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.

The Difference From Team Leader to Supervisor

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was just promoted from team leader to supervisor. My boss told me not to worry, things wouldn’t be that different. With all due respect, I think things will be different, I just don’t know in what way?

Response:
The biggest difference is the time span of your goals and objectives. As a supervisor, your focus will shift to the future.

As the team leader of your crew, you thought about what needed to be produced this week. As a new supervisor, you have to think about the schedule for two weeks, three weeks or more, depending on the variables in your system. It’s not just people, also, materials (with lead times), equipment, preventive maintenance, consumables, logistics, raw material specs, system constraints, first piece inspections. Your job will require more prep and staging time.

All of this requires you to think further into the future, using your own discretionary judgment to make decisions and solve problems.

I Can Only Expect One Thing

“Reggie, I want to clarify your language around the word accountability,” I started. “People always say they want to hold someone else accountable, when that is an impossibility.”

“You talked to me about that before,” Reggie replied. “I cannot hold any of my team members accountable, I can only hold them ‘to account’ for things we agreed to. And, in the end, as the manager, I am the only one that can be held to account for the output of the team.”

“It seems nitpicking, but the subtle difference is huge, between holding someone accountable (impossible) and holding someone to account. So, tell me, in this discussion about accountability, if you, as the manager, are accountable for the output of the team, what do you expect from each team member?”

“I can only expect them to do one thing,” Reggie concluded. “To show up each and every day, with the full intention to do their best. As long as they do their best, I can expect no more. I control the rest of the variables. I decide who is on the team, how they are trained, the tools provided to them, work instructions, project assignments and the time allotted. As the manager, I am accountable for the output of the team.”

Catch Every Package

“You see, Reggie, in the beginning, as a manager of a small team, you can take the brunt of the responsibility, because the responsibility is small. As time goes by, if you want to step up to larger responsibility, you will find that strategy will fail you. You, as the manager, can no longer solve all the problems, catch every package that falls off a forklift, fix every little discrepancy that comes roaring at you. If you try to do it all, by yourself, you will fail.

“So, you have managers who know they have to get their teams involved, to get their teams to hold themselves accountable. But they don’t know how. So, some consultant recommends a bonus program to get buy in. And you have seen, first hand, what that does to accountability.”

Reggie took a deep breath. “So, it was okay when things were small and times were good. But now that we are growing, more and more people are trying to game the bonus system.”

“And, lord help you, when times go bad, and they will. A bonus system during bad times is a sure-fire morale killer.”

“I think, the biggest lesson, for me,” Reggie replied, “is that, as things grow bigger and more complicated, I have to learn how to hold my people to account to the performance standards we agreed to. And a bonus system doesn’t substitute for that skill.”

Nobody is Happy

“Reggie, when you are barking all the orders, and telling people, if they will just perform to this standard or that standard, they will get an extra bump in their paycheck, where does that place accountability?”

Reggie looked at me for a minute, shook his head, “I’m not sure what you mean, where does that place accountability?”

“Reggie, the reason this is a difficult concept, is that most managers rarely talk about accountability. Back to the question. Where does a bonus system place accountability for performance?”

“I still don’t know what you mean?”

“The manager says, if you perform to this standard, you get an extra $100 in your paycheck this week. What happens to accountability for performance to the standard?”

Reggie was working through this in his head. “Well, the manager has done his job. He defined the performance standard and calculated the bonus, so it’s now on the team member?”

“Not quite,” I said. “The team member now has the choice to perform, or not perform and understands the consequences. If the team member underperforms, $100 of their promised pay will be withheld.

“So, the team member underperforms and does not receive the bonus. They’re okay with it, because, in the end, they didn’t have to work that hard after all. And the manager must be okay with it, because he doesn’t have to pay the $100.

“So the performance standard is not achieved. Who is accountable for the underperformance? Is everybody happy?”

The Heart Attack Cycle

People don’t fear change, they fear loss (that might be caused by the change). Five stages of every change initiative –

  • Denial – there is no change, any suggestion of a change must be fake news.
  • Anger – Denial turns to anger, to steel the subject, emotionally, against some negative outcome. Anger is almost always rooted in fear of something. Fear of loss.
  • Negotiation – The realization or awareness of the change begins to set in. Resistance to the change takes the form of bargaining. Negotiation, compromise to stop the changes, or at least mitigate the loss the change may bring.
  • Depression – Through negotiation, the emotion of anger turns to depression, resistance is futile, powerlessness sets in.
  • Acceptance – As the reality of the change emerges, in all the shifts that take place, acceptance finally replaces depression and forward movement can finally begin.

