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Is This The Right Problem To Work On? July 11, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management, strategy.
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The ability to prioritize and focus is widely praised as a characteristic of successful business leaders. There are too many things to do, and not enough time or resources to do them all, much less do them all well. Leaders have to make choices, not just to determine how they spend their own time, but how their teams should be spending theirs. This is the definition of opportunity cost: when we consciously choose to do this instead of that, we forgo or at least postpone any benefits or gains that might have been achieved otherwise.

One of the most common choices that we consider in business is between short-term operational goals vs. longer-term strategic change management. Some people talk about the challenges of “building the plane while flying the plane,” or “changing the tires while driving the bus.” Both of these metaphors emphasize the difficulties of keeping the business running and generating revenue under the current model while developing and implementing a new business model or strategic direction.

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What Are Individual Accomplishments Within a Team Environment? April 7, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management.
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The other day I responded to a question on LinkedIn about whether performance reviews were basically worthless because we all work in teams and individual accomplishments are hard to isolate. It’s true that very few jobs require us to work entirely independently, and our success does depend in large part on the performance of others. But, does that really mean that individual performance can’t be evaluated at all?

If I assign a specific task or improvement project to someone, I should be able to determine whether the project was completed, although there may be qualifiers about schedule (completed on-time?), cost (within budget?), and quality (all elements completed according to requirements?). However, regardless of whether the task was completed or not, or if the results weren’t entirely satisfactory, how much of that outcome can be attributed to the actions of a single person? If they weren’t successful, how much of that failure was due to circumstances that were within or beyond their control? If they were successful, how much of the credit can they rightfully claim?

I believe we can evaluate individual performance, but we have to consider more than just whether tasks were completed or if improvement occurred, and that requires a closer look. We have to assess what got done, how it got done, and the influence of each person who was involved. Here are some of the considerations that should guide individual performance reviews:

1. Degree of difficulty. Some assignments are obviously more challenging with a higher likelihood of failure. Olympic athletes get higher scores when they attempt more-difficult routines, and we should credit those who have more difficult assignments, especially when they volunteer for those challenges.

2. Overcoming obstacles and mitigating risks. That being said, simply accepting a challenging assignment is enough. We should look for evidence of assessing risks, taking proactive steps to minimize those risks, and making progress despite obstacles. I want to know what each person did to avoid trouble, and what they did when it happened anyway.

3. Original thinking and creative problem solving. Innovation isn’t just something we look for in product design. We should encourage and reward people who apply reasoning skills based on their training and experience.

4. Leadership and influence. Again, this gets to the “how.” Because the work requires teams and other functions and external partners and possibly customers, I want to know how each person interacted with others, and how they obtained their cooperation. Generally, how did they use the resources available to them?

5. Adaptability. Things change, and they can change quickly. Did this person adapt and adjust their plans, or perhaps even anticipate the change?

This is harder for managers when writing performance reviews, but not impossible. It requires that we monitor the work as it’s being done instead of evaluating it after it’s completed, and recognizing the behaviors that we value in the organization.

Is Your Company Really Committed to Quality? February 11, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Product design, Project management, Quality, Supply chain.
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In a recent post I wrote about suppliers who claim to be committed to quality, but may not actually behave that way. Before getting too carried away with improving quality in the supply chain, it’s probably a good idea to understand your own company’s commitment to quality, although I see nothing wrong with holding your suppliers to a higher standard. It may seem impressive when businesses highlight quality as a core value, something that’s published on their web site and displayed on their walls, but is that just for show?

I’m not necessarily suggesting that there’s anything hypocritical or underhanded going on here. You may be able to  measure the quality of products and services against an objective standard, but it’s a lot harder to assess an organization’s commitment to quality from the daily actions of its employees.

Why is this worth knowing? It’s one thing to respond to quality issues after they occur, but if the business expects its employees to proactively make decisions that avoid quality issues, then the employees need to be calibrated with examples of expected behaviors. Also, if there is a separate quality function within the business, those people need to be able to match their effort to the expected results, particularly if the actual commitment to quality is less than advertised. In that case the people in the quality function will find themselves constantly battling with other functions (and possibly senior leadership) that don’t have the same priorities or sense of urgency.

