Tag Archives: system

You Won’t See It Coming

His brow furrowed. Lawrence had to concentrate to understand. “But I thought a manager was supposed to manage. I thought I was supposed to manage everything on the floor.”

“You’re not a supervisor anymore,” I said. “Your new focus, as the manager, is on the system. Your role is to create the system and make the system better. When you became the manager, you promoted Nicole to be the supervisor. Whenever you do Nicole’s job, you are not paying attention to the system.”

“I thought I was just trying to help,” defended Lawrence.

“And if you continue to help by doing Nicole’s job, you will continue to ignore the system, and you will fail as a manager.”

“Not sure I know what you mean,” challenged Lawrence.

“Nicole is busy scheduling her team around vacations, people calling in sick, having doctor’s appointments and such. That’s her job.

“As the Manager, you just received a revised a production forecast from sales. Three weeks from now, you historically ramp up into your busy season. I looked at your headcount from last year. You are down three people and Charlie just gave notice, his last day is Friday. Everything looks fine, now, but four weeks from now, your production is going to get slammed and Nicole won’t have enough people to schedule from. As the Manager, you have to look ahead and build your labor pool. Now.

“If you are too busy scheduling this week’s production, you will be so far in the weeds, you won’t see what’s coming down the road in four weeks.”

The Glory of Chaos

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From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
You said a growing company has to slow down and describe the work. You nailed our company – we miss deadlines, too much rework, a warranty claim, turnover, morale is tense, managers are nervous. Yet, we have more incoming work than we can handle. And all you can say is – we need to slow down and describe the work?

Response:
Or you can stay in the chaos. Somehow, you will manage to get through the day. You will settle your warranty claim, but the tension will remain.

You cannot work faster, harder or longer to solve this problem. You have to re-trench. This is fundamental blocking and tackling. It starts with describing the work in the role, documented in a role description (fundamental blocking and tackling).

A project manager with three projects is level (II) work. The work is coordinating and scheduling all the elements of the project. There is level (II) decision making and problem solving.

A project manager with 50 projects is level (III) work. It requires a system and a team. The decision making is not about project management. There are too many projects. The decision making is about the system of project management. The problem-solving is not about project management. The problem-solving is about the system of project management.

Or, you can stay in the chaos.

Is the COO Irrelevant?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I read your book, Outbound Air, again.

And I was thinking there might be a conflict with trendier/newer business models. A lot of companies seem to be pushing flatter structures and mixed function work-groups. So there isn’t really a role for COOs as say, the CEO’s internal quarterback

My understanding is that COOs exist to corral the various functions i.e. highest timespan
while the CEO is dealing with strategy, major threats etc.

So does the timespan model change for these flatter-structured businesses where the COO is supposedly irrelevant?

Response:
Elliott’s response to a similar question goes like this –
“I hear these things, and I just have to ask, who is kidding whom?” It is not that the role of the COO disappears, but it is certainly different.

Small Organizations
First, many organizations (small ones) are not level (V) organizations in the first place. Indeed, many companies are level (III) organizations, so they have production, supervision and a CEO, who really plays the role of a level (III) manager. Nothing wrong with this small company, the CEO can make a wealthy living out of it.

Growing Organizations
As the company grows, the level of work will necessarily increase to level (IV). There are multiple functions (systems) inside the company that must be integrated together. Again, the CEO in a level (IV) company will play the role of the integrator. In a larger, more mature company, this would be the role of the COO.

Maturing Organizations
In a level (V) company, the CEO must leave the integration role and truly focus on strategy. Without an effective COO at level (IV), the CEO will necessarily be dragged down into the weeds (back into integration activity). And, as long as the CEO is doing work at level (IV), the company will not grow, likely grow and contract in fits and starts, never effectively integrating their multiple systems. Yes, it is possible to have a dysfunctional level (IV) organization.

Digital Technology
Over the past two or three decades, technology arrived. Indeed, computer systems (note the word system) supplant many level (III) functions. MRP and ERP software systems, in their algorithms, require very specific steps in specific sequences, level (IV). The algorithms were created by some very smart teams who created systems and system integration in a variety of disciplines.

However, with effective technology implementation, the managerial work changed. So, let me pose this question. If we have a technology platform that serves to move data between multiple functions in the company, integrating those functions together, a level (IV) role, then what is the work of the COO?

Here is a hint. Work is decision making and problem solving. In the presence of an effective ERP system, what decisions are left to be made and what problems are left to be solved by the COO? There is an answer to that question.

Your thoughts? -Tom

Check Your System

Gerard was puzzled. By chance, the night before, he ran into Nancy, a former employee, at a local restaurant. The conversation was cordial, but surprising to Gerard. At her new company, Nancy was responsible for a competitive product that was kicking butt in the marketplace. When Gerard terminated Nancy for not reaching her goals, he felt she was a marginal contributor with a big “L” on her forehead. Now, she was in charge of a development team at another company that was eating Gerard’s lunch.

