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Quality Decisions in Hindsight July 25, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Product design.
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For the last several years there’s been at least one high-profile case of quality failure that captures the attention of the business press for months at a time. Since late 2015 and early 2016 we’ve been watching to see if air-bag supplier Takata, iconic auto maker Volkswagen, and fast food chain Chipotle will survive their highly-publicized quality missteps. There’s always a lot of apologizing to the public, and a commitment to conduct internal investigations to identify and eliminate the causes of field failures. Senior management and boards of directors scramble to regain the trust of their customers.

I’m not at all surprised by the frequency of these events. What surprises me is that these events don’t happen more often. We should expect to continue to hear about similar catastrophic quality problems from otherwise reputable companies despite all the talk about six sigma and customer satisfaction, and despite all the investments in quality improvement programs. It’s the nature of business.



Sorry, But You’ve Only Worked at Large Companies June 25, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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There’s an interview question that I’ve heard from time to time: “You’ve only worked at big companies, what makes you think you can succeed at a smaller company?” Sometimes this isn’t even a question, just a comment that implies that no reasonable person would disagree with the premise. The assumption is that “big companies” are significantly different in a way that somehow deeply changes the people who work there, requiring re-education before they can be useful in another work environment.

I’m not sure how widespread this attitude is, but I think it’s worth exploring. What are the assumptions about big companies and the people who work there? How hard is it really for people to move from a big company to a smaller company? Are there legitimate differences that require adjustments by a new employee?

First, what exactly defines a “big company?” Revenue? Number of employees? Reputation? Interesting questions, but not really helpful in defining the problem. I’ve worked at both Fortune 100 firms and smaller companies with greater than $100M in annual revenue. Hewlett-Packard used to be characterized by relatively small and independent business units that managed their own product lines with full P&L responsibility. Many large corporations follow a similar model.

The real question should be: What characteristics and behaviors are “small companies” afraid of, and trying to avoid? I can’t claim to have broad insight here, but I think the assumption is that larger companies have more processes, more overhead, more administrative staff, and generally more infrastructure that’s developed over time as they’ve grown. This infrastructure costs money to maintain, and smaller companies need to focus their resources on new product development and market growth. Smaller companies also value flexibility, adaptability, and nimbleness, and “excessive bureaucracy” is often blamed for the inertia that plagues some larger companies.

An employee with “big company” experience is accustomed to working within that infrastructure; enjoying its benefits, but also (possibly) learning how to overcome administrative obstacles and getting things done by organizing internal resources. If the infrastructure is smaller, will the employee forget how to do those things? I don’t think so. Frankly, I’d be more concerned about people trying to move from a small company to a big company, and in fact there are a lot of examples of folks who have failed to make that transition, particularly following an acquisition.

Everybody is expected to work within some kind of schedule and expense budget, whether big or small. Everybody has to work within an organizational structure, whether big and bureaucratic or small and nimble. It’s fair to ask how a person works within these constraints, but let’s not assume that people who’ve worked at a big company can’t succeed elsewhere.


manufacturing differences, lower volume, smaller sample size, less attention from vendors

Quality and Production, Partners or Enemies? June 18, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Quality.
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Lately I’ve been finding interesting topics on LinkedIn group discussions. The other day a contributor described his difficulty in moving from a quality job to a production job, and then back again. He  found it hard to maintain the mindset and attitude required  to advance quality goals while working in production, and vice versa. In his workplace it seems that quality is often viewed as the enemy of production, and he wondered if this could be reconciled.

I understand what this person is talking about. I’ve worked in high-volume manufacturing environments where any quality hiccup, whether it’s found internally or reported by the customer, is viewed as a threat to the production plan. There can be tremendous pressure to ignore defects and their causes, underestimate their frequency, and de-value their severity in order to keep production going. That is, until the customer complains, in which case everyone looks for someone else to blame.

Ideally, the quality team should be focused on defect prevention, helping to ensure that the design of the product and the production processes are robust and less-likely to result in defects, and monitoring processes to identify and eliminate special causes. The production team is clearly a vital and necessary partner in this effort, specifically because they are the ones actually executing these processes, and any adjustment or change to address the causes of defects will be their responsibility.

A little bit of shared insight may help here. The production team needs to understand that building units that do not meet quality requirements will lead to higher internal costs due to scrap and rework. This consumes time and people, and reduces throughput and net production, even if you just throw the bad units into the corner. Shipping bad product to customers jeopardizes the business relationship and could ultimately lead to zero production. Deliberately shipping bad product will get you there faster. The quality team isn’t trying to prevent production, and defects should never be hidden from them.