This sequence was originally coined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to describe the emotional cycle of terminally ill patients facing their disease. She adapted the cycle to describe a similar cycle of grief. I call it the heart attack cycle.

First, there is denial you are having a heart attack. Anger replaces denial, what an inconvenient time to have a heart attack. Negotiation sets in, attempting to trade the reality of a heart attack for future church-going, swearing off drink or pasta. Depression sets in as the heart attack drains the power of the individual. Finally, acceptance. Yes, a heart attack is happening. The time it takes to make it through all five stages determines the amount of time it takes to call 911.

And, so it is with management, to assist our teams through change, to cope with the fear of loss. It’s not a heart attack, but we have to move through all five stages before we can move forward.

It’s Not a Matter of Counting

Russell remained silent, then spoke. “So, I have been ignoring the most important skills during the interview?”

“Perhaps.” I said.

“But it almost seems silly. Related to cycle counts, am I supposed to ask if they can count?”

“Russell, you said that a critical break-down is in material counts for each day’s production. It is more than just counting. Try these questions.

“Tell me how you handled the materials staging for each day’s production. How many finished units did you produce in a typical day? What were the raw materials that went into each of the finished units? Where did you warehouse the materials? How did you move materials from the warehouse to the staging area? How long did that take in advance of production? When did you check on material availability for each day’s production? How did you handle a stock out?

“Russell, in response to these questions, what are you listening for?”

He smiled, “I’m listening for organizing behavior, working into the future, anticipating problems. It is more than just counting.”

How Culture Touches the Work

Culture is that unwritten set of rules that defines and enforces the required behaviors in the work that we do together. Many things we do are written down and comprise our standard operating procedures. But most things are unwritten. And, when we think of culture, here are some things that are often missed.

  • Who can belong to our team? (Membership)
  • Who has the authority to make decisions, in what situations?
  • How are team members given work assignments?
  • How often are team members given work assignments?
  • Do team members depend on work product from other team members?
  • How do team members hand off work to other team members? (Integration)
  • When a team member completes a work assignment, how does their supervisor know?
  • When a team member completes a work assignment, how do they know what to work on next?
  • Does anyone review or inspect their work?
  • How often is their work reviewed or inspected?
  • Are they permitted to continue on additional work before their current work has been reviewed?
  • Do they work on multiple assignments simultaneously?

The people system is the most important system you work on. This is just the start.

SIP Planning

As Hurricane Dorian skirts the Florida coast, on its way north, I was privileged to observe a phenomenon in several companies, recently coined as SIP planning (Short Interval Planning). We can have an overall plan within what is known or highly likely, but in fluid situations, like hurricanes or projects, those plans have to be constantly reviewed and adjusted to changing circumstances.

So, use your favorite planning model, but look at it often, with your team for –

  • Changes in “known” facts.
  • Changes in assumptions.
  • Changes in timeline (hurricanes slow down, projects get delayed).
  • Changes in workforce (the important “who?”)
  • Changes in expectations.
  • Changes in intention.
  • Changes in supply chain.

You probably have your own list of things that can change. Stay safe during this hurricane.
—–
My thanks to Bernard Paul-Hus who introduced the concept of SIP planning.

Instead of a Confrontation

Cheryl emerged from her team meeting, eyes wide in partial disbelief.

“So, how did it go?” I asked.

“I expected a big confrontation, didn’t sleep last night worrying, but I think we solved the quality problem with the incoming plastic parts,” she replied.

“How did that happen?”

“I knew how I wanted this problem solved, but, instead of telling the team what to do, I just asked questions and listened. At first they were going off a cliff, so I asked the question in a different way. It was like magic. They gave me the solution I was looking for. Before I could say anything, they volunteered to fix the problem.

“It seems the burrs on the plastic parts were all from the same lot number. Sherman volunteered to run the defective parts over a grinder to remove the burr, but it was Andrew who surprised me.

“He volunteered to call the molding company and find out what was causing the burr. In fact, he left the meeting for five minutes and had the answer. The molder knew there was a problem with that lot, but didn’t think it would matter. He has since fixed the problem, sending a short run over for us to inspect. Andrew said he would be standing by.”

“So, why does this surprise you?” I asked.

“Instead of a confrontation, turns out, all I had to do was ask two questions.”

“So, what are you going to do the rest of the day?”

“I was thinking about taking a nap,” Cheryl said with a smile.