Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

The Role of Necessity

“But, I am not sure I know what my team wants,” Emily replied. “I am not sure what my team will find necessary.”

“Even more important is,” I interrupted, “Do you know what you want? As a manager, what do you want? As a manager, what are the things you have to do? These are not things you might like to do, or things that might make you a better manager. These are things that you have to do, to be the kind of manager you want to be. It is only when those things become necessary that those things will become ingrained into your personal discipline, to make you who you are.

“As a manager, what is necessary? What do you have to do to be successful?”

People Only Do What They Have to Do

Just a quick note. Management Blog celebrates the anniversary of its beginning, Nov 15, 2004. Tomorrow begins its 14th year. Still having fun. “If there is no fun, there is no passion. If there is no passion, there is no success.” -Peter Schutz (passed away Oct 29, 2017).
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“Yes, there’s more,” I replied. “Our discussions led us through stupidity, incompetence, competence and mastery. But, just because your team becomes competent, does not necessarily draw superior performance.”

“But you said incompetence was the reason for most failures in the workplace,” Emily protested.

“I said there were two factors that determined success or failure, and competence is one of the factors.”

“So, what is the other?” Emily asked.

Necessity,” I replied. Emily sat back knowing she was in for another brain stretch. I smiled and she leaned forward ready to listen.

“Let’s say you had a team that was perfectly competent to perform at a high level, yet the results were lacking. What would you consider to be the problem?”

Emily thought briefly. “I would say, it’s probably attitude or motivation.”

“Consider that accomplishment, producing results, can be traced back to two factors, competence and necessity. If we know that competence is not the factor, how could necessity explain the shortfall?”

“Do you mean that people only do what they have to do?” she asked.

“Exactly. People only do what they have to do, to get what they want or to avoid what they don’t want,” I replied.

“So my people will only do what I want, if I make it necessary for them to do it?”

“If only we had that power,” I said. “We don’t get to make that decision for other people. Only you can make that decision in your life, to do what is necessary, to get what you want. The successful manager is the one who taps into the necessity in the team.”

The Link Between Morale and Competence

“So, if morale suddenly improved as the speed of the line improved, what changed? What changed inside your team?” I asked.

“Remember, before, we were talking about competence and incompetence,” Emily thought out loud. “I didn’t believe you when you said the problem was incompetence. But now, I see such an improvement, I think you were right.”

“So, what changed inside their heads?” I asked again.

“Before, the team didn’t know the daily target number. That single number became a tool for them to get better. They became more competent.”

“They are on their way to mastery,” I said. That word mastery hung out there like a full moon. Inescapable.

“I never thought of it that way.”

“Put the two together.”

Competence and mastery,” she said.

“Why do people perform at a high level?” I asked.

“Because they can,” she replied. “Give them the tools to become competent and you will see progress.” Emily smiled. It was beginning to sink in.

“At least, that is half the story,” I announced.

“There’s more?” Emily asked.

Not a Problem of Morale

Emily’s white board had been in place for three days when I got the call. The tone in her voice was quite cheery.

“My team is absolutely amazing,” she reported. “The first day was tough because production was pretty much the same as before. The daily target was 175 units and we only managed to produce 86. I thought the team would implode, but when I got to work the next day, they were all there early and the line was already running. Instead of shutting down the line for break, they took breaks one at a time to keep things moving. We still only got 110 units, but they saw the improvement. Yesterday, they changed a couple of more things and we produced 140 units.

“What’s funny,” she continued. “All I have done, as a manager, is post the target number on the board in the morning and make comments about their improvement. All the changes, they have done on their own. It’s like everything has shifted. This is no longer my problem. They are working to fix it like it is their problem.”

“And, what about your morale problem?” I asked.

Emily’s face curled into a smile, “Oh, I don’t think the problem was morale.”

A Simple Feedback Loop

Emily was already in the plant. Out on the line, she tacked up a small white board. She wrote -Today’s target – 175 units. She tied the marker to a string and let it dangle.

She called a quick team huddle. “Listen up,” she said. “Instead of waiting for the QC report, I want to start tracking finished units before they leave the line.” She explained the tick marks and assigned a team member to count the marks at 10:00am, 2:00pm and 4:00pm.

I showed up during lunch. “Emily, I am glad you were in class for our discussion of control systems and feedback loops.”

“Yeah, we were going to talk about that, but all we did was talk about my morale problem.”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “Think about this. Before today, you had a dysfunctional control system. The results from the QC department were delayed by one day and the people who could fix the problem weren’t given accurate information.

“Today, you successfully converted your troublesome control system into a helpful feedback loop. The team (who can fix the problem) now gets accurate information in real time without delay.”

Deliver the Truth

Ernesto and Emily were locked in deep discussion. Emily was learning as much about herself as she was about the problem she brought to class.

I’m the problem?” she asked.

Ernesto shook his head. “Yes, and that’s the good news,” he replied. “The one thing you have the most control of is you. Your team is consistently short on daily unit production. But to protect morale, you never delivered the bad news. You never delivered the truth, at least not the straight truth.

“What do I do?” she asked.

“Tell them the truth,” Ernesto replied. “If they don’t know what the problem is, how can they fix it?”

“What if I tell them and they quit or get mad at me?”

