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Formulas Without Understanding February 22, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Education, Management & leadership.
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I’ve just started my second year teaching courses in supply chain management and operations management at two local universities. It’s been a long time since I was a teaching assistant as a graduate student, and my time outside the academic world has taught me a few things about educational objectives and what students really should be learning. One of the things I’ve noticed in my business classes is a tendency of some teachers and textbook authors to focus on formulas that give a “right” answer. I think that’s a mistake, and when we do that we’re not helping business students or their future employers.

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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

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.

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.

Four Reasons for a Performance Review February 27, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Lately I’ve been involved in some discussions on LinkedIn about performance reviews, what’s wrong with the process, and whether it can be improved. I’ve written about this topic before (see In Defense of the Performance Review), but at the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to briefly re-visit this topic.

I see four important reasons for a business to have some kind of regular process to meet with an employee and discuss their performance:

1. Review the employee’s performance for the previous period. If nothing else, this is just good management practice. It’s an opportunity to directly reinforce what the business values (and wants to see more of) and what the business does not value. If specific tasks or performance targets were previously assigned to the employee, this is a formal discussion of what was accomplished and what was not.

2. Set the terms for the next period’s assignment. Looking ahead, what are the objectives that the employee is expected to achieve? Ideally, this should be expressed in concrete terms with measurable outcomes (the old SMART acronym applies here). Business priorities may change, requiring an update to these objectives, but there should be no confusion about what was expected.

3. Discuss a development plan for personal growth. There are two ways to look at this. From a “strictly business” standpoint, the employee is an asset that will lose value over time without regular maintenance and improvement. From a more enlightened standpoint, employees perform better when their personal objectives are aligned with the business’s objectives.

4. Finally, link performance to increased compensation or other rewards. There should be some connection between the two. I’m not advocating a strict bell-curve approach to performance ranking and salary administration, but it seems clear that higher performing employees should receive a larger share of the company’s financial gains that they helped to achieve.

The details will vary, but those are the essential elements.

Hiring, Firing and Net Value February 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In one of my recent positions my manager suggested that I “get rid of” an person in my team who wasn’t meeting expectations, at least in the opinion of my manager. I assumed he meant that I should fire them. I didn’t think that was a good idea, for several reasons. I felt that this person was being asked to do something that was a little outside their job description, and something that was also outside their natural comfort zone of skills and talents. Instead of continuing to force a square peg into a round hole, I re-assigned some responsibilities within the team so that this person could focus on what they did best.

Sure, I could have fired this person, but I prefer to look at these situations from a net value perspective. This person was making a positive contribution to the business. If I fired them, that contribution would be lost, at least until I replaced them with a new hire or transfer. Hiring requires recruiting and interviewing candidates, and then the new person typically goes through a learning curve. It could be months before the business realized a net gain to offset the switching costs, and even then the hiring process does not guarantee a better outcome.

The other consideration was how much of my time every day was spent managing this person, or compensating for their sub-standard performance. It’s certainly possible that what looks like a positive contribution to the business by one person is actually a net drain because of their impact on management and others, including the lost opportunity to spend your time in more productive ways.

In this case I was able to find a lower-cost way to increase this person’s long-term net value without incurring the switching costs. I’m not sure my manager agreed with my logic. I understand that sometimes you do have to “get rid of” someone who is under-performing, but that should be a carefully considered decision, not an emotional reaction to a situation that may not really that bad.

I see the same issues on the hiring side. Let’s assume that all job openings were justified to fill an urgent need for the business (although that’s apparently not always true). As long as that position remains unfilled, the business is suffering to some degree, otherwise why would the position be created in the first place? Of course the hiring manager should be trying to find the best person to fill the position, but the time it takes to find and on-board that person has to be balanced against the cost of not having any person in that position. Can the business afford to keep looking for a better candidate?

Of course this isn’t necessary a bad thing. As time goes by without hiring someone, the business will compensate and adjust for the missing resource, and it’s possible that may ultimately be a net gain. Or, not.

 

What Happened to HR? February 19, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In 1996 I started a new job at Hewlett-Packard’s facility in Vancouver, Washington. The site at that time was supported by a large HR organization that had about 10-15 full-time staff. In 2001 I transferred to a different HP location with slightly fewer employees, but only about 4 HR professionals. In the years that followed the HR function was transformed from a locally-based, hands-on organization to a self-help model with a handful of regional support staff.

I suspect that most large corporations went through a similar transition in the first decade of the century. Today’s HR organizations seem to be focused on recruiting, hiring and on-boarding; benefits administration; supporting downsizing and other termination events; and generally keeping the company out of legal trouble. It’s becoming hard to remember, but HR used to be a lot more than that, at least at those companies who considered their human resources to be a source of strategic advantage.

Obviously a lot of money was saved by reducing the size of the HR organization, and I’m sure it was assumed that line managers and web-based training could meet the needs of the business, and some things were given  up because they weren’t considered to be all that important. I understand that it’s unlikely that we will ever return to the old days of large HR organizations, but if we expect managers and leaders to pick up the slack, then we should remember what HR used to do and ask whether those things still have value.

