Category Archives: Leadership

Operations and Command and Control

“If only life and business were that simplistic,” Scott said. “If you work in operations then your job is about commanding and controlling the time, labor and technical resources towards an agreed output. For the jobs in operations, your vision makes sense. But, I think it is only a functional perspective, not a universal one.”

“You seem to think that operations is all about command and control,” I replied. “It sounds a bit mechanical. Tell me more.”

“Operations is operations. Pretty cut and dried. We have defined processes inside efficient systems. Line up the people, line up the machines, line up the materials. Pop, pop, pop. Predictable output. Yes, it is a bit cut and dried.”

“If that is all there is to it, then why don’t we have robots do all our work?” I probed.

“In some cases, we do,” Scott raised his eyebrows in a subtle challenge.

“Yet, even in the midst of defined processes and efficient systems, even in the midst of robotic welding machines, we still have people engaged in operational work. And in that work, as defined as it is, aren’t there still problems that have to be solved and decisions that have to be made?”

“Well, yes,” he nodded.

“So, inside a process you describe as command and control, there is still discretionary decision making?”

Scott continued to nod.

“So, it’s not all neat and pretty,” I said. “Not all tied with a bow. In fact, some days, the work gets downright messy. Even mature processes are subject to variations in material specs, worn machine parts, delays in pace. Command and control short-changes the discretionary judgement required to effectively operate a well-defined system.”

Inspired by a comment posted to Responsibility, Accountability and Authority

Can You Trust Subjective Judgement?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Following up on our discussion at the workshop last week, I am curious. As a manager, how do I determine which team members have the potential to grow and which will hit the wall. I want to focus my time on team members with the greatest potential.

You have to use your judgement. Observe and make a decision. That is what managers do. But what do you observe?

For fun, in the workshop, you may remember I asked how many of the group had taken a course in psychology in high school or college? Most raised their hand. Then I asked who had degrees in psychology? Most of the hands disappeared. When I asked who was certified by the state to practice psychotherapy, one person said he was certified, but not to practice psychotherapy.

Here is the problem. When managers question whether a person has potential, they fall into a trap. The trap is the approach, because most would play amateur psychologist.

Then I asked the group, who could spot positive behavior, in the field, on the plant floor? Most raised their hands again. And who could spot negative behavior? All hands went up. How long did it take to tell the difference?

Don’t play amateur psychologist with this stuff. Play to your strength as a manager. Managers are experts at the work. If you want to know if someone has potential, give them a project to do. Then, watch, observe. Use your managerial judgment.

But that is so subjective, I hear. Yes, it is subjective. It is also highly accurate.

Malicious Water Cooler Talk

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I was recently hired in to a new organization as a manager. It is evident that one of my team members was passed over for the role. He has been here for ten years and contributes well in his current role, but I can see why he was passed over. Unfortunately, the rest of the team doesn’t see it that way and I am getting stone-walled. He is also well-liked by a couple of board members, so I am getting squeezed on both sides.

As I look at the staff, there is complacency, some have been coasting for years. The company invested in some new software a year ago and still no one is using it. It’s the software we used at my old company, so I know it works well. That’s why I was hired.

The team’s behavior is passive-aggressive. I get agreement in meetings and excuses on the back end.

  • Just too busy this week.
  • Not sure how the software works.
  • Our old system is better.
  • Easier to do it the old way.

At the end of the day, I will be held accountable if we can’t get this new software integrated into our routine. The water-cooler talk is malicious. I don’t have a single friend in the bunch.

Someone made a decision to hire you. And my guess is, unless you make some progress, that same someone will also fire you. But, for now, they are in your corner. That is where I am going to hang my hat.

You are the manager of the team, but you also have a manager. Your manager is your coach. Schedule regular meetings and play this straight. You have a job to do and you need solid counsel. But, do NOT go in empty-handed.