The company may have framed slogans and quality awards in their lobby, but here are some questions that can help determine how serious they are:

  • What stories do people tell about quality? Are there any incidents from the company’s past that illustrate the commitment of senior leadership?
  • Has the company ever proactively initiated a product recall or major field repair at significant expense? How about a line shutdown that delayed shipment? What happened afterward? Was there finger-pointing and recriminations, or was this treated as an important opportunity for continuous learning and commitment?
  • Has the company ever delayed the scheduled release of a product or service to address a late test result?
  • Is there a regular review of customer-reported quality issues? Are engineering and development teams required to allocate time for improvement of previously-released products or services?
  • What is the attitude toward people who bring quality issues to light? Are they ignored, or brushed aside, or are their inputs valued and appreciated?
  • What’s the relationship with regulatory and certifying agencies and 3rd party auditors? Does the company spend weeks sweeping issues under the carpet to keep them hidden, or is this treated as an opportunity to consult with independent experts?
  • Is quality considered to be an external customer standard that must be met, or is it considered to be an internal imperative to reduce cost and increase throughput and productivity?

If quality is something that is managed as an afterthought, then no one should be surprised when quality crises happen. It’s just not a priority. However, if the company has a strategic quality requirement in order to compete effectively and maintain profitability, then they have to make sure that everyone understands their contribution to quality and behaves accordingly.

Focus on Projects, Not Jobs January 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, Project management.
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I’ve been doing a lot of professional networking these last few months, particularly since my most-recent transition from the corporate world. I’ve met a lot of new people, and re-connected with many former colleagues. Everyone wants to know how the job search is going, and what I’m looking for in my next job. The more I think about those questions, the more I wonder whether I’m really looking for a “job.”

Yes, I do want to be compensated for my work, and I prefer having some degree of stability and continuity in my work life, and (like most folks, I suspect) I have associated those things with a full-time position that doesn’t have a pre-determined end date. In other words, a job.

Lately, however, I’m starting to believe that there’s really no such thing as job security, at least in the traditional sense of staying with a single employer for an extended period of time. At-will employment seems to be the norm these days as companies emphasize staffing flexibility over long-term commitments. Those who have been laid off complain that there’s no loyalty any more, but I think that cuts both ways. More employees seem to be accepting this new reality, and getting laid off doesn’t have the same stigma that it did before.

If there’s little assurance of a long-term relationship with a single employer, any security is derived from the varying market demand for your skills and experiences. A career is a series of jobs, or maybe even just a series of projects. The company has a need, you’re hired because you’re the right fit for that need, you work until the company doesn’t have that need any more, and then you’re available for the next opportunity (which might be at the same company, but more likely, not). If your skills and experiences are in-demand, you won’t have to spend much time “in transition,” although you may have to be willing to relocate.

Look, everyone is different and has different needs. I enjoy learning new things, and I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes from solving problems that need solving. I just need to learn how to be better at the transitions.

Getting Off to a Good Start January 13, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Project management.
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The transition to a new company can be disorienting. The HR folks always have a lot of forms to fill out, and it can take a while to figure out the e-mail and other IT systems. The work processes may seem familiar, but the terminology and acronyms may be very different. “It doesn’t work that way here,” is something you’re likely to hear a lot. Meanwhile, there are meetings to attend, active projects that need to be managed, and crises that require immediate attention.

There’s a honeymoon period when expectations are low, but that doesn’t last. At some point you’re expected to make a significant contribution and thereby justify the decision to hire you instead of someone else, or filling the position from within. This can be a time of paranoia and overcompensation. After all, for the first several months the company has little investment — financial or emotional — in your employment. It’s not that hard to let you go if it’s “not working out,” or if you’re “not fitting in.”

That may be true, it may not work out, but there are things you can do to get off to a good start. You need some early results that build confidence (including self-confidence) in your skills and methods.

1. The first thing to do is to quickly accomplish a task that you’ve been assigned. It almost doesn’t matter what the task is, the objective is to get others to see you as a person who meet their commitments, and gets things done on-time without being reminded. Of course it’s even better if the task has strategic priority, but as a people manager I’ve found that it’s easier to re-focus someone than it is to build a fire under them.

2. The second thing you need to do is to eliminate a problem. What you’re demonstrating here is the ability to take responsibility, get to the root of the issue, and deliver results. This is also your opportunity to apply the skills and experience that got you the job in the first place. This may be something that was assigned to you by your manager, or it may be something you’ve found on your own, but either way it’s important for people to recognize that you’ve made something better as a direct result of your actions.

3. While working on your problem, you need to build relationships within the organization. These are your sources of information, your partners in getting things done, and ultimately the people who will confirm your reputation and your value. They will also teach you how the organization really works and how to get things done.

4. Finally, you need to find out what success in this job looks like. You may think you know, based on the job description, but that has to be verified with your manager. Pay special attention to deliverables: it’s not just what needs to be done, but when those results are expected. Quantitative and objective measures are better. This is also a good time to schedule an early review to confirm that you’re on the right track.

