Tag Archives: competence

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.”

Habits Help, Habits Hurt

“But habits can help and habits can kill,” I said.

“I don’t understand,” Muriel replied. “We just talked about how competence and habits go hand in hand.”

“Yes, they do and like many things, your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.” I could see Muriel’s face scrunch up, mixed in resistance and curiosity.

“Competence requires a set of habits. Habits help us, habits hurt us. Think about a new problem that must be solved, like that change in production last month.”

Muriel winced. “I know, I know. We practiced hard on producing that left element. We were really good at it, and it was difficult. Then we got the machine. Using the machine was even harder, so my team kept doing it manually. Someone even sabotaged the machine configuration that kept it out of the loop for two days. All in all, it took us three weeks to become competent on the machine, when it should have taken only five days.”

“Habits can sometimes be a powerful force in resisting change. Habits are grooves in the way we think. They can be helpful, but sometimes, we have to get out of the groove and it’s tough.” -Tom

Slow Down to Go Fast

“If habits are connected to competence, why is that so important?” I asked.

“Sometimes, when I am faced with a problem, especially a new problem, that is difficult to solve,” Muriel was thinking out loud. “Competence is the ability to bring my thinking and resources to the problem quickly. Not just quickly, but easily. Almost like an instinct. Only I know it’s not instinct, because it is something I learned and had to practice,” she replied.

“Give me an example,” I said, looking for clarity.

“Okay, planning. As a manager, I know it is very tempting, when faced with a problem, to just jump in and solve it, dictate a course of action and move on. What I found was, that whenever I did that, I would fail to notice some critical element, misdirect my people and end up with my team losing its confidence in me.

“It took me a while to learn that I needed to slow down, get to the root cause of the problem, then create a plan. It was painful, in the beginning, because planning was not me.

“I would have to stop everything, clear the decks, drag out my books on planning. It was excruciating, worse, it took too long. Sometimes we would miss a deadline because the process took too long. It was difficult not to go back, jump in, dictate a course and move on, even if it was in the wrong direction.

“It was only when I committed the planning model to memory, that things began to change. Once I had it in my head, I could access the steps without having to look them up in my book. I began to break down every problem this way. Planning became quicker and quicker. Better yet, I was able to involve my team in creating the solution by using the steps. We seldom overlooked critical items. The best part was that everyone was on-board when we finished planning.

“Now, planning is a habit. My team does it all the time. It is a competence.”

Competence and Habits

“How are habits connected to competence?” I asked.

Muriel looked at me and remembered. It was a short trip down memory lane. “When I first became a manager,” she started, “I was awful. I thought I was such a hot shot, walking around telling everyone what to do. Within a couple of weeks, productivity in my department was at an all time low, and I couldn’t figure it out.

“So, I started asking questions. Instead of telling my team how to do the work more efficiently, I began asking them how they could do the work more efficiently. I didn’t do it very often, but when I did, remarkable things happened. Over time, I got better at asking questions. Practice. Practice makes permanent. Now, asking questions is a habit.”

“So, describe the competence connected to the habit?” I pressed.

“The competence is challenging my team. Challenging them to higher levels of performance, productivity, efficiency.”

“So, competence is about acquiring a new habit.”

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

How Big is Your Story?

Sitting across the table, I could tell Brett was thinking.

“Brett, let me ask you, how big is your story?”

“What?” he replied.

“How big is your story?” I repeated. “You are building a department inside this company. How big is your story?”

“Well, the company has been pretty successful, so far. We are holding our own against competitors. Lots of market opportunity.”

“So, how big is your story? You see, Brett, the bigger your story, the higher the level of work. The higher the level of work, the more you will depend on finding competent people. The most important decision you will make, as a manager, is who to hire. The people you hire will make you successful or will be the crucible of your downfall. The bigger your story, the more critical this decision.”

Brett continued to stare.

“As a manager in this organization, you are writing a story of the future. The people you cast into the roles of your story will determine its ending, intentional, or otherwise.”

The Problem Isn’t Your Boss

“You seem a bit frustrated,” I said.

“I am, I am,” Drew replied. “I think I do a pretty good job in my role as a supervisor. We have a complicated process with long lead items and seasonal demand. During season, we build to order. Off season, we build to stock. We have certain constraints in our process that slow us down and sometimes things stack up when we overproduce some of our sub-assemblies. All in all, I keep things together pretty well.”

“Then, why the frustration?”

“If I could spend the time analyzing the way the work flows through, look at some things that could be done at the same time, understand where the bottlenecks are, I think we could get more through the system.”

“So, why don’t you do that?”

Drew thought for a minute. “Every time I start flow-charting things out, I have to stop and take care of something gone wrong, something we are out of, a team member who didn’t show up for work. It’s always something.”

“What happens when something goes wrong?”

“I get yelled at. My boss tells me to stop thinking so hard and get back to work. The time I spend working on the system just increases my workload beyond what I can get done in a day,” Drew complained. “I am constantly reminded that my primary function is to make sure that orders ship. I just can’t convince my boss that if the company is to move forward, we need to spend time looking at the sequence of steps to make things run smoother.”

“If you keep getting dragged back into day to day problem solving, fighting the fires of the moment, what is the solution? Who else on your team could buffer some of those problems?”

“Nobody. I am the go-to guy. There isn’t anyone else, and there is only one of me.”

“So, the problem isn’t your boss, it’s you,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“You will never be able to work on larger problems until your team becomes competent at the smaller problems. You can never be promoted to a higher level role until you find someone to take responsibilities in your current role.”