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.

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.”

We Never Fix the Real Problem

I was getting major push-back from Emily. She appreciated the logic, but, still, there was an internal struggle.

“My guys on the line have been putting these units together for years. They have the experience. They are competent at the assembly,” she said.

“Then what are you dissatisfied with?” I asked.

“Well, we still get too many rejects and they always fall short in unit count at the end of the day,” she replied. “But they know how to do their job.”

“Then, what do they say the problem is?”

“Well, first, they say the daily target is too high. Some say the line runs too fast. Some say it runs too slow. It’s too noisy. For some it’s too hot, others, it’s too cold. You want more? I got excuses as long as my arm.”

“So, they say the cause of the problem is always an external factor, never because of their incompetence?”

“Oh, absolutely. Don’t even go there,” she cried.

“Then, let me go farther and substitute a word for incompetence. Much failure is caused by stupidity.” I stopped. “We don’t talk much about stupidity in the workplace. The reason we don’t talk much about stupidity, as the cause of failure, is that, as managers, we don’t know how to fix stupidity. So we try to fix all kinds of other things. We speed up the line, we slow down the line, we change the temperature. But we never address the real problem, stupidity.” I could see Emily’s eyes grow wide.

“Emily, I use the word stupidity because you get the point in a nanosecond. Now, put the word back, think about incompetence. Much failure in the workplace is caused by incompetence. But we, as managers, don’t know how to fix incompetence, so we try all kinds of other things. We never address the real problem, incompetence.”

Competence Trumps Fear

“It sounds too simple,” protested Emily. “People do things because they can? It sounds like circular logic.”

“It is what it is,” I laughed. “Emily, think about it. If you do not have the competence to perform a task, what is your confidence in your ability to perform?”

“You mean, if I can’t sing, I don’t sing?”

“Right. Why don’t you sing?”

“Well, I really am not a very good singer, so except in church (where I am a virtuoso), I am embarrassed to get on a stage or behind a microphone.”

“Fear drives a lot of behavior. It is a very powerful emotion and prevents us from much achievement. But competence trumps fear. That is why competence is a critical link in success.

“Incompetence creates most failure. But most people want to blame their failure on some external circumstance. Most people are unwilling to see their own incompetence. Most people are unwilling to look inward for the key to their success.”

Why Does a Manager Manage?

“Emily, why does a race car driver press the metal in excess of 200 mph to win a race?” I asked. “Why does a singer perform on stage? Why does an ice skater reach their peak in international competition? Why does a manager manage?”

Emily knew there was a very specific answer to this question, so she waited.

“They all do those things because they can. They spent great periods of their life creating habits to support the skills that drive them to the top. They reach high levels of competence because they practiced, tried and failed, got better and practiced some more, with a discipline to master those skills. They perform at a high level because they can. The people who did not master those skills, who were not competent, were eliminated in the first round.

“Those who achieve mastery are a select few. And that includes effective managers.”

Elements of the Accountability Conversation

“When you talked to Taylor, what did you tell him?” I asked. Dana had just completed her first accountability conversation. It had not gone so well.

“I told him that I really liked the work that he was doing, but that he needed to come to work on time. And that I really appreciated the effort he was making,” Dana replied.

“I can see why he thought he might be in line for a raise. Dana, the first part of his behavior that you want him to change is coming to work on time. What impact does it have on the rest of the team when he shows up late?”

Dana stuttered for a second, then organized her thoughts. “Well, no one else can get started on their work, until Taylor is there. It’s not just him. In the fifteen minutes that he is late, he costs the team about 90 minutes of production.”

“And what are the consequences to Taylor if he doesn’t start coming to work on time?”

Again, Dana had some trouble. She had not thought this through to the next step. “Well, I guess he could get fired,” she finally realized.

“You guess? Dana, you are the manager. What are the consequences?”

“You’re right,” she concluded. “If I have to speak to him twice about coming in late, I have to write him up. Three written warnings are grounds for termination. So, yes, he could lose his job.”

“And, when do you want this behavior corrected?”

“Well, tomorrow would be nice.”

“Dana, if you want this behavior changed by tomorrow, you need to call Taylor back in here and have another go at this accountability conversation. What two things do you need to cover?”

“I need to talk about the impact he is having and the consequences.”

Not So Sage Advice – the Positive Sandwich

Dana was trembling when I showed up. The color was gone from her face. “Water,” she said, “I need some water.”

