The Danger of Missing Stratum III

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From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Our company somehow always manages to pull the rabbit out of the hat, put the fire out that saves the refrigerator, crosses the finish line crawling through glass. But, we can never relax. Every major project is drama. Every major project is the one that will put our company over the top, but we never quite make it. We are always in a state of overwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, our customers are very happy and return to us, project after project, but it is such a struggle. We never get to breathe, we never finish in stride.

Response:
Your company is operating at S-II (implement), in a market that requires S-III (system). If your organization is completing one project well, what does it get? Another project.

If your organization is completing two projects well, what does it get? A third project. How does it do the third project? The same way it does projects one and two. So, what does your organization get? Another project.

But, what if your organization got fifty projects? How would it do fifty projects? Certainly, not the same way it did projects one and two. Most S-II companies would kill to get 50 projects, not realizing that the 50 projects will kill them. What’s missing? S-III (system) capability.

S-III stands back from the 50 projects and sees the common pattern, extracts that pattern into a system. The system optimizes resources, reduces waste and minimizes effort. The company that wins the race is the one that goes the fastest with the least amount of effort.

S-III (system) brings consistency of output, it’s always the same. Consistency of output yields predictability of output, so we can codify our system. This predictability helps us understand the real cost, now predictable, so we can build in reasonable profit.

Whenever I hear about a profitability problem, I never look for what‘s causing the problem. I always look for a who. In this case, it is a who, with capability at Stratum III. -Tom

The Danger of Missing Stratum II

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From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
We are small organization, but growing. We have a great CEO, with a smart executive team. Our engineering managers are really good at developing inventive systems. And we have a dedicated and loyal work force. We have a good reputation in the market with loyal customers (every one thinks they are special). Then why does our company struggle to make a profit? The CEO is open and honest about our situation. When we want to spend on new equipment or hire additional personnel, we can’t afford it. The profit we do make barely covers the debt service the CEO borrowed to start the company.

Response:
As I translate each element of your description into levels of work, I notice something very interesting.

  • We have a great CEO – S-V
  • Smart executive team – S-IV
  • Engineering managers, inventive systems – S-III
  • — – S-II
  • Dedicated work force – S-I

What’s missing?

When I describe levels of work based on the research of Elliott Jaques, often organizations make the mistake of thinking they have to beef up their hiring in the scarce talent pool at S-III and S-IV. They overlook the necessity at S-II. So what do they miss at S-II?

The work at S-II is typically an implementation role. This is where execution happens. While you may have a dedicated workforce at S-I, with highly skilled and effective technicians, the organization misses coordination of those efforts to these three outcomes –

  • Accurate (meets spec)
  • Complete
  • On-time

It is the role at S-II to make sure the entire project is complete, not just 90 percent. Major profit fade occurs in the last ten percent of the project. It is their accountability to make sure there are no gaps along the way. Hidden profit erosion occurs in these gaps. And, that, at the end of the day, our product or service meets the spec we promised to the customer. There is never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it twice.

I was told a story of a company running heavy equipment in a rural area on a distant continent. When I say, heavy equipment, I mean the driver had to climb a ladder to get in the cab of the truck. This was a large company, profitable everywhere else, but this remote location had not seen profit in the past ten years. They had a smart general manager with a brilliant team of engineers. They knew how to do what they were doing, they just could not execute. Their dedicated workforce was frustrated. Try as they might, they always missed their productivity targets, through no fault of their own.

What was missing was Stratum II. S-II is the land of checklists. What was NOT getting done? Think heavy equipment, checklists and preventive maintenance. What happens when you don’t change the oil on a preventive maintenance schedule (checklist)? How productive is a machine with a thrown rod? How long does it take to fly in a technician to troubleshoot the thrown rod? How long does it take to fly in the part to fix the machine?

Sometimes it is not a brilliant system (S-III). Sometimes, it is the implementation of that system (S-II), using a simple checklist. It’s all about the work. -Tom

The Truth About Empowerment

“Empowerment!” Joshua proclaimed. “The answer is empowerment.”

“Really?” I turned my head. “Just exactly what does that mean?”

“Well, when we are trying to get people to do something, we have to empower them.”

“All you did was use the word in a sentence, you didn’t tell me what it means.”

