarly, a dedicated research team that doesn’t have ultimate responsibility for product development may underestimate sourcing limitations, integration issues, and production ramp snags. In order to have value, technology must be successfully implemented within cost, schedule, and quality margins, and not just thrown over the wall to a development team.
That’s the framework that I would use to build a new product development team, or analyze an existing team for skill gaps. The next step would be to perform a process and development lifecycle assessment, but that might better addressed in a future blog post. At minimum there should be separate phases for product design, factory prototyping, and production ramp, with phase gate review meetings and quantitative go/no-go criteria. I’ve written about lifecycle considerations in earlier posts (see for example Ramp Readiness Indicators for Product Development). Of course standard project management processes such as early stakeholder alignment, issue tracking, change management, and end-of-project reviews should also be in-place.
Business Development Revisited August 15, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Supply chain.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, business development, supply chain
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Earlier this year I wrote about business development as a possible new career direction (see Business Development, Not Sales). Lately I’ve been thinking about a generalized, logical processes for identifying and targeting new business opportunities, derived from my own experiences as a customer and a supplier.
The underlying question that must be considered for any new opportunity is the cost of the service (or product) provided. That may sound obvious, but I think there are a lot of people who still think that any revenue is “good” revenue. Certainly business development must be driven by the desire for revenue growth, but that growth should be profitable, either as an independent revenue stream, or because of its contribution to return-on-assets or other measures of financial leverage. A supplier may choose to provide a service that is not immediately profitable with the expectation that it enables a long-term revenue stream (for example, early entry to a rapidly growing new market or new technology), but that should be supported by a net present value (NPV) calculation.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on suppliers of services, although I think the same guidelines apply to suppliers of hardware parts or products.
Generally, leveraging a current customer who is already using services from the supplier is easier and more profitable than trying to establish a business relationship with an entirely new customer. There are two directions to take when leveraging an existing customer:
1. New services at the same customer. The customer is already familiar with the supplier, and already has purchasing and supplier management processes in place. If the supplier’s performance has been solid, the customer may be open to suggestions regarding additional services, particularly if there are bundling benefits that lead to lower price and/or lower management cost on the customer side. For the supplier there may be additional benefits in reducing the cost-of-service (COS) by leveraging the overhead and assets required to support this customer.
2. Same services at a new customer, specifically where the current customer can provide a meaningful benchmark and/or recommendation. An example would be another division or business group within a large corporation. There’s less risk and a faster learning curve for the new customer because of the foundation established with the existing customer, and the supplier may be able to realize economies of scale by providing the same service to a wider customer base.
Regardless of whether the new business opportunity can be leveraged from an existing customer, the following questions determine the next steps in the process:
Is this a new customer? If yes, then identify reference contacts (internal or external) that can help communicate value and reduce the perceived risk.
Is the customer already buying this service? If yes, then winning more business requires replacing an existing supplier. Because there’s a natural resistance to change, this means offering something better, and that requires an understanding of the customer’s needs and how the supplier can offer an attractive alternative value proposition. If the customer is not currently buying the service from any external supplier, then the prospective supplier must create a business case that describes the benefits and helps address concerns, this time in comparison with an internal supplier of the service.
Is the supplier already providing this service? If yes, then the supplier should be able to identify opportunities to support multiple customers from the same assets and resources to reduce overhead and cost-of-service. If no, then the supplier must evaluate the incremental revenue vs. the cost to add the new service. Again, an NPV or similar analysis is essential.
That’s how I would do it.
The New Person’s Opportunity June 18, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, change management, leadership, management, power
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When you take a position with a new group or a new company there’s a honeymoon period that provides a one-time-only opportunity to make your mark and exert influence. Everyone is curious to hear what you have to say and how you spend your time, looking for clues about your future expected contributions. People will want to know how you will fit in with the existing team, and what your special skills and talents are that led to your hiring (or internal transfer).
How will you use that opportunity? Will you be a go-along follower, becoming part of the established status quo; will you be a revolutionary, pushing for change; or will you be a complainer, comparing your new job with your previous positions? There may never be another time when you have this much power, regardless of where you are in the new organization chart. You may have a fresh perspective to the existing problems that have been troubling the team. Yes, it’s important to ask questions and listen, and go up the learning curve to contribute at a level consistent with your skills, but for those who get satisfaction from process improvement, this is the time to lead.