“People are not that fragile, people can handle the truth. It’s the load that usually comes with the truth that people have trouble with. Look, Emily, all they need to know on Tuesday are two things. What is Tuesday’s target and as the day progresses, how are they doing toward the target?”

“So, how do I tell them, without the load?” Emily asked.

Ernesto was quick to respond. “Get a white board and in the morning, write down the target number for the day. When they finish a unit, have them put a tick mark on the board. Assign someone to add them up at 10, 2 and 4. They will figure it out.”

Creating Co-dependents

Emily was now seated in a chair at the front of the class.

“Emily, you think there is a morale problem on the line,” Ernesto began. “But, that’s not the problem. You know the team is not meeting their daily quota, but you haven’t shared the numbers with them. Bottom line, you are not telling the truth because you are afraid you might hurt someone’s feelings. By not telling the truth, you made them incapable of improvement.”

Emily’s body language retreated. Ernesto continued.

“And you have created co-dependents out of them. They are just fine not knowing what the quota is. As long as they don’t know, they don’t have to perform to it.

“When you tell them they are short, they think it’s your problem not theirs. They are perfectly willing to continue this non-accountable relationship. No skin off their nose.”

The color in Emily’s face began to pale. I called a time out. The room was very still and quiet.

“The problem we name is the problem we solve. That is why it is so important to name the problem correctly,” I said. “How will we name this problem?”

Just Try Harder

Emily was nervous as she entered the classroom. She knew that I would not allow her to be a passive observer, but front and center in the crucible. I turned to greet the other folks streaming in.

“I would like everyone to meet Emily. She has an interesting problem at work. With our help, she is going to walk us through some solutions.” Emily looked at me sideways. It would take her a bit to trust this group.

Up at the front, Emily stood. “I really don’t know what kind of problem I have,” she started. “Our manufacturing line is not meeting its daily quota and the reject rate is at 11 percent.” Emily continued to describe the circumstances, considering morale, motivation and working conditions. Then the questions came from the group.

“Who decides the daily quota?”
“How is the daily target communicated to the line?”
“Who tracks the number of completed units?”
“How does the line know if they are falling short or getting ahead of the target?”

Emily responded crisply, “The daily quota is determined by the sales forecast and what we need in stock, but the people on the line don’t need to know that. They just need to build the units faster. When the QC people pick up the units for inspection at the end of the day, they count them and it’s on my report the next day.”

Ernesto raised his hand. “So, the line doesn’t know how far they missed Tuesday’s quota until Wednesday?”

“Not exactly,” Emily replied. “I don’t want to discourage them, so I just tell them they were a little short, that they are doing good job and to try harder. I am worried about morale getting lower.”

Ernesto tilted his head to directly engage Emily. “You are treating this issue as a morale problem. Morale is only a symptom. You have to treat the root cause of the problem, not the symptom.”

Randy dragged a chair up front for Emily to sit. We were going to be there a while.

Name the Problem

It was early. Early, meaning we were the only two people on the plant floor. Emily drew a flow chart of how materials were received, then assembled and carted off to QC for inspection. She defended the competence of her workers in the assembly process.

“The issue isn’t assembly,” I said. “The issue is speed and accuracy. Have you ever counted rejects off the line?”

“Well, no,” replied Emily. “That’s what our Quality Department does.”

“So, when units leave this line, we have no idea which ones meet spec and which ones are defective?”

Emily searched in her mind for a better answer, but she couldn’t find one. “No,” she replied.

“Emily, we are talking about competence. The biggest reason for failure is incompetence. Most managers will accept all kinds of excuses. The problem is not that the line is running too fast or too slow or that it is too hot or too cold, or that we don’t have great health insurance or that the team isn’t motivated. The problem is incompetence. Most managers won’t call it incompetence, because they don’t know how to solve that problem. The problem you name is the problem you solve. The issue is speed and accuracy. The problem is incompetence.”

“So, what should I do?” Emily asked.

“Funny, you should ask. Tonight, in class, we are going to talk about control systems and feedback loops. Why don’t you come, as my guest? I will help you teach the subject.”

Did Not Do It, Because I Couldn’t

“But, I just told you that my people are competent,” Emily protested. “They have been working on the line for several years.”

“You said, the problem was reject rates. Yes, your team is competent at the task, but not competent at accuracy and speed,” I explained. “I used to work in an accounting firm. When I started, I thought I was great at adding up numbers. And I was. I was extremely competent at adding numbers (after all, I did manage to graduate from second grade). But I was incompetent at accuracy and speed.

“Never in my life, was I taught to error-check a column of numbers by adding the column twice and comparing the totals. That practice never occurred to me. And if it had occurred, I would have immediately concluded that it would take twice the time to add the numbers twice. Logic told me so.

“I had to learn a new skill. I had to become competent at using an adding machine without looking. I never did it before, because I couldn’t.

“Before, I would add numbers up with an occasional mistake. Now, I add them up twice in less time, virtually error-free.

“Your people on the line are competent at the task, but not competent at accuracy and speed.”

Emily was silent. Finally she spoke, “Okay, I think I get it. But I am not sure what to do. How do I bring up their competence in accuracy and speed?”

“First, we are going to have to count some things.”