“When you want to raise morale, make people feel better about their job, you have to empower them,” Joshua tried again.

“Empowerment is a weasel word,” I explained. “Everyone uses (misuses) it, no one knows what it means. There are whole books about it, and no one knows what it means. It’s a cover-up, the salve to heal a wound inflicted by management. We have an empowerment problem. Our employees need to be empowered. WTF does that mean?”

Joshua turned sheepish. “I dunno.”

“Of course, you don’t know, you just stumbled into it. Sounded good, so you said it. Don’t ever use that word around me again. You don’t have an empowerment problem, you have an accountability and authority problem. You don’t need to empower your employees, you need to sit with your team and define the authority and the accountability that goes with it. It’s a contract with two parts. Empowerment is like a government oversight committee that has the authority to indict with no accountability. If you have the authority to do something, then you have the accountability that goes with it. Don’t talk about empowerment, talk about accountability and authority.” -Tom
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Weasel words is a concept codified by Lee Thayer Leadership, Thinking, Being, Doing. In the history of this blog, in addition to accountability, we have identified two other weasel words, motivation and holocracy.
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Registration for our Hiring Talent in the Heat of the Summer is now open. Find out more – Hiring Talent.

Hiring Talent in the Heat of the Summer

Hiring Talent in the Heat of the Summer starts on August 1, 2016. September marks the run-up to the 4th quarter. Are you prepared? Is your staff at capacity?

Purpose of this program – to train hiring managers and HR specialists to conduct more effective interviews in the context of a managed hiring process.

How long is the program? Designed to be completed in 3-4 weeks, the program is self-paced so participants can work through the program even faster.

How do people participate in the program? Participants complete online assignments and participate in online facilitated discussions, working directly with Tom Foster as the online coach, along with other participants.

Who should participate? This program is designed for managers and HR professionals who play active roles in the recruiting process.

What is the cost? The program investment is $499.

When is the program scheduled? This program is self-paced, on-demand, so participants can login and complete assignments on their own schedule.

How much time is required to participate in this program? Participants should reserve approximately 2 hours per week (on demand) for 4 weeks (total 8 hours).

Program Description
Module One – Role Descriptions – It’s All About the Work
Learning Objectives

  • Examine what hiring managers are up against.
  • Define the steps in a comprehensive hiring process.
  • Specifically define the Role Description as the cornerstone of the hiring process.
  • Define the Structure of the Role Description
  • Write a Role Description

Module Two – Interviewing for Future Behavior
Learning Objectives

  • To understand how most managers conduct interviews, so we can stop bad habits.
  • To identify, from the Role Description, the specific data we need from the candidate.
  • To design questions to capture the data we need to make an effective candidate selection.
  • To construct a bank of organized, written, prepared questions on which to base the interview.

Module Three – Conducting the Interview
Learning Objectives

  • To prepare mentally to conduct an effective interview.
  • To practice asking prepared questions and creating clarifying questions during the interview.
  • To practice taking notes during the interview and re-capping those notes following the interview.
  • To create a Decision Matrix to compile interview data and compare candidates.
  • To effectively work with an Interview Team.

Pre-register now at the following link – Hiring Talent Course. No payment due at this time. Looking forward to seeing you online. -Tom

How to Deliver Negative Feedback

“But they suck!” Rita explained, a bit frustrated.

“And, that is what you told them?” I asked.

“In so many words. My team needs to hear the truth, the whole lot of them. If their performance is sub-standard, who is going to tell them, their mother?”

“And, how did they respond to you?”

“You know. It’s like they stopped listening to me,” Rita was calming down.

“I am shocked that they would behave that way, not listening to their manager,” my eyes directly on Rita’s eyes. A small crack of a smile, then a chuckle crossed her face.

“Look, if they need to tie their shoes, so they don’t trip, who is going to deliver the negative feedback?”

“Indeed, because they aren’t listening to you.” I paused. “So, who is the one person in the whole world they would accept negative criticism from, wholeheartedly? You, for example, who is the one person you would listen to about the negative way you are handling your team?”

“Well, I am talking to you.”

