Category Archives: Accountability

Third Leg on the Stool

“More?” Phillip asked.

“Phillip, one of the biggest mistakes a company makes when it hires people, is underestimating what is required for the person to be effective in the position. The role of a Project Manager requires a new skill set, a skill set that most companies never train.”

“We talked about schedules and checklists, but you said there was another tool, a third leg.”

I nodded. “Perhaps the most important tool. Meetings. Most PMs know they need to have meetings, but they just gut their way through. Nobody likes their meetings. The team would skip them if they could. Participation by team members hardly exists.

“Think what a meeting could be. It makes communication consistent because everyone hears the same thing. It provides the opportunity for interactive participation and questions. It encourages participation and promotes buy-in. It can be used as an accountability tool.

“But effective meetings rarely happen, because most managers don’t know how.” Phillip’s turn to nod. It began to sink in. Running the job is completely different than doing the job.

S-II Power Tool

Phillip was all ears. He slowly understood that the role of the supervisor was different. While the role of the crew member was to do the work, the role of the supervisor was to make sure the work got done. It required a completely different set of skills. It had nothing to do with hammers, saws or heavy equipment. It had to do with scheduling people and materials. It had to do with making sure the work was complete and finished on time.

“You said we need to teach our PMs how to put a schedule together?” Phillip asked.

“Yes, and a schedule is only one of the tools of the supervisor. Another is a checklist.”

“You mean, like the punch list we use at the end of the job to wrap up unfinished details?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “Why use a checklist only at the end of the job. Checklists can be useful through the entire project. There are a hundred things that need follow-up and no one can keep all that in their head. In fact, after a few jobs, a master checklist can be created for different parts of the project, like a template that can be used over and over.”

“And we should teach this to our supervisors?” Phillip was slowly getting on board.

“Yep. I know it comes second nature to you, but not to your junior Project Managers.” I stopped. Phillip had enough for today. “Tomorrow, I will come by and we can pick up the next Project Management tool.”

The Schedule and Reality

Phillip stared at me. His blood pressure was up, though he appeared calm, but not like a deer in the headlights.

“So, we should teach our Project Managers to schedule?” he asked, knowing the answer was yes.

“Look. Phillip. Think about this. What is the most frequent problem a Project Manager has to deal with?”

Phillip didn’t hesitate. “The contractor calls up and wants to know how come something on the job site isn’t happening the way he expected it to.”

“And what happens then?”

“Well, the PM starts scrambling. He jumps on his radio to find out what happened to the crew or the materials or the equipment. It can get a little chaotic.”

“Why doesn’t the PM immediately go to the schedule to find out what is happening?”

“The schedule?” Phillip almost started laughing. “His schedule won’t tell him anything.”

I stopped, waited for ten long seconds. “And why won’t the schedule tell him what he needs to know.”

It was Phillip’s turn to wait. He was trying to craft a response, but the only thing that came out was the truth. “I guess we don’t take schedules seriously enough to train our PMs on how to create them and use them.”

“So, Phillip. Yes, you need to train them on how to put a schedule together.” Phillip nodded slowly in agreement. “And that’s not all. There’s more.”

It’s a Different Level of Work

As Phillip simmered, he finally blurted out, “But they should know how to schedule. How hard is that?”

“I don’t know, Phillip. How complicated are your scheduling logistics?” I asked.

“It’s just getting the materials and the people scheduled. How hard could it be.” Phillip was firm.

“What is the biggest problem they face in scheduling?”

Phillip thought for a minute, hoping to tell me there were never problems, but he knew better. “I guess the biggest problem is coordinating with the other subs on the job, to make sure their work is finished and the project is ready for the work we do. Since the subs don’t work for us, coordinating is sometimes difficult.”

“So, how do you train your PMs to deal with that?”

“Train ’em. They’re just supposed to know that they have to go check.” It was not a good answer and Phillip began to backpedal.

I pressed. “On the job, do materials ever get back-ordered? Does a crew member ever call in sick or a whole crew get reassigned to an emergency? Does the contractor ever change something without a change order? Does a piece of heavy equipment get delayed on another project and not show up? Does a dumpster load sometimes not get switched out in time. Does a code inspector sometimes not show up?

“Tell me, Phillip. How do you train your Project Managers to create and maintain schedules?”

Phillip hesitated. He knew any response would just sound like an excuse.

“Phillip, here is the critical factor. Actually doing the work is completely different from making sure the work gets done. It’s a different role in the company. It has its own skill set. You didn’t hire for it, you didn’t train for it, and, right now, it’s killing you.”

Scheduling as a Skill

Phillip was perplexed. “I explained it to them three times. They still don’t get it.” His emotion was a mixture of anger and bewilderment.

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“My project managers don’t seem to have the capability to understand. They have 4 or 5 years in the business. Technically, they know how to do the work. They just can’t seem to be able to get other people to perform, at least not on time and most of the time, not on budget.” As Phillip talked, he calmed down.

“Technically, they understand what needs to be done?” I confirm.

“Yes, but the technical skills almost seem unimportant, now.” Phillip shook his head.

“If it’s not technical skills, what is it?”

“It’s like, they can’t even fill out a schedule. Ryan is one of my PMs. I asked to see his weekly schedule. He was so proud, he had it right in his clipboard. It was dated three months ago, all scribbled up with new dates at the top. Three guys on the schedule don’t even work for us anymore.”

“So, one of the skills is the ability to put together a weekly schedule for the project workload, targets, people, materials and equipment?”

The look on Phillip’s face was somewhere between an epiphany and a nervous breakdown. I continued, “So, when you interview for new project managers, do you interview for their ability to schedule?”

He shook his face from side to side, “No, we usually interview for technical skills.”

