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Fake It Until You Make It: Is Structural Change a Prerequisite? April 14, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering.
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Change management is frustrating. It can take a maddeningly long time to convince the required supporters that change is necessary, and then more time to get everyone moving in the new direction. Then once the tipping point is reached it becomes a runaway train. When the benefits of the change are significant and well-understood by all, there’s a lot of pressure to get it done already without regard to process, or documentation, or training other “details.” It’s hard to manage expectations during this transitional phase. Can’t we just hold on for a minute while we get our act together?

Well, you could, but would you risk losing momentum and tempting people to revert to the old ways of doing things? Can change management succeed when it’s implemented on a limited basis without structural changes? Can you “make it up as you go along,” and firm it up later?

I don’t see why not. In fact, there’s a lot of value in this kind of launch-and-learn approach. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to anticipate and plan for all the consequences of the change, and early experiences after the change is implemented will identify these improvements. For example, the change may impact processes and organizations that are infrequently engaged, and it might take time to discover that the change is more or less effective than you expected.

Consolidating the change and fully-integrating it into the system is still important and shouldn’t be neglected. I’ve seen many quality management systems and process documents that are completely out-of-date because they were never updated after the change. At minimum that’s a non-compliance on an external audit, but it’s also a potential source of confusion when new people try to figure out what the right process is.

Nevertheless, if the change is worth doing, then it’s worth looking into ways of implementing it quickly in order to realize some benefits, demonstrate some early successes, and build momentum.



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.

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.

2013 Year in Review: Lessons Learned December 17, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
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Another year is coming to an end, and it’s a natural time to reflect on the events of the last twelve months. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned, or re-learned, in 2013.

  • I started the year “in transition,” but interviewed for several positions in January and February, ultimately landing a job as the director of quality for a mid-sized company in northern Colorado. The preparation and the interviews themselves provided a great opportunity to re-assess my skills and experiences and test whether those really have value in the marketplace. Ironically, despite all the time I put into local networking in southern California and building connections at my target companies, I got the job in Colorado after submitting an on-line application with no insider help. What I learned: staying patient during job search, and trusting that there really is a good fit out there somewhere.
  • The new job started in March and I commuted from my home in San Diego until relocating to Colorado in June. I re-read a couple of my previous blog posts for advice (See: 30-60-90 Day Plans and  Managing Remote Teams), and generally spent my time learning about the people, processes, and products at the company. My team was spread over multiple sites and I made several trips to introduce myself and align expectations. Managing the relocation was a significant distraction during that period, but I received very positive feedback about my ability to quickly establish credibility and make an immediate impact. What I learned: making strong first impressions and achieving early results are critical during the first weeks in a new job. That’s a topic for my next post in 2014. 
  • In June I moved to Colorado, returning after exactly 20 years. Work kept me extremely busy, but I made it a priority to personally re-connect with former colleagues who I’d kept up with over the years. I also started the process of establishing a local network by attending meetings of networking groups and professional chapters throughout the area. I didn’t know it at the time, but those connections gave me a head start when I re-joined the ranks of the unemployed later in the year. What I learned: it may be hard, but it’s important to maintain professional relationships and continue networking while employed.
  • From July through November I focused on the job, consolidating and building on the early successes, and expanding my influence in the organization. It was an exciting time for our growing business, with a game-changing new product coming to market and a significant international acquisition. That all came to a sudden and unexpected end after a corporate reorganization left me without a chair. What I learned: there’s no such thing as job security; the security comes from your network, your relationships, and your skills and talents.
  • For the last several weeks I’ve been reviewing my job search strategies and evaluating new ones. I’ve returned to blogging after a lull during the summer and fall. I’m working on a personal web site (scheduled to go live in January) to present some of my methodologies and accomplishments, and I’m considering other channels to help promote my personal brand. I’m once again looking for consulting and teaching opportunities to stay active. I’m meeting some great people and sharing my lessons about networking and social media. I’ve decided to focus on learning one language for a year instead of playing around with several languages at the same time. What I learned: keep learning, keep growing, stay active.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but never boring. I have no idea where this is going next, and I can’t wait to get there.

Changing the Tires While Driving the Car December 13, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, 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, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Product design, Project management, Quality.
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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, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, 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, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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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, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, 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, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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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.

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