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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.


How Important Is Industry Familiarity? April 17, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, strategy.
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I’m once again “between jobs” and “in-transition,” and I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at job postings. Every position seems to emphasize the preference or requirement for applicants with industry experience. It’s easy to imagine that many applicants are immediately eliminated from consideration without it.

I understand why familiarity with an industry is valued in a candidate. Different industries are characterized by different combinations of suppliers, internal value delivery systems, channels, competitors, and customers. People who work in the industry understand the relationships between these elements, and that understanding is an important consideration when setting priorities and making decisions. It takes time to learn that in a new job, and people who already have the experience don’t need to go through a learning curve and theoretically can make a more-immediate impact.

Industry familiarity doesn’t seem to be something you can acquire through independent study and observation; you have to actually work in the industry. This means that your preferred candidates are likely going to be people who have worked at your competitors, or possibly your suppliers, channels, or customers, depending on how broadly you define your industry.

This leads to a question I’ve been puzzling over: what are the unique characteristics of an industry that are true differentiators? What really distinguishes one industry from another, and what is the significance of those differences when considering job applicants?

In my career I’ve worked at a defense contractor, several OEMs in the consumer electronics industry, a supplier to the semiconductor manufacturing industry, and most-recently a supplier to the power generation and utilities industries. Different customers, different sales channels, different production volumes, and different quality expectations and regulatory environments. Some of the suppliers were the same, but most were different. Some produced internally, and some outsourced. Some of these companies competed on cost, some on technology. My modest assessment is that I’ve been successful in all of these industries.

Industry experience provides familiarity, but is industry experience an accurate predictor of success in a new job? What skills are really needed to succeed, and how transferable are a person’s skills from one industry to another? Could a unique perspective derived from a diversity of experiences be more valuable than industry familiarity? These are the questions that should be considered when writing a job posting and evaluating applicants.


Are Your Suppliers Really Committed to Quality? November 6, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality, Supply chain.
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Suppliers always declare their commitment to the highest standards of quality as a core value, but many have trouble living up to that promise. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited suppliers who proudly display their framed ISO certificates in the lobby yet suffer from persistent quality problems that lead to higher cost and schedule delays. Here’s how you can tell if they’re really serious:

1. Do they have an on-going program of quality improvement, or do they wait until you complain? Do they have an understanding of the sources of variability in their value stream, and can they explain what they’re doing to reduce variability without being asked to do so? Look for any testing and measurements that occur before outgoing inspection. Award extra credit if the supplier can show process capability studies and control charts. Ask what they’re doing to analyze and reduce the internal cost of quality (scrap and rework).

2. Do they accept responsibility for misunderstandings regarding specifications and requirements? Or, do they make a guess at what you want, and later insist they just did what they were told? Quality means meeting or exceeding customer expectations, and a supplier who is truly committed to quality will ensure those expectations are clear before they start production.

3. Do you find defects when you inspect their first articles, or samples from their first shipment? If the supplier can’t get these right when there’s no schedule pressure, you should have serious concerns about their ability to ramp up to your production levels. By the way, if you’re not inspecting a small sample of first articles, you’ll have to accept at least half of the blame for any subsequent quality problems.

4. Has the supplier ever warned you of a potential quality problem discovered on their side, or do they just hope that you won’t notice? I realize this is a sign of a more mature relationship between supplier and customer, but a true commitment to quality means that the supplier understands their role in your value stream, and upholds your quality standards without being asked.

Ultimately, you will get the level of quality you deserve, depending on what suppliers you select and the messages you give them. You may be willing to trade quality for lower unit cost, shorter lead time, or assurance of supply. The real question is: What level of quality do you need? What level of poor quality can you tolerate?

The Weakest Link In Any Quality System June 29, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Quality.
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It’s time to start writing again. I officially re-joined the workforce in mid-March and I’ve been very busy with starting a new job and relocating to Colorado. While I’ve had a lot of time for reflection, there’s been little time for composition. Now I want to get back into a blogging rhythm, for my own benefit if for no other reason.

