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.

Discretionary Judgment

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about work as making decisions and solving problems. You talk about discretionary judgment. When I tell a team member about their role (in a role description), it seems more like a list of tasks that have to be completed. How do I talk about discretionary judgment in a role description?

Response:
Most role descriptions are as you describe, a disorganized list of tasks and activities. But, when we hire a team member, we are not paying for their tasks and activities, we are paying for their discretionary judgment. If we were just paying for task completion, we would hire robots. And, every role has decisions to make and problems to solve. Every role requires discretionary judgment.

A typical supervisor task is to post a work schedule for the team for the following week. But that is just the outcome. Here is the discretionary judgment part.

This task requires the supervisor to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to team member vacations or other circumstances that will affect the team member’s attendance. And to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to production fluctuations which may require a reduction in shift personnel or overtime. The supervisor will use discretionary judgment to create the schedule based on those circumstances.

Level of Work of a Team Lead?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I run a private industrial disaster recovery business. We respond to natural disasters and clean up the mess. We are very hierarchical, but I am having difficulty understanding the level of work in the teams that we dispatch.

Is it possible to have a supervisor in stratum level one? For example, we deploy teams of three people consisting of two technicians and a team captain. The two technicians are obviously working at S-I, one or two day time span, while the team captain works on a day to week at the most. The team captain directs the activities of the two technicians, but is he their manager?

We have several three person teams supervised by a single Project Manager. The Project Manager role, for us, includes team member selection, coordination of support resources, equipment, machinery, consumables as well as training for technicians and team captains. Our Project Manager clearly works at S-II, 3-12 month time span.

My question is, what is the level of work for the Team Leader?

Response:

You describe a classic case of a First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA). Elliott was very specific about this role. You are correct that the role is an S-I role and illustrates that within a single stratum level of work, we have different levels of work, illustrated below –

S-II – Project Manager, supervision and coordination, manager of the entire S-I team.
————————————————
S-I-Hi – Team Captain, directs on-site, assigns tasks, but is not the manager of the team.
S-I-Med – Technician, works under the on-site direction of the Team Leader
S-I-Lo – Technician trainee
————————————————

This works for project teams, deployed field units, multi-shift operations where the S-II Project Manager or Supervisor is not physically present at all times. The First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA) has limited authority to direct activity and assign tasks within the larger authority of the S-II Supervisor. The FLMA has recommending authority for advancement and compensation, but those decisions remain with the S-II Supervisor.

And We Have a Winner!

“We have an idea for a new product line,” Alicia sounded off. “It’s a logical extension of our core product. We all think it will be a winner.”

“How are you going to fund the startup and who are you going to assign to this new project?” I asked.

“Well, that’s a problem. We are currently under a hiring freeze and while we have a budget for development, actually ramping into production is going to pinch,” she grimaced.

“What are you going to let go of?”

Alicia was a bit surprised. “We hadn’t really discussed shutting anything down.”

“Alicia, the biggest mistake that young companies make is that everything looks like an opportunity. Before long, all their resources are spread thin and their product portfolio is a hodgepodge. They can’t figure out if they are in the shoe business or the construction business.

“To be truly successful, the company has to decide on its focus, and create a discipline around that focus. Especially in times where resources are tight, we have to make sure we have enough staying power. This requires an approach of systematic abandonment. As you adapt to the market, it is important to cut off those projects that are no longer returning value.” -Tom

Are You Busy?

“I know planning this project is important, but I have so much to do today,” Lauren explained, hoping I would let her off the hook.

I nodded my head. “I know you have a lot to do, today. How much of what you do today will be effective?” I asked.

“What do you mean? I have phone calls to return, emails to answer, meetings to go to. I have a couple of employees I have to speak to, about things they were supposed to take care. I have a couple of other projects that are behind schedule. A lot of things are piled up.”

“How much of what you do today will be effective?” I repeated.

“Well.” Lauren stopped. “I know some things are more important than other things.”

“And, how do you make that decision? How do you know what you do is effective? How do you know what you do is important?” Lauren’s posture shifted. She backed off the table between us. She was listening. “I will venture that 80 percent of what you do today will be wasted time and only 20 percent of what you do will be effective. How will you know you are working on the 20 percent?” -Tom

But, It’s Our Reputation

“But the project you are talking about abandoning is a service that we have provided for more than a decade. Our customers have come to expect it. Heck, part of our reputation stands on it,” Byron protested.

“So, is it your moral duty to continue something that is no longer producing results? Or can you accept that, what you are known for, once served a market, but that market was temporary? And that proud service no longer satisfies a customer need.” -Tom

Dead Horse

Byron was thinking back. “I think we have done what you suggested. Every year, in our annual business plan, we look at the cost structure in each of our project areas. And each year, we find one or two things that don’t quite measure up.”

“What was the last project that didn’t measure up,” I asked. “And what did you decide about it?”

