Tag Archives: work

It Was Never About the Schedule

Deana had my curiousity. “The ops manager said he was afraid to show everyone what he was doing. But, now that the cat was out of the bag, he explained. He understood the sandbagging. He said each person on the team, and he called them by name, thought they were being sneaky by adding extra days to the project schedule, when, in fact, sometimes things go wrong and those extra days might be necessary. He called those extra days, buffers.

“He showed us his secret project schedule where he took all the buffers away from each segment of the project and put them at the end. He was afraid that if people saw their buffers disappear, they would get mad at him, so he kept it a secret.

“The schedule still had the buffer days, but they were all at the end. As the project went along, some of the buffer days were needed, so he would move only the necessary buffer days back to the segment. So, if a project segment went long, they still had buffer days.

“When the last segment was completed, there were still eleven unused buffer days. Guess what that meant?” Deana teased.

I just stared. Waiting for her discovery.

“That means the project came in eleven days ahead of schedule. In all my time here, we never brought a project in ahead of schedule.”

“What was the most important lesson in all this?” I asked.

“You were right in the beginning,” Deana replied. “The issue had nothing to do with the schedule. It was all about the team.”

This series has been an illustration of Basic Assumption Mental State, affectionately known as BAMs. The mental state of a group can shift in seconds. Teams can go into BAMs in a heartbeat, moving from Work into Non-work. It takes courage, and some skill to shift back into work mode. BAMs is most clearly defined in the book Experiences in Groups, by Wilfred Bion, brilliantly captured by Pat Murray and now by Eric Coryell in the stories they tell.

Project buffers is a concept illustrated by Eli Goldratt in his book Critical Chain.

Underneath the Secret Schedule

“What is different about the team, now?” I was curious.

Deana tilted her head back, looking for the answer in the corner of the ceiling. “The team is in learning mode,” she said.

“Are we back to that search for the truth?” I chuckled.

“I believe we are,” Deana smiled back. “Speaking for myself, of course.”

“So, tell me about the project schedule,” I wanted to know. “That’s how this all started. Now that the team is in learning mode, what was up with the project schedule. Was the ops manager the culprit? Did he manipulate the schedule?”

“Funny you ask.” Deana thought lots of things were funny. “It turns out the ops manager did have two schedules. He explained that when the estimates were made about how much time it would take for each segment of the project, everyone on the team sandbagged the schedule. I stopped him right there, and asked him not to use the word everyone. I said, if someone on the team was sandbagging the schedule, he should tell them directly, in the team meeting.”

“And, how did that go over?” I asked.

“Oh, just peachy,” Deana said. “He started laughing, and said okay. He then went one by one around the room and told everyone about their contribution to this bloated schedule. He told Bob that he only needed three days, but put five days on the schedule. He told Joe that he needed six days, but put twelve on the schedule. Around the room he went, each person in turn.”

“And, how did each person respond?”

“Amazing. They all agreed that they sandbagged the schedule, because they didn’t want to be late.”

“Was the team in work mode or non-work mode?”

“Definitely, work mode. Everyone was paying attention, listening, contributing, speaking for themselves. And we were working the problem. We had sandbagging, a published schedule and a secret schedule.”

“So, what was with the secret schedule?” I asked.

How to Move a Team from Non-Work to Work

“And?” I asked.

“And, the ops manager spoke up,” Deana continued. “He said he was sorry he had been so defensive, and that he had been so secretive about the project schedule.

“It was funny, the ops manager spoke for himself. And, when he spoke for himself, you could see the tension in the room relax. It was still intense, but the team went into problem solving mode.”

“No one rolled their eyes at this point?” I smiled.

“No, it was like something came over the team. Something shifted. In that moment, they stopped avoiding the problem and started solving the problem. They went from non-work mode to work mode. In non-work mode, they were in a trance, unconscious. They were talking in pairs outside the meeting, talking about each other behind our collective backs. There was collusion, a revolt was brewing. Worse, the problem was untouchable.”

“And what was the problem?” I asked.

“It had nothing to do with the schedule,” Deana nodded. “It had to do with the team.”

“And, what made the shift?”

Deana had to think through the chain of events. “Part of it was persistence. I knew the problem was still there, we just couldn’t talk about it. But, I talked about it anyway. And you made me speak only for myself.

“And, when I put the issue back out on the table, the team went right back into panic mode. Bob rolled his eyes. When I told him how it made me feel, that was the shift. The issue was on the table and it was going to stay there. No rolling of the eyes, no sarcastic remark was going to move the issue off the table. Even my manager didn’t dare shut down the discussion. This team was going to dig in and deal with it. That shift took about five seconds. Everything changed.”

“And your manager?”

“Yes, my manager,” Deana smiled again. “My manager was afraid the discussion would blow the team apart. Turns out, it welded the team together.”

