Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

What Gets Reinforced

“What gets reinforced gets repeated,” I said. “That’s why measurement and feedback loops are so important.

“Here is the insight. Most managers focus their time before the behavior. Most managers provide training and give lectures on the way things should be done and then wonder why they don’t get the desired behavior. Most managers think their biggest influence on behavior occurs before the behavior.

“The payoff, the big influence is after the desired behavior occurs. That’s when to pay the most attention. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”

Bottom Up or Top Down?

Yes.

There are a number of management moves (Agile being one) that demands bottom up orientation. I say yes. There are other management moves that that demand top down. Yes. How to reconcile the inevitable conflict?

The problem with those who would argue that top down is bad, they ignore the reason for higher levels of work and misconstrue the reason that management exists in the first place. Those who would argue against top down believe it is for control. It’s not.

The reason for top down, is context, not control.

It’s not about reporting. The fact is, we report to lots of people in the organization. I always ask, who has direct reports? All managers raise their hands. I have to deliver the bad news – you are not a manager so people can report to you.

It’s not about control, it’s about context.

Managerial roles exist to create context. That context is based on timespan. It is the role of the supervisor to think beyond what has to be done today, this week, this month. What is today’s work in the context of this week, this month?

It is the role of the manager to think beyond what has to be done this quarter, this year. What is today’s work in the context of this quarter, this year?

It’s not about control, it’s about context.

Managerial Attention

“Positive reinforcement isn’t money. Don’t think the only element you have as a manager is to give someone a bonus, or a spiff, or a raise. Don’t get me wrong, money is important, but it is not the only touch you have, nor is it the most powerful.

“See that production line over there,” I asked, pointing toward three lone workers alongside a bank of automated machine presses. Travis looked. He was familiar with that work area.

“Did you ever wonder why those three workstations still exist?” Travis knew that seven other stations in the line had been replaced with automated presses.

“Yeah, sometimes, it’s like why do we still have people doing that?”

“Initially, that’s what we thought, but when we benchmarked the automated production with the manual production, we found one worker not only kept up, but exceeded the output of the automated machine. We started asking questions. How could this be?

“Turns out the workstation on the end, Rochelle’s station, is right by her supervisor’s office. Every time the supervisor comes out, he stops, looks at Rochelle’s production and smiles at her. It’s the only station he stops at. He never says a word to Rochelle, yet she has the highest production rate.

“Do you think she has the highest production rate because she thinks she is going to get a bonus? Or because she might be replaced with a robot. I don’t think so.”

What is VUCA?

There is term used in the vernacular of Agile that describes the challenge of every organization.

VUCA

It’s an acronym for the world in which we live. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. VUCA. Without any further definition, Agile offers many good ideas in dealing with that world.

Acknowledging that we live in this VUCA world, can we do more than spitball solutions?

And, that is where Timespan comes in. Most people clearly understand there are some problems more complex than others, some decisions more complex than others. There are different levels of VUCA. Timespan gives us insight into those levels.
S-I – (0-3 months) – trial and error problem solving
S-II – (3-12 months) – best practice and SOP problem solving
S-III – (12-24 months) – root cause analysis
S-IV – (24-60 months) – systems (multi-system) analysis

When the Deepwater Horizon blew up in 2010, the world looked, aghast, at a terrible environmental accident. I watched the coverage, the cameras on the ocean floor in real time and the engineers struggling with the problem. They tried this, they tried that. They tried the blowout preventer, that didn’t work. They tried the blind shear ram, that didn’t work. They were in a mode of trial and error problem solving. Why?

The engineers were not trying to solve a three year problem. No one said, “guys, let’s go back to the drawing board and over the next three years, let’s develop a better oil well so this never happens again.”

They said, “guys, we have to solve the problem today. We don’t have time to design the real solution. Figure out a way to cap it!”

Our understanding of timespan gives us insight in the levels of VUCA, and the level of problem solving required to make sure Deepwater Horizon doesn’t happen again.

Levels of Work and Morale

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Let’s say I buy this stuff about levels of work. What will it help me do as a manager? What results should I see?

Response:
Immediately, as a manager, understanding levels of work will assist you in figuring out what you can delegate and what you have to self perform. As you look at task assignments, understanding levels of work will help you understand who to delegate work to.

Here is the immediate impact, you can make sure there is enough challenge in the work for your team to feel engaged at the highest level, stretched to their maximum capability. When people find challenge in their work, using their full attention and competence, what happens to job satisfaction?

There is no managerial trick. As a manager, you do not have to become a motivational speaker. It’s all about the work. Match the level of work in the role with the capability of the person. Maybe it is a little like magic.

Knowing Information Does Not Assure Success

It was a short break toward the end of the day. “I studied your books, attended your lecture,” Sam said. “I am excited to share this information with my team. But, I thought our organization would be farther along than it is?”

My face simultaneously winced and smiled.

“Organizational progress has little to do with information,” I replied. “In this age, the same information is available to everyone with curiosity. Knowing is only the first step. Next comes understanding and where that information applies to your organization. Then, you must do something, decision and execution.

  • Knowing information
  • Understanding and application
  • Decisions
  • Execution

“Along that continuum, your organization is exactly where it deserves to be.

“How many companies have access to the technology, but are unable to see where or how to adopt it. It is NOT the technology that makes the difference, it is how the organization is structured. In every company, there are four organizing documents, mission, vision, business model and structure.

“The business model and structure are intertwined and will determine the effectiveness in the market. Sometimes that effectiveness means market share and success, sometimes survival or death.