After 90 Days, Follow the Money December 1, 2011Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, strategy.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, expense controls, leadership, performance measures, strategy
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One of the most-read posts on this site is something I wrote over two years ago about starting a new job and figuring out what’s needed. See: 30-60-90 Day Plans. After 90 days the initial disorientation should have passed, and it should be clear what the immediate priorities are and where you should be focusing your attention in order to meet deliverables and short-term performance objectives. Whether you’re new-to-the-company or new-to-the-position you’re generally given a honeymoon period to get settled and learn the ropes, but eventually expectations will be raised and you will be asked to take on more responsibility for defining your own deliverables and objectives, or at least exercising more independent judgment. If there’s any question about where to look for guidance my advice is simple: follow the money.
At a fundamental level a business is concerned with profit and growth, and that translates to generating revenue and managing the expenses associated with generating that revenue. Your work contributes to one or both, either directly or indirectly, and your contribution to the business ultimately comes down to how your accomplishments help improve the bottom line.
Activities that help revenue generation include identifying profitable market segments, designing and delivering products and services that others want to buy, and then enabling those sales. There are expenses associated with each of these activities, including the cost of time spent, and managing those expenses (ideally, improving the business’s ability to turn expenses into profitable revenue) is part of the job. This includes support functions (for example, legal, HR, finance, and IT) who provide information and enable others to focus more time on activities that directly add value.
The specifics will vary from one job and one business to another, but a perceptive leader at any level in the organization should be able to generate measurable goals and achievements that help the bottom line and are consistent with the firm’s strategic objectives. By the way, if the strategic objectives aren’t clear, that needs to be taken up with senior management. Generally, organizations need their leaders at all levels to have the insight to figure out what needs to be done, and the initiative to get the necessary support; and not to wait for someone else to tell them what to do.
The Mythical Powers of the New Manager July 30, 2011Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, change management, hiring, leadership, management, performance measures
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Over the years I’ve had a lot of experience in the role of the new manager who inherits an existing team as an outsider. The first few weeks are typically chaotic, learning everyone’s name and the strange new acronyms. It’s also a time for learning the capabilities of the team, their current assignments, recent accomplishments, and contribution to the business’s objectives. The manager is expected to at least maintain, if not improve, the overall performance of the team, and that requires an understanding of what their subordinates can do.
Inevitably the new manager will find that some members of their team aren’t as capable and won’t be able to consistently deliver the expected level of performance, regardless of how much coaching and hands-on attention they receive. It may be possible to reassign responsibilities to make better use of each person’s strengths, but this may not be enough. Most new managers are not granted the instant authority to make sweeping changes and replace weak performers and upgrade with new hires or transfers, and even if they did have those powers it takes time to identify, hire, and train new people. The turnaround can’t happen overnight.
It’s important to set realistic expectations with superiors and peers when taking responsibility for an existing team. The new manager is often seen as a kind of savior who will fix everything that’s wrong with the team. The other managers probably already know who the weak players are, who isn’t performing, and they’re often eager to share their insights with the new manager. Now there’s someone who can take responsibility and turn things around. Maybe they’ve been blaming the previous manager for the team’s failures, including perhaps that manager’s failure to deal effectively with the poor performers. If things don’t immediately improve, disillusionment can set in as the other leaders and team members come to realize that the new manager is no better than the previous one.
If a subordinate is truly failing to perform, then the new manager must surely take action, whether coaching, reassignment, or termination. The manager must demonstrate a commitment to improvement where necessary, but that improvement takes time and cannot happen instantaneously. It takes time to objectively assess the team, identify the changes that must be made, and implement those changes while supporting the rest of the team that is meeting expectations. The new manager must move deliberately, and it helps to make some immediate changes that removes some of the pressure, but they also need to manage expectations and help their fellow leaders understand that they’re not superhuman.
Define Success, Work Backwards December 27, 2009Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, strategy.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, China, factory quality, leadership, performance measures, strategy
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I recently started a new position leading a factory quality department in a high-volume manufacturing site in China. This is pretty radical departure from my work over the last twelve years managing software development and software quality organizations, but it fits with my interest in international business, building teams, and establishing processes and competencies to support long-term growth. Throughout my career I’ve been attracted to challenging positions that seem far removed from my education and early work as a Ph.D. chemist. I’ve always tried to use my status as an outsider to bring a fresh perspective to the existing state of affairs.
One of the first things I like to do is investigate how my new department contributes to the overall success of the larger enterprise. How would we know that the department has succeeded? Can that success be measured objectively, using metrics, control limits, and targets? If you understand what success looks like, then you can align the operational processes, organization chart, job descriptions, and individual performance objectives to improve the likelihood of achieving that success.