Magic and Fairy Dust, Notions and Potions

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

The best engineer on our team was recently promoted to VP-Engineering. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great engineer. But something is just not right. Relieved of his engineering duties, he seems to wander around, sticks his nose into a project without any background on its status. Since I was in your workshop last week, now, I understand that a VP (of anything) is an integration role. It is becoming clear that my boss made a mistake. This guy is not an integrator and we miss his contribution on the engineering team.

I don’t know the background, I don’t know your company and I don’t know what your boss had in mind when he made the promotion. Doesn’t matter. I hear these stories all the time. Here’s the problem.

Few companies take the time and effort to clearly define the role. Most companies promote without clarifying the work. Maybe your engineering team member has the right stuff to be a VP, but until we define the work, we have no clue.

Most hiring managers believe in magic and fairy dust when they make a hiring or promotion decision. Then, they are disappointed when the candidate doesn’t live up to the expectations that were never defined.

There is no magic. There is no fairy dust, just a little managerial elbow grease –

  • What is the purpose of the role? Why does it exist?
  • What are the key areas in the role? Key result areas (KRAs)?
  • In each key area, what are the tasks and activities?
  • In each key area, what is the output, goal, objective?
  • In each key area, what decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?
  • In each key area, what is the time span of the goal?
  • In each key area, what is the level of work?

This is the critical thinking that has to be done before you make the hire, before you make the promotion. The answers to these questions will lead you in the right direction. Without this data, there is no way to make a sound hiring or promotion decision.

But, no one wants to do the managerial work. They would rather rely on magic and fairy dust, notions and potions.

How to Interview for Passion for Work at S-II

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

How do you interview for interest and passion, value for the work at S-II?

Before we can interview for interest and passion, we have to define the work. It’s always about the work.

Most S-II roles are coordinating, supervisory roles, using checklists, schedules and short meetings. The role could be project management, coordinating and first-line management. Longest time span goals and objectives would be short term, three months, six months, nine months, up to 12 months or one year. Learning would include documented experience, written procedures, articles, research, books and conversations with colleagues. Problem solving would include best practices, matching problems with proven (documented) solutions. Value-add to the organization is accuracy (quality), completeness and timeliness. It is the role at S-II to make sure production gets done, meets spec, totally finished and on deadline.

Managerial roles at S-II are accountable for the output of the team.

How does it feel to put a checklist together, and then hour by hour through the day, check things off as they are completed? What is the satisfaction, at the end of the day, to have a checkmark in every box? Some people get their daily juice from checklists. Some accountants get their daily juice from a bank reconciliation that balances to the penny. Interest and passion comes from work on which we place a high value. If we place a high value on the work, it is likely we will be interested and passionate about that work. Here are some questions about interest and passion for the work at S-II.

  • Tell me about a project you were accountable for, that had several steps in it that you had to coordinate and keep track of?
  • What was the project?
  • What was your role on the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • How was the project communicated to you by your manager?
  • Step me through how the project was organized, step by step?
  • How did you keep track of the steps?
  • How did you communicate the steps to the team?
  • At any point in the project, how could you tell the progress of the project?
  • During the project, did any of the steps change?
  • When steps in the project changed, how did you track the changes?/li>
  • When the project was totally completed, how did you communicate that to your manager?
  • When the project was totally completed, how did you communicate that to the team?
  • How were records about that project kept? stored? archived? or discarded?
  • Tell me about another project that had several steps in it that you had to coordinate and keep track of?

Each of these questions asks for a specific piece of data about the candidate. And though we are trying to find out about an attitude or feeling, the questions are still laser focused on the work.

How to Interview for Passion for the Work at Stratum I (S-I) Level of Work

What is Work?

“Max, I know how you feel about your team’s attitude toward work. You believe they only show up for the paycheck. You believe, as a manager, you have to incentivise them above their normal pay, with a bonus or spiff to get them to pay attention, or otherwise engage in discretionary effort. Your belief is in line with many employee studies that say most are NOT engaged with their work. So, let’s not talk about your team. Let’s talk about you.”

“Alright, I’m game. But, understand that I am here for the money, too,” Max clarified.

“Yes, you are right, we do have to pay competitive. More importantly, we have to get money off the table. As long as people focus on money, or, because of their circumstance, have to focus on money, employee engagement will be fleeting, at best.”

“Okay, but understand that I am still here for the money.”

“Are you really? I could show you a number of ways that you could make a great deal more money than you are making right, now,” I teased.

“I am all ears,” Max replied.

“If you were willing to sell marijuana, which is now legal in some states, you would make more money than you are currently making.” I stopped to gauge his reaction to this unusual suggestion.

“Yeah, but.”

