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.

Based on Objective Measures

“But, if a forklift driver has enough experience on the resume, and properly answers a few questions, isn’t that enough for the manager to make the right hiring decision?” I asked.

“One would think,” Pablo replied. “But, it begs the age-old question, ‘How big is the role? And, how big is the person?’ Two questions, pretty simple.”

“I am following you, but, I don’t think it is as simple as you say. Or else, we would have figured it out by now.”

“Often, it is because we are looking, desperately so, in the wrong places. We think if we can simply understand human behavior, it will all fall into place. So, we try to measure human behavior. If you ask any CEO their biggest challenge, it is almost always, right people, right seats. Even psychologists struggle with measuring human behavior. They arrive at psychometric assessments with some statistical repeatability that they call reliable. The problem is, just because I can demonstrate repeatability in one measured system does not mean it is causative or a predictive indicator for something else. Where the art of engineering is built on objective measures of physics, and medicine is built on objective measures in anatomy, physiology and bio-chemistry, the art of management is, for the most part, built on alchemy, which is of little use in predicting decision making and problem solving.”

“Objective measures, in the art of management? Predictive in decision making and problem solving?” I repeated the statement as a question.

Pablo nodded. “Let me give you three buckets of water, one iced-cold, one room temperature and one heated, but not boiling. Put your right hand in the heated bucket and your left hand in the iced-cold bucket. After a moment, remove your right hand and place it in the room temperature bucket. Is the water warm or cold?”

“It will appear cold, because of the change in temperature,” I replied.

“Now, take your left hand from the iced-cold bucket and place it in the room temperature bucket. Is the water warm or cold?”

“To my left hand, it will appear warm, while my right hand in the same bucket will feel cold.”

“Well, which is it?” Pablo asked. “Warm or cold?”

“It depends on the context,” I nodded.

“Change the context, behavior follows,” Pablo smiled. And waited. “And if I placed a thermometer in the room temperature water and said, ‘your experience of the water, whether warm or cold is of little consequence, the water is 75 degrees.’

“Now, we have an objective measure upon which we can all agree, no matter if it feels warm or cold, the water is 75 degrees. What does that have to do with management?” I wanted to know.

“Even more important,” Pablo replied, “what would an objective measure have to do with the art of decision making and problem solving? How big is the role, how big is the person?

Decisions at Every Level of Work

“You said that if the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, the manager might take better care in selection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “It does no good to bring someone on board without the capability for the work, only to later blame that person for underperformance.”

“If that is the case,” I picked up the unspoken question, “then why do managers struggle finding the right fit for the role.”

“They struggle,” Pablo replied, “because they rarely sit down and figure out the work. Most managers see work as a series of task assignments. Do this, do that. No more. Following the task assignment, the manager often asks, ‘So, do you know what to do?'”

“And?”

“You see, it slips by so easily. That question barely begs understanding. The question from the manager should more properly be, ‘In completing this task assignment, what decisions will you have to make? What problems will you have to solve?’ Most managers miss that completely.”

“But, if the team member knows what to do, what decisions are left?”

“See, even you, my most aware friend, have overlooked discretion built into the work. There is always appropriate decision making at every level of work. Take a fork lift driver, and a pallet to be moved from point A to point B,” Pablo laid out.

“I got it.”

“Do you?” Pablo pushed back. “What decisions are to be made by the forklift driver?”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Am I moving the right pallet to where it needs to be placed?”

“You’re right, that is the obvious question,” Pablo started. “And, let’s look at some other questions, any one of which could create failure.

  • How heavy is the pallet?
  • Is the pallet properly balanced?
  • Is my forklift rated to handle the weight of the load?
  • Will the size of the pallet, plus a safety buffer, clear the designated pathway to location B?
  • Are there unanticipated obstacles that might temporarily be blocking the pathway?
  • Are there any over height restrictions to the movement?
  • Will this move require flag walkers during movement?
  • Is the forklift in operating order?
  • Are all safety signals, warning lights and sounds operating?
  • Am I wearing appropriate PPE during the move?
  • Is the designated point B a permanent location within a specified perimeter? Or a temporary staging area that must be flagged for safety?”

“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “I get it.”

“Most managers rarely sit down and figure it out,” Pablo was adamant. “What’s the work? What decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?”

Changing Behavior

“The manager may be accountable for output, but, what if the behavior of the team member is not productive and needs to be changed?” I asked.