Unfortunately many organizations grow and evolve in ways that can distract them from their unique contributions to business success. This can cause a lot of wasted effort on the wrong priorities, and in the worst cases outright conflicts between internal processes. Everyone benefits from a clear understanding of what success looks like, including partners and customers. Sometimes a newcomer with no previous experience and no stake in the status quo can ask the “dumb” questions that provide the necessary focus.
30-60-90 Day Plans October 26, 2009Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, strategy.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, leadership, management, strategy, training
I recently started a new job that includes assuming management responsibility for an existing department. My immediate superior asked me to put together a 30-60-90 day plan, describing in detail my activities for the first three months in the position. This approach for planning and tracking the transition from new-hire to effective leader seems to be widely-used, and I think the intent is to provide some structure and purpose during a potentially confusing and chaotic period.
I agreed to write up a plan, eager to please my new manager, but I realized almost immediately how difficult it is to see three months into the future, certainly not to any practical level of detail. Like a flashlight in a dark room, the view is pretty good in the near field, but gets more fuzzy and ill-defined the further away you try to look. It seems to me that the plan for the second and third month is entirely dependent on what’s learned in the first few weeks; and certainly impossible for an outsider to predict with accuracy based on limited information. I don’t mean to say that long-term planning should be avoided, just that it’s unlikely that a manager just starting a new assignment can be that clairvoyant.
I think it’s also unrealistic to expect that a new manager will have the luxury of systematically observing the inherited team from afar. Inevitably there will be a crisis of some kind that will demand immediate attention, then another and another. I can’t remember a job that allowed me to ramp up slowly, gradually adding responsibilities and relationships to build a well-tested mental model of how the organization works (or doesn’t work). The first weeks are a time of trial-and-error as the new manager picks and chooses from among their various life experiences and skills to find the most effective and appropriate combination in the new environment.
Given the limited fortune-telling powers of the new manager and the limited patience of the new organization, what can be done in the first few months to accelerate the learning curve? Here’s a list of questions that should be asked at every opportunity.
Learn the team: These are the resources available to you. Who reports to you? What are they working on right now? Why are they working on that (instead of something else)? What do they need to do the task they’ve been assigned? What’s getting in their way?
Learn the partners: These are the people you need outside the team. Where are the interfaces to your team? Who does the team rely on for information? Who else attends meetings with your team? What are their expectations? What’s working and not working in their relationship with your team?
Learn the customers: This is the reason your business is in business. Who does this business sell to? What do they need? How do we know that’s what they need? How does your team help meet customer needs?
Learn the processes: This is how the work gets done. How does the team work together with partners to meet customer needs? Those are the processes that matter. There may be other processes, but if they’re not directly linked to satisfying the customer or enabling your team to do the same, then they’re not nearly as important to you in these early weeks.
Learn the measures: This is how you know the processes are working as-intended. Unfortunately most organizations don’t measure their processes, or they have measures that lead to behaviors that don’t really help sell to your customers. You can start building the right measures by asking how the team knows whether they’re successful or not.
That’s enough to start. The questions may not follow a 30-60-90 day plan, but they’ll help you understand what’s important to the team, where the gaps are, and where you’re most needed.
Welcome To Management June 23, 2009Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
Tags: 30-60-90 day plans, communication, management, manager
I first moved from an individual contributor role to a management position some years ago, but I still vividly recall my first month in the new job. I felt a strong obligation to wrap up some reports and assorted paperwork from my previous position, which was in a completely different organization, while rapidly coming up to speed on my responsibilities for the new group. I remember one day in particular when I was sitting at my desk pulling together a technical white paper using data and other information from multiple sources, something that really required a lot of focused attention. All day long I was interrupted by little questions or news items from subordinates, peers or superiors; all looking for answers or confirmations or clarifications. I felt myself getting more and more frustrated with each successive walk-up or phone call, unable to concentrate on my report.
Somewhere near the end of that day it finally hit me: this is what management is like. It’s not characterized by long, uninterrupted stretches of quiet time. It’s interrupt-driven, often zig-zagging from one issue to another, typically-unrelated issue. Of course it’s not healthy for the team to become completely dependent on the manager for all decision-making, but the team is not going to become more confidently self-sufficient if the manager is isolated and unavailable. Every contact with the team is an opportunity to clarify expectations and align priorities. I’d rather err on the side of too many interruptions, to the point of making myself more accessible through management-by-wandering-around (MBWA).
Yes, managers still occasionally need periods of quiet time for reports and presentations and budgeting and performance reviews. I guess I’ve learned to work in shorter bursts of productivity, accepting the fact that interruptions are part of the job and not expressing impatience when they inevitably happen.