“But, what?” I interrupted. “You see, it’s not all about the money. People, even you, want work where you can make a contribution to something larger than you. You want work where you can bring your full capability, spread your wings AND receive fair compensation for that work. You want work where your contribution is recognized as important, work that does NOT need a carrot-or-stick for you to get on with that work.”

Max was quiet. He was thinking.

“Max, you are the manager of your team. You get to design that team, select that team and create the environment that team works in. As the manager, you DECIDE the culture of that team. What will be your foundation? Will it be built around spiffs, or accomplishment? I have never known a person to be more competent in their role because they were paid a bonus.”

The Reactor Doesn’t Melt Down and Nobody Dies

“I don’t know why my team is behaving this way,” Riley complained. “I know we drive our people hard, and I know we expect a lot from them, but they knew that when they signed up for the job. We are a very intense organization.”

“How are they behaving?” I wanted to know.

“You can see them dragging into a meeting. Smiles are few and far between. It’s like they need a vacation really bad. Bordering on burn-out. I know we expect them to be responsive on their smart-phones, even after hours, but we are in the service business. We don’t know when our customers are going to call, or some project is going to go sideways.”

“So, in addition to working a normal day-shift, they are on-call after hours?”

Riley nodded. “Yes, but they get on-call pay, even if nothing happens. And we rotate that, so it’s not like it’s every day.”

“So, what is causing the fatigue,” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just that we are intense. If we relax, details get missed. And, missed details can turn into real problems. We have to keep our guard up.”

“And, if you keep your guard up and no details are missed, what happens?”

Riley had to stop and think. “Nothing special. Things go smooth, no one panics, but it’s not like we win the Super Bowl.”

“When your team does a really good job, it’s nothing special. So, who appreciates it, when they do a really good job?”

“No one really,” Riley admitted. “A really good job just means that no one is upset, mostly the customer.”

“Kind of like running a nuclear power plant,” I said. “If we do our job well, everyone gets electricity, the reactor doesn’t melt down and nobody dies.”

Cross Functional Working Relationship – Auditor


“We have some contractual commitments still in force,” Javier explained. “While we may renegotiate some of these obligations, until then, we have to abide by the contract. In some cases, I enlisted people to review the way we shut down some of the routes and gates. If we are about to do something that will put us in default, they have the authority to delay or stop what we are doing?”

“So, are they prescribing things for people to do, as a project leader?” Catherine asked.

“No,” Javier replied. “They are there to observe and review, but they have the specific authority to delay or stop anything that jeopardizes the project.” Javier thought for a moment. “An auditor is like a safety director. The safety director doesn’t tell people what to do, or give people task assignments. But, if someone is engaged in an unsafe work practice, the safety director has the authority to delay or stop the unsafe work practice, even though they are not anyone’s manager.”

“Okay, I get it,” Catherine agreed.

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, soon to be released in softcover and for Kindle.

Can He Do the Work?

“The profile on this candidate is outstanding,” Rory explained. “It will take a special person to fill this role, and by golly, I think we have found the right person.”

“The profile is outstanding compared to what?” I asked.

Rory looked askance. “What do you mean?”

“It’s nice that he has a personality, but can this candidate do the work?” I pressed.

“Well, the profile says he is suited for this kind of work. Besides, everyone on the hiring team has interviewed him and they really like him,” Rory defended.

“It’s nice that he is a likeable person, but can this candidate do the work?”

“His resume attracted our attention. It says that he has experience in our field and he answered all of our technical questions. He really speaks our language.”

I let Rory squirm for a minute. He had already made his decision, and was waiting to see if I would support it. Without asking any hard questions. “Rory, this role is for a VP of Operations. It’s nice that he understands the technology, but can this candidate do the work of an Ops VP?”

“I don’t know where you are going with this?” Rory shook his head. “I was hoping you would get on board with this guy.”

“It doesn’t matter whether I get on board. Can he do the work? It’s a big role, integrating your sales, your sales forecast with production. You have six month lead time raw materials, tooling that changes, building to stock, assembling to order, staging, logistics. This guy will be coordinating teams of people in meetings, resolving communication paths, working on bottlenecks, manicuring system constraints. It’s nice that he understands the technical mechanics of your product, but can he do the work of an Ops VP?”

Designed Around the Work

“I know you want me to be the nice guy,” Jim Dunbar pushed back, “that I would have a better organization if I wasn’t so hard on people, but at the end of the day, we have to get some work done around here.”

It stings against political correctness, but if you consider, for a moment, that statement is true, what changes?

What if, it is all about the work? What if the purpose of your organization is to actually get some work done, solve a problem, execute a solution? It’s not for every organization, only those with the intended purpose to get work done, complete a task, achieve a goal.

Some organizations are designed around other intentions, religious organizations, political organizations, educational organizations, collegial organizations, all with purpose, all with goals.

What if the purpose of your organization was to get some work done? What if your organization was designed around the work?