“It often happens,” Pablo replied. “The path is not to change the behavior of the team member, but to build the system that creates the behavior necessary for productivity.”

“So, you are implying that you can change a person’s behavior?”

“Absolutely, change the context, change the system and behavior follows.”

“If we subscribe to this thinking, what should we expect?” I wanted to know.

“This understanding breathes life into the organization. Managers are now expected to anticipate, have alternate plans, in short, be prepared to respond to variable conditions. This, instead of watching over shoulders, micro-managing and blaming the team.”

Context of Uncertainty

“Holding the manager accountable for output still seems odd,” I said. “There are still things that can go wrong, out of the hands of the manager.”

“Yes, that would seem odd, but we have to think about context,” Pablo replied. “The context of the technician is quite short, measured in days and weeks. The context of the first line manager extends beyond and requires attention to those things uncertain, those things that can be anticipated, not in days or weeks, but weeks and months.”

“The outlook at a different level of work?” I prompted.

“Looking forward, there is always uncertainty and ambiguity. The uncertainty six months from now is within the context of the first line manager or supervisor. Their role requires they look ahead, plan for contingencies, because the future is ALWAYS unpredictable. It is the role of the first line manager to plan for backups, bench-strength in the team, tools that break, materials that arrive off schedule or out of spec. The first line manager must build in buffers to respond to variability in circumstances, because circumstances are always variable. In short, it is not within the authority of the manager to reprimand the team for a shortfall in production, but to create the circumstances in the system to respond to conditions to prevent the shortfall.

“It is precisely those conditions outside the direct control of the manager,” Pablo continued, “that the manager has to plan for in the face of an uncertain future. That’s their role. That is why the manager must be held to account for the output of the team.”

It’s Not a Breakdown in Communication

“You are dipping your toes in this subject area called trust,” I nodded. “If the manager is to trust the team member, it starts with selection. I get that. But, how does accountability, laid at the feet of the manager, engender a sense of trust?”

“If the manager understands their accountability for output of the team member, blame goes away,” Pablo replied. “We often think blame is a personality disorder, or a breakdown in communication. Blame gets resolved, not through a communication seminar, but by defining, understanding the working relationship between the manager and the team member. When the manager understands, assumes accountability for output, there is no one to blame. The manager has to look inward, to determine what change the manager can make to impact the output.

“You see,” Pablo continued. “Let’s say we get a shipment of defective parts on an assembly line, a little plastic burr that has to be ground off before it can be assembled, and the grinding takes an extra 30 seconds. If our production output was intended to be 100 units per hour, but those 100 units now cause 50 minutes an hour of deburring, we can get behind quickly. And, that’s no matter how hard the team member works, it still takes 30 seconds extra per unit.”

“What does this have to do with trust and mistrust?” I wanted to know.

Pablo obliged. “If the team member is held to account for the output, they have nothing to say except to point out the deburring work. The team member cannot authorize someone from another team to come to help, or to pull two other deburring grinders from another work cell. They have no context for the output of the other work cells. And, if they are already doing their best, they can work no harder, they can work no faster, the deburring still takes an extra 30 seconds. If they are berated by their manager for the shortfall in output, there begins a mistrust of their manager. The team has little control over the conditions of their raw materials, it is only their manager that can accommodate the anomaly in production. This small bit of mistrust can begin to grow and ultimately erode the relationship. And, it is not personalities or miscommunication that is causing the mistrust, it is the definition of the working relationship between the manager and the team member AND where we place accountability for output.”

Where Trust Starts

“So, it’s that simple,” I prodded. “Hold managers to account for the output of their team? That’s the beginning, that’s where we start?”

Pablo nodded. “Managers, who have before blamed their team, will begin to pay attention to the care and feeding of their team. It starts with who they let onto the team. If it is well understood that the manager is accountable for the output of the team, managers will develop a more rigorous selection criteria. Fogging a mirror will no longer be acceptable. If we can only assume the team member shows up to do their best, the manager has to make sure their best will be good enough.”

“You are talking about hiring?” I asked.

“That’s where it starts,” Pablo smiled.

A Matter of Matching

“Deep life satisfaction?” I repeated.

Pablo nodded. “Think about yourself, in your own role, working with managers. Do you feel a sense of deep life satisfaction for the work you do?”

“Of course,” I replied. “It’s not something I constantly think about or talk about, but it’s there. You are right, it is a sensation, a feeling. But, you are certainly not saying that everybody in the company gets that same sense for the work they do?”