Gerard explained to me that after Nancy’s termination, he had two more managers fail in the same position. His complaint was that he just couldn’t find good people. Now, he was puzzled.

Success is determined, not only by the person in the role, but also by the circumstances and systems that surround that role. Before you terminate someone, be sure to check your system. If your system is broken, the next hire will not fare any better than the person you are currently pushing out the door.

The Struggle for Emerging S-IV

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
It took a long time, but our company has grown. Our business model is a distributor, it’s all about supply chain for our customers. Because our business model is driven by the logistics of incoming and outgoing material supply, we recently promoted our warehouse manager to VP-Inventory Control. For us, it was more than just a change of role title. Our warehouse manager took us through re-binning our inventory, bar coding SKUs, RFIDs on serialized product. He is a really bright guy. But his promotion to VP-Inventory Control seems to have gone to his head. With his new-found power, he has emerged as a prima-donna. In our executive team meetings, he believes that inventory control should be the deciding factor in every business decision for the company. If he keeps this up, he is going to get fired.

Response:
Indeed, the move from a Stratum III (S-III) inventory manager to an (S-IV) is a dramatic change in level of work.

  • S-III – System (creates the system, monitors the system and improves the system)
  • S-IV – Integration of multiple systems and sub-sytems (attention to dependent systems, interdependent systems, contingent systems and bottlenecks)

The focus at S-III system level is internal. We demand each of our systems be efficient, profitably leveraging its resources for maximum output. Your inventory manager did just that with a bin system, bar codes and RFIDs. Kudos.

The focus at S-IV is integration. With an internal focus on inventory management, his new role is to assist in the integration of inventory with all the other systems in the company. It is no longer a matter of profitably leveraging resources for maximum output, but optimizing output with the other systems in the company. It is a matter of how one system’s output (reinforcing system) is impacted by another system’s output (balancing system).

This requires the focus for the new S-IV to transition from internal to external. You don’t have a prima donna personality conflict. You have not clearly defined and communicated the new role, nor its differences from the prior role.

You also skipped a step. How did you know if the inventory manager was ready for these new accountabilities? You didn’t. You blindly promoted and now you have a bit of a chocolate mess. The step you missed, prior to the promotion, was assigning S-IV project work, coaching and evaluating the output. Team members should NEVER get a promotion. They earn promotions by successful completion of project work similar or identical to the work in their new role. -Tom

How to Manage 36 Simultaneous Projects

“I don’t think I missed anything,” Anne replied. “I don’t think I knew what I was looking for when I hired George. He was a good senior project manager, but I think I underestimated the level of work of an Operations Manager.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Our senior project managers can handle two to three large projects at the same time. But we expect our Operations Manager to manage all 36 projects.”

“It’s just more projects,” I chuckled. “Seriously, can’t the Ops Manager run 36 projects the same way as three projects?”

Anne shook her head slowly side to side. “Actually, the Operations Manager doesn’t directly manage any single project, the role has to manage ALL the projects. The level of work is different.”

“How so?” I probed.

“The only way to manage ALL the projects is to create a competent team of project managers who manage the individual projects. If the Ops Manager builds a good team, then the role is a cakewalk. If the Ops Manager has weakness in the project manager team, then life will be miserable.”

“So, what’s the key difference in the level of work?” I pressed.

“A project manager (S-II) manages a process. It’s a coordinating role. The Operations Manager (S-III) has to create a system for managing ALL the projects. That’s where I went wrong when I hired George.”

The Danger of Missing Stratum IV

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__________________
From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
We have silos. Everybody is in a power struggle. We used to have a great reputation, but I think we outgrew it. The company seems lopsided. Sometimes sales outstrips our ability to fill orders, so some of our sales orders turn into back orders, some of our back orders turn into canceled orders and some of our best customers defect to the competition. Other times, production outstrips our ability to sell, so our finished goods don’t get sold, they stack up in the warehouse. The warehouse gets full, so we rent another warehouse. We carry inventory so long it turns obsolete and costs to hold, eat up our profit. We are like a monster machine. Just read a book by Ken Blanchard Be a Silo Buster. Do we really have to bust up the company and start over?

Response:
With all due respect to Ken Blanchard, you created those silos for a reason. Do NOT bust them up. You need efficient, profitable internal systems. It is not a matter of busting up silos, it is a matter of integrating them together. This is a classic example of a company growing into Stratum IV. This is similar to the chaos we see in Stratum II companies, but on steroids. This is not a few individuals stepping over each other. This is whole departments, internally focused, head down, nose to the grind stone without care or consideration for the other functions in the company.

But, the fix is not to tear them down. The fix is integration and requires capability at S-IV. This is not finding the constraint in a single serial system (S-III), but understanding the impact of one system on another system (S-IV). This is not root-cause analysis, but systems analysis. We have reinforcing systems and balancing systems. This requires, not serial thinking, but parallel thinking.

