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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


What Makes a Good Operations Manager? April 30, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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The other day someone posed an interesting question on a LinkedIn group discussion: What are the three most-important characteristics of a good operations manager? A lot of the discussions I’ve been following lately seem to be preoccupied with issues like this. What makes a good manager? What is the difference between management and leadership? I hate my manager, should I leave this company? How can we get rid of all the managers so we can get some real work done?

This particular question caught my attention because of the focus on “operations management,” which is a topic that doesn’t seem to get much notice. We tend to talk about management in general terms, without regard to the specific functional area. This suggests that whatever makes a person successful as a manager in one function will transfer and guarantee success elsewhere, whether in operations, engineering, finance, marketing, or project management.

I agree with that to some extent. I believe there are some universal core values and best practices that apply to anyone in a management role. We also expect managers to have some measure of domain expertise in their specific function that enables them to assess the performance of their subordinates, develop tactics, and occasionally contribute as a member of the team. In the specific case of an operations manager, this domain expertise would probably include things like supply chain management and lean manufacturing.

I think there’s more to it. The functions are fundamentally different, and successful management requires more than experience in that function. Here’s the answer that I gave, the three most-important characteristics of an effective operations manager:

(1) End-to-end understanding of the value delivery system for the business, specifically where value is added. The operations team is responsible for the delivering the product (or service) according to specifications, schedule, quality, and other customer requirements. Operations managers should have a clear understanding of what customers value, how the value delivery system meets those needs, and the critical elements that need to be actively managed.

(2) Alignment with the strategic/competitive positioning for the business, i.e., are we competing on cost, time-to-market, technology, or something else? Customers have their needs, and meeting those needs is obviously important, but the business has chosen to compete on some basis. Operations managers must make sure their systems and processes support the business’s ability to effectively compete.

(3) A commitment to measurable performance and continuous improvement. Just making sure that shipments are on-schedule is not enough. Operations managers should be actively looking for opportunities to improve, whether in cost, quality, or throughput.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Why Get an MBA? August 8, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership.
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I’ve often been asked why I got a Ph.D. in chemistry. What did I really gain after five years of graduate school? What was the value of the additional knowledge of chemistry that I acquired? I don’t think I was fully aware of it at the time, but looking back I can see that what I really learned was the ability to work independently without textbooks, manage research projects that I designed and was solely responsible for, and bring those projects to successful completion. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about when I first applied to graduate school. I was still uncertain about my career direction, and I saw graduate school as a way — albeit an expensive way — to postpone those decisions.

Fifteen years later I returned to graduate school to get an MBA. This time was different. I had worked in research & development, product marketing, and international supply chain management organizations, but I had come to realize that I needed more education in order to become a more effective manager and strategic leader. I wasn’t going to be more useful by learning more science and engineering. Technical knowledge is valuable, but businesses need well-rounded leaders who understand (or, at least appreciate) finance and accounting, international law, organizational design, operations management, corporate strategy, and even statistics.

I could have picked up a few tidbits along the way, but as anyone who has learned a foreign language will tell you, there’s nothing like an intensive, “total immersion” program. I probably learned more from my fellow students than from our professors. All of my classmates were experienced and successful professionals, either from local firms or self-employed. These were among my first connections to a broader personal network outside of my immediate work environment. We worked together on joint projects, and debated the differences between what we heard in the classroom and what we experienced in our daily jobs.

For me, getting an MBA was an opening to another world, and it confirmed my decision to pursue a career in senior leadership positions. I can’t say whether it opened doors or helped me secure jobs that I wouldn’t have been otherwise considered for. That wasn’t my objective.


Managers Who Aren’t Leaders, And Vice Versa December 30, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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This recent post by Linda Hill and Kent Lineback from the HBR Blog Network got me thinking: “I’m a leader, not a manager”. One highlighted quote from that post: “Both leadership and management are crucial, and it doesn’t help those responsible for the work of others to romanticize one and devalue the other.” The authors suggest that the emphasis on leadership starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s came about in part because “traditional management as practiced by U.S. businesses didn’t promote change and innovation.” This has led to a devaluing of the skills traditionally practiced by managers — including “steady execution and control” — and a romanticizing of leadership.

It does seem that the practice of leadership has come to represent a noble endeavor in the business world. I think it’s pretty widely-understood that you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. One could even argue that a leader who isn’t burdened by the administrative responsibilities of personnel and expense management might be more effective in building cross-functional networks, organizing others to execute plans, and driving change. I would go further and say that a person should be considered qualified for a management position only after they have demonstrated their ability to do all these things in a non-management position.

Note that aspiring managers can learn resource management skills in a program/project management role that does not include accountability for the performance of subordinates, what I sometimes call “management with a small m.”

Management (with a capital M) is clearly an important practice in any organization, and it’s hard to imagine how a business can succeed with leaders and no managers. That being said, I recall an interesting HBR case study from my MBA years involving W.L. Gore & Associates and their flat organization structure with no formal chain of command and “associates” who follow leaders rather than “bosses,” but this is an uncommon model that has not been widely adopted (Why? Is it too risky or “unnatural?”).

