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.

Paper Delay

“What did you learn?” I asked.

“I drew the picture of our Customer Experience system,” Sean explained. “I didn’t realize it was really a system. I drew the picture in detail to capture all the places the Service Ticket sits, and indicated whether is was a Paper Service Ticket or if it had been converted to an Electronic Service Ticket.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I was thinking, the Customer Service Rep is connected to the Service Ticket server, so they can look things up. But, for security, they are blocked out from writing service tickets. That function is relegated to Ops, who really doesn’t have the time for all this.”

“What’s the security issue?” I wanted to know.

“Ops is afraid that if the CSR writes up the ticket, they will make a mistake and route the ticket to the wrong place.”

“What do you propose?”

“I want to allow the CSR to write up the ticket while the customer is still on the phone, no more paper,” Sean started. “I want to program a drop down box with only four reason codes available plus a code for needs supervisor review. If that ticket goes straight to resolution as an Electronic Service Ticket, that takes three, maybe four days of delay out of the system.”

“How are you going to explain your proposal so you can get buy-in and approval for the change?” I asked.

Sean grinned. “I am going to lead with – Every time something is written on a piece of paper, it introduces delay into the system.”

Delay, Delay

“We tried that,” Sean explained. “There is a delay in our problem resolution. We figure out the solution on the phone call, but it takes time to execute the resolution.”

“Tell me more,” I asked.

“The customer service rep writes down the problem on a piece of paper, noting all the details, customer contact and so forth. That paper form goes to the operations department.”

“Stop,” I said. “After the paper form is completed by the CSR, what happens to the piece of paper before it goes to the ops department?”

Sean grinned. “You’re right. It sits. It sits in a box on the corner of the CSRs desk. Ops sends a runner once a day to pick up the forms. They insist that they have written documentation.”

“Every day they send a runner?”

“Well, not every day. Sometimes they get busy, so sometimes, it’s every other day.”

“Then, what happens?” I wanted to know.

“Then, someone from Ops keys in the data from the paper form to get it into their Service ticket system. From there, it could go one of four ways, so it has to be reviewed and routed by a Supervisor.”

“Is the Supervisor busy? How long does it take the Supervisor to review the ticket?”

“I’m not sure, but it has to be within a day. Or two?” Sean tried to imagine what happens in Operations.

“Sean, if you drew your system on a single piece of paper, including the steps in the Ops department, which means you might have to go and ask some questions, do you think you could put a red circle around the places where the Service Ticket just sits, waiting?”

Sean nodded, got up and went to draw a picture of the Customer Experience system.

Value Add is Not the Problem

“I have some ideas on bringing value-add to our customer experience,” Sean reported.

I nodded. “Two questions,” I said, “How well are you delivering the core elements of your customer experience? If you add elements, will they add cost and are your customers willing to pay for it?”

“Well, value-add,” Sean stuttered, “means the customer will perceive greater value for the experience we provide.”

“And, why are you doing this?”

Sean stopped. “The customer survey scores have been sagging, and I wanted a way to boost those scores. I get a bonus on improvement in customer satisfaction.”

“When you lay out your customer experience system on a piece of paper, do your customer satisfaction scores lead you to a specific segment in the system?” I asked.

Sean’s turn to nod. “Yes, we get a customer complaint, we usually troubleshoot the problem accurately during the phone call, but there is a delay in actually fixing the problem. That’s why I wanted to create some value-added services, so the customer would perceive greater value in our efforts.”

“What if? And, this is just a what if,” I smiled. “What if you focused on the delay between understanding the problem and fixing the problem? Would your customer satisfaction scores go up?”

Skill and Capability

“I want to send this guy back to training,” Roger pursed his lips.

“Again?” I replied. “This would be the third time through.”

“I know, I know. But the mistakes he makes and the bone-headed decisions he makes, they just seem careless. If he would apply himself a little harder, he might have a break-through.”

“Roger, you have a classic managerial case of fixitis,” I replied. “You think you can fix people.”

Roger nodded. “Yes, I guess I do.”

“There is a big difference between skill and capability. You can train a skill, a skill can be learned. A skill can be practiced, honed and coached. But, you cannot teach capability. Capability is what it is. Please understand, capability grows and matures through a lifetime, but not from a two week training period.”

Interest, Passion, Required Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We recently had a new hire not work out, so we decided to terminate. The mistake on our end, I think, was in the Required Behaviors element, but I’m not sure. The position we hired for was an administrative support position. We decided it was Hi-S-I, Lo-S-II based on timespan, using checklists, and expertise. Tasks were getting done, but there seemed to be a missing behavior around awareness, interest in helping others, and assertiveness. Am I assessing correctly that this falls into Required Behaviors/Passion-Interests in the 4 Absolutes?

First a quick review of the Four Absolutes required for any position, no matter the discipline –

  • Capability (measured in Timespan)
  • Skill (technical knowledge, practiced performance)
  • Interest, Passion (high value for the behavior)
  • Required Behaviors (contracted behaviors, habits, culture)

You describe that task assignments were completed, I will assume on time and at quality standard. Your disappointment was in –

  • Awareness
  • Interest in helping others
  • Assertiveness

The question is, how could this have been detected in the interview? Let’s take the easy one first. Interest in helping others. I cannot see interest, I can only see behavior connected to interest. So, how does a person behave, who has an interest in helping others?

