Category Archives: Decision Making

For Every Management Problem

Al Ripley believed, for every management problem, there was a management consultant. As issues surfaced in meetings, Al looked down his nose, over the top rim of his glasses, and ask the inevitable. “Don’t we know a consultant that can help us with that?”

Those meetings were short and decisive. Ripley emerged from the conference room victorious, confident that he met adversity with a firm commitment to the solution, by hiring a consultant.

Some problems, however, did not go away. But then, Al quickly pointed out, “We must have hired the wrong consultant.”

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, by Tom Foster, soon to be released in softcover and for Kindle.

Outbound Air

The Executive Team Meeting

As time ticked by, Kevin DuPont’s democratic decision-making began to show some cracks. The executive management team got together each week to kick around the most pressing issues. But Kevin and his team were often at loggerheads when it came around to budget issues. Each department seemed to have its favorite projects.

The starched white shirts would gather in pairs, making deals on the side to support this budget item or that odd project. As presentations were made, the team was slow to poke holes, for fear their pet project would be subject to the same scrutiny.

The Executive Team Meeting, it was called. There were hidden agendas, under the table handshakes, unconscious agreements not to spoil the day for each other. Each meeting’s agenda was like a stepping stone across a creek. Quick strides for each measured step. If a stepping stone was unstable, discussion moved quickly to the next item. Real problems in the agenda were avoided. There was collusion, not cooperation. There was defensiveness, not inquiry. This was the Executive Team Meeting.

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, soon to be released in softcover and for Kindle.

Democratic Decision Making

“I am conducting an experiment,” Marianne explained.

“Why do you call it an experiment?” I asked.

“Because I’m not sure if it will work. I have never tried it before. So, if it fails, then it was just an experiment. I am going to try democratic decision making with my team.”

“How will that work?” I wanted to know.

“Well, we have a situation with a couple of different solutions. Some people think we should go one way, others think the other way. I thought it best just to take a vote. At least that will get buy-in and support.”

“What if it’s the wrong decision and it jeopardizes the whole project?”

Marianne was silent.

“Which way do you think the decision should be made?” I prompted. “And what if the team decides the other way? And how will you explain a poor decision to your manager? Will you say that you disagreed, but your team outvoted you?”

The Decision is Yours

Victor was staring at the floor, head cupped in both hands. “What a stupid decision.” He was quiet. I was quiet. Silence can do a lot of heavy lifting.

Finally, he continued. “I want to involve my team in decision making. But when we take a vote, they often make the wrong decision. As their manager, I feel like a heel, going against their vote. But I don’t want to let them do something stupid and waste a bunch of time.” He lifted his head.

“Victor, first, do not let them vote. Between you and your boss, who is accountable for this decision?”

“Well, I am,” he said.

“If you are held accountable for the decision, then you have to make the decision. You can involve your team, ask them for input, but you are the manager, the decision is yours to make. Here is what this sounds like to your team.

“Hey, Team. As your manager, I have a decision to make. This is an important decision and will have an impact on every team member here. So, I want to you to help me consider all the angles. After I consider your input, I have to make this decision. When I do make this decision, I will need your support and your full efforts to make this happen. So, who has the first idea?

“Victor, understand, people will support a world they help to create, even if it is not totally their idea. You should involve them, but the decision is yours.”

What do I Listen For? In the Interview?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

It was a pleasure meeting you last Thursday and even more so, hearing your ideas. Much of what you discuss is very similar to my own beliefs, but it was very instructive to hear them so clearly explained and validated. Taking the ideas from theory to practice, how do you use the diagnostic interview to hire someone who may have worked in a completely different field, or even not really worked before?

The critical role requirements in higher stratum roles depend less on technical skills and more on managerial skills. In large part, managerial skills transfer well from one business model to another.

In any interview, I am specifically listening for the candidate’s description of the work. In that description, I am listening for the Level of Work. Specifically –

  • Elapsed time – related to the Time Span of Projects. What was the length of their longest project?
  • The Story – beginning, middle and end. Where does the story of their work begin and where does the story of their work end?
  • Level of Work – specifically –
    • Individual direct output (S-I)
    • Coordination of many elements, including the supervision of outputs of others (S-II)
    • Creation of single serial systems, work flows for efficiency, consistency and predictability (S-III)
    • Integration of multiple systems and sub-systems (S-IV)

While I am listening for clues about the Level of Work, I am also evaluating effectiveness, based on the candidates description related to the Level of Work. This is where the assessment of a candidate from a different field will require additional judgment on the part of the interviewer. Here are some questions behind the questions –

  • How well do the behaviors described in the candidates field translate to our critical role requirements?
  • How effective will this candidate be in adapting habits and behaviors from their former work to our work?
  • How effective will this candidate be in learning new skills identified in our critical role requirements?

Where the candidate has NO work experience, just coming out of school, I will still ask questions related to circumstances where the candidate was making decisions and solving problems. How did they organize their schoolwork? Extracurricular activities? Volunteer work? There is always something that will reveal Applied Capability, suitability for a role.

What is Work?

“What’s the Level of Work?” I asked.

Arianne puzzled her face. “We’re looking at two roles. One is a finish carpenter and the other is a machine operator. The carpenter is finishing wood products within one sixteenth of an inch. The machine operator is working to tolerances of four decimal places. I would say the machine operator role is a higher level of work, it’s more precise.”

“Is it a higher level?” I insisted.

Arianne paused, “I guess I am just thinking out loud. I don’t know.”

“As a manager, working with a team member, after you have provided work instructions, what is the most valuable thing to talk about?”

“Working through things that aren’t in the instructions,” Arianne was quick to respond. “Talking about the problems that might occur, and the decisions that might pop up.”