This is not multi-tasking (because humans cannot multi-task), but truly seeing the dependency, inter-dependency, contingency, and bottle-necks that exist among out multiple systems and sub-systems. This requires a parallel state of thinking. Two specific things to look at –

  • Balance of each system output, optimized to its surrounding systems output.
  • Handoff of work product from one system to the next system as work output flows through the organization.

Optimization
Sales has to be optimized to production. There is no sense selling inventory that cannot be produced timely to the sales order. There is no sense producing finished goods that cannot profitably be sold timely to the market. The output of both systems has to be optimized so they work in sync. Reinforcing systems and balancing systems.

Handoff
A department, head down, will work to their own internal efficiency. The state of their work product may be incomplete or carry a defect for the next stage in the work flow. Work does not flow up and down in a department. Work flows horizontally through the organization, output handed off from one department to the next.

  • Marketing hands off to sales.
  • Sales hands off to estimating
  • Estimating hands off to contracting
  • Contracting hands off to project management
  • Project management hands off to operations
  • Operations hands off to QA/QC
  • QA/QC hands off to warranty
  • Warranty hands off to research and development
  • Research and development hands off to marketing, and so the cycle goes

Each handoff must be inspected and improved. This is the role at S-IV.
_________
To read more on system constraints, theory of system constraints, The Goal by Eli Goldratt.
To read more about reinforcing and balancing systems, The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

The Danger of Missing Stratum II

The Danger of Missing Stratum III
The Danger of Missing Stratum IV

Why Would They Skip a Step?

“What do you mean, I see things that my team cannot see? If they would just look, they would see it, too,” Max pushed back.

“Max, you are a manager. You are responsible for creating all the systems that people follow. You know more about how things work and how things go wrong. Give me a short list of things you see, that your team doesn’t see,” I asked.

“Short list?

  • Sometimes, we get parts in from our vendor that have a slight defect. If we use that part in our assembly, when we get to the end, the unit will fail a pressure test.
  • If we skip the pressure test, the units get boxed and sent to customers, who install defective units. Their first call is to the salesperson, who gets an earful from the customer.
  • If the salesperson gets three customer phone calls complaining about defective units, the salesperson loses confidence in our ability to make a quality product. He stops selling.

Should I go on?” Max quizzed.

“Why can’t your production people see that?” I prompted.

“I guess they can’t put the dots together. From the time we get that first defective part, to the time the customer complains could be three months time. And when the customer complains, we still have to track down the problem, then reference our production codes to find out when the units were actually produced. It might take another week just to track down the problem. There is too much disconnection for my production team to follow. They just know they get yelled at for skipping a parts-inspection and a pressure test.”

“And, why would they skip a parts-inspection?” I wanted to know.

“Funny, the team was actually proud of their assembled output that week. We were in a bind for a large order. It meant overtime and a team bonus for 50 extra production units that week,” Max lamented.

“So, let me understand. You design all the systems out here, including the bonus system for exceeding production quotas in a shorter period of time? And you wonder why the team skips steps, to get their bonus?”

Smile Training

WHY I wrote Outbound Air

As the organization grows, the chaos of Go-Go is killing the organization. The company has clearly defined its methods and processes, but the sequence is not necessarily efficient. Mom and Pop, who started the organization, long for the days when they could just do everything themselves. This motley crew of people (the team) is going through the motions, doing what they have now been trained to do.

For the most part, the product or service makes it to the customer, and for the most part, the customer is happy. But as sales volume grows, the chaos of Go-Go creates enough substandard output that people begin to notice. Deadlines are missed, defects become visible. The organization reacts by creating a customer service department, to apologize and smile.

But smile training doesn’t cut it. The company is now in pursuit of some sort of consistency, so that every product consistently meets its specification, so that every service meets the standard, every time. The strategic focus turns to a system focus.

____________Adolescence – system focus
________Go-Go – define and document methods and processes
____Infancy – focus on sales, production, find a (any) customer

The methods and processes are examined for sequence and priority to create a system that is efficient, predictable and most of all profitable. The bank wants that line of credit paid off.
______________
Homage to Ichak Adizes, Corporate Lifecycles, 1988.

You Designed the System

“I have so many things going on, seven projects in the air, but the worst part is, people just seem to interrupt me, all the time,” Rosalee explained. “They don’t realize how hard it is to get anything done, when every ten minutes, I have to drop everything to answer a question.”

“Who is they?” I asked.

“Well, it’s my own team members, and it’s my manager, and my manager’s manager.”

“Sounds like you are pretty important around here,” I observed.

“I do have a lot of experience, and my projects are very complicated. Lots of moving parts and shifting deadlines,” she replied.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I tried shutting my door, so they text me. I tried hiding in another office, they found me. I tried coming in to work early and staying late, but that turned into 14 hour days,” Rosalee shook her head.

“Why do you think everyone depends on you, so much?” I prompted.

“They are smart people, but sometimes I think they are lazy. They don’t have to make a decision using their own judgement when they can just ask me.”

“And if you refuse to help?”

“I can’t do that. Decisions wouldn’t get made and production would slow down,” she protested.

“So, the system that interrupts you, is a system that you designed?”