You are new, and in the beginning, you should be in high data gathering and diagnosis mode. You have been given an objective, get the new software going and people using it. What’s your plan? How long will it take? Is the software installed and configured? Is there training available or are you on your own with help files and manuals? What are your short term milestones, medium term milestones and long term milestones? This is stuff for you to review with your coach.

You have been given a team. What is your assessment of your team? You have talked to them and worked beside them for a couple of weeks. What are your observations about their capabilities, skill levels, interest and value for the work? This is stuff to review with your coach.

You need some small wins, and they might have nothing to do with the software. You need to get to know your team. What attracted them to the company? How long have they been there? Best part of their job? What gives them juice? What challenges them? Gather data. Your team will tell you how they work best together. When was the last time the team faced a real challenge? How did they approach it? What problems did they have to solve? What decisions did they have to make? I know you feel like this software is your project, but it is really the team’s project. This is more stuff for you to review with your coach.

Then work your plan. My guess is that no one has taken this team to a new place in quite a while. This can be a challenging journey or the team can stiff-arm you until you quit.

Could Have Been Fired

“So, you were surprised that you didn’t get fired?” I asked. Kim and I were talking about her near disaster with a forklift.

“I was certain I would get fired. It was a boneheaded move on my part. But my manager used it as leverage. He knew he had my undivided attention over the forklift. He also knew that I was motivated to make things right. So he got someone (me) to run the safety program, where it benefited the most.” Kim replied.

“How did that bring value to your thinking and your work?”

“Well, he could have fired me, he could have yelled at me. He could have embarrassed me in front of the team. He could have called me out to his boss. He could have suspended me. But what he did was to make me think.

“He had me motivated to sit down and learn more about how serious this safety stuff really is. It was one of the most important lessons in leadership that I ever learned.”

Learning From Mistakes

A good bit of the morning had passed when I met Kim in the coffee room.

“Okay, I came up with a list,” she said. “It’s not a long list, but I was able to think about some specific things that were helpful to me when I was a supervisor. It’s funny. At the time, I didn’t realize how helpful it was, but now, I can see it clearly.”

“So, what’s the biggest thing on the list?”

“We were under some pressure to get a big order pulled for shipping. I was supervising the crew. Things were hectic. I commandeered a forklift that had been pulled out of service. One of the buckles on its safety harness was being repaired. I was thinking, how stupid, not to use a forklift for a few minutes just because it didn’t have a safety harness.

“Big mistake. I told one of my crew to use it anyway, just to move some product about ten feet over in the staging area. That part was okay, but when I wasn’t looking, the crew member took the forklift over and started moving other stuff. He figured it was okay to use the machine, since I said so. He was turning a corner and ran over something, his load shifted and he came right out of the machine.

“I was lucky. No one was hurt, nothing got damaged. In fact, everyone that was there, thought it was funny. Well, except for my manager. I thought I was going to get fired. It was a stupid thing I did.”

“So, what did your manager do?”

“He never yelled at me. I remember, he just came into my office that afternoon. He said one word, ‘Lucky!’ Then, he put some safety books on my desk, said he would be very interested to attend my safety meetings for the next three months.”

“So, tell me, how did that bring value to your thinking and your work?”

Just Promoted, No Respect

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I was just promoted to the supervisory position on a crew I worked with for the past 2 years. Unfortunately, I am having a hard time gaining the trust and respect of my co-workers as well as other supervisors and managers. It seems to be difficult for some to grasp the fact that I have been entrusted with the responsibility for this team. It might be the fact that I have not had a great deal of time in the position, as of yet, so hopefully it may get better with time and my ability to be patient. But if there is any bit of advice and/or support that you may be able to provide, I am all ears.

It is always tough to become a new supervisor, to an existing peer group or a new group. A new supervisor always means change. And most people don’t like change, at least they don’t like the unknown parts of change.

Respect comes, not from the authority of the position, or the experience of the supervisor. Respect comes from bringing value to the work and thinking of the individuals on the team.