“Yes, but, you won’t take criticism, even from me. The only person you are listening to, right now, is yourself. Negative feedback is not to condemn, but to observe. So, let me ask you some questions –

  • If you had it to do over again, with your team, what would you do differently to get a different result?
  • What behavior, as a manager, could you do more of to get a different result?
  • What behavior, as a manager, could you do less of to get a different result?
  • What shift could you make, in the way you see the problem, to get a different result?

The most effective managers are not those who tell people what to do, but those who ask the most effective questions.” -Tom

Context is Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I believe you when you say that a key managerial component is setting context. How does culture fit in to context?

Response:
Context is culture, that is why it is so critical for managers to set context. Context is the culture in which we do our work.

Beliefs and Assumptions. Culture is the way that we see the world (Grodnitzky). Culture is the lens through which we see every element of our surroundings. Culture is what we believe to be true (whether it is or not). It is the collective consciousness in our workforce.

Connected Behaviors. Culture drives behavior (Grodnitzky). Lots of things influence behavior, but culture drives behavior. These behaviors are attached to the way that we see the world. Change the way we see the world and behavior changes. If, as a manager, you want to change behavior, you have to change the way you see the world. Change the context, behavior follows (Grodnitzky).

Tested Against Reality of Consequences. Every connected behavior is challenged by reality. Is the way we see the world aligned with the reality of consequences? No plan ever survives its train-wreck with reality. Everyone has a plan (the way they see the world) until they get punched in the face (Tyson). The reality of consequences tempers the way we see the world. As a manager, do not believe that you can get away with a bullshit culture.

Customs and Traditions. Those connected behaviors that survive the test against reality produce our customs, rituals, traditions. These routine ceremonies reinforce (for better or worse) our beliefs and assumptions about the way we see the world. Some behaviors are simply repeated often enough to become rituals. Some traditions are created to enshrine the belief. Either way, over time, make no mistake, these customs will have their day against the reality of consequences. Be careful what you enshrine.

Context is the environment in which we work. What does yours look like? -Tom
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Many thanks to my mentor Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything.

How to Set Context With Your Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I hear you say that management is about setting context. I think I understand what that means, but I do NOT understand how to do it.

Response:
Culture is context. Setting context is the prime objective for every manager. Context is the environment in which work is done. Work is making decisions and solving problems. This is fundamental managerial work. Three moving parts –

  • Communicate the Vision. This is the future picture of a project, picture of a product in a package, the output from a service. This is what a clean carpet looks like.
  • Performance Standard. This is the what, by when. This is the objective in measurable terms. This is the goal – QQTR, quantity, quality, time (deadline or evaluation period), resources. The vision is full of excitement and enthusiasm, specifically defined by the performance standard.
  • Constraints. There are always constraints and guidelines. Budget is a constraint, access to resources is a constraint, time can be a constraint. These are the lines on the field. Safety issues are always a constraint. When the project is finished, you should go home with all your fingers and toes.

That’s it, then let the team loose to solve the problems and make the decisions within the context. Do not make this more complicated. It’s always about the fundamentals. -Tom

How to Interview for Teamwork

“The new guy just doesn’t seem to fit,” Cynthia said. “Our company is built on a culture of teamwork. He doesn’t seem to be a team player.”

“You hired him. What questions did you ask about teamwork?” I wanted to know.

“Well, I asked him if he thought teamwork was important?” she replied.

“And?”

“And, he said yes. He said teamwork was very important at his last job.”

“What did you expect him to say?” I pressed.

“Well, I wanted him to say teamwork was important, because, to be successful at this company, we have to work as a team,” Cynthia insisted.

“So, the candidate gave you the response you wanted to hear?”

Cynthia was silent.

“Look, teamwork is a state of mind,” I nodded. “It’s like an attitude. You cannot interview for an attitude. You cannot interview for a state of mind. You can only interview for behaviors connected to that attitude. Ask yourself, how does a person, with an attitude of teamwork, behave? Once you identify connected behaviors, you can ask a better set of questions. So, what are some behaviors connected to teamwork?”

Cynthia thought for a moment. “Cooperation, support, listening, constructive feedback,” she replied.

“Okay, try these questions.”