The quality team needs to provide a clear definition of defects, based on customer requirements, and establish testing, inspection and audit procedures to find defects, based on expected defect frequency, severity, and acceptable quality levels. This should include procedures for stopping production after a defect is found, segregating suspect material to prevent inadvertent shipment, identifying and eliminating the root cause, and re-starting production. The production team needs to know how quality issues will be handled, and that the processes will be run quickly in a way that minimizes the impact to the production plan.

Finally, senior management, and customers, need to make it clear that meeting the production plan and on-time delivery performance measures mean nothing without quality. There’s an allocation of responsibility in every organization to different functions. Quality and production have specialized skills and separate responsibilities, but they must support the same overall goals for the business. Management cannot allow these functions to become enemies.

Sustaining Improvements: Self-Governance vs. Policing May 21, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering.
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Last month I listened to a presentation about an implementation of 5S methodology at a local company. The work group spent a lot of time cleaning up, installing shadow boxes to keep their tools in order, and getting rid of unused equipment that was stored in the workplace. The before-and-after photos showed a lot of improvement, and it certainly looked like a successful initiative.

The last slide in the presentation described this company’s efforts to “Sustain,” the 5th S. The speaker reported that there was some initial enthusiasm for the changes, but unfortunately it seems that within a short period of time people started to fall back to their old ways of casual disorganization. Sustaining the improvement apparently required periodic audits and reminders, and I’m guessing that this company’s management is wondering why the team couldn’t stick with it on their own.

This is a common complaint in many process improvement efforts, and one of the most-frequent reasons why these efforts fail. Unless the target group acknowledges and appreciates the benefits of the improvement, and therefore are committed to maintain the improvement, it’s more likely that they will revert to the old ways of doing things. Unfortunately change management leaders sometimes neglect to gain the support of the target group, or impose a solution to a problem that hasn’t been recognized. This is especially true for changes that are significantly different or “unnatural,” where the work habits and skepticism of the team provide resistance.

It’s far more effective for teams to monitor their own implementation and maintenance of the change instead of relying on audits or management oversight to make sure everyone is now “doing it right.” Self-governance requires buy-in, but it also means that the change is really an improvement with clear benefits.

Cutting Back on Training and Development April 21, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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A lot of organizations have been cutting back on employee training and development programs, especially since the start of the recession in 2008-09. I remember my early days at HP in the 1980s when the company supported a wide curriculum of internally-developed courses, and later contracted with professional trainers to deliver specialized material. Those days are long gone. I’m not convinced that the cost savings are really that significant, but this seems to be an easy target during times of expense reductions. The ROI on employee development has always been hard to estimate with any confidence, and “we’re doing OK” with the people and skills we already have. “We don’t need more skills and training, we just need to apply the skills we already have.”

It’s ironic that many of these same organizations continue to invest in their physical assets through maintenance and upgrades but seem reluctant to do the same with their human resources. After all, equipment and facilities can’t leave on their own accord after you’ve improved them, while your trained employees can walk out and maybe join your competitor tomorrow (or, at least that’s the fear). Professional development has largely become the responsibility of the individual employee, and companies implicitly assume they’ll be able to replace anyone who doesn’t like that arrangement.

While there are lot of people available on the job market who can provide needed skills, this is a short-sighted decision that is likely to cost more in the long-term (turnover costs), inhibit opportunities for growth through innovation, and reduce overall performance because of lower morale. However, this is another example of saving hard dollars today in exchange for uncertain benefits in the future, and therefore I don’t see any significant change in the future.

Many employees will continue to take charge of their career growth, and many managers will help them by assigning “development opportunities” and special projects within the constraints of the current business priorities and budget. Some leaders and managers may take the initiative and organize informal brown-bag presentations to share knowledge and experience. I’m encouraged by local partnerships between some companies and local colleges and universities. Students, faculty. and the company can all benefit from summer internships and joint research projects, and employees can be encouraged to enroll in targeted degree or certificate programs with tuition that is at least partially-reimbursed.

The desire to develop and improve skills doesn’t go away just because companies don’t want to spend the money. Companies that find ways to invest in their employees and value their professional growth will surely benefit in ways that they may never be able to measure.

How Important Is Industry Familiarity? April 17, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, strategy.
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I’m once again “between jobs” and “in-transition,” and I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at job postings. Every position seems to emphasize the preference or requirement for applicants with industry experience. It’s easy to imagine that many applicants are immediately eliminated from consideration without it.

