Category Archives: Accountability

Endorphins in the Brain

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Do you think the time span for an individual changes depending on their passion for the task they are working on? I observe some employees who seem to have a hard time effectively planning some specific shorter time span tasks (1-2 weeks out), while at the same time they are able to effectively plan out personal “work” over a year in advance. I have observed this with more than one employee and was curious if you had contemplated this or come across research related to this.

Response:
There is a distinct difference between maximum capability and applied capability. Maximum capability is the stuff that we, as managers, cannot see…but it’s there.

Applied capability is the stuff that we CAN see. Applied capability is observable, there is evidence of output. The longest time span tasks are most observable based on these conditions –

  • The team member has the necessary skills (technical knowledge and practiced performance).
  • The team member has interest or passion for the work.
  • The task or behavior is consistent within the context (culture) of the work environment.

So, it’s that second condition you are asking about. Interest or passion drives focus, attention and duration. Applied capability (what you see) gets pushed further out whenever there is interest around the work.

So, what you are seeing is an attitude (lack of interest) related to shorter term tasks. Your role, as a manager, is to tie things together, make the connection between interest and the task. Sometimes it is not intrinsic interest, but connected interest. I may not have interest in the project, but certainly have interest in the reward of the project that allows my to purchase the boat (home, car, lifestyle) of my dreams. Connect the work with interest, you will see higher applied capability.

But, here is the hat trick (three goals in a single game). Intrinsic reward comes from challenging work. Any work. Successful completion of challenging work creates endorphins in the brain. There is some work that is simply not challenging, yet has to be done. It is likely that work is a candidate for delegation. You are the manager. What is your role in accurately assigning challenging work and coaching people through work they should delegate to other team members?

Need a Heads Up

Frieda was frustrated. “I sit in a department managers meeting and get called on the carpet for an assignment that I knew nothing about. One of the other managers pulled an end-around and took a project directly to one of my staff members. I am not a mind-reader, how am I supposed to follow-up on a project I know nothing about. I told everyone in the staff meeting that if they want work done in my department, they have to work through me.” Frieda stopped. Calmed a bit. “That didn’t go over real well. Now everyone thinks I am a prima donna.”

“Do you think the other department managers are being malicious?” I asked.

“No, things are just busy. I think they just wanted to get their project done.”

“So, in busy companies, this kind of thing happens. We simply need to get work done and sometimes you may be out of pocket and one of your team members becomes convenient for the project. Don’t take it personally. The question for you is –How can you, as the manager, find out about these projects so you can schedule them appropriately?

“Do you have a weekly staff meeting in your department?”

“Of course, that is when we sit down and take a look at all the projects in-house, get a status report and talk about production issues.” Frieda was firm in her response.

“So, I want you to add an agenda item. –What are the projects that have been assigned that we don’t know about? This is actually pretty easy. These would be projects that your team is working on that are not on the project list. The purpose is to capture the project information so your team can respond appropriately. You get back in control and your fellow department managers see you as cooperative and helpful. AND, with your fellow managers, you can ask for an email heads up about the project, so you can make sure appropriate resources are deployed and that the due date has been effectively communicated and on your master schedule.”

What If You Never Came Back?

“I called my office to see how the meeting went, and found out, just because I was out of town, they decided not to have the meeting. There were important items on the agenda, but they cancelled the meeting.” Bob had just returned from three days on the West Coast.

“What if you never came back?” I asked.

“What do you mean, if I never came back?” Bob replied.

“What if you decided to move to Montana and manufacture dental floss? What would your team do without you? How would they have their meeting?”

“Well, I guess, they would pick someone to lead the meeting and carry on.”

“Look, this is a regular meeting, right? Happens every week? Agenda very similar from one week to the next? It’s an important meeting, but the structure doesn’t change much.”

“You are right,” confirmed Bob.

“Pick your next strongest person, tell them to prepare the agenda for next week. Tell them they are going to lead the next meeting.”

“But, I will be at the next meeting.”

“Exactly, but you will become a participant. If you want your meetings to occur while you are out of town, you have to start identifying the leadership while you are in town. Each week, pick a new person to lead. Publish a rotation schedule. You will still be there to prompt and assist, AND you will test their leadership in a safe environment.”

Playing Catch

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In other words, plan, organize and catch employees doing things right?

Response:
Accurate AND easy to miss the point. Catching people doing things right requires planning and organization. I don’t want to simply catch them as if it were an accident.

I want to catch them as if I am “playing catch.” I want to be at the ready, glove in hand, waiting, anticipating AND even if the ball is off target, make every effort to field the throw. Yes, I want to catch them doing things right.

I have my uniform on, hands on my knees. Poised to move right or left. As a manager, I am ready. Play ball.

Span of Accountability (Control)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I’ve been following your blog since you spoke at an event at our office in 2015. I see a lot of posts discussing timespan and organizational structures. What’s your view of “span of control” as it relates to organizational structures? The military has a 3-5 subordinate unit rule of thumb which makes sense for matters of life and death. Yet, I’ve seen organizations with people managing 20+ direct reports. This seems to be on the other end of spectrum and untenable not just from a managerial perspective but from a human/leadership perspective as well. Your thoughts?

Response:
I am not a military expert, so I am not certain of military rules of thumb related to span of control. Any readers familiar can jump in the comments.

Before I leap in, however, I want to re-frame the question. It is not a matter of management or control (even span of control), it is a matter of accountability. Here is my re-framed question – How many people can one manager be accountable for?

Elliott acknowledged a concept know as the Mutual Recognition Unit (MRU) which addressed your question. How many people can a single manager have on the team and remain an effective manager?

It depends. The maximum number Elliott placed was around 70. Beyond 70, it is likely the manager would begin to lose effectiveness. You have to remember the primary function of a manager is to bring value to the team’s problem solving and decision making. I can already see your skepticism through my internet connection.

