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.

What’s the Benchmark?

“So, what do you think?” asked Lenny. “How do you think my team is doing?”

“I don’t know. How do you measure how you are doing?” I replied.

“That’s the thing. We aren’t sure what to measure against. We got some studies of companies that are sort of like us, but the benchmarks they use seem so different. They just don’t make sense.”

“Two things,” I said. “Pick what you think is important. Start measuring now.”

“But, what do we measure against? How do we know if we are doing okay or not?”

“Measure against yourself. So many companies chase each other’s tail around and end up back where they started. Figure out what is important to your customer and measure that. That’s all your customer cares about. What else matters? Measure the second day against the first day. Measure the third day against the second day. Pretty soon, you will see a trend. Before you know it, you will have one year’s worth of data. Start measuring now.”

Land of Tangible, Land of Conceptual

Time frame sets the context. Near term target completion time requires the elements of the project to be concrete, tangible and known. The project due tomorrow afternoon has a team and we can call each member by name. The materials are quantified, we know how much. We know the vendor, we know the price point. We know the delivery time, we know the schedule. Every element is concrete, tangible and known. Why?

Because the project is due tomorrow afternoon.

A long term target completion is more conceptual. If the project will not be complete for five years, we know we will have a project team, but over the term of the project, some may quit, retire, get picked off by a competitor. We have an idea about materials, but over the term of the project, a new material might become available (better, faster, stronger) and we might have to adapt. Our supplier may not be in business in five years’ time or may no longer be serving our needs. We might need an alternate vendor.

We need both tactical thinking and strategic thinking. Our five year conceptual plan, in four years, must transform into a one year tactical plan.

Some people think short term. Some think long term. Some think both.

The Possibility of Wrong

Open minded people can hold on to their own way of thinking, while, at the same time, considering alternate points of view.

There is always the possibility that you are wrong, if you are open to that possibility. It is also possible the other viewpoint is wrong, if you are open to that possibility.

If you are not open to the possibility, then you can only solve the problem one way. And, if that doesn’t work, you are hopelessly stuck.

The possibility of wrong opens other alternatives, that just may contain the idea that saves the day. But, only if it’s possible that you are wrong.

Two Armed Octopus

Chase left our conversation abruptly. Across the plant floor, he had spotted a problem and rushed to make a correction. He was apologetic on his return. “Sorry, but that is why I called you today. I feel like a two armed octopus. There are eight things that need to happen, but I can only work on two problems at a time. Things get out of control about fifteen minutes into the day. And they never stop. At the end of the day, I look at my boss’ list of projects and the important things never seem to get worked on. There is always a crisis.”

“Not really,” I said. “To me, your system is working exactly the way it was designed to work.”

Chase was puzzled. “What do you mean? It’s not working at all.”

“No, it is working exactly the way it is designed to work. The design of your day’s work is to drink coffee for the first fifteen minutes, then run around the floor solving urgent problems. At the end of each day, you check the list to make sure you didn’t do anything important.”

I paused. “Not a bad design. How’s that working for you?” Chase didn’t like what he was hearing.

“If you want to change your day, you have to change your design for the day. I see about four major design changes you might want to consider, but let’s start with just one. Don’t let anyone work during the first fifteen minutes of the day. Instead have a huddle meeting around the boss’ list of important projects. That one design change will be a good start.”

How is your day designed?

What to Mitigate, What to Prevent?

Four ways to look at risk.

  • Risk with low probability and minimal damage
  • Risk with high probability and minimal damage
  • Risk with low probability and catastrophic damage
  • Risk with high probability and catastrophic damage

Risk with low probability and minimal damage can be self-insured, meaning I am willing to accept the risk and endure the consequences.

Risk with high probability and minimal damage will depend on my threshold and tolerance for pain. Even a splinter in a finger can be annoying.

Risk with low probability and catastrophic damage creates mitigation behavior. I may be willing to accept the risk, but in the event the risk occurs, I want to mitigate the damage. I may seek outside protection, an insurance product. Insurance rates depend on low probability to calculate the premium.