  • Tell me about a time when you worked with a team that required a great deal of interaction and support among the team members?
  • What was the team? What was the purpose for the team?
  • How many members on the team?
  • What created the need for interaction and support?
  • What did you need from the other team members?
  • What did the other team members need from you?
  • How did the other team members let you know they needed your support?
  • What did your support (what they needed from you) look like?
  • How quickly did they need that support?
  • Step me through an example where a team member needed your specific support?
  • How did you become aware they needed your support?
  • Step me through your response?

You can already see through these questions, that the interviewer will learn about your other two disappointments, awareness and assertiveness (speed of response). A person who is aware, will be able to respond easily to these questions. A person who is assertive will respond quickly with specific behavior appropriate to the situation.

These questions are behavioral, I am not interested personality, only behavior. Restrict your questions to real examples from the past. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Under pressure, people will retreat to what they have done in the past, even if it didn’t work.

Timespan of Intention

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Sometimes, I question my assessment of a team member’s capability. At times, I am delightfully surprised, other times, disappointed.

Timespan assessment of capability is a manager’s judgement. There are clues, but most of the time, managers look in the wrong places. Here is the text from my slide defining Timespan.
Timespan is the length of time a person can effectively work into the future, without direction, using their own discretionary judgement, to achieve a specific goal.

Effectiveness is not a metric, it’s a judgement. Often, goals are stated to allow for some measurement at the end of the day. The problem with the metric, it does not take into account the unanticipated obstacles that get in the way. A sales metric of 100 units does not take into account the stiff competition from a company with superior technology, economic contraction in the marketplace or a new government regulation the influences a reluctant market. Often a successful sale has more to do with the company’s reputation in the market, than the direct effort of a salesperson. The goal (metric) is one important data point in the judgement of effectiveness, but it is not the only data point.

Self-initiated action. Part of effectiveness is to determine, who is doing the problem solving and decision making? Most people can follow a system, but it takes a higher level of capability to create the system.

Discretion is decision making. A decision is not a calculation, it is a judgement. If decisions were calculations, then computers could make all decisions. Many human based decisions are now better calculated with computers (AI), because computers can detect data faster, with more precision. But, a decision is a judgement, a judgement in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. The longer the timespan of the decision, the more uncertainty exists.

All action is goal directed. Timespan of discretion relates to the decisions that must be made in the pursuit of the goal. Timespan of intention is related to the direction of that behavior. Elliott Jaques was quite interested in that fifth dimension of human behavior, the timespan of intention. All behavior is goal directed behavior.

Slowly, Then All of a Sudden

If I did not allow you, as the manager, to come to work tomorrow, what tasks would your team find to work on? I get a variety of responses, but they all come down to this – Tomorrow, they would work pretty much on the same things they worked on today.

And if I held you back another day, what tasks would your team find to work on, and what methods would they use? The responses continue to be – They would work pretty much on the same things as today, using the same methods as today.

Good. Now, how long could your team continue to do that without you? Be honest.

The team could continue to work on the same tasks using the same methods for a long time.

How long? Exactly up to the very moment when…

Exactly up to the very moment when something changed. In that instant, you, as a manager, suddenly had a job. Management is about helping your team adapt to change. In fact, if nothing in your market, in your industry, in your state, in your town, with technology ever changed, then your company would not need you.

The more change you see in your market, in your industry, with technology, the more management you need.

Role Assessment

You talk about creating a system for recruiting that would rival our equipment procurement system. Where do we start?

Think about that machine your company just purchased. If the price was north of $50,000, a bunch of people spent a lot of time looking at this machine in many different ways. Here is where it all started.

One, two or three people sat down and did a needs assessment. In that needs assessment, they asked some very fundamental questions.

  • What do we need this machine to do for us?
  • Is there another way, or another machine that would do a better job?
  • At the end of the week, how much production do we need from this machine?
  • What are the quality standards that we need from this machine?
  • How will this machine interface with our current work flow?
  • What kind of support will this machine require to sustain the productivity we need from it?
  • What other customers like us are currently using this machine?
  • How is this machine performing for them?
  • If we grow, what capacity will this machine need, in reserve, to accommodate our growth?

Think about these questions. Replace the word “machine” with the word “person.” Think about the role description you are writing. This is where you start.

It’s Not Free

“If it doesn’t show on the screen, it is wasted effort.” I grew up in the television production business and that one principle helped us make the most important decisions. If the element did not make a visual impact on the screen, we passed on it.

What does this mean for your team? What defines your “tv screen?” I will lay odds that your “tv screen” is defined by your customer. If your customer does not value your “value added” service, then stop doing it.

How do you know when your customer values your “value added” service? You know, when your customer is willing to pay for it. Value added does not mean free.

The Anabolic Window

The meeting was almost over. Butts in chairs began to shift toward the door.

“Take this 3×5 index card and write your name on it. Below that, write down the one thing you are going to do in the next week based on what we talked about, today.” The puzzled faces gave way to ideas for action and the writing began. Forty-five seconds later, we started around the table, each in turn, in front of the group, making a public commitment.

At the end of each meeting, there is an anabolic window that most managers never take advantage of. This window is a short period of time in which growth occurs. Ten minutes later, the window is gone.

Public commitment to action. Your team was engaged the past twenty minutes in a meeting about improving the work-flow process. At the end of the meeting, you could adjourn and lose the window, or you could stop and ask for a public commitment to action. It could be the most powerful three minutes of the meeting.

Oh, bring your 3×5 card to the meeting next Monday. We want to know how you did.