There was a chilled bottle on the corner of her desk, still full. I slid it to her, waited for her to continue.

“I don’t think I did that right,” she finally spoke.

“Step me through it,” I asked.

“I had to talk to Taylor. He has been coming late, dawdling on the work he is supposed to get done, and he is really snippy with everybody around him, like he has a chip on his shoulder.”

“So, what happened?”

Dana shook her head from side to side. “Well, I tried to be positive first, then the negative part, then finish it off with another positive. But I don’t think I got my point across. He thinks he is going to get a raise.”

Stop Working Harder

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Last night, I got out of the office at 9:45p. I don’t know what it is. This has been going on for the past three weeks. On Monday, things don’t look so bad, but come Thursday and Friday, the work just seems to pile up. I worked the last three Saturdays and last week, had to come in on Sunday. Missed the football game.

If I had known ahead of time, I could delegate some of the work out and it would already be done. But I don’t know about some of this stuff until it’s too late, or don’t realize how long it is really going to take. All of sudden, the pile is stacked up and everyone has gone home. The work’s gotta get done.

Response:
I don’t believe you. If you sat down and thought about it, almost all of your work is predictable, you just don’t think about it. You don’t delegate out, because you like working under the gun. Here’s the thing. You think you will get sympathy from me for all your hard work, but the just dessert for hard work is more hard work. You have to stop working harder and start working differently. -Tom

Most of the Time, It’s the Manager

“Oh, man, they did it again!” Ralph exclaimed, covering his face.

“And how did you help them screw up?” I asked.

Ralph peeked between his fingers. “What do you mean? I didn’t have any part in this.”

“I know, I know,” I agreed. “But if you did contribute to the problem, what was it?”

Ralph started to chuckle, hands now propped on his hips. “Well, if I did have a hand in this, it was picking this group of knuckleheads in the first place. And I probably didn’t explain what needed to happen very well.”

“Indeed. As a manager, before we jump to blame the team, it is always important to ask the question.

“How did I contribute to the problem?

“The Manager is usually at the center of what goes wrong.” -Tom

What Went Wrong?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

We had a deliverable and the engineers on the project came in 3 days late. They finished the project and the quality was solid, so we want to acknowledge their success AND we also want to understand why they didn’t deliver on time. Extra hours were not put in near the end of the project to meet the delivery date. We struggle with acknowledging success when they are simply just doing what they were hired to do.

Response:

It really doesn’t matter what you, as the manager, think. The only thing that matters is what your engineers think. Based on your description, time sensitivity, or sense of urgency was not top of mind.

Project effectiveness, in this case is mixed. While the technical side may have been solidly constructed, the client may have lost several thousand dollars per day because of the delay. Many construction contracts contain liquidated damages for failure to meet deadlines. Most construction litigation is based around damages due to delay-claims.

So, time is important, in many cases, critical.

At the conclusion of every major project, I always insist on a post postmortem meeting to review the following questions:

  • What did we expect?
  • What did we do well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What can we do next time to prevent this from going wrong?

These questions would allow your engineers to pat themselves on the back for things done well and give them the opportunity to address real issues of underperformance.

On an extended project, I use these same questions at interim checkpoints.

  • What do we expect?
  • What are we doing well?
  • What is going wrong, what is beginning to slip?
  • What corrective action do we need to take, now, to get back on course?

Expecting engineers to call their own meeting to ask these questions will never happen. That is your responsibility, as the manager. Remember, what you think doesn’t matter. What matters is what your engineers think. -Tom

Underperformance and Overperformance

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I was curious about a study in IT that showed that while managers can see underperformance, they can’t see who is over-performing.

Response:

Actually, the results of the study may be correct, however, the conclusion may be flawed.

The results show that managers easily recognize or identify underperformance, but they do not as easily recognize or identify over-performance. The conclusion is that managers do not have the ability to recognize over-performance. I believe that to be false.

Managers do not recognize or identify over-performance because they do not focus on it. Managers allow the distractions of underperformance to dominate their vision and efforts.

It is simply a matter of focus. It is a conscious choice to focus on over-performance, and once that decision is made, the focus becomes quite natural. But it’s that choice that is difficult. It is too easy (unconscious) to see things wrong and too difficult to make the conscious choice to see things going right. -Tom