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.

I Already Had the Answer

“So, you didn’t like the idea?” I asked.

“No, and I should have listened to my sales-guy,” Rory replied. “We spent a bunch of engineering time creating a perfect solution that the customer didn’t want. We thought the prototype would WOW them to our way of thinking. All it did, was drive them to our competitor.”

“If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?”

“First, I would listen. Before the problem was completely explained, I thought I already had the answer. I missed some key elements in the problem.”

“And, what else?”

“I think,” Rory glanced to the ceiling and back to me, “that I have to suspend my own judgement for a while. I have to see the problem from the customer’s perspective. Until I can see that, I will make the decision according to my criteria, instead of developing criteria from the customer’s perspective.”

The problem you solve is the problem you name. Make sure you name the right problem. -Pat Murray

Paper, Scissors, Rock

“So, just exactly how far out to lunch were you, when you made that decision?” I asked.

Clarence laughed. It was the first bit of levity around a decision that cost his company $125,000. “I know, I know,” he replied. “It was a pretty bone-headed decision.”

“Seriously, what did you miss?”

“I was so focused on the increased productivity we forecast when this new machine came online, that I forgot to ask some basic questions.”

“Like?”

“I assumed the concrete floor would support the weight of the replacement machine. There were plenty of signs to tell me otherwise, but I didn’t pay attention to the floor because I paid attention to productivity.”

“Details?”

“You’re making this painful. When we pulled the old machine out, there were stress cracks in the concrete underneath. I thought, after 20 years, they were just cosmetic. But, there wasn’t enough steel reinforcement in the pad to hold the weight of the new machine.”

“What did you learn?”

“Before you make a decision, you have to lay out – what is an assumption and what is a fact. I was playing paper, scissors, rock with concrete and steel.”

See No Evil

“I don’t have time to think about KPIs,” Marcelo complained. “We have too much work to do around here. I have production quotas to get out the door.”

“How do you know when you have finished a production run?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, we have someone counting units before they go in the box. We build to order. We try to keep finished inventory down.”

“Do you have defects?”

“Yep. Or, so we hear. I always overrun by 10 percent to cover customer complaints. Seems to work out pretty well.” Marcelo gave me that confident look.

“If you were to have Key Performance Indicators, what would they be?” I pressed.

“I told you, we don’t have time for that. If there is a quality problem, that is for the QA/QC department to figure out. Believe me, they will tell us.”

“Sounds like the trilogy, hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil?”

“As long as I don’t look for trouble, I rarely find it.”

“So, if you know you are blind, you will figure out a way to see. But if you don’t know you are blind, you will continue to run into the same problems, over and over.”
___
-Adapted from Ray Dalio, Principles

Who is on the Team?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:
What do you feel are the most important skills that I need to think about as a new manager?

Response:
For me, hiring and firing are at the top of the list. The most important skill for any manager is team member selection. The ability to select the right team members makes all other management skills seem like a walk in the park.

The manager who selects the right team members will have a wonderful time as a manager. The manager who selects the wrong team members will forever spend time trying to fix the problems that come from hiring mis-steps. That time spent trying to motivate, coach and correct behavior will be frustrating and miserable…for a very long time.

Take a sports team and put them up against any other team. To pick the team who will win the game, you only have to know the answer to one simple question.

Who is on the team?

Hiring and firing are at the top of the list. Arguably, the most important skill.

A Remarkable Why

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In our country, we’re not educated to give positive feedback, not even at school. And it’s so much easier to see faults than to see strengths. Hopefully the next generation of managers gets their people to smile in a more natural embedded way. Out of experience, I know I perform better when people give me positive feedback rather than being a bully.

I don’t believe appreciation is taught in any country, at least not as a subject in school. Yet, positive reinforcement is one of the most powerful management tools.

Response:
What gets reinforced, gets repeated.

I often ask, “Who, here, has been getting too much appreciation from their boss at work.”

The Appreciation Rule
Appreciation must be honest and sincere. Honest and sincere appreciation contains two parts.

The first part is to tell the team member specifically what you observed (as a strength, a desirable behavior, a positive attitude). The second part (the sincere part) is to say why. Why was your observation remarkable?

That’s it,
A specific what.
A remarkable why.

A team member shows up for work early. It sounds like this –

I see you arrived ten minutes early for work today. It’s important to be on time. I just wanted you to know that I noticed.

What gets reinforced, gets repeated.

The Tell

Justin greeted me at the front door. His energy level was up and he had that telltale smile.

“Justin, how can you tell the difference between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement? In terms of response from the team member?”

Justin searched for the answer. He retraced his steps, thinking about interactions he had with his team. I interrupted his thought.

“Let me ask the question differently,” I said. “How can you immediately tell the difference between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement? What is the immediate response to positive reinforcement?”

Justin was thinking way too deeply for the answer.

I continued my interrogation. “Yesterday, you described yourself as politically incorrect and I said ‘I appreciate your honesty.’ Do you remember?”

Justin cracked a smile. “Yes, I thought you were going to give me a lecture on negative reinforcement. Instead, you started talking about my honesty.”

“See, you did it.”

“Did what?” Justin replied.

“You smiled. The immediate response to positive reinforcement is a smiling face. Many managers think they are delivering positive reinforcement to their team members, but I see scowls in return. Positive reinforcement invites a smile. If you don’t get a smile, you didn’t connect.”