Team members always seek out the person in the company that brings value to their decision making and problem solving. If it happens to be their supervisor, that’s great. All too often, it’s not.

Think about it. We all work for two bosses. We work for the boss who is assigned to us, and we work for the boss we seek out. The boss we seek out is the one who brings value to our work, our thinking and our lives.

So, if you are the new supervisor, that’s the boss you need to be.

Outlast the Panic

From Outbound Air

“So, what did you think?” Jim asked.

Kevin DuPont stared into the corner of the room, not making eye contact with Jim. “I am not sure. That was a pretty awkward meeting. Before it started, I agreed with you. I mean, all we did was change the name of the meeting. But I can put two and two together. I didn’t like the reaction of the team.”

“What did you expect?” Jim asked.

“I don’t know. What did you expect?” Kevin replied.

“Exactly what we got. Panic. Except for Javier. He was the only calm head in the room. Of course, you cut the meeting short.”

“Well, yes. Couldn’t you feel the tension? Tough enough that morale is bad, now we have, what did you say, panic?”

Jim chuckled. “You young guys just don’t have the patience. Didn’t you know that all you had to do was outlast the panic?”

Who Carries the Keys?

“They called me KEYS,” Ryan explained. “I had the keys to every door and portal in the building. I was important. I was the person the company trusted with the keys.”

“And, what did you discover?” I asked.

“I thought the keys were a sign of power, and that power translated into being a manager.”

“And, why did you think that?” I pressed.

“No one could do anything without my permission.” Ryan replied. “I thought I had a great deal of authority.”

“And, now?”

“Now, I realize that carrying all the keys to the building has nothing to do with being a manager.”

“So, what did you change?”

“I found another trustworthy person to carry all the keys.”

Move a Team Out of Its Mediocrity

“Why the long face?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Julia replied. “I have been working here for six months as a manager. And I feel like I have a mob on my hands. It’s almost like I need to dis-empower the team to get them to stop fighting me. I have a group of long time employees, comfortable in their mediocrity. They work together, almost as a team, to try to stop effective change or create resistance to it. They are very powerful for several reasons. First because we can’t fire them all and second because they have become a fixture in the organization and the idea of eliminating them is almost not an option.”

“Are there things that need improving around here?” I probed.

“Without a doubt. But, every time I suggest something, I get stiff-armed. Or they agree with me, and do the opposite behind my back.”

“Perhaps you should stop suggesting things,” I wondered out loud.

“But, we need to make changes in our processes, to become more efficient,” she protested.

“Who is going to execute those changes?” I wanted to know.

“Well, my team has to.”

“Then, who has to come up with the ideas and how to implement them? Here is a hint. The answer has nothing to do with ideas and execution. The answer has to do with your role as a manager.”

How to be Seen as the Leader

Martin made it. A new promotion. VP. He looked calm, collected.

“So, what’s up?” I asked. “Are you as calm as you look?”

Martin looked back and chuckled. “How did you know?”

“So, what’s up?” I repeated.

“I am now the manager of people who, just yesterday, were my peers. Overnight, things are different. I am not sure how my old team will respond to me.”

“How do you want them to respond?”

“I want to be seen as their leader,” Martin thought out loud. “I mean, I am afraid that I will provide direction and no one will follow. Then what?”

“You mean, you might tell them what to do, but the team might have other ideas?” I proposed.


“Think about it. Don’t they already know what to do?” I pressed.

“Well, yes, most of the time. But sometimes, they run into a difficult problem or a tough decision,” Martin stopped.

“And, they need your help?” I finished.


“They need your help, so you tell them what to do?” I pressed again.

“Yes, but it’s the same circle. What if I tell them what to do and they don’t follow.”

“Martin, your role, as a manager, is to bring value to the decision making and problem solving of your team. The most effective managers are not those who tell people what to do, but those who ask the most effective questions.”