  • Think of a time when you worked on a project where teamwork was critical for the success of the project?
  • What was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • What was your role on the team?
  • What was it, about the project, that required a high level of teamwork?
  • Describe how the team worked together?
  • What worked well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What did the team do to pull together?
  • What was your role in pulling the team together?
  • What was it, about the project, that pulled the team apart?
  • How did the team respond to that?
  • What was the outcome?
  • What did the team learn about working together from the experience on this project?

“Would these questions give you some insight to the candidate’s attitude toward teamwork?” -Tom

How to Interview for Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
All of our projects are different. We never know what our customers will want, in advance. It’s almost always a custom solution. So, when we are hiring a project manager, it’s difficult to determine what skills the candidate will need to be successful. That’s why, most of the time, we wing it, when it comes to interview questions. How can we do a better job in the interview, instead of just working off of the resume?

Response:
We may not know anything about the project, but we can still work on preparedness. So, think about behaviors connected to being prepared.

  • Diagnostic questions
  • Project planning
  • Short interval planning
  • Project adjustments
  • Discipline

The only way to work through an ill-defined or unknown project specification, is to define the project. You are accurate, that many customers don’t really know what they want. Sometimes your best contribution, in managing the project, is helping the customer to define the project. What are the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made as the project meanders its way to completion?

Determine questions related to diagnosis, planning and project adjustments.

  • Tell me about a project you worked on where the customer was not clear on what they wanted?
  • What was the project?
  • What was your role on the project?
  • What was the purpose for the project?
  • How did the customer describe the project?
  • What was the real project?
  • How did you determine the real project specification?
  • What changed about the project when it was better defined?
  • What changed about the resources required when the project was better defined?
  • What changed about the budget when the project was better defined?
  • How did you explain the changes in resources and budget to the customer?
  • How many people on your project team?
  • How did you explain the changes to your project team?
  • What mid-course corrections were required?
  • How did you discover the mid-course correction?
  • How did you determine the overall project met the initial purpose of the project?

These questions will get you better data, than just winging it off the resume.

Levels of Work in Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Last week, we attended your workshop on Time Span. Your explanation of the capability difference between a technician, a supervisor and a manager, I think, provides a profound clarification for a huge hole in our hiring process. I now understand the difference between the roles. How do I tell the difference between candidates? How do I test for time span capability?

Response:
Don’t overthink this, and don’t play amateur psychologist. Telling the difference between candidates is not a matter of climbing inside the head of the person across the interview table.

We spend a great deal of time in the workshop defining levels of work and that’s the foundation for the diagnosis. You are not trained in psychology, but you are an expert in the work. Play to your strengths as a manager.

The cornerstone document that defines the level of work is the role description. To determine the level of work in the role, I ask –

  • What are the problems that must be solved and how must they be solved?
  • What are the decisions that must be made and what must be considered in making those decisions?
  • What is the longest time span task related to those problems and decisions?

Let’s look at project management.

Can you manage a project with sticky notes stuck around your computer screen? The answer is yes, as long as the project has few problems or decisions, and is of very short duration. For a long duration project, the glue on the sticky notes dries out and notes fall to the floor (or behind the desk). Stratum I level of work.

Longer time span projects will typically require list making and checking deadlines. Sticky notes graduate to an Excel spreadsheet. The problems to be solved will reference documented solutions (like a best practice) that are well-defined (as long as we pick the right best practice to the problem to be solved). Stratum II level of work, project three months to one year.

But spreadsheets break down when the project becomes more complex. Difficult problems appear with no defined solution. The problem requires analysis. Priorities change, elements in the system are uncertain, yet must be accounted for. Project management software replaces the spreadsheet checklists. (MS-Project is a spreadsheet on steroids). Stratum III level of work, one to two years.

And then we realize that we have more than one project attacking the same set of resources. Everything that could go wrong on one project is now multiplied by several projects. Projects, and their resource allocation, begin to impact each other, competing for budget and managerial attention. Simple project management software gives way to enterprise project management software like Primavera and Deltek. Stratum IV level of work, two to five years.

With the level of work defined, looking at problem solving tools, the next step is to interview candidates about their projects.

  • What was the time span of the longest project?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the planning stage?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the handoff stage to operations?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the execution stage?
  • How were those decisions and problems managed?
  • What systems did you use to manage those problems and decisions?

Don’t play amateur psychologist. Play to your strengths as a manager. It’s all about the work. It’s all about the level of work. -Tom