Risk with high probability and catastrophic damage creates prevention behavior. To protect my best prevention behavior that inevitably fails, I may seek outside protection, an insurance policy. Insurance rates consider the high probability to calculate the premium and often, actively participate in the prevention behavior.

What risks come with your business model? How do you manage that risk?

High Potential

They are called hi-po’s. High potential individuals. We often have a hiring need NOW, but we really want a candidate with the potential to grow, grow and grow some more. These individuals, sought by every company, have the potential to make or break the organization.

We want candidates with potential. How do we spot potential?

  • Oh, I know ’em when I see ’em.
  • Reminds me of me, when I was young.
  • Fast talker, fast tracker.
  • Sometimes, I can just see it in their eyes.

I will never make a hiring decision, or a promotion decision based on anything other than evidence. No assumptions, no hunches, no hopes.

Some might say then, I will pass over those with high potential, because potential is always on the come. Potential is only a future possibility.

I will never make a hiring decision based on anything other than evidence. If I am looking for someone with potential, I look for evidence of potential. Two things – error rate and deadlines.

Low error rate and always meets deadlines, potential.

High error rate, frequently late, next candidate, please.

Point A to Point B

An event is anything that gets our attention. An event, at work, is any decision or problem that gets our attention. Decisions and problems present themselves as isolated events, yet they exist inside a context. That context will have significant bearing on the outcome of the decision and the solution to the problem.

When we measure the context in terms of time, or timespan, we gain insight into the impact of the decision made or the problem solved.

We can certainly walk from point A to point B. And to carry a payload, we are limited to our backs. In the long term, if we are to carry many payloads, we may want to invest in a vehicle to carry each payload. The timespan of the decision indicates its impact.

If we are to carry many payloads in our vehicle faster over a longer period of time, we may want to invest in a road. If we want to go faster, we may top that road with smooth asphalt. If we want the smooth asphalt to remain smooth with minimum repair, over time, we may invest in a strong sub-structure for the road. The timespan of the decision indicates its impact.

Still, we can certainly walk from point A to point B.

It is the role of management to think about longer timespan impact at higher levels of work.

Told You Once, Told You a Thousand Times

“I don’t care that they hate the rule, but safety is safety, and the rule is the rule,” Rory explained.

“What’s your point?” I asked.

“The point is, I tell the guys, over and over, they have to wear their hard hats on the job site, but I hear, as soon as I am gone, they take them off. I know the hats are hot, but the job site is a dangerous place. Besides, if OSHA drops by, there is a hefty fine.”

“It’s seems like all your efforts are having the opposite effect of what you want. You sound like a behaviorist who has no children.”

“I have kids, what do you mean?” Rory resisted.

“If you have kids, then you know the futility of scolding over and over. I bet you even tried raising your voice. Probably had the same impact,” I said. “If I told you once, I told you a thousand times.

Rory chuckled. “Yeah, you’re right. I just don’t know. I mean, these guys are grown adults. You would think they would listen to reason.”

“You think you are talking reason. I would bet the crew hears your reason as rules. And they hear your instructions as scolding. People learn faster and retain more in a positive environment than they do when they are criticized. Is the point of the conversation to demonstrate how angry you can get, or to persuade them to wear safety helmets, even when you are not around?”

Frustrated or Curious?

“You look a little rigid today,” I said, looking across the table.

“Yes,” Roland nodded. “I am having an argument with my sales manager and I just cannot move him off his position.”

“And, that makes you feel how?”

“Frustrated. If he would just listen to me, we could solve this problem straight away.”

“How are you, when you don’t listen?” I asked.

“When I don’t listen, it’s because I am right,” Roland flatly stated.

“Does your sales manager thinks he is right?”

Roland stopped, shook his head. Deep breath. “Yes,” he slowly drawled.

“So, if you both think you are right, how are you going to find out who is wrong? You get to decide if you want to be frustrated or curious.”