Byron’s curiosity turned into a muffled laugh. “You’re right. Now that I think about it, the people involved, in the last project going south, negotiated more time and actually spent a ton of market research money to find out that there wasn’t as big a market as they thought. Their dwindling net profit went underwater the more they studied it.”

“And now?”

Byron shook his head. “They are still holding on to some hope that the market will turn around.”

“The answer is NOT, how can we make another research study? The answer is, how can we get out of this? Or, at least, how can we put a tourniquet on the bleeding?” -TF
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The failure to accomplish a goal does not prove that more efforts and resources are needed. The failure to accomplish a goal may indicate that efforts should be stopped and a different path should be taken.

Old Indian saying, “When the horse is dead, it is time to get off.” -Tom

Breeding Overhead

“I know how to say NO to new things coming up, but most of our troubles are from decisions we have already made,” Byron confided.

“Each year, don’t you review your decisions about what you will and will not do, including the cost structure for each of those decisions?” I asked.

“You mean, our budget?”

I nodded. “Yes, your budget. When you look at each budget item, whether it is a direct cost or an indirect cost, you have to ask this question.

“Is this absolutely necessary?

“If the answer is NO, get rid of it, dismantle it, idle it.

“If the answer is YES, move to the next question. What is the absolute minimum necessary to perform this function to our spec?” -Tom

Managerial Leadership is About What You Do

David was not surprised, but his disappointment was strong. “I don’t understand,” he started, then abruptly changed his pitch. “Yes, I do understand. I hired this guy, Marty, for a management position. He interviewed well, had all the buzzwords, you know, teamwork, synergy, empowerment. Heck, he even kept the book, Good to Great propped up on his desk the whole time he was here.”

“So, what was the problem?” I asked.

“The problem was, he never actually got anything done. We would meet, be on the same page, but the job never got done. The progress, during the time he was here, quite frankly, stood still.”

A few seconds ticked by. David looked up. He continued.

“You asked about the difference? I think I know the answer, now. The difference is execution. Words are fine, theories are fine, planning is fine, but the big difference in success is execution.”

“David, I often see this in my management program. Students come into the class thinking they will listen to a series of lectures, get the latest management techniques and life will be good. I talk about how education is often understanding certain technical information. I talk about how training is often motivational to make a person feel a certain way. But in my class, the focus is on execution. Quite frankly, I don’t care how much you know. I don’t care how you feel. I care about what you do.

“Some students,” I continued, “are surprised to find themselves, no longer sitting comfortably in their chairs listening to a lecture, but standing at the front of the class. I want them on their feet, out of their comfort zone. Leadership starts with thinking. Leadership is about who you are. But ultimately, managerial leadership is all about what you do.” -Tom

What is Competence?

Andrew was beside himself. “How could this happen?” he exclaimed. “We had that bid locked down. That was our contract. We literally worked for 16 months to position ourselves. We built the infrastructure. We built the relationships with the customer at all the levels. Then one guy gets promoted and we get a form letter saying that our contract has been terminated, thirty days notice.”

“What do you think is the problem?” I asked.

“I don’t know, sometimes I think my whole team is incompetent. To let this slip through, when we worked so hard for it.”

“Do you really think your team is incompetent?” I followed up.

Andrew shook his head from side to side. “No. Heaven’s no. What am I thinking? To every person on the team, I wouldn’t trade a single one. They are all A players. I just don’t know what happened.”

“Sometimes, when we think about competence,” I replied, “we think it is our ability to control the parts of the world that cannot be controlled. Events of the world will occur in spite of us. So, what is competence?”

Andrew was listening, but not sure if he liked what he heard. I continued.

“The Boy Scout motto is Be Prepared. Competence is not the ability to control the uncontrollable. Competence is the ability to control ourselves in the face of uncertainty. Be prepared. Be prepared for uncertainty. It is a matter of mental fitness.” -Tom

Short of a Temper Tantrum

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was recently promoted to a manager role. Our company is really big on accountability. My first big challenge is holding other people accountable. I seem to stand by in a dream land watching a team member underperform or make a mistake. I point out the mistake, but that doesn’t seem to solve the problem. The mistake is made again. And, now my manager is telling me that I don’t hold my team accountable. Short of throwing a temper tantrum, what am I supposed to do?

Response:
Most companies get accountability backwards. A technician on your team makes a mistake, and your manager expects you to hold that technician accountable. It is YOU, the manager, that I hold accountable, for the output of your technician. You picked the technician for that assignment. You provided the training. You inspected the quality of the training. You provided the tools. You created the work environment. You provided the coaching. You provided the materials. As the manager to your team, you control all the variables around that technician. It is you I hold accountable for the output of the technician.

So, if the technician makes a mistake, what are the variables that you control? What changes will you make? How will you manage the risk in this task assignment? The source of all accountability is self-accountability. What are YOU going to do? -Tom