I understand why familiarity with an industry is valued in a candidate. Different industries are characterized by different combinations of suppliers, internal value delivery systems, channels, competitors, and customers. People who work in the industry understand the relationships between these elements, and that understanding is an important consideration when setting priorities and making decisions. It takes time to learn that in a new job, and people who already have the experience don’t need to go through a learning curve and theoretically can make a more-immediate impact.

Industry familiarity doesn’t seem to be something you can acquire through independent study and observation; you have to actually work in the industry. This means that your preferred candidates are likely going to be people who have worked at your competitors, or possibly your suppliers, channels, or customers, depending on how broadly you define your industry.

This leads to a question I’ve been puzzling over: what are the unique characteristics of an industry that are true differentiators? What really distinguishes one industry from another, and what is the significance of those differences when considering job applicants?

In my career I’ve worked at a defense contractor, several OEMs in the consumer electronics industry, a supplier to the semiconductor manufacturing industry, and most-recently a supplier to the power generation and utilities industries. Different customers, different sales channels, different production volumes, and different quality expectations and regulatory environments. Some of the suppliers were the same, but most were different. Some produced internally, and some outsourced. Some of these companies competed on cost, some on technology. My modest assessment is that I’ve been successful in all of these industries.

Industry experience provides familiarity, but is industry experience an accurate predictor of success in a new job? What skills are really needed to succeed, and how transferable are a person’s skills from one industry to another? Could a unique perspective derived from a diversity of experiences be more valuable than industry familiarity? These are the questions that should be considered when writing a job posting and evaluating applicants.


In Defense of Managers April 3, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I may be imagining this, but it seems like managers are coming in for a lot of criticism these days. Last month I spotted this article on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130529150715-5799319-the-difference-between-managers-and-leaders?goback=%2Egmr_37987

At first this looked like another “the difference between managers and leaders” discussion that surfaces fairly regularly. Just to re-cap: you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader; managers have a natural opportunity to be leaders because of their position, regardless of whether they’re actually good at it or not; and while it’s great when managers are also leaders, leadership should be encouraged at all levels of the organization.

I understand that the authors are taking an extreme position to make a point about bad managers (“Managers give answers … criticize mistakes … forget to praise … focus on the bad … want credit.”), in contrast to good leaders, or good managers, who are more valuable to their organization because they do the opposite (“Leaders ask questions … call attention to mistakes indirectly … reward even the smallest improvement … emphasize the good … credit their teams.”).

I’m sure this wasn’t meant to be a criticism of all managers, but I’m going to stand up for managers and management anyway. Managers play an important role in the organization and deserve some respect and support. Leadership is absolutely necessary, but a lot of leaders recoil at the thought of becoming a manager. “I can’t deal with all that bureaucracy, all those meetings, all the politics.” Every organization needs people to obtain and allocate resources, assign tasks and objectives, set performance measures and conduct reviews, administer salary, identify training and development opportunities, and generally convert high-level business objectives to team objectives.

In most organizations those responsibilities are given to managers with formal titles, but there’s no reason why individual contributors can’t perform some of those roles. Regardless of whether you call those people managers, management is an equally important function. It isn’t for everyone, and there are a lot of bad managers out there, but let’s honor and respect the folks who are willing to take on those necessary tasks, and help them become even more valuable to their teams and their organization.

Thanks, But Your Leadership Isn’t Helping March 31, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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It’s become a standard and recurring theme in modern, enlightened human resource management: we want to identify and encourage leadership throughout the organization. There are a limited number of management positions in any business, and although may we expect some measure of leadership from managers, you certainly don’t have to be a manager to be a leader.

Sounds great, but what happens when a person assumes leadership and then turns out to be a lousy leader? When we encourage everyone to be leaders, expecting that the organization will be transformed into a powerful new high-performance engine, we shouldn’t be surprised when it turns out that not everyone is good at it. What do we do with people who are trying to be leaders, but aren’t really helping?

I can imagine two possibilities here: (1) this person is fundamentally a good leader, but they’re leading in the wrong direction (based on strategic priorities), or (2) despite their enthusiasm for the role, they’re just not a good leader. The former is relatively easy to fix, assuming this person can be re-aligned and re-oriented in the right direction. Perhaps they were well-meaning and simply misunderstood the strategy or priorities. If there’s a true disagreement about the strategy, then that will have to be a separate conversation about whether the strategy itself should change, or whether the leader can support the strategy (in which case this may turn into a performance management situation).

