Tag Archives: learning

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

Why? You Ask.

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

Yet, some people would rather complain about a problem they can’t solve, than execute a solution they don’t like. Or, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

You will never learn from questions you don’t ask. So, why do we hesitate?

  • It’s uncomfortable to admit we don’t know.
  • The answer is obvious to everyone. Or it should be obvious to everyone, even if it’s not.
  • Our assumption may be wrong, but to ask a question requires us to re-examine what we believe to be true.
  • We might be wrong, but no one will notice, unless we ask the right question.

Asking questions takes us out of knowing mode and places us in learning mode.

Homage to Lee Thayer and Wayne Gretzky.

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?”

How Many Skill Sets?

“You look out of sorts,” I said.

“I am,” Marsha replied. “I have been at this job, as a manager, for almost 15 years. I have an opportunity to move into a brand new department. I would still be a manager, but I have no real experience in that area.”

“If you have no experience, why does the company think you can handle it? Why would you even be interested?”

“The manager of the department retired. My manager said I should give it shot. His boss said they would like someone on the inside to take it over, rather than recruit from the outside. It would definitely be a challenge, and it looks interesting. But, here is my question. How many skill sets can a person be really good at? In my current role, I have a handle on things. This would be new.”

“How many skill sets do you think you could be good at?” I prompted.

“That’s the big unknown,” Marsha nodded.

How Will You Learn?

The cherub faces in my leadership class looked up, all smiles, ready to take notes, write down all the answers.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“Well, to listen and learn,” came a response from the back.

“Listening to me will not make you a more effective manager,” I replied. “What I have to say is only my understanding, for me.” I stopped. “So, how will you learn? Listening to me will not make you a more effective manager. Reading my blog will not make you a more effective manager. How will you learn?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Sometimes silence does the heavy lifting.

“What you learn will only get started in this room. The real learning happens outside of this room, when you take the words and try them out in your own problems and decisions. My understanding means nothing (except to me). What is your understanding?

Why Do We Do That?

“Why do you assemble the pieces of the installation on-site?” I asked.

“Because that’s what we are paid to do,” Roger replied. “The customer purchased this assembly and needs it installed in this location. That’s what we do.”

“But, I am watching this installation and it seems very awkward. That technician is standing on a ladder, in a dark corner of the room, securing two pieces that he cannot see, reaching around another piece that is in the way.”

“I know,” Roger agreed. “But that’s what we do.”

“Roger, you are part of a trade profession. How long has your profession been doing this awkward work in this way?”

Roger chuckled and nodded. “I guess forever. That’s the way it has been done for centuries.”

“Then let me ask again. Why do you assemble the pieces on-site?”

“I will answer you the same way. That’s what we do,” Roger pushed back.

“And that’s what you have always done. Why don’t you assemble the pieces before you get on-site, in a room that is well lit. Instead of climbing on a ladder, you could assemble the pieces on a table where the technician could see the material, and work directly on a connection instead of around something that was in the way?”

Roger looked at me like I was from Mars.

“All I am suggesting,” I continued, “is that you ask a question. Sometimes we do things out of habit. We do something because we know the way to do it. Is it better to know something and describe the way it’s done or ask a question? Why?”

Why Train When There is No Time

“Look, we have a certain amount of work that has to be done around here and I can’t just sit by and watch these guys go so slow. They just don’t get it. I have been working with them for eight months.” Charlie stopped. He shook his head. He had been trying to get his telephone operators to go paperless. It wasn’t working.

“Did you know that you are a really good phone operator?” I asked.

“I know. I did it for six years before I came over to work here. I am the best. I just wish there was ten of me. This is a busy place.” Charlie seemed off the defensive, now.

“Why do you think the coaching is failing?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s not the coaching,” said Charlie. “It’s the training. We just have so much work to do that we don’t have time to train. It’s fast paced. These guys just can’t keep up. And the turnover on my team is killing me.”

“Charlie, what happens when a race car driver takes a curve too fast?”

“What?” said Charlie, off guard. He wanted to talk about operator through-put, and I was talking about race cars.

“Let’s say there is a straight-away coming up, where we can really blow it out, but we have to negotiate a turn first. What happens if the driver takes the turn too fast?”

“Well, he’s going to hit the wall.” Charlie responded.

“Charlie, sometimes, you have to slow down to go fast.” I waited to let that sink in. “Charlie, tomorrow I want you to schedule one operator per hour to be off the phones and back into coaching. See you at 8:00 sharp.”

Reinforcement and Mastery

“Sustained, discretionary effort. Especially when I am not around, that’s what I’m after,” Travis said. “The training period requires more of my attention and focus, but as time passes and new behavior becomes a competent skill, I have to change my focus.” Travis and I were exploring the role of the manager in all this, specifically looking at the role of positive reinforcement.

“In the beginning, as the manager, I have to overcome push-back and fear,” Travis continued. “But, as the new behavior turns into a competent skill, the issues change.”

“So, what does the manager do differently?” I asked.

“Lots of things, but let’s start with the easy stuff. In the beginning, I may reinforce good old-fashioned effort. But as time goes by and the effort becomes accomplished, I start to reinforce a specific sequence. As the specific sequence becomes accomplished, I may reinforce speed or efficiency.

“Look at my kid’s video game,” Travis smiled. “Game designers structure training sequences into the lower levels of the game. Leveling up requires certain fundamental skills. Once accomplished, the player is introduced to more complex scenarios where mastery of the fundamentals must already exist. Each level becomes increasingly complex. The schedules of reinforcement change, but the principle remains the same. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”