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.

Three Weeks Early

“Okay, you want your project managers to show up early, so they can fix stuff they forgot to coordinate yesterday, but that’s not what you want?” I asked.

“No,” Saul pushed back.  “I want my project managers to show up a week early and figure out what they forgot to coordinate yesterday.  In fact, I want them to show up three weeks early and figure out what they forgot to coordinate.”

Saul stopped.  “I did have one project manager, I gotta tell you.  All my other project managers would have the excuse that we couldn’t start the job today, because the permit didn’t get approved yesterday.  This one project manager, though, would say the same thing, but that we couldn’t start the job three weeks from now because the permit wasn’t approved yesterday.  Three weeks notice for a permit gives us plenty of time to reallocate resources appropriately.”

So, you want your project managers thinking three weeks into the future?” I nodded.

“No, I want my best project managers to think three months into the future,” Saul smiled.  “Now, that would be a schedule I could work with.”

Before Someone Finds Out

Saul was reluctant.  “Okay, you want to know what the work is for a project manager?  I’ll tell you.  You show up early, before everyone else, so it’s quiet and you can think.”

“That’s a good start,” I replied.  “What do you think about?”

“You get out the first project folder.  You don’t even have to open it,” Saul chuckled. 

I looked at him sideways.  “You don’t have to open it?”

“Of course not.  You already know what’s inside.  You better know what’s inside.  You sit there, in the quiet and think about what is going to happen today.  It’s a rehearsal.  What is going to happen, step by step?  Until you hit that ‘Oh, shit’ moment.  You imagine what you forgot yesterday that is going to settle out today.”

It was my turn to smile.  “It’s early in the morning, so you still have time to fix it.”

“Well, yes, fix it, of course,” Saul was deep in imagination.  “But, more importantly, fix it so no one finds out that you forgot something important.”

“So, that’s what you want your project managers to do?  Show up early and fix things so no one finds out?” I asked.

“Oh, hell no,”  Saul replied.

What’s the Work?

“What’s the work?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Saul replied.

“You are trying to figure out how come every person you put in this role, underperforms,” I explained the question.

Saul shook his head.  “Look, it’s a project manager role.  They are supposed to handle things.  They get the estimate from the preconstruction department.  There is stuff they have to buy out, including subcontractors.  They have a project due date they have to back into.  How hard could it be?”

“Apparently, it’s harder than you think,” I nodded.  “For you, it seems easy, at least easy for you to spot when things aren’t going so well.  But, if every person you put in the role seems to fail, maybe the problem isn’t the person.  Maybe the problem is you.”

“I’ve been a manager at this company for seven years,” Saul seemed a bit prickly.  “Over the years, we’ve had some great projects.”

“Yes, but how many great project managers have you had?  And, the great projects, were they really that great, or do you only remember the ones that had a great margin already built in?”

“If you really have a beef with who we get as project managers, maybe you should talk to HR, they’re the ones who serve up the candidates.”

“I’m not talking to HR.  I am talking to you,” I said.  “I can’t hold HR accountable for the output of your project managers.  You are the one I hold accountable.”

Saul stopped.  His eyes looked up, but no answers there.  “If you are going to stare me down, where do you think I should start?”  It was a question, but with a chill of challenge in it.

“What’s the work?” I asked, for the second time.  “It’s all about the work.”

It’s a Question of Values

“I understand that it would be helpful to know about Julio’s value system,” Nelson pushed back. “But what am I supposed to ask him. Are you honest?

“My guess is that he would say, yes. Yes and no questions seldom give us much information that’s really useful. And remember, this would be most helpful if it’s about the work he is doing.”

Nelson was still puzzled. “I am supposed to ask him how he values the work?”

“He won’t understand the question if you ask it that way. Try these questions.

  • Before we ship this product to the customer, what is the most important thing we have to remember?
  • When the customer receives this product, what is the most important thing they look for?
  • When we show up at the customer’s location, what do you think the customer expects from us?
  • Before we leave a customer location, what is the most important thing we have to remember?
  • When you look around at your team mates, thinking about their work, what do you find most helpful to you?
  • What do you look for in a new person joining the team?

“All these questions will give you insight into Julio’s value system related to the work.”

Compliance or Commitment?

“And what if he is just not interested in the work?” I asked.

“At this point, I don’t really care if he is interested in the work,” Nelson protested.

“I understand, but if he is not interested in the work, then the best you will ever get is compliance. You will never get commitment.”

“So, what do you mean interested? It’s work. It’s not supposed to be interesting,” Nelson pressed.

“What are those things we are interested in? What things do we have passion for?” I stopped. “We are interested in those things in which we place a high value. And it doesn’t have to be the task, it just has to be connected to the task. A bricklayer may be stacking brick with mortar, not very interesting, but he may also be building a school for his children.”

“I get it,” said Nelson, “but we don’t build schools. How am I supposed to know what Julio is interested in? How am I supposed to know about Julio’s value system?”

“You are his manager. That’s the work of a manager.”