I’m managing a quality department again, and it’s another opportunity to establish a quality system of processes and metrics that can enable the business to “meet or exceed customer expectations” at a reasonable cost. In that role I’ve been spending a lot of time understanding how the company measures quality, both externally (field failures, service calls), and internally (factory yield, defective parts received). These measures must provide an accurate picture of the current state of quality because any set of improvement plans will be based on the perceived status and trends over time. If the measures are wrong we will dedicate ourselves to fixing the wrong things, which means either lower priority targets (missed opportunity), or trying to fix something that isn’t broken (process tampering).

Unfortunately almost all of the current quality measures are compromised because of a fundamental weakness: the human element. We’re counting on individual service reps, factory assemblers, inspectors, and others to log their findings correctly, or even log their findings at all. I’m not sure which is more damaging to our quality planning: no data or invalid data. Either way we’re in danger of running off in the wrong direction and possibly wasting a lot of time and energy on the wrong quality improvement projects.

So, how can can get our people to provide better input? Sure, we can impose harsh directives from above to compel people to follow the process for logging defects (not our management style). Or, we could offer incentives to reward those who find the most defects (a disaster, I’ve seen this fail spectacularly). I think the answer is to educate our teams about the cost of quality, and how all these external and internal failures add up to real money spent, and potentially saved by focusing our improvement efforts on the right targets. Some percentage of that money saved could be directed back to the teams that helped identify the improvement opportunities.

My plan is to hit the road, going out to our service reps and our design centers and our factories and our suppliers to help them understand the importance of complete and accurate reporting of quality. I need everyone’s commitment, or else we will continue to wander around in the dark.

The Teaching Manager August 1, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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I think one of the most overlooked elements of a manager’s job description is the responsibility to teach. Managers should be measured on their ability to use the resources assigned to them, and anything a manager can do to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their team is obviously a good thing for the business. Certainly all employees are expected to have acquired the minimum skills and training required to achieve their individual and team objectives. A manager coaches to their team on how to apply those skills and training in the unique ecosystem of the business, consistent with strategic priorities and complementary to the roles of internal partners, suppliers, and customers. This coaching is based in-part on the insights that come from the manager’s experience with success and failure — what works, and what doesn’t work– but managers should also recognize and promote best practices that are outside their personal experience.

Three other teaching opportunities for a manager:

1. Identifying skill gaps and recommending plans to close those gaps. The manager may have the knowledge and ability to provide training themselves, but what’s more important is the recognition of the gap and prioritizing the whatever training may be necessary.

2. Developing and encouraging good judgment so their team can act independently without the need for close supervision. This increases team productivity and enables the manager to spend more of their time on higher value-added activities.

3. Identifying and developing the next generation of leaders. As I wrote in an earlier post: “Those who actively participate in helping new leaders are valued employees who understand their role in helping the business continue and grow.”

Companies who invest in their human resources realize concrete and sometimes unexpected benefits. Managers at all levels in the organization are critical to that investment through their daily opportunity to teach.

Team Building Activities: Not For Everyone June 3, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I used to force people to engage in team building activities; specifically those structured exercises that are intended to teach something about working together more effectively. I originally joined in as a willing-but-skeptical participant when facilitators asked everyone to get out of our chairs and stand in a circle to throw a ball back and forth, or pair up with someone else who was blindfolded, or work with a team to figure out how to drop an egg off the top of the building without breaking it (the egg, not the building). It seemed to be something that progressive, forward-thinking managers were supposed to organize on behalf of their teams in order to uncover revelations and breakthrough thinking that would inspire teamwork, innovation, and productivity. That’s what I hoped for, but I see now that I was putting a lot of faith in a process that relies on accidental discoveries.

I’m sure these games must have worked for some teams otherwise surely the concept would have died early on. I don’t think I ever experienced a revelation when I was a participant, but I saw other people who seemingly got caught up in the excitement, or at least had something to say when the facilitator asked for “lessons learned.” At the time I concluded that I was trying too hard, and that I shouldn’t deny the teams I would later manage the opportunity to learn their own lessons just because I didn’t get it.

This may work for others, maybe as a way of getting people to think differently, but I know now that it’s not for me. It doesn’t fit my management style and I feel pretty silly doing it. I do want to inspire the team to work together collaboratively, to be innovative, and to develop their own ideas for higher productivity, but I’m not comfortable with using symbolic games that reveal hidden truths indirectly. I’d rather go directly to the team and tell them what we need instead of hoping to get there through a side door.

