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

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

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

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

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


In Defense of Managers April 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should I Delegate This? March 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I recommend instead:

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

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

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

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

A Humble Appeal For Better Staff Meetings March 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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See if this sound familiar. Your manager requires the staff to attend a weekly meeting. Every meeting is the same: after a few announcements and “pass-downs” from senior leadership your manager goes around the table for what is essentially a series of 1-on-1 conversations with each member of the staff. Everyone waits their turn, perhaps mildly interested in what’s happening elsewhere in the group, but usually checking their own e-mail and messages and counting the minutes until the ordeal is over.

This may be a great meeting for the manager, but a terrible use of time for everyone else. Staff meetings are no different than any other meeting. There’s an opportunity cost when you drag people away from their desks or workstations and expect them sit still and pay attention. There must be sufficient value in the meeting to make it worth that cost.

To me, the value of any meeting comes from the real-time interactions and collaboration between the participants. Otherwise, just send an e-mail. If there’s a topic that needs to be discussed, but it’s not of general interest, or amenable to collaboration, then everyone else should be excused. A staff meeting agenda should be constructed to maximize the opportunity to engage the brains of everyone present. The person leading the meeting should actively solicit everyone’s ideas. If no one else can reasonably add value to the discussion, then it’s probably not a good topic for a staff meeting.

Meeting participants have a responsibility here, too. “Decisions are made by those who show up,” and that doesn’t mean sitting quietly and depriving the team of your inputs.

We’ve all got work to do. If we’re going to have a meeting, let’s make it worth our time.

The Personality Needed to Influence Quality January 21, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Quality.
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I’m not convinced there’s an ideal personality type for any specific job. I’ve seen many different kinds of people make strong contributions and achieve results. That being said, I don’t think you can effectively influence people if you’re a bully. You might be able to compel people to do what you want through the force of your personality, or because they fear the consequences of doing something else, but I don’t believe that’s a long-term motivator. Good leaders understand that you can be assertive and persistent and persuasive without crossing the line.

I think this is a particular problem in the world of quality. It’s usually easy to get people to fix quality problems after they’ve occurred, but a lot harder to prioritize quality before the event (the exception being anything that’s required to satisfy regulatory or other “must” requirements). In all other cases, quality is something that will be balanced against cost, or schedule, or other important business considerations.

Given that environment, I don’t see how being a jerk is going to help. Preventive quality requires the cooperation of everyone in the delivery chain, and should be backed-up with a clear-headed and objective analysis of risks. Past failures can be used to remind people of the implications of under-valuing quality, and of course the causes of those failures should be identified and (ideally) eliminated. However, putting people on the defensive or assigning blame is not the way to improve quality.

Change Management and “Moneyball” (Movie Version) December 1, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in baseball, Communication, Management & leadership, strategy.
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The other day I watched the movie “Moneyball” again and was reminded of a few important characteristics of successful change management. Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, an organization struggling with a limited budget to develop, attract, and retain players.

Some background:

At the beginning of the movie we learn that before the 2002 season the A’s have lost three of their best players who have signed more lucrative contracts elsewhere. Beane is trying to figure out how to replace these players, and more generally put together a winning team within the financial constraints imposed by ownership. After a chance encounter with a low-level analyst from a rival organization, Beane realizes that he cannot compete if he builds a team using the traditional ways of assigning value to players. Almost out of desperation, he decides on an unconventional strategy based on the emerging science of sabermetrics. He immediately faces resistance from his experienced staff, specifically the field manager and scouts who are unconvinced and in some cases actively working against the strategy.

Ultimately it’s fairly happy ending: despite public criticism of Beane’s decisions and early disappointments on the field, the A’s have a successful season. At one point they win 20 straight games, setting a new league record, and they make the playoffs, but lose in the first round. Beane is offered a significant raise to leave the A’s and join the Boston Red Sox  where he would have the opportunity to apply the same principles with a much larger budget. Beane declines the offer, but the unconventional strategy has been seemingly validated.

The movie focuses Beane’s underdog status and uphill battle during the season, and I’m sure some of the real-life events have been changed for dramatic effect. Regardless of whether they actually happened or not, there are several scenes that illustrate elements of successful change management.

1. A clear explanation of the new direction. In the movie, Beane leads a meeting of his senior staff to discuss plans for acquiring players for the upcoming season. This looks like Beane’s first opportunity to apply his new strategy, but he misses an important chance to align with his team. It’s clear that he’s the boss with the final authority, and it’s not necessary for everyone in the room to agree, but Beane could have taken the time to explain the new direction and acknowledge the objections. In later scenes, Beane acknowledges this mistake to his field manager who has been undermining the strategy through his tactical decisions, and fires a senior staff member who has been especially vocal in opposition.