“Do you think you might start interviewing for scheduling skills?”

A Strong Excuse to Procrastinate

“That was the missing link,” said Jeremy. He explained his meeting with Sylvia. As suggested, he went back to outline the list of next steps for the project he had assigned to her.

“Even Sylvia was relieved,” Jeremy explained. “She agreed. The reason she did not start the project was that she was never clear on what to do first, so she procrastinated. The simple process, to clarify the next steps made all the difference.”

“And how many steps in this project?” I asked.

“Five simple little steps. But until we laid them out, the project was going to sit until it was too late.”

“When will you follow-up on the five steps?”

“Friday, at 3:00pm. At least I learned that lesson, to calendar my follow-up meetings. We will see how she does.”

All in all, it was a good week.

Next Step

Jeremy was not excited after his first project follow-up meeting.

“Why the long face?” I asked.

“Well, I thought by scheduling follow-up meetings, the project would start happening and show some progress. I just finished the first follow-up meeting and found out the project hasn’t started yet. I am still in the same boat as last week.”

“What do you think the problem is?”

Jeremy’s mind was searching for a directional clue. “I don’t know. Sylvia said she was having trouble getting started, but was sure that by Friday, we would see some progress.”

“What does progress mean?” I continued to probe.

Jeremy was puzzled by the question. “Well, you know, she will have started.”

“What is her first step to getting started?”

Jeremy hesitated. His response was only going to be a guess. I stopped him.

“Jeremy, don’t feel bad. This is typical of projects not laid out clearly. She hasn’t started the project because she doesn’t know what the next step is. Heck, you don’t know what the next step is.

“Have you ever had a project that you found difficult to get started. But once you got rolling everything was fine. What caused you to stutter is that you had not defined the next step. Understanding the power of the next step will give you a clue on how to get project rolling. For now, you need to have an interim emergency meeting with Sylvia to lay out the next step. And remember, since she will be doing the work, she needs to participate heavily in the design of this next step.”

Interim Checkpoints

Jeremy was standing when I got to the courtyard. “I think I got it figured out,” he said. “You were right. I can tell you exactly when that unfinished report will hit my desk. Next Tuesday, because it is due next Wednesday.”

“And so, sometime on Tuesday, your teammate will realize it won’t (can’t) be done, go ask your boss what he should do and your boss will say what?” I smiled.

“My boss will say, give it back to Jeremy and he will get it done.” Now, it was Jeremy’s turn to smile.

“Why are smiling? You were pretty upset last week when it happened to you.”

Jeremy cracked up. “I know. It’s weird. When you know it is going to happen, it’s funny, like watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. You know the guy is going to smash into the wall and it’s funny.”

“So, what are you going to do differently, because next Tuesday, this will not be so funny?” I asked.

“Well, first I am going to set two follow-up meetings this week to make sure the project is kicked off and underway. Then next Monday, I will have a final follow-up meeting to get the last revision so I can review it on Tuesday. If we have a final touch-up, that will be okay. I guess it’s all in getting ahead of the curve.”

“You learned a valuable lesson about follow-up. It is the one place that most managers drop the ball and it is as simple as scheduling on your calendar.”

Predictability of Unfinished Work

Jeremy pulled me aside as I walked down the hall. “I have the same situation,” he said.

“What situation?” I asked.

“My boss hands all the stuff to me to make sure it gets done, but he never makes it clear that I have to delegate most of the work to other team members. Worse still, he doesn’t support me when I get push-back on some of the assignments. He lets these people off the hook as soon as there is a whimper. I was here until 10:00p last night working on a project that I assigned to Sylvia two weeks ago. I found it on the corner of my desk yesterday with a note.

I didn’t have time to get this done. It is due tomorrow. I talked to the boss and he said just give it back to you. He said you would take care of it.

“I am not the manager, but the boss expects me to make sure everything gets done.” Jeremy was clear eyed, but you could tell he felt pretty beat up.

“Sounds to me like the boss expects you to take care of it. Tell me, how do you like working until 10:00?”

“I don’t. I was so mad, I could have strangled Sylvia.” Jeremy fidgeted.

“So, what are you going to do differently next time?” I asked. “Because this will happen again unless you do something different.”

“What else could I do?” Jeremy sat straight in his chair. “I saw the package at 4:30 and there was five hours of work that had to get done. I had to stay.”

“That wasn’t the question. The question is how are you going to prevent that from happening next time?” Jeremy was stymied. “Let’s take a break,” I continued. “Get some fresh air. I will meet you out in the company courtyard in about ten minutes. I have to check on something. Then we can talk some more. Until then, here is a clue about where I want to focus. What day next week is the next unfinished report going to land on your desk?”

Do I Have the Authority?

“But, I am the manager, shouldn’t I have the authority to make some decisions around here?” Amber asked.

“Ah, yes. Authority,” I replied. “You must understand, however, that authority comes with accountability. Neither comes first. You cannot have the authority to make a decision without the accountability for the outcome of that decision. Conversely, you cannot be held to account for the outcome unless you have the authority to make the decision.”

“So, just exactly what decisions do I have the authority to make around here?” Amber pressed on.

“To know that, you have to examine your goals and objectives.” Amber had an unspoken question on her face. I continued, “Your goals and objectives, agreed upon by you and your manager, set the context for your accountability (output) and the authority you have to make decisions to reach those goals.

“In the beginning, that authority may be unclear. That is why you meet with your manager more frequently, to clarify the context, define the accountability and determine your authority. As time goes by, your confidence will increase and so will your understanding of the discretion you have to make appropriate decisions.

“The most important understanding, where you have authority to make decisions regarding the output of your team, you also have accountability for that outcome. Do not think you can have the authority without the accountability.”