Read This: “Bring Back the Organization Man” March 19, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in baseball, job search, Management & leadership.
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Last week I discovered an excellent article by Peter Cappelli from the HBR Blog Network:


This is great stuff. I strongly encourage you to read this for yourself, but here’s what I got out of it:

1. Companies are tending to hire external candidates to fill positions, which takes less time than developing internal candidates and allows them to aggregate the specific skills and experiences needed at any given time (“plug ‘n play”), and replace workers and re-assemble a different team as business requirements change (“‘just-in-time’ workforce”). Unfortunately this kind of short-term thinking is leading to retention problems as employees realize they will have to leave the company in order to achieve their career goals. In response to the turnover, companies reduce their spending on training and development, which reinforces the cycle.

2. Hiring from the external pool is inherently unpredictable: “The supply of skills in specific areas is uncertain, so the quality and price jumps around a lot.” There’s also a question of whether an external candidate is a good fit for the company’s culture, something that can’t be easily assessed during an interview process.

3. Many employees fear losing their jobs to external candidates who have specialized skills that a company needs at a given point in time, and this fear leads to sub-optimal performance.

4. Mr. Cappelli suggests a return to the old “Organization Man” model where companies invested in the training and development of their employees. The internal pool of employees is a more reliable and predictable (and cheaper?) source of talent to meet the changing and unknowable future needs of the business. When employees see that the business is committed to retention and professional growth, their anxiety level is reduced and performance improves.

I agree, but I worry about how many companies are willing to make that investment, particularly if they are focused on short-term financial and performance goals.

There is a staffing model that assumes that a high-performing team can be assembled from available people, including current employees, external hires, temporary contractors, and outsource partners. I think of this as the “Hollywood model” where a team comes together to achieve a specific goal (make a movie), then disbands as a formal group when the goal is achieved. Some members of the team may re-aggregate in the future to make another movie, depending on their performance, availability and price tag.

This may sound attractive as a customized approach, matching the goal and the skills required to the team members, but it assumes that success is just a matter of assembling a bunch of specialists and mercenaries.The whole is not necessarily greater than or even equal to the sum of the parts, and may in fact be less. There are many possible reasons for this: no loyalty, poor interpersonal compatibility, no commitment to a “greater good,” no incentive to help teammates.

For another example, note how many Major League Baseball teams have achieved success on the field simply by acquiring expensive free agents instead of developing talent from within. Success in baseball more often comes when a team complements their home-grown players by selectively filling key positions with external hires who don’t disrupt the clubhouse culture.

The Unpopular Promotion January 18, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I think just about everyone likes the idea of “promoting from within,” filling an open management or leadership position by promoting a person who is already part of the team. It sends an important message to all employees: this is an organization that values its internal resources, and there is a possibility of upward mobility for those who have demonstrated the talents and capabilities to do so. Another plus: a person promoted internally should already have a good understanding of the issues facing the team and the larger business context, so they don’t need a lengthy transtional period in order to become effective in the new role.

Unfortunately this rarely seems to go well. Unless the decision is universally recognized as the obvious choice, other members of the team may become quietly jealous, passive-aggressive, or openly hostile toward the recently-promoted person, creating a lot of turmoil in the workplace.

In my last job in China I managed two examples of unpopular promotions. In the first case, a manager reporting to me wanted to promote a hard-working and detail-oriented junior engineer to a newly-created lead position with responsibility for managing schedules, resource planning, and customer communication. The junior engineer definitely had the skills to do the assigned job, and I gave my full support to the manager’s recommendation. The trouble started almost immediately when the other leads in the team resisted the junior engineer’s efforts to introduce new processes, and never gave that person the support they needed to be effective. Over the next several months the manager worked with the junior engineer and the other leads to try to make it work, but ultimately he had to surrender and reverse his promotion decision, which was obviously a disappointing outcome for the junior engineer, but necessary to get the team back on-track.