For a manager to be effective with a team of 70, the work must be repetitive with low variability. The higher the variability in the work, the fewer allowable on the team.

Take a high-volume call center where customer support representatives respond to the same phone calls day after day. One supervisor may attend to teams as large as 70 before losing track.

Take a US Navy Seal team. How many on the team? I am thinking six. Why? Because the work is always variable with high levels of risk. One manager to a team of six.

So, it’s your organization. How do you assess the level of variability in the work? How much is repetitive? How much risk if the team gets it wrong? These questions will guide you to your answer.

Positive Reinforcement in the Real World

“So, how does that work around here?” Travis asked. Using the analogy of video games and expert levels made the reinforcement process understandable, but we were running a loading dock, not playing a video game.

“Travis, the guys loading the trucks, have you noticed the different colored t-shirts they wear, the ones with the company logo on the front?”

“Yeah, I noticed. We started that about three weeks ago. The new guys get a white t-shirt to start. We had a meeting about it.”

“And when does the new guy get his white t-shirt?”

“The first day,” Travis smiled.

“No, the first day he punches the timeclock reporting for work on-time,” I clarified. “What is the most important first behavior?”

“Showing up for work on time,” Travis said.

“And when does he get his second white t-shirt?”

Travis was catching on. “The second day he punches in for work on time.”

“And when does he get a yellow shirt?” I continued.

“Five days on time, consecutive days on time.”

“And when does he get a green shirt?”

“When he passes forklift training.” Travis stopped. “I think I get it.”

How to Coach Increasing Competence

“Sustained, discretionary effort. That’s what we are after,” I said. “The training period requires more attention and focus from the manager. But as time passes and new behaviors become competent skills, the reinforcement changes.

“In the beginning, the manager has to overcome push-back and fear of failure. But, as the new behavior turns to competence, the issues change.”

“So, what does the manager do differently?” asked Travis.

“Lots of things, but let’s start with the easy stuff. In the beginning, the manager may reinforce good old fashioned effort. But as time goes by and the effort becomes accomplished, the manager changes to reinforce a specific sequence. As the specific sequence becomes accomplished, the manager may reinforce speed or efficiency.

“Let’s go back to our example of the video game. Modern game designers structure training sequences into the lower levels of the game. Leveling up requires certain fundamental skills be demonstrated. Once accomplished, the player is introduced to more complex scenarios where mastery of the fundamentals must already exist. Each level becomes increasingly complex. The schedules of reinforcement change, but the principle remains the same. What gets reinforced gets repeated.”

Performance Improvement Depends on This

“Have you ever watched a parent teach their child to walk?” I asked.

“Yeah. I have a niece that is learning to walk. Her parents go goo-gah regularly, but still it’s a wobbly process.”

“Does a parent ever say – No, that’s not the way to do it, let me show you. Don’t fall down like that?”

“Well, no. They just get all excited, clap their hands and gurgle baby talk.”

“Somewhere along the way, we lose our natural instincts in the training process. Behavior that is reinforced gets repeated. The two elements that were missing from your training last year were practice and immediate positive reinforcement.

“Initial attempts at a new skill or new behavior are usually terrible, but that’s not the point. Your job as a manager is to get excited and encourage. Put people in a place where they can try again and get better.

“Look, Travis. When do parents give up encouraging their child to walk?”

Travis was still mentally drawing lines in the analogy. “They never stop, I guess. Only when the kid learns to walk.”

Managerial Attention

“Positive reinforcement isn’t money. Don’t think the only element you have as a manager is to give someone a bonus, or a spiff, or a raise. Don’t get me wrong, money is important, but it is not the only touch you have, nor is it the most powerful.

“See that production line over there,” I asked, pointing toward three lone workers alongside a bank of automated machine presses. Travis looked. He was familiar with that work area.

“Did you ever wonder why those three workstations still exist?” Travis knew that seven other stations in the line had been replaced with automated presses.

“Yeah, sometimes, it’s like why do we still have people doing that?”

“Initially, that’s what we thought, but when we benchmarked the automated production with the manual production, we found one worker not only kept up, but exceeded the output of the automated machine. We started asking questions. How could this be?

“Turns out the workstation on the end, Rochelle’s station, is right by her supervisor’s office. Every time the supervisor comes out, he stops, looks at Rochelle’s production and smiles at her. It’s the only station he stops at. He never says a word to Rochelle, yet she has the highest production rate.

“Do you think she has the highest production rate because she thinks she is going to get a bonus? Or because she might be replaced with a robot. I don’t think so.”

Knowing Information Does Not Assure Success

It was a short break toward the end of the day. “I studied your books, attended your lecture,” Sam said. “I am excited to share this information with my team. But, I thought our organization would be farther along than it is?”

My face simultaneously winced and smiled.

“Organizational progress has little to do with information,” I replied. “In this age, the same information is available to everyone with curiosity. Knowing is only the first step. Next comes understanding and where that information applies to your organization. Then, you must do something, decision and execution.

  • Knowing information
  • Understanding and application
  • Decisions
  • Execution

“Along that continuum, your organization is exactly where it deserves to be.

“How many companies have access to the technology, but are unable to see where or how to adopt it. It is NOT the technology that makes the difference, it is how the organization is structured. In every company, there are four organizing documents, mission, vision, business model and structure.

“The business model and structure are intertwined and will determine the effectiveness in the market. Sometimes that effectiveness means market share and success, sometimes survival or death.

“When I talk about structure, it is the way we define the working relationships between roles in the organization. On a piece of paper, it looks like an org chart, but behind the piece of paper is a set of working conditions that govern our behavior in getting work done. The way we define those working relationships, I call culture.

“And, every company has the culture it deserves.”