If this person is fundamentally a lousy leader, that’s a bit harder. After encouraging people to step up and touting the benefits of leadership up-and-down the org chart, you can’t exactly tell the ineffective leaders to sit down and be quiet. This reminds me of one of the axioms in political campaigns: you never turn away a volunteer. They’ve answered the call, now you have to find a way to channel that energy to productive ends.

I’m sure there are hundreds of training programs out there promising to help anyone become a strong and effective leader, and I’m sure some of those work for some people, but who has the time (or, possibly, money) for that? If you encourage people to lead, then you’d better be committed to ongoing feedback and coaching at the individual level. Some people may ultimately decide on their own that they’re not cut out for leadership, but the organization really will be better off with more leaders. Just don’t under-invest in their development.

Should I Delegate This? March 17, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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The other day I joined a discussion on LinkedIn that got me thinking about when it might be appropriate to exert positional authority without trying to get buy-in: “Just do it my way and don’t ask questions.” Certainly there are critical situations where a rapid response is required, and there just isn’t time to brainstorm, solicit alternatives. and reach a consensus. However, I believe these situations are rare, and there’s always time to at least explain the logic behind the decision and listen to concerns. People may disagree, but their active support is more likely if they aren’t treated like children.

That got me thinking about delegation, which often follows a similar model. When we delegate a task we’re taking a calculated risk. We could do it ourselves, but we either don’t have time, or (in more enlightened organizations) we want to provide a learning opportunity for the other person. We may decide not to delegate if the successful completion of the task is particularly important to the business. That’s because there’s a chance that the other person will “fail,” perhaps by delivering less than what was required or missing the due date. We’d feel better about delegating if we had some confidence that the other person is going to do it exactly the way we would do it.

And that’s the problem: they’re probably aren’t going to do it exactly the way you would do it. If they’ve never done it before, they’ll stumble around a bit, and make mistakes, and maybe even “fail.” You may find yourself spending even more time monitoring and coaching and fixing their mistakes than you would have spent if you had just done it yourself.

Being a manager means not just taking responsibility for the performance of the team, but also optimizing and improving their performance. Delegating is part of the job description. There are definitely things you can do to improve the likelihood of success, including clarifying the objectives and constraints, and the delegated task should be a reasonable fit for the person’s skills and experience. If it’s really that important, maybe you should do it yourself, or insist that it be done in a specific way, but even then it’s still a learning opportunity for the team. If you’re always doing it yourself, or if everyone does it your way, you’re depriving the organization of the diversity of talent and ideas in your team.

Managing a New Team, Replacing a Manager March 10, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I’ve gone through several job transitions where I was the new manager, replacing another manager and assuming responsibility for an established team. Obviously this can be a very stressful time. The previous manager may have been involuntarily removed from their position, and may even still be working at the company. The specific reasons for their departure may be kept a secret in order to protect the company from liability, in which case the recent history is known to everyone but you. During the interviews and transitional period it’s likely that someone else, often the hiring manager, has been managing this team in addition to their other responsibilities, so the team may have been operating with limited supervision.

In addition to all that, many people have developed expectations for your performance, based on your interview and whatever the hiring manager has told them about you. You will be compared to the previous manager, and you will be expected to be at least as effective while addressing that person’s shortcomings (whatever those may be). There will be some patience during your first few weeks as you learn the new environment, but that may end abruptly before you think it will.

It may seem like a good idea to do spend your time doing some investigative research to learn more about the previous manager’s failings so you can avoid those mistakes, but I don’t recommend it. I think it’s better to be yourself instead of the opposite of someone else. Your way is comfortable to you, and you’ve had some success with it in the past, so stick with it.

Here’s what I recommend instead:

1. Meet the team, spend time with them, assess their skills and how well those skills fit their current job. You may need to re-arrange their responsibilities based on your assessment.

2. Communicate frequently and establish yourself as a manager with a specific style, consistent expectations, integrity and ethics. This team has had some turmoil, and they need some stability so they can focus.

3. Check-in frequently with your manager to make sure you’ve got a good understanding of their expectations, which are surely the most important of all expectations. Find out if there’s an urgent imperative that must be addressed immediately. Do things need to change dramatically and quickly? Your team needs to know that.

There’s a lot to consider in any new position, but if you’re a new manager you must demonstrate your ability to mobilize the team you’ve been assigned, establish credibility, and enable them to achieve higher performance. Getting off to a good start is the key.

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