Managers are vested with authority for work assignments, performance reviews and administration of HR policies, however managers who are not perceived as leaders risk becoming marginalized as bureaucrats who strictly follow established processes and are not open to new ideas. Managers who feel threatened by leaders from outside the chain of command may use their positional power to maintain the status quo and resist needed change. Businesses need effective leadership and effective management (small m or capital M), and a culture that balances and values both practices when they’re exercised throughout the organization.

Soccer Explains Everything, Again September 27, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, strategy.
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Lately I’ve had the good fortune to work with people who’ve helped me look at organizational dynamics in new ways. Here’s an item based on a parable from a manager I’m currently working with.

I’ve never coached youth soccer, but, for those who do, this should sound familiar. At first all the kids chase the ball, basically forming a scrum that moves all over the field. Later, with some coaching, they begin to play their assigned position (e.g., forward, midfielder, defender), but tend to stay glued to a small area on the field and wait for the ball to enter their zone. In time, they may reach a higher level of performance where they’re more mobile and adaptable on the field, helping each other attack and defend without losing sight of their assigned responsibilities.

This analogy can be used to characterize organizational maturity. As a firm grows in size, there’s a natural differentiation of tasks and responsibilities, for example along the lines of sales / marketing, product / service development, operations / supply chain management, finance, and customer support. People may start out wearing multiple hats, but eventually this will evolve into separate and specialized departments. This differentiation enables the departments to focus on their assigned element of the overall value delivery chain, and the natural tension between the departments helps ensure a balanced, optimized outcome.

In the scrum model it’s all-hands-on-deck, and the boundaries between functions aren’t considered important. On the plus side everyone is aligned, but on the minus side it’s not an efficient use of resources, and there’s bound to be some confusion over roles and responsibilities. In soccer there’s only one ball, and if everyone is trying to kick it at the same time, you’re going to expend a lot of energy without making much progress. There’s also a greater risk of a breakout by the other team as the scrum is less adaptable to sudden changes. If you’ll allow me to switch analogies for a moment, in rugby a side would never send all their players to the scrum (even if the rules allowed it).

That being said, I’ve always hated working in organizations where everyone stays in their assigned place, assuming that someone else will put out that fire burning over there. “Yeah, I know there’s a problem, but it’s not my job, and I’m not going to get involved.” This is typically accompanied by a demonization of other departments that de-values their contributions and blames them when things go wrong. “I did my job, if we failed it’s not my fault.”

What every organization should be working toward is an operational strategy where everyone pitches-in and initiative is valued, while respecting boundaries and honoring the specialized contributions of all functions. In my career I’ve worked in every functional group except finance and HR, and that’s given me some appreciation for the role that each department is expected to play. Rotational assignments in other functions are a great development opportunity, but not always practical; fortunately rotations are not the only way to build a collaborative culture. It starts at the top: senior leadership and functional managers must model the behavior and reward cooperation and teamwork, just like a good soccer coach.

Peer Management February 22, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I’m fairly certain that managers spend most of their time trying to figure out how to more effectively manage subordinates. That’s not surprising given that the distinguishing characteristic of management (as opposed to the non-manager) is responsibility for the performance of others. What gets overlooked is the management of peers and superiors, in spite of the fact that the organizational effectiveness of a manager depends as much, if not more so, on people who are not direct reports.

By the way, I’m sure that hundreds of management guides are published every year, but I don’t recall ever seeing a book that focuses on the topic of peer management. If someone out there knows of one, please comment to this post. I just did a Google search and struck out; everything seems to be about “peer review management” or “peer data management.”

Managing your peers probably sounds manipulative, and I’ll freely admit that management is all about manipulation to some degree. Let’s admit it: management and leadership is all about getting work done through others, using power and influence to get other people to follow your lead to achieve overall business success, regardless of how that may be defined. I’m not saying that the end justifies the means, and certainly the honorable manager who expects to remain effective must respect ethical boundaries.

Subordinates follow your lead because you’re the manager and the organization has granted you positional power to control compensation and work assignments. Why should peers follow your lead? Peers are typically your competition, whether competing for the next rung on the ladder or competing for resources. Maybe the better question is: Why do you need your peers to follow your lead? Overall business success isn’t a zero-sum game between managers, it requires collaboration between departments and functions, and that means finding ways to work effectively across organizational boundaries.

I believe peer management starts with a shared understanding of the “senior purpose” of the business unit as a whole. The “senior purpose” is the higher-level objective that the management team is collectively trying to accomplish. What role does your department play in achieving that goal, and what role do other departments play? What are the built-in organizational dependencies between departments and functions that require managers to work together? A manager can influence their peers by explicitly aligning with the “senior purpose” and reinforcing the messages communicated by superiors. Collaboration also requires being open-minded about how to achieve those goals, sharing the spotlight, and sharing responsibility if things don’t work out. After all, peer management is an ongoing exercise, not a one-time transaction.

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