The manager and I struggled to understand why this didn’t succeed. Unfortunately neither of us spoke Mandarin, so we probably never got to the real reasons why the other leads didn’t support the internal promotion. We suspected that the junior engineer was a victim of sexism and cronyism. She possessed the capabilities to do the job, but she didn’t have enough self-confidence and social skills to break through the resistance from the other leads. Everybody involved took hard-line positions, and the situation deteriorated from there. The manager felt he had made a justifiable, merit-based decision, the junior engineer was working according to a mandate from the manager, and the other leads figured they could make enough trouble to eventually undermine the whole thing and get back to the way things were.

The other example was similar, but turned out a little better. I promoted a lead engineer to a recently-vacated management position, and before finalizing the decision I discussed it with my peers in other departments to get their assessment and buy-in. I was already convinced that this person had the right skills and temperment, but I wanted to estimate their chance for success. This new manager would be taking over an under-performing team, and I needed their help to drive some necessary-but-potentially-unpopular changes. I wasn’t entirely surprised when I heard there was some resistance to the new manager and his assertive style, and eventually I was invited to join an urgent meeting with several members of the team who presented a signed document (in English) threatening to resign. I have to admit I was stubborn about the decision to promote the lead engineer, and I decided I could risk the possibility of losing some people as part of a needed organizational transformation. At the same time, I worked with the new manager and coached him to reach out to the resisters to understand their concerns, instead of using his new authority to silence them. He was able to convince some of them to stay in the group, and we didn’t miss the ones who left.

What I learned is that when considering an internal candidate for promotion you have to assess their social skills and emotional intelligence to determine how well-equipped they are to overcome resistance from their former peers. Oddly, an external candidate typically doesn’t face this; maybe familiarity really does breed contempt. You also have to understand and anticipate the kind of resistance they are likely to encounter, for example if you’re asking them to take a lead role in change management. And, you have to line up allies and supporters from among the rest of the organization; people who support your decision and, more importantly, support the new person (or at least not actively undermine them).

I can imagine few things more discouraging to a person’s career than to be promoted to a position of leadership and to fail completely because of a mutiny from the team. I’ve learned that it’s not enough for the manager to make the “right” hiring decision and announce it to the team; the manager must also provide ongoing coaching and support to ensure the decision is successfully implemented.

Getting Good At Turnover October 28, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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In July 2009 I wrote a post in which I described my efforts to minimize turnover during an extended salary-and-bonus freeze at my employer in the middle of the last decade. See: Retention Strategies. Back then I was trying to figure out what a mid-level manager could do to create a work environment that would be harder to leave behind, even for a bump in pay. Nevertheless, employee turnover is unavoidable, it happens for a variety of reasons that are usually outside the control of the reporting manager, and the best thing to do is find a way to manage the transition as quickly and smoothly as possible. Organizations should work on improving retention, but they should also learn how to become good at turnover.

Managers usually hate the idea of turnover because of the disruption in a previously-predictable work routine, and they can become positively distraught when a star performer announces that they’re resigning to take a different job. On the other hand, the unexpected departure of a poor performer can be a blessing, allowing the manager to spend their time on more worthwhile activities.

Side note: I strongly believe that the organization gets far more benefit when managers give their attention to the star performers than when they spend time trying to coach poor performers. Stars meet expectations without much help, but they have the potential for breakthroughs and independent leadership that will have long-lasting implications for growth and profitability.

Regardless, turnover is a distraction and causes a short-term loss of productivity for the team — if only temporarily — as the workload is re-distributed among the remaining staff and replacement hires (if authorized) are identified and trained.

It’s important to manage the exit process for the departing employee. Assuming that the separation is amicable (no special circumstances that require formal HR procedures), and that the departing employee is not joining a competitor (calling for an immediate and supervised escort out the door), and that this isn’t part of a company-wide workforce reduction program (with its own set of legal requirements), then the exit process can be something that’s handled locally by the immediate manager, typically during a “two weeks’ notice” interval. Obviously the manager should assess whether there’s anything that can (or should) be done to prevent this person from leaving, but it’s been my experience that by the time someone submits their resignation, they’ve made up their mind and almost certainly have already accepted another job.

At that point I’ve got two questions. First: “Are you running away from something or running towards something?” What I’m trying to understand is whether this person is leaving for a better opportunity, or if they’re trying to get away from a bad situation. I’d like to think that I’m pretty perceptive about what’s going on in the workplace, nevertheless I want to be sure I’m not overlooking something. It probably won’t make a bit of difference for the departing employee, but this is information I can use to help understand and possibly improve the environment for those who remain.