You got the job, so you have some credibility. However, you can reduce your paranoia and focus on the job by establishing your reputation and delivering quick results. After that, start on your 30-60-90 Day Plans.

Something New: A Personal Web Site January 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management, Quality, strategy, Supply chain.
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Over the last few weeks I’ve been busy working on a personal web site that I  launched on December 25. My intention is to provide more depth about my expertise and accomplishments than what can be inferred from a two-page resume or a LinkedIn profile. This has been on my to-do list since 2012, and we’ll see how it’s received during my current “in transition” phase.

It’s been an interesting exercise, reviewing my work history and classifying my methods and results in a series of PowerPoint slides. One nice thing about getting older is that you start to figure out what you’re good at, and how to focus on those strengths. I can see common threads running through the projects in my career; an emphasis on cross-functional collaboration, strategic business alignment, and performance measures. I’ve been repeatedly attracted by opportunities to identify improvements and lead change initiatives.

I’ve already written blog posts here about some of the topics, but now they’re illustrated in more detail on the web site thanks to PowerPoint. I’m sure I’ll tinker with it in the coming months, adding some new content and tweaking the slides.

Here’s the link: http://timwrodgers.wix.com/timwrodgers. Let me know what you think.

What Does Almost Done Really Mean? November 17, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Project management.
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About a year ago I earned a Project Management Professional certificate after learning the methodologies and structured processes formalized by the Project Management Institute. Almost all of my experience in project management has been in product development, and the PMP training provided a broader perspective on other types of projects. I was particularly intrigued and somewhat amused by the use of quantitative measures of project status based on Earned Value Management (EVM).

I can see why EVM would appeal to a lot of project managers and their sponsors and stakeholders. Everybody wants to know how the project is going and whether it’s on-track, both in terms of schedule and budget. They want a simple, unambiguous answer, without having to look at all the details. The EVM metrics provide project status and a projection of the future, in terms of the value and expenses of the project’s tasks that are already completed and still remaining.

The problem for many projects is that it requires a lot of planning and discipline to use EVM. Not only do you have to generate a full Gannt chart showing all tasks and dependencies, but you also have to estimate the cost and incremental value-added for each of those tasks. That’s going to be just a guess for projects with little historical reference or leverage. Quantitative metrics are generally less valuable when they’re based on a lot of qualitative assumptions, despite the appearance of analytical precision.

Whether or not you use EVM, everybody wants to express project status in terms of a percentage. “We’re about 90% done, just a little bit more to go, and we’re looking good to meet the deadline.” This kind of oversimplification often fails to recognize that the pace of progress in the past is not necessarily the pace of the future, especially when sub-projects and their deliverables are integrated together and tested against the requirements.  There’s an old saying in software development that the last 10% of any software project takes 90% of the time, which is one of the reasons why agile development techniques have become popular.

While I applaud the attempts to quantify project status, I would assess a project in terms of tasks and deliverables actually either fully-completed or not, not “90% complete.” For large projects it’s useful to report deliverable completion status at checkpoint reviews where stakeholders can confirm that previously-agreed-upon milestone criteria have been met. This binary approach (done or not-done) may seem less quantitative, but it’s also less squishy. The overall status of the project is defined by the phase you’re currently in and the most-recent milestone completed, which means that all of those tasks leading up to the milestone have been completed.

That still leaves the problem of assessing the likelihood of future success: will the project finish on-time and on-budget? At some point you’re going to have to use your best judgment as a project manager, but instead of trying to distill your status to a single number isn’t it more useful to talk about the remaining tasks, risks, and alternatives? Sometimes more information really is better.

Does Your Company Need a Quality Department? November 13, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Product design, Project management, Quality, Supply chain.
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You already have a quality department, you just don’t realize it. Do you have suppliers or service providers? You have people managing supplier quality when you receive parts or services that don’t meet your specifications. Is your product manufactured? Whether you build it yourself or outsource to a contract manufacturer, you’ve got quality issues. Do your customers have problems with your product or service? Somebody in your team is managing your response. Poor quality is costing you money, whether through internal rework or post-sale costs. The question is whether you want to pull all this activity together into a separate, centralized organization.

Some organizations, particularly early stage companies, may feel they can’t afford a dedicated quality team. After all, quality is fundamentally a non-value-added function. It doesn’t contribute directly to the delivery of a product or service. However, we live in a world of variability, where every step in the delivery process can cause defects. You may be passionate about eliminating defects and saving money, but do you really know how? Quality professionals understand how to determine root cause, and they can investigate from an impartial perspective. They have expertise in sampling and statistics, and that enables them to distinguish between a one-time occurrence and a downward trend that requires focused resources.