“And that’s how I measure the Level of Work. What are the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made? These require judgment on the part of the team member, and that’s where the complexity of the work is revealed. The machine operator may be working to four decimal places, but the machine is making the cuts according to a computer program. The finish carpenter, working to one-sixteenth of an inch is taking manual measurements and constantly using judgment. The likelihood of field adjustments and variance in materials is high.

“Working with my team, the most important discussion is -what decisions do you have to make in the course of your work. What problems do you have to solve?”

My Decision, Your Decision?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

What are your thoughts on management that attempts to be so effective with controls that they create an element of fear within employees – paralyzing them when it comes to making independent and discretionary decisions? A side effect of that is when questioned, explanations are seen as being defensive rather than attempting to communication future solutions.

Some companies, some managers believe that, inside every task assignment, all duties are meticulously prescribed by the manager and all decisions are reserved for the manager. This belief is naive and if enforced, will fossilize the organization into rigid inaction. If every decision is reserved for the manager, normal workflow will become bottlenecked at that point, pressure will build and something will break. Managers cannot be everywhere at every moment, even managers have to sleep.

Managers (organizations) fall into this trap because they have little (or no) understanding of the difference between prescribed duties and discretionary duties. Understanding this difference, measured in Time Span begins the journey to effectiveness, for the manager, for the organization.

Prescribed duties are easy to understand. Prescribed duties are part and parcel of every task assignment. Where there are prescribed duties, there are few (or no) decisions surrounding the task. But every task carries some discretionary duties. It is those discretionary duties (discretionary decisions) that are appropriately placed in the hands of the team member. So, what’s the difference, between prescribed duties and discretionary duties?

A technician running a CNC machine (cutting metal) may have the prescribed duty to cut ten pieces of metal according to specification prior to noon. That task is prescribed, no discretion.

However, if the machine begins to make an abnormal noise, we have to depend on the discretion of the technician (not the manager) to shut the machine down. And not all abnormal noise requires the same decision. The technician, knowing the noise, may need to shut the machine down immediately, after the current cut or at the end of the shift. It is a discretionary decision based on the noise.

So, the prescribed duty, ten pieces, according to spec, cannot be modified by the technician. Shutting the machine down, based on an abnormal noise, is absolutely within the discretion of the technician.

When managers understand this difference, magic begins to happen.

India and Alabama

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

I am Karthi from India. I would like to ask you a simple question. We talk about theories in management. But, people with experience in management say that, well defined theories will not work. I, myself, agree with this. Considering human resource management, a single management strategy will not work for people from various geographical locations. For example, you cannot deal with Indians and Japanese in the same way, right?

Karthi, thank you for the question. There are levels where you are accurate, where there are distinct differences and levels where management strategies are identical. Let’s explore both, and discover.

There are certainly differences in customs between Indians and Japanese. In the United States, there are customs that are different between people from New York and people from Texas. These differences can easily be observed in greetings, dress, pace. Each of these will be important for a manager. Handshakes, bows, hugs, kisses, smiles all create a platform for communication.

And there are some elements which I believe are identical from one culture to the next. One element, is the way in which, we all need to work. I believe, in each culture, individuals require, for their own self concept, the ability to contribute, through work. The goal for every manager is to discover in each team member, the type of work on which, the team members places a high value. We all have this need and it can only be satisfied through work.

What is work? It is the same in every culture. Work is solving problems and making decisions. Often, we see manual work as shoveling, digging, putting things on shelves, filing, copying, answering emails, going to meetings. But that is not the work. The work is in solving the problems and making decisions during each of those activities. And that work is the same in India, Japan and Alabama.

Jeopardizing the Schedule

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

My company went to a big seminar last week, so now, we are on a big kick to “drive decision making down to the lowest level.” As a manager, I am not supposed to answer my team members’ questions. I am supposed to say, “I don’t know, what do you think?” Sometimes, my team members don’t think.

This is a noble idea, but as with most noble ideas, as a manager, you still have to make a judgment. Which decisions are appropriate to drive down? Some are, some are not.

Decisions can be measured by understanding the Time Span of the goal. If a team member has a goal that is due in one week, that creates a Time Span of Discretion of one week. Most decisions like this will be related to the pace and quality of the work.

For example. If a team member is to produce 100 units in a week’s time, they should have the Time Span of Discretion to decide at any given time, if they are ahead or behind schedule. They should be able to decide if they can work on other projects during that time or if they have to put other work aside to complete the 100 units prior to the end of the week. If they run into a problem that they can solve and still get the 100 units produced according to schedule, then they should solve the problem. If solving that problem will take so much time that it jeopardizes the production schedule, then their manager should immediately be consulted so appropriate adjustments can be made.

The Time Span of Discretion is an accurate gauge to determine which decisions should be driven down and which should be reserved for the manager.

Nuclear Facility or Ice Cream Parlor?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

What is your opinion on the idea of forcing decision making downward. Do you think downward decision making is desirable?

It depends. There are a number of factors that will determine this direction. Ultimately, I will hold the manager responsible for the results of any decision that was made. This alone may guide you.

First factor is risk management. How much risk is associated with the result of the decision? If the decision is made poorly, how much damage can be done? Do you work in a nuclear facility or an ice cream parlor?

The second factor has to do with purpose. What is the purpose of driving the decision down a level? Is it a learning purpose? Is its purpose to obtain buy-in to the decision? Get clear on the purpose and that will help you determine the direction to move.

These are the issues we talk about in Working Leadership Online. Our next Subject Area, Decision Making, Time Span of Discretion kicks off on Monday, February 22. Follow this link – Working Leadership Free Trial.