Category Archives: Competence

Deliver the Truth

Ernesto and Emily were locked in deep discussion. Emily was learning as much about herself as she was about the problem she brought to class.

I’m the problem?” she asked.

Ernesto shook his head. “Yes, and that’s the good news,” he replied. “The one thing you have the most control of is you. Your team is consistently short on daily unit production. But to protect morale, you never delivered the bad news. You never delivered the truth, at least not the straight truth.

“What do I do?” she asked.

“Tell them the truth,” Ernesto replied. “If they don’t know what the problem is, how can they fix it?”

“What if I tell them and they quit or get mad at me?”

“People are not that fragile, people can handle the truth. It’s the load that usually comes with the truth that people have trouble with. Look, Emily, all they need to know on Tuesday are two things. What is Tuesday’s target and as the day progresses, how are they doing toward the target?”

“So, how do I tell them, without the load?” Emily asked.

Ernesto was quick to respond. “Get a white board and in the morning, write down the target number for the day. When they finish a unit, have them put a tick mark on the board. Assign someone to add them up at 10, 2 and 4. They will figure it out.”

Creating Co-dependents

Emily was now seated in a chair at the front of the class.

“Emily, you think there is a morale problem on the line,” Ernesto began. “But, that’s not the problem. You know the team is not meeting their daily quota, but you haven’t shared the numbers with them. Bottom line, you are not telling the truth because you are afraid you might hurt someone’s feelings. By not telling the truth, you made them incapable of improvement.”

Emily’s body language retreated. Ernesto continued.

“And you have created co-dependents out of them. They are just fine not knowing what the quota is. As long as they don’t know, they don’t have to perform to it.

“When you tell them they are short, they think it’s your problem not theirs. They are perfectly willing to continue this non-accountable relationship. No skin off their nose.”

The color in Emily’s face began to pale. I called a time out. The room was very still and quiet.

“The problem we name is the problem we solve. That is why it is so important to name the problem correctly,” I said. “How will we name this problem?”

Name the Problem

It was early. Early, meaning we were the only two people on the plant floor. Emily drew a flow chart of how materials were received, then assembled and carted off to QC for inspection. She defended the competence of her workers in the assembly process.

“The issue isn’t assembly,” I said. “The issue is speed and accuracy. Have you ever counted rejects off the line?”

“Well, no,” replied Emily. “That’s what our Quality Department does.”

“So, when units leave this line, we have no idea which ones meet spec and which ones are defective?”

Emily searched in her mind for a better answer, but she couldn’t find one. “No,” she replied.

“Emily, we are talking about competence. The biggest reason for failure is incompetence. Most managers will accept all kinds of excuses. The problem is not that the line is running too fast or too slow or that it is too hot or too cold, or that we don’t have great health insurance or that the team isn’t motivated. The problem is incompetence. Most managers won’t call it incompetence, because they don’t know how to solve that problem. The problem you name is the problem you solve. The issue is speed and accuracy. The problem is incompetence.”

“So, what should I do?” Emily asked.

“Funny, you should ask. Tonight, in class, we are going to talk about control systems and feedback loops. Why don’t you come, as my guest? I will help you teach the subject.”

Did Not Do It, Because I Couldn’t

“But, I just told you that my people are competent,” Emily protested. “They have been working on the line for several years.”

“You said, the problem was reject rates. Yes, your team is competent at the task, but not competent at accuracy and speed,” I explained. “I used to work in an accounting firm. When I started, I thought I was great at adding up numbers. And I was. I was extremely competent at adding numbers (after all, I did manage to graduate from second grade). But I was incompetent at accuracy and speed.

“Never in my life, was I taught to error-check a column of numbers by adding the column twice and comparing the totals. That practice never occurred to me. And if it had occurred, I would have immediately concluded that it would take twice the time to add the numbers twice. Logic told me so.

“I had to learn a new skill. I had to become competent at using an adding machine without looking. I never did it before, because I couldn’t.

“Before, I would add numbers up with an occasional mistake. Now, I add them up twice in less time, virtually error-free.

“Your people on the line are competent at the task, but not competent at accuracy and speed.”

Emily was silent. Finally she spoke, “Okay, I think I get it. But I am not sure what to do. How do I bring up their competence in accuracy and speed?”

“First, we are going to have to count some things.”

We Never Fix the Real Problem

I was getting major push-back from Emily. She appreciated the logic, but, still, there was an internal struggle.

“My guys on the line have been putting these units together for years. They have the experience. They are competent at the assembly,” she said.

“Then what are you dissatisfied with?” I asked.

“Well, we still get too many rejects and they always fall short in unit count at the end of the day,” she replied. “But they know how to do their job.”

“Then, what do they say the problem is?”

“Well, first, they say the daily target is too high. Some say the line runs too fast. Some say it runs too slow. It’s too noisy. For some it’s too hot, others, it’s too cold. You want more? I got excuses as long as my arm.”

“So, they say the cause of the problem is always an external factor, never because of their incompetence?”

“Oh, absolutely. Don’t even go there,” she cried.

“Then, let me go farther and substitute a word for incompetence. Much failure is caused by stupidity.” I stopped. “We don’t talk much about stupidity in the workplace. The reason we don’t talk much about stupidity, as the cause of failure, is that, as managers, we don’t know how to fix stupidity. So we try to fix all kinds of other things. We speed up the line, we slow down the line, we change the temperature. But we never address the real problem, stupidity.” I could see Emily’s eyes grow wide.

“Emily, I use the word stupidity because you get the point in a nanosecond. Now, put the word back, think about incompetence. Much failure in the workplace is caused by incompetence. But we, as managers, don’t know how to fix incompetence, so we try all kinds of other things. We never address the real problem, incompetence.”

Competence Trumps Fear

“It sounds too simple,” protested Emily. “People do things because they can? It sounds like circular logic.”

“It is what it is,” I laughed. “Emily, think about it. If you do not have the competence to perform a task, what is your confidence in your ability to perform?”

“You mean, if I can’t sing, I don’t sing?”

“Right. Why don’t you sing?”

“Well, I really am not a very good singer, so except in church (where I am a virtuoso), I am embarrassed to get on a stage or behind a microphone.”

“Fear drives a lot of behavior. It is a very powerful emotion and prevents us from much achievement. But competence trumps fear. That is why competence is a critical link in success.

“Incompetence creates most failure. But most people want to blame their failure on some external circumstance. Most people are unwilling to see their own incompetence. Most people are unwilling to look inward for the key to their success.”

Why Does a Manager Manage?

“Emily, why does a race car driver press the metal in excess of 200 mph to win a race?” I asked. “Why does a singer perform on stage? Why does an ice skater reach their peak in international competition? Why does a manager manage?”

Emily knew there was a very specific answer to this question, so she waited.

“They all do those things because they can. They spent great periods of their life creating habits to support the skills that drive them to the top. They reach high levels of competence because they practiced, tried and failed, got better and practiced some more, with a discipline to master those skills. They perform at a high level because they can. The people who did not master those skills, who were not competent, were eliminated in the first round.

“Those who achieve mastery are a select few. And that includes effective managers.”