Category Archives: Leadership

How to Destroy Development Opportunities

“You will never, ever get what you want,” I was calm. “You will only get what you focus on. How will you focus? You think you can determine your future, but you can only determine your habits and your habits will determine your future. How can you build focus into a habit?”

Meredith replied. “I know what my business plan lays out. My goals are well defined. There are three. I will print those out, on card stock, tape them to the bottom of my computer screen. So, when I feel compelled to get buried in my email, those objectives will stare me down.”

“And what is the first of those three goals?” I asked.

“It’s funny,” Meredith smiled. “Develop my two lead technicians to take over supervisory tasks so I can focus on our system of production. And, every time I follow-up on a project detail, I destroy a development opportunity for my lead technicians to follow-up.”

How Will You Focus?

“Quick breakdown,” I pushed. “What are the three things you have to get accomplished this year?”

“Well, that’s easy,” Meredith replied. “Those three objectives come from my business plan.”

“And, you have your three objectives for the year broken down into quarterly goals?”

“Yes,” Meredith nodded.

“So, how do you keep those three objectives in front of you when you stay buried in your email, handling all the traffic and details of your projects?”

“It’s tough,” Meredith shrugged.

“I know it’s tough, but if it wasn’t tough, how would you do it? How would you focus on your top three priorities each and every day?”

“One thing is for sure,” Meredith smiled. “I won’t find them buried in my email.”

“You are correct,” I agreed. “For many managers, email is counter-productive to focus. Email is efficient, it is self-documenting, but it can also be a distraction. How will you focus?”
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Which Details Demand Attention?

“Those problems come to me because I am the manager,” Meredith protested. “Being a manager is a big job and I take it seriously. That’s why I am so busy.”

“That is why you are so busy, or that is why you are so distracted?” I wanted to know.

“These are not distractions, these are important details,” she continued to push back.

“Don’t you have people on your team to handle these details?” I asked.

“Yes, but I am accountable. Sometimes, these details demand my attention.”

“How can you tell the difference, between the details that other people should handle and the details that demand your attention?”

Meredith sighed. “I don’t know. I guess that’s why I stay buried. I am trying to handle all the details.”

“Meredith, when you were a supervisor, you WERE handling all the details, but you are a manager now. We expect you to take a step back and look at the patterns in your team, the patterns in your work flow. Yes, there are some details that demand your attention. The way you lay out your system should surface those details that demand your attention. But, your system should also allow for most detail to be handled and tracked by your team. There is appropriate decision making at every level of work. Let your team be busy, so you can look at the pattern of work.”

Twelve Months From Now

I repeated my question. “What things do you need to pay attention to, that will have an impact one year from now?”

“This company is pretty stable in what it does,” she replied. “We may replace a machine or our volume might go up or down. But what really changes, is the people. You never know what is going to happen with the people.” Melanie’s mind began to race like she had just discovered uranium.

“You’re right,” she continued. “The biggest thing that always changes, is the people.”

“And even if the people don’t change, the people change. Even if it’s still the same people, they are not the same people.”

Melanie’s discovery of uranium was shifting to panic. This new world that opened up just a few seconds ago, suddenly got very scary.

“So, I am responsible for knowing that, a year into the future?” she asked.

I nodded.
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Leadership is Observable

The group worked for ninety minutes in a simulation to complete a complex task. Once the task sequence and its steps were decided and practiced, the test was to complete the entire sequence in a twenty minute time frame.

I stopped the simulation to ask a simple question. “Which of you is the leader?” There had been no formal selection, but the group immediately looked at Sam.

“What is it about Sam, that made him the leader?” I asked.

The team members exchanged glances, wondering if they were all thinking the same thing. “Well, Sam seemed to know how to organize this thing together,” Marvin volunteered.

“How did he do that? You have not worked together as a team before.”

There was a brief moment, then Kyle piped up. “Sam pulled us all together, asked questions about what each of us thought. Within three minutes, he had a plan, assigned some individual responsibilities and we started working.”

Sam was chosen as the leader because he understood the complexity of the situation better (at least faster) than the others.

At that moment, Emma stood up. She was sitting on the sidelines, in fact, I wondered if she was paying attention.

“I think we can complete this task in five minutes, instead of twenty,” she said.

All eyes turned. In an instant, a new leader emerged. Leadership is an observable phenomenon.

If I Only Had People Who Were Smarter

“We have plenty of people to do the work,” Max explained. “I have written all the steps for them to follow, a nice flow chart as a visual on the cover of the binder. As the projects move through, I have Gant charts to help me understand the status, so I can explain to the customer.”

“It all sounds very organized. So what’s the problem?” I asked.

“The problem is, the production team doesn’t follow the work instructions. I walked by a work cell yesterday and the work was clearly being done out of sequence. I suddenly knew why we were having QC problems on some of the output.”

“And?” I pressed.

“I asked them why they were doing it that way, when we had just completed a training program on the correct sequence. Do you believe this? They told me the training program was wrong, that they had been doing it their way for a long time and they didn’t see the need to change. Besides, it was easier to do it their way.”

“And they had just been through training?” I wanted to know.

“Well, yes, it wasn’t like a class. I spent ten minutes with the four of them. It was really common sense. I don’t see why they didn’t get it. If I had smarter production people, they would have figured it out on their own,” Max was clearly frustrated.

“You see something they don’t see?”

“Yes. And how.”

“Did you ever think, you see something they cannot see?”

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 –

Question:
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.

Response:
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 –

Question:
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.

Response:
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.”