“When I talk about structure, it is the way we define the working relationships between roles in the organization. On a piece of paper, it looks like an org chart, but behind the piece of paper is a set of working conditions that govern our behavior in getting work done. The way we define those working relationships, I call culture.

“And, every company has the culture it deserves.”

How Many Layers Do You Need?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
In your review of the tenets of Agile, you missed a glaring one, a flat organizational structure.

Response:
How many layers do you need? As organizations grow and mature, increase in headcount, I see the construction of too many layers. In an effort to create a flat organizational structure, I see too few layers.

Most organizations follow a military protocol and misunderstand layers as reporting relationships. When I ask any group of managers if they have direct reports, they all raise their hand. I have to remind them they are not managers so people can report to them.

In the struggle to create “reporting,” too many layers emerge. The decision of who reports to whom gets made based on seniority, age, political pressure, personality. None of these are good reasons for “reporting” and eventually create organizational friction.

Every organization faces different problems to solve and has different decisions to make. Some problems and decisions are more complex than others. It is problem solving and decision making that demands layers (contexts). We can measure the complexity of the problem or decision by defining its context. That metric is timespan.

Looking at context, most problems and decisions for a small to medium enterprise (SME) fall into five levels. If we organize around the decisions and problems, we come up with a natural order of layers, not too many and not too few.

  • S-I – decisions and problems at hand, where variables are known, concrete, tangible.
  • S-II – decisions and problems of intention, related to quantity, quality and time. This is the land of supervision and coordination. These are short term variables (up to 12 months).
  • S-III – decisions and problems related to variables that fall along one specific critical path, or system. Intentions for system output are consistency and predictability. Goals and objectives up to 24 months.
  • S-IV – decisions and problems related to the existence of multiple systems (multiple critical paths) that must be integrated for total system throughput. Goals and objectives up to 60 months.
  • S-V – decisions and problems related to the enterprise in the context of its market (external system). Goals and objectives range from 5 years to 10 years.

It’s all about context related to decision making and problem solving. What is the level of decision making, what is the level of problem solving required? As the organization grows, it must meet those decisions and problems with the people who have the capability to make those decisions and solve those problems. The people in those positions must be able to bring value to the decision making and problem solving of the team one level of work below. And, that’s how many layers you need.

Next Gen Technology

Looking at Agile through the lens of Levels of Work. Today, we move down the list to next gen technology.

  1. North star embodied across the organization.
  2. Network of empowered teams.
  3. Rapid decision making and learning cycles.
  4. Dynamic people model that ignites passion.
  5. Next generation enabling technology.

Next generation enabling technology
Technology will replace many roles, AND it will drive the necessity for higher levels of work to design, configure and implement technology. When is the current technology obsolete? When is next gen mature enough to rely on? We always overestimate what we can do this year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years.

This technology transformation allows for more transparency in core operational and support functions, more rapid project deployment requiring the use of cross functional teams. The easy problems will be solved by technology and will create the necessity for more functional integration. Core functions and support functions will still exist, but the organization can now focus in functional integration (don’t get rid of your silos, integrate them). This integration will focus on functional capacity and the balance of those capacities between functions. It will also require the inspection of each function’s output used by related functions. Some of that output will be accelerated through the use of technology. Data will be collected in real time and routed democratically through the organization.

This is not subtle stuff and the organization will look different.

People Model

We continue to step our way through a short list of identified hallmarks of Agile through the lens of Levels of Work. Today, we move down the list to the people model.

  1. North star embodied across the organization.
  2. Network of empowered teams.
  3. Rapid decision making and learning cycles.
  4. Dynamic people model that ignites passion.
  5. Next generation enabling technology.

Dynamic people model
Levels of work identifies a robust framework where each role is defined by its level of decision making and problem solving. Effective decision making and problem solving at each level of work requires a concomitant level of cognitive capability.

In the transformation from analog to digital, there will be obsolete roles no longer needed and new roles created. As new roles are created, the organization has to identify the level of work in the new role and the corresponding cognitive capacity of the candidates for those roles. When people are challenged to work at or near their highest level of capability, in work they value, there is no need for motivational speakers to raise morale.

Most analog organizations define managerial roles as reporting relationships. In a digital organization, managerial roles shift from reporting relationships to a value stream, where managers are required to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team. This process brings alive the concept of “servant leadership.”

Rapid Decision Making

In my last post, we made two steps down a short list of hallmarks of Agile through the lens of Levels of Work. Today, we move down the list to rapid decision making.

  1. North star embodied across the organization.
  2. Network of empowered teams.
  3. Rapid decision making and learning cycles.
  4. Dynamic people model that ignites passion.
  5. Next generation enabling technology.

Rapid decision making and learning cycles
Technology is transforming analog organizations to digital organizations. Many decisions (made with incomplete, unknown or unknowable data) become calculations (complete and known data) according to defined algorithms. A decision is made in the context of incomplete information. A calculated adjustment is made in the context of complete data.

In the digital world, this data is captured in real time and is more transparent to more people in multiple functions. There will be no more waiting for a report from accounting. That data will be available in real time. And, with that accurate data available in real time, there is no need for a role that captures, collates and compiles the data, no need for a role to review the data. Analog roles slow things down.

Levels of Work acknowledges that some roles will be gone and new ones appear. The level of work is likely to be higher. It is no longer a matter of gathering and compiling data, it is a matter of which data to stream, to whom. Which data is relevant, which data irrelevant? What sensors gather the data to stream? What new sensors are available to gather new data? What sensors are obsolete?

In what technology do we invest our limited resources? Our decision making and learning cycles have to come faster.