Do you care about ISO 9001 certification? If you do, you need someone to develop and maintain a quality management system, monitor process conformance, and host the auditors. If you’re in regulated industry, you need someone to understand and communicate process and documentation requirements throughout your organization. Other responsibilities that could be assigned to the quality team include environmental, health and safety (EHS), new employee training, equipment calibration, and new supplier qualification.

All of these tasks can theoretically be handled by people in other functional groups, but you have to ask yourself whether you’re getting the results your business requires. Organizational design derives from a logical division of labor. The sales  team is separate from product (or service) fulfillment so that one group can focus on the customer and another can focus on meeting customer needs. Fulfillment may require separate teams for development (design) and delivery. As the business grows, other functions are typically created to handle tasks that require specialized skills, such as accounting and human resources.

Quality is another example of a specialized function, one that can help identify and eliminate waste and other costs that reduce profit and productivity. Maybe those costs are tolerable during periods of rapid growth, but at some point your market will mature, growth will slow, and you won’t be able to afford to waste money anywhere in your value stream. That’s when you need quality professionals, and a function that can coordinate all the little quality management activities that are already underway in your organization.

Innovative Design vs. Lean Product Development April 17, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Product design, Project management, Quality.
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I’ve been very busy focusing on my job search and some self-improvement projects, and unfortunately it’s been harder to find some time to address my accumulated backlog of topics. I regularly follow several group discussions on LinkedIn related to product development and quality, and lately a popular discussion topic is how to inspire innovation in product design.

See for example Wayne Simmons and Keary Crawford “Innovation versus Product Development” (http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2013/04/12/innovation-versus-product-development/), and Rachel Corn’s blog “Is Process Killing Your Innovation?” (http://blog.cmbinfo.com/bid/87795/South-Street-Strategy-Guest-Blog-Is-Process-Killing-Your-Innovation?goback=%2Egde_2098273_member_229196205). The latter post quotes a former 3M vice president who says that Six Sigma killed innovation at 3M, apparently because 3M’s implementation of Six Sigma required “a full blown business case and even a 5-year business plan to get a new idea off the ground and into production.” The VP wonders: how do you institutionalize innovation without stifling it?

The conventional wisdom seems to be that product design is inherently a creative, right-brain activity that will fail or at least fall short if constrained by process. You can’t make art on a schedule.

I think this is a false conflict. I don’t see any reason why teams shouldn’t be able to conceive new designs within a structured and disciplined product development environment. Obviously the ultimate objective is to get a product to market, so at some point the experimentation must end, doesn’t it?

Six Sigma is about reducing variation. The lean movement is about eliminating waste. I understand that the early stages of product development may be wildly unpredictable and seemingly inefficient. Shouldn’t the latter stages focus on predictable outcomes, standardized processes, fast time-to-market, defect prevention, and efficient production?

How Much Information Should a Manager Give To Their Team? February 4, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Project management.
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I’ve been pretty busy over the last few weeks focusing on my job search, interviewing for a couple of positions, and preparing for a possible teaching assignment at a local university. The evaluation process at the university included a 15-minute audition that was intended to provide some insight to each candidate’s presentation and facilitation skills in a classroom environment. Fifteen minutes is not much time, and during my lesson planning I decided to deliver a small packet of information, repeated and reviewed. I know from experience that there’s a tendency to overestimate the ability of an audience to listen and absorb.

This reminded me of something I read during my preparation for the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam last year. One of the topics on the exam was Project Communications Management, which included identifying stakeholders, and planning the communication processes necessary to keep them informed, according to their expectations. Project managers were encouraged to strive for efficient communication, providing only the information that each stakeholder requires.

I suppose the intention is to keep it simple and avoid the confusion and doubt that can accompany information overload, but I don’t think this is necessarily a good strategy. There are potential problems when the project manager is the only person who has all the information about the project:

1. You run the risk of  creating a dependency bottleneck, where one person must always be available to communicate status, resolve issues, and answer questions. This can be mitigated somewhat with easily-accessible project documents, assuming people know where to find them and are willing to use them.

2. Team members may be constrained by a narrow perspective that limits their ability to respond quickly or deal with ambiguity because they aren’t permitted to see the big picture. Surely the project benefits when the brainpower of all team members is fully-engaged. even at the risk of sharing “too much” information.

Look, I don’t think everyone needs to know everything all the time. I just think we shouldn’t be too quick to withhold information in the name of communication efficiency.

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