I’ve been thinking about all this after finding my notes and readings from a class that I took in HR during my MBA program in the late 1990s. In those days HR was described as a key partner, working side by side with other functional leaders to ensure that policies matched the strategic needs of the business. HR professionals led programs in organizational design and improvement, change management, and competitive benchmarking. They worked with line managers to identify future leaders, and design career development opportunities and succession plans. New managers were provided extra training and support for their transition. Staffing plans were based on a long-term view that considered the specific skills and intellectual capital that the company needed, and the company-wide perspective of HR helped ensure that new initiatives were not starved for resources.

I realize that few companies can afford to keep full-time HR personnel to do all those things. My point is that if we don’t, then either we’re saying that we don’t care about those things, or we expect somebody else to do them. If human resources are important to the company, then line managers and other leaders will have to step up and assume the responsibilities of a virtual HR organization.

The Value of Not Knowing What You’re Doing February 4, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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Occasionally someone will ask me about managing or working with younger people. I’m not sure if they’re wondering how I will relate to people under a certain age, or if I have some stereotypical bias regarding Gen X, or Millennials, or any other generation. My answer has always been that everyone is different and unique, and I don’t consciously make any assumption based on a person’s generation, gender, race, nationality, or any other “classification.” A fair manager treats everyone differently based on their individual skills, talents, needs, and background.

The one thing I can say with confidence about younger people is that they have less experience, simply owing to the fact that they’ve spent less time on Earth. The common wisdom is that these folks benefit from the guidance of a more-experienced manager or colleague who knows what not to do because it’s been tried before. “Don’t waste your time, that doesn’t work.”

Experience certainly has value, but I’m always energized when I work with people who don’t know that “it doesn’t work,” and aren’t constrained by their experiences. Our assumptions should be challenged periodically, and each situation should be analyzed objectively. I don’t want my experience to prevent me from considering alternatives that might be exactly the right thing under these unique circumstances. I want to be open-minded to inputs from people who’ve never been there before and don’t know what they’re doing.

 

The Skills (Most) Engineers Don’t Learn in College January 9, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality.
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My friend and former colleague Happy Holden recently sent me his list of 25 “soft skills” that engineers don’t learn in college, but that every engineering manager needs to acquire to succeed. Engineers may graduate with a deep understanding of their selected discipline, however their future career path will depend on whether they acquire other critical skills on-the-job. Those that don’t may continue to be useful engineers when they’re given specific assignments, but they will require closer management (which will add cost to their organization), their contribution to business goals will be narrow, and their value will be limited, whether or not they become a manager.

Happy has 25 skills in his list, but I’ve chosen the following 10 as my favorites, in no particular order:

  1. Statistics, specifically inferential statistics. I’ve always been surprised at how few engineers understand the concepts of sample size and significance testing. Too many are willing to accept a single test result as proof.
  2. Problem solving. I’m talking about a systematic approach to problem solving, one that evaluates the current situation and considers more than one possible root cause and solution. In the end, your first instinct may still be the right one, but you should at least evaluate other possibilities.
  3. Technical writing. This is a bit of a lost skill with today’s greater emphasis on verbal communication, texting, and PowerPoint. However, regardless of the medium, understanding and decision making requires clear expression of technical concepts, especially to people who don’t have the same technical background that you do.
  4. Design for manufacturing. Here I’m talking to design engineers who may have a limited understanding of the capabilities of their supply chain, which includes manufacturing processes, variability, and tolerance stack-ups. The best design isn’t very useful until it can be built in the real world.
  5. Managing management time. OK, this is a little subtle. Your manager is busy juggling multiple issues. Exercise good judgment about taking their time, and focus your questions and reports. Even better, learn more about their strategic priorities and working environment, and anticipate what will be important to them.
  6. Project/program management. Obviously this is a required skill for engineers who aspire to become project managers, but all engineers who understand stakeholders, schedule, dependencies, resources, and risks will be able to work more independently, and effectively.
  7. Benchmarking. I’ve always been a fan of benchmarking as a way of identifying new ideas and accelerating their adoption. The part that often gets lost is how the results were achieved, not just the results themselves. Engineers should learn to appreciate and analyze different ways to build a mousetrap.
  8. Engineering economics. The “best” ideas and designs may not be adopted due to financial considerations such as return-on-investment and break-even time. If you can contribute to an evaluation of economic trade-offs, you’re more valuable to the process of decision-making.
  9. Recruiting and interviewing. At some point the organization is going to do some hiring. Those who can participate effectively in the process will have a significant influence on the future of the organization.
  10. Predictive engineering. It’s possible that this is actually taught somewhere, but it tends to be very specific to a product or industry. Building prototypes can be time consuming and expensive. It’s good to be able to assess performance and reliability without having to wait.
My number 11 would be lean manufacturing / JIT / TOC, although that’s a personal favorite that may be less important as firms use more contract manufacturing.
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