Warm and Fuzzy

“But I am not the kind of person who is all warm and fuzzy,” explained Justin. “If someone does a good job, that is what they get paid for. Why do I have to get all blubbery? It just feels goofy.”

“As a manager, when someone makes a mistake, do you have to correct them?” I asked.

“Well, yes. That’s what a manager does.”

“And when you correct them, do they do it right, or do they just do it well enough not to get yelled at?” I prodded.

Justin smiled and nodded. “It’s strange, in the short run, they do better, but it doesn’t take long for them to backslide, take a short cut on a process, skip a step. It keeps me pretty busy, checking their work.” He wasn’t being defensive, just matter of fact.

“So, it feels funny, giving honest and sincere appreciation, but it feels okay providing a little negative feedback?”

Justin grimaced. He didn’t like the way that sounded. “I suppose you are right, but that is just the way I am.” In a way, he felt justified, even sat up straighter when he said it.

“I appreciate your honesty, Justin.” I smiled.

Justin couldn’t help it and cracked a smile back. “I thought you were going to tell me I was politically incorrect.”

“I am looking for something much more than political correctness. Being politically correct won’t make you a better manager. That’s why I focused on something more powerful, your honesty. Honesty will make you a better manager. Honest and sincere appreciation.”

A Hard Working Bunch

I looked around the meeting room. Raul was quietly talking on his phone. Barry and Jim were sending emails under the table, thumbs furiously pounding. George was reading the business section of the newspaper and Theresa was finishing some paperwork. They were a hard working bunch, but their minds were not in this room. And this was an important meeting.

I made enough noise to get the electronic units shut down, the newspaper folded and the paperwork stuck in a briefcase, but I could see the minds were still charging about the world outside of the room.

“Take a piece of paper and write down two sentences responding to the following question. What do I need to say to myself and to this group to let go the outside world for the next 45 minutes to be fully present here and now?”

There was silence. The sheets of paper remained blank. Pens poised, but not moving. Seconds ticked off and the first response was put on paper. Then another. Soon, the ink was flowing and the pens finished their work.

As we circled around the table, each team member lost their grasp on events outside the room and began to focus on each other. Four minutes had passed and we were finally ready to work.

It’s a Different Skill Set

Turnover at the supervisor level was killing his floor crew. I spoke with some of the team members on the production team. They were capable at the production level, but none was up to the role of supervisor. We really did have to go outside. Russell had burned through two supervisors in the past nine months.

“Tell me what you look for in this supervisor role.” I asked.

“That’s the problem,” replied Russell. “It’s hard to find someone with the proper experience. The best guys turn out to be great equipment operators, but they cannot handle the scheduling, cycle counts or material flow.”

“Do you interview them for that?”

Russell looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“Russell, here is what I see. You interview for technical skills, which are important. But the role of the supervisor is a completely different role than that of the technician. Your breakdowns are where the skills of the supervisor are needed most, scheduling, cycle counts and material flow. That’s a critical area to interview for.”

“You want me to interview to see how a guy fills out a schedule?”

“Absolutely. Here is how it sounds.

  • Step me through your scheduling process.
  • How many people on the crew?
  • One shift or two?
  • Full time or part time?
  • How far into the future do you publish the schedule?
  • Did you have team leaders? Newbies on the crew?
  • How did you mix the experience level on each shift?
  • Did often did the production schedule change?
  • How did production schedule changes impact the work schedule?
  • In addition to the people, how did you schedule equipment required?
  • Was the equipment dedicated to your crew, or did you have to share resources with other teams?
  • How did you schedule materials?
  • How did you relieve inventory for each day’s production?
  • How did you know your inventory was correct?
  • How did you manage minimum quantities and re-order points in your inventory?
  • What were the lead times on your critical path inventory SKUs?
  • How did you handle sick outs?

“Russell, it’s more than filling out a paper schedule, it is how the candidate thinks, then behaves.”

A Bad Attitude is Invisible

“So, tell me,” Russell asked, “how can we interview for a bad attitude?”

“Well, let’s think about attitude,” I started. “Is attitude, particularly a bad attitude, something inside a person, perhaps invisible?”

“You nailed it,” Russell shook his head. “It’s invisible, some people even hide it.”

“It’s invisible until when?”

“It’s invisible until something triggers it, or the pressure builds up. That’s when a bad attitude shows up.”

“See, I can’t interview for something invisible, like a bad attitude,” I said. “I can only interview for behaviors connected to a bad attitude. So, what I want to know is, how does the candidate behave when the pressure builds up?”

“I’m listening,” Russell replied.

“Tell me about a project, likely the worst project you ever worked on, where everything seemed to go wrong. A project where the customer was unreasonable, never satisfied, in spite of your best efforts.

  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • How large was the project team? Who was on the team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • How did you discover the project was not going well, as planned?
  • How did the customer find out?
  • What was the customer’s reaction?
  • Step me through the interaction with the customer?
  • What was the customer’s reason to be upset?
  • What was your role in the interaction?
  • How did you respond to the situation?
  • What resolutions were discussed?
  • What was the outcome?

“You see, Russell, I cannot interview a candidate for a bad attitude, only for behavior in a situation where a bad attitude might be driving things.”