The second question is “Is there anything can I do to help?” If this person is leaving for a better position elsewhere, I think it’s good manners and good karma to keep everything on good terms. I try to think of former colleagues as alumni who’ve graduated and moved on, but are part of a larger professional network. I don’t see any value in being openly upset or bitter about the situation. Our careers intersected and overlapped for some finite period of time, and eventually one of us was going to move on to something new. That doesn’t mean we might not work together again at some point in the future.

Another side note: I’ve always liked the idea of a “Hollywood model” in the workplace. To make a movie, producers assemble a group of people with specific skills, some of whom may have collaborated in the past. They work together for months or years, ultimately finish the movie, have a big party, and go their separate ways. Some of those people may re-assemble later on a different project. I think that would be an interesting way to work, as part of a for-hire community of complementary resources.

This post has gone on long enough. There’s more to say about re-distribution of the work that was assigned to the former colleague, and hiring and “on-boarding” of new people, but I’ll save that for another time.

Are Certifications Useful? October 17, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Process engineering, Quality.
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My current responsibilities include program management, and that’s somewhat ironic because the question of whether or not to become certified in program/project management was very much on my mind in 2009 when I was “between jobs.” Many of the jobs descriptions that interested me back then included a “requirement” for a professional certification, for example a PMP credential from the Process Management Institute (PMI), or a Six Sigma Green Belt or Black Belt certificate from the American Society for Quality (ASQ). In my career I’ve managed, trained, and coached people with these certificates, but I never took the time to become certified myself. I started to wonder whether my job prospects would improve if I spent the money, signed up for the classes, passed the exams, and generally jumped through the hoops to get formal recognition for the skills I had already demonstrated on-the-job many times over.

At the time I stubbornly decided not to pursue formal certification, for two reasons. First, I had to be pretty selective about what I where I was willing to spend money to improve my prospects for employment, and I wasn’t convinced that there would be a significant “return on investment” in these certifications. That’s because of the second reason: I wasn’t convinced that people who are certified are inherently better qualified for a position than someone who isn’t, all other qualifications being equal.

I certainly have no objection to continuing education, and I’m sure the preparation classes offered by organizations such as PMI and ASQ are thorough and well-constructed. What I object to is the idea that a job candidate (or an employee) who holds one of these certifications is patently more capable. Is work experience equal to — or even superior to — certification? I think in many cases the answer is “Yes,” but the problem is that it’s hard to assess “work experience,” and it’s far easier for recruiters, HR departments, and hiring managers to accept a certification as a proxy for competence and proficiency.

I received a Ph.D. from the University of California in 1982, and at that time there was an option for students to apply for a Master’s degree based primarily on the classroom work completed along the way to a Ph.D. It didn’t require a lot of additional work, and several of my colleagues opted for the “en route” Master’s, but it wasn’t for me. I felt that the Ph.D. I ultimately earned trumped the Master’s degree, and it seemed kind of pretentious to add more letters after my name. In my early career I was active in an organization now known as the National Association of Surface Finishing, and at one point I convinced myself that it was worth the time to take an exam and become a Certified Electroplater-Finisher. I suppose that might have been more prestigious and valuable if I had chosen a career in electroplating, but I moved in a different direction a few years later.

Since then I’ve worked with a lot of contract manufacturers and engineering service providers who proudly advertise their company’s certifications, typically framed and displayed in the reception area for would-be customers. I used to be impressed by these displays, but I became cynical when I realized that whatever the company did to achieve the certification had no connection to their day-to-day activities and performance. In the early days of  the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award there were several celebrated examples of companies  that went bankrupt shortly after winning the award, and it was widely suggested that they lost sight of what was really important to their businesses.

I think the key question is whether the certification is important to the individual (or company) in order to formally acknowledge experience already gained, or if the certification is meant to be a substitute for that experience. When evaluating a job candidate (or a company) I’m looking for demonstrated competence in a real-world setting. I’m still trying to decide whether to add more letters after my name, or if there isn’t some better way to show people that I know what I’m doing.

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