Second Part of Every Skill

“But I have told him a dozen times how to get the job done,” Nelson explained. “So, it can’t be a matter of skill.”

“You mean, you have explained the technical part to him?” I confirmed.

“Till I am blue in the face.”

“What about the other part?” I asked.

“What other part?”

“Look, Nelson, I can explain to you, how to throw a ball. I can demonstrate a hundred times, but if you want to gain the skill, is that enough? What do you have to do?”

“Well, I would have to practice,” he replied.

“So, when you explain things to Isaac, it does not mean he has the skill. Isaac has to practice. If there is any degree of difficulty, he has to practice a lot. And what is your role while Isaac is practicing?”

Your Assumption Might Be Wrong

“I am pretty sure that Isaac is a Stratum I and that’s why he is having difficulty with his new responsibilities,” Nelson explained.

“Isaac’s not doing well?” I asked.

“No, I swear, I have explained things to him a dozen times. He always says that he understands, but when I look at the work, he is like a deer in the headlights. Definitely Stratum I.”

“And if you are wrong?”

“I might be wrong?” Nelson tilted.

“What if he is just not interested in the work he is assigned?”

“But that’s the work I gave him to do,” Nelson replied.

“Just because you gave it to him, doesn’t mean he places value on that work. And just because he underperforms, doesn’t mean he is a Stratum I. Your assumption may lead you down the wrong road. Here are some better questions that are more helpful.

  1. Does Isaac have the right skills for the assigned task? Is there some technical knowledge that he needs to know and has he practiced enough to gain the required skill?
  2. Is Isaac interested in the work? Does he place a high value on its completion?
  3. Has Isaac been effective in completing tasks with a similar Time Span?

Self-Trust

“That’s it? Just figure it out?” Dalton tested.

I nodded. “You see, your inner critic doesn’t want to do the work. Your inner critic figured out, a long time ago, that you could get by with excuses. And the excuses worked, because everyone believed your excuses, including you.”

“They aren’t excuses, they’re reasons,” Dalton protested.

“Doesn’t matter what you call them,” I replied. “They get in the way of solving the damn problem.”

I could see doubt creeping back into Dalton’s thinking. His face looked scared.

“Look,” I said. “Your critic has a long familiar past with you. He knows all your buttons. But, you have more power. You have already taken steps, and those steps have been inside you all along. Answer these questions. Do you know what your resources are to fix this problem? Do you know what your budget is to fix this problem? Do you know how to figure lead-times into your schedule? Can you develop a receiving inspection process to prevent this from happening again?”

Dalton didn’t have to think long. “Yes,” he said thoughtfully.

“Thank your critic for sharing, trust in yourself and get to it.”

Innovate

“I thought we already dealt with my inner critic,” Dalton complained.

“Oh, we did,” I replied. “But, do you think your inner critic is going to go away quietly? Your inner critic is already miffed that you allowed yourself permission to fail. You even went so far to explore alternative solutions.”

“And, the team came up with an idea that might work, but it’s a step that we don’t do, don’t have the resources to do and don’t know how to do. At least not easily.”

“Look, you beat your inner critic once. When your manager got on your case, your critic told you to blame it on late materials, a machine breakdown and finally, to blame it on Fred. How did you beat your inner critic?”

“I took responsibility. I gave myself permission to fail. Instead of blaming, I started to explore alternatives with my team.”

“And, you came up with a solution that you don’t do, don’t have resources for, nor the understanding to pull it off,” I nodded.

Dalton stared.

“So, figure it out,” I said. “Get your team together and figure it out. Innovate, man.”

Alternatives

“Here’s the list,” Dalton announced. “We met last Friday, and here is the list. Some good ideas, some stupid ideas, some smart-ass ideas, we wrote them all down. Including this one idea that everyone thought was the best idea.”

“Problem solved?” I asked.

“You would think so,” Dalton replied. “We started with three problems that caused us to get behind schedule. Our materials were late, a machine broke down and Fred called in sick without actually calling in. We started work on the first problem, that our materials were late.”

“And, now, you have an idea how to resolve your materials problem?” I wanted to know.

“Yes, but,” Dalton started. “You see the original batch of materials arrived on time, but the whole batch turned out to be defective. We didn’t notice until we started the production run. Our first-part inspection failed, so we stopped the run. We found the defective material, checked the batch, all were defective. It was an easy fix for our supplier, but it took two days to get a replacement batch.”

“So, what was your team’s idea to fix?” I asked.

“That’s the problem. The team suggested a receiving inspection. You see, the defective batch was sitting in-house for two weeks before the production run. If we had checked the batch when we got it, we would have known about the problem with plenty of time to fix.”

“And, so?”

“But we don’t do receiving inspections. We don’t have the manpower, we don’t have the visibility on the schedule. Someone from purchasing just checks that we received the box, matches the packing slip, and that’s it. Even if they opened the box, they wouldn’t know what to check anyway.”

“Sounds like your inner critic is whispering in your ear again. And, if you listen to the whisper, that critic voice will get louder.”