“And, why not?” Pablo replied with a question. “When people are continually challenged to their maximum level of capability, not above it, not below it, but right at that match-point, what happens to job satisfaction, up or down?”

“Well, up, of course.”

“Do you have to hire a motivational speaker?”

“No.”

“Then motivation is simply a matter of matching capability required with capability possessed,” Pablo could still sense hesitation on my part. “Do you remember your first job?” he asked.

“Of course,” I smiled. “I washed dishes in a restaurant, but that was not even close to my potential, it was just my first job.”

“You see,” Pablo grinned, “even when you tell the story from many years ago, your face lit up. I bet you remember that first paycheck, the uniform you wore, your first sense (sensation) that you were contributing, getting on with the work at hand and contributing to your own self-independence.

It was a beginning, a beginning of life at work, where you continue to show up, each and every day, committed to the full application of your highest level of capability, in pursuit of your potential.”

By Virtue of Contract

“You have been quite clear, that it is the manager accountable for the output of the team, so, does the team member have no culpability for the work?” I asked.

“Of course they do,” Pablo countered. “By virtue of a contract, a very simple employment contract, each team member is expected to show up for work each and every day, bringing the full application of their capability, in short, to do their best.”

“Sounds simplistic, if not idealistic,” I snorted.

“Indeed simple, AND not idealistic,” Pablo replied. “It is not a matter of idealism, it is a matter of contract. And, as a matter of contract, the manager must assume each team member is doing their best.”

“But, assuming the team member is doing their best does NOT make it so.” I pushed back.

“Why, do you think it is hard?” Pablo asked, not giving me time to respond. “It is not difficult for team members to continually do their best. It is only when our people systems are dysfunctional, people find it difficult. Unless we, as managers, prevent it, people will engage, with full commitment to do their best, in fact, will find deep life satisfaction in doing so.”

A Slow Nuanced Dance

“Fixing accountability is the first step to creating a context of trust,” Pablo shifted. “When accountability is not clearly defined, or placed at the wrong level, mistrust begins a slow nuanced dance, often imperceptible. But it’s there. People begin to feel insecure about their own jobs, not sure where this career may or may not be taking them, squabbles emerge about equitable pay, stress among working relationships and blaming behavior.”

“Sounds like a bit of insecurity?” I ask. “Isn’t that why we do psychometric testing, to weed those people out?”

“People behave as people behave, in the context of their surroundings,” Pablo chuckled. “We think the success of a managerial system depends of the psychology of its individuals, when its success depends more on its design. Change the context, behavior follows. Go into a church or synagogue and you will see people sitting quietly, barely speaking. Does that mean they are all introverts and poor communicators? Go to a soccer stadium where a goal has just been scored and you will see people screaming, jumping up and down. Does that mean they are all extroverts with a boisterous personality. It’s all about context.”

Pablo stopped before he finished. “Fixing accountability is the first step to creating a context of trust.”

A Well Argued Decision

“Let’s take meetings,” Pablo suggested. “Lots of managers AND their teams work hard to gain concensus, avoid conflict, at times even attempt to make decisions democratically.”

“I have seen that,” I said.

“And that manager of the team, also has a manager, let’s call that role, the manager-once-removed, the manager’s manager,” Pablo described the setup. “If the team and their manager engage in democratic decision making and make a bone-headed decision, who does the manager-once-removed hold accountable?”

Manager-Once-Removed (MOR)
————————-
Manager
————————-
Team

“Well, I assume it would be the whole team, manager included,” I observed.

“Who is the manager-once-removed going to call into the office to discuss this bone-headed decision, the whole team? If we are going to call in the whole team, what do we need the manager for?”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“And, what of the dynamics in the decision meeting? If the decision is to be democratic, then team members will lobby their own agendas, sometimes hidden politics emerge to gain support from other members, perhaps a little arm-twisting. The manager almost becomes a bystander. And, yet, at the end of the day, it is the manager called to account for the bone-headed decision.”

“And?” I asked.

“It is only when the manager becomes accountable for the decision, that we can make headway,” Pablo described. “Team members now show up to provide feedback and support to the manager, who will make and be accountable for the decision. The team will play devil’s advocate, argue this position or that position, in short, create conflict. The point of the meeting is not to manage conflict, but create it, for the benefit of the decision. Don’t manage conflict, manage agreement.”

“And, the benefit?”

“A well argued decision,” Pablo said. “This only happens when we understand the working relationship between the team and the manager, with the manager accountable for the output of the team.”