The lesson: the team may not agree with the change, but they should be very clear about why change is needed. Team members should have the opportunity to raise objections, but once the direction has been set, their only choices are to support the change or leave the team.

2. Removing options to force compliance. Beane is frustrated by opposition from his field manager who gives more playing time to players whose skills are not highly valued in Beane’s new system. Beane stops short of giving a direct order to the manager to be make decisions that are more consistent with the strategy, and instead Beane trades these players to other teams, effectively removing those undesirable options. This is a variation of what is sometimes called “burning the boats,” from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. You can’t go back to the old way of doing things because that way is no longer an option. As Beane replaces players, his manager has fewer opportunities to not follow the strategy.

The lesson: this seems like passive-aggressive behavior from both parties, but I can see how it can be effective. My preference would be to reinforce the desired change rather than take away choices, but if the old way is very well established you need to help people move on and not be tempted to return.

3. Giving it a chance to work. The A’s get off to a slow start and pressure builds on Beane to abandon the new strategy. In one scene he meets with the team’s owner and assures the owner that the plan is sound and things will get better. It eventually does, despite all the skepticism and opposition, and the movie audience gets the underdog story they were promised.

The lesson: even the best ideas take time. It’s absolutely critical to set expectations with stakeholders to help them understand how and when they will detect whether the change is working. Impatience is one of the biggest causes of failure when it comes to change management. 

Why We Need Quality Police November 10, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Quality.
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I’ve said it myself many times: the quality department shouldn’t be the quality police. We tell ourselves that everyone is responsible for quality, and we therefore ask people to police their own behavior and make the right choices. This sounds good and noble, and it’s certainly more cost-effective than relying on a separate functional group to keep an eye on things.

And yet: it seems to be the only way. We need quality police.

When we’re left on our own, we tend to look for the fastest and easiest way to complete our assignments. We don’t spend much time thinking about the priorities or needs of other groups, or how decisions have future consequences. To eliminate chaos, businesses establish work standards and processes to enable coordinated activities and a smooth flow of information. Certainly we want our work processes to be effective, but what matters most are the consistent results that are achieved when everyone follows the process.

Somebody has to keep en eye on all this, to check for process conformance and process improvement opportunities. Managers can monitor the performance of their assigned teams, but a manager will tend to optimize within their team according to their objectives. Second-level or higher managers have a broader (and possibly cross-functional) perspective, but they probably lack the deeper understanding of the work processes.

If you have a quality team, this is their job. They’re the ones who pull together all the processes into a corporate quality management system (QMS). They’re the ones who train and audit the QMS, not just to make sure it’s being followed, but also to make sure it’s meeting the needs of the business. They’re the ones who monitor the performance of the processes to identify opportunities for improvement. And, if you care about ISO 9001 certification, they’re the ones who make sure you “document what you do, and do what you’ve documented.”

This isn’t the quality police looking for “process offenders” and punishing them. This is standardizing processes, reducing variability, and eliminating waste. Doesn’t every business want that?

Why Can’t You Figure Out What I Want? July 29, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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Earlier this year I started working at a new company where, except for the brief job interviews, I was entirely unfamiliar and unknown to everyone. I’ve been through this many times in my career, changing jobs and relocating more often than most, I suspect. It takes a little while for your new co-workers and subordinates to figure out who you are, what you care about, and what you expect. Your style and preferences will not be immediately obvious, and it’s unlikely that others will be able to read your mind. You’re bound to have some miscommunication, misunderstandings, and missed deliverables until you get on the same wavelength, and until then you have to spend a lot of time explaining what you really want.

You can make this easier for everyone by being explicit, being consistent, and giving feedback.

It starts by determining your priorities as a manager. What are the key performance indicators (KPIs) for the team relative to the larger business? What does success look like? How will you measure the performance of each team member? The answers to those questions should enable you to figure out what decisions you need to make, what decisions require your input, and what decisions can be made by your subordinates independently. That will help your team understand what information you need and when you need it.

You can also help your team by consistently communicating strategic messages that are simple, unambiguous, and (ideally) quantifiable. Cost reduction, revenue growth, on-time production ramp, fewer defects, greater efficiency, and improved customer satisfaction are all examples of strategic messages that are easy to grasp, but if the priorities are always changing you can’t expect people to know what’s important on any given day.

Finally, each person on the team should have individual performance objectives that can guide their decisions and their choices about how they spend their day. The feedback and reinforcement you provide during your routine encounters should reinforce those objectives. You shouldn’t make it hard for folks to figure out what you expect from them.


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