Category Archives: Levels of Work

Complexity of the Problem

“I understand there is a difference in thinking-near-term vs thinking-long-term. Conceptually, I understand. How does that help us, as managers inside a company?” I asked.

“You are familiar with delegation?” Pablo asked, knowing the answer.

“Of course,” I replied.

“You say that so fast, I assume you do NOT understand delegation, except at its surface level,” Pablo stopped. “You understand delegation as a task assignment. What you delegate is not just the task, but the decision making and problem solving that goes with it. Inside any task assignment, as a manager, you must also understand the level of problem solving that goes with it.”

“Near-term vs long-term?” I confirmed.

“Yes, the timespan of the decision will accurately determine the level of problem solving required. If I delegate a step in a process that is due tomorrow, there are decisions that go with it, AND most of the variables are known. To meet a special order for a customer tomorrow, the team can work a little overtime with the materials at hand and we can meet the order. If we have another special order, how do we do that second order?” Pablo asked.

“The same way we did the first special order. Work a little more overtime,” I replied.

“But, what if we get 50 special orders?” Pablo challenged.

“Well, there isn’t enough overtime for 50 special orders, and if we focus on those, what happens to the regular orders that were already in process, it would play hell with our schedule,” I replied.

“You see, that is not such a simple problem. And, you immediately began to think about the impact in the future. Processing 50 special orders, with special setups, depleting our materials on hand, some of which have lead times, delaying our current scheduled commitments to customers with whom we have contracts, the timespan impact of the problem grows. I would submit to you, the complexity of the problem is not just more moving parts.”

“But this is not an unusual problem, companies face this all the time,” I said.

“And, companies figure out the solution all the time. We can accurately measure the complexity of the problem by identifying the timespan impacts of each of the elements of the problem. The timespan impact of each element leads us to the complexity of the solution. Lead times of depleted materials is a clue. If the lead time is six weeks, we don’t have an immediate impact of one delayed order, we have a six week impact on all orders. We cannot solve this problem by working overtime.”

The Measure of Complexity

“Would you agree,” Pablo asked, “there are some simple problems that most people can easily solve?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“And, would agree that as problems become more complex, some people struggle?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“So, how do we measure the complexity of any decision, the complexity of any problem?”

“I suppose,” I started, “it would have to do with the number of variables in the decision, difficult enough for those variables we know about, even more so for those variables we do not know about.”

“And, how would you define a variable, start with one we know about,” Pablo prompted.

“A variable would be something we anticipate, and we don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go,” I replied.

“Like the weather,” Pablo stated. “We anticipate it is going to be cloudy, but we don’t know for sure if it is going to rain.”

“Yes,” I said, not sure where Pablo was taking me.

“And, how do you know it’s cloudy?” he asked.

“I looked outside, no sunshine. Observable, visual evidence, I can see it.”

“But, you don’t know if it is going to rain? Do you take an umbrella?”

“I suppose I might. A minor annoyance if it doesn’t rain, and a handy thing to have if it does,” I assumed it was a smart response.

“So, in the face of uncertainty, you make a decision based on something that is observable right now. Would you make the same decision a half-hour from now?” Pablo baited.

“It looks pretty cloudy, I believe a half-hour from now, I would still take an umbrella,” I hedged my bet.

“So, in a short timespan, you believe you have enough evidence, in spite of the uncertainty, to make a decision to take an umbrella?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“How about a week from now?” Pablo’s eyes shifted and he grinned.

“Well, who knows, a week from now if it will even be cloudy, much less rain?” I asked.

“So, one week from now is less certain than a half hour from now?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“Is it possible to measure the uncertainty of any decision using timespan?” Pablo stopped and rested.

Decisions at Every Level of Work

“You said that if the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, the manager might take better care in selection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “It does no good to bring someone on board without the capability for the work, only to later blame that person for underperformance.”

“If that is the case,” I picked up the unspoken question, “then why do managers struggle finding the right fit for the role.”

“They struggle,” Pablo replied, “because they rarely sit down and figure out the work. Most managers see work as a series of task assignments. Do this, do that. No more. Following the task assignment, the manager often asks, ‘So, do you know what to do?'”

“And?”

“You see, it slips by so easily. That question barely begs understanding. The question from the manager should more properly be, ‘In completing this task assignment, what decisions will you have to make? What problems will you have to solve?’ Most managers miss that completely.”

“But, if the team member knows what to do, what decisions are left?”

“See, even you, my most aware friend, have overlooked discretion built into the work. There is always appropriate decision making at every level of work. Take a fork lift driver, and a pallet to be moved from point A to point B,” Pablo laid out.

“I got it.”

“Do you?” Pablo pushed back. “What decisions are to be made by the forklift driver?”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Am I moving the right pallet to where it needs to be placed?”

“You’re right, that is the obvious question,” Pablo started. “And, let’s look at some other questions, any one of which could create failure.

  • How heavy is the pallet?
  • Is the pallet properly balanced?
  • Is my forklift rated to handle the weight of the load?
  • Will the size of the pallet, plus a safety buffer, clear the designated pathway to location B?
  • Are there unanticipated obstacles that might temporarily be blocking the pathway?
  • Are there any over height restrictions to the movement?
  • Will this move require flag walkers during movement?
  • Is the forklift in operating order?
  • Are all safety signals, warning lights and sounds operating?
  • Am I wearing appropriate PPE during the move?
  • Is the designated point B a permanent location within a specified perimeter? Or a temporary staging area that must be flagged for safety?”

“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “I get it.”

“Most managers rarely sit down and figure it out,” Pablo was adamant. “What’s the work? What decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?”

Changing Behavior

“The manager may be accountable for output, but, what if the behavior of the team member is not productive and needs to be changed?” I asked.

“It often happens,” Pablo replied. “The path is not to change the behavior of the team member, but to build the system that creates the behavior necessary for productivity.”

“So, you are implying that you can change a person’s behavior?”

“Absolutely, change the context, change the system and behavior follows.”

“If we subscribe to this thinking, what should we expect?” I wanted to know.

“This understanding breathes life into the organization. Managers are now expected to anticipate, have alternate plans, in short, be prepared to respond to variable conditions. This, instead of watching over shoulders, micro-managing and blaming the team.”

Context of Uncertainty

“Holding the manager accountable for output still seems odd,” I said. “There are still things that can go wrong, out of the hands of the manager.”

“Yes, that would seem odd, but we have to think about context,” Pablo replied. “The context of the technician is quite short, measured in days and weeks. The context of the first line manager extends beyond and requires attention to those things uncertain, those things that can be anticipated, not in days or weeks, but weeks and months.”

“The outlook at a different level of work?” I prompted.

“Looking forward, there is always uncertainty and ambiguity. The uncertainty six months from now is within the context of the first line manager or supervisor. Their role requires they look ahead, plan for contingencies, because the future is ALWAYS unpredictable. It is the role of the first line manager to plan for backups, bench-strength in the team, tools that break, materials that arrive off schedule or out of spec. The first line manager must build in buffers to respond to variability in circumstances, because circumstances are always variable. In short, it is not within the authority of the manager to reprimand the team for a shortfall in production, but to create the circumstances in the system to respond to conditions to prevent the shortfall.

“It is precisely those conditions outside the direct control of the manager,” Pablo continued, “that the manager has to plan for in the face of an uncertain future. That’s their role. That is why the manager must be held to account for the output of the team.”

A Slow Nuanced Dance

“Fixing accountability is the first step to creating a context of trust,” Pablo shifted. “When accountability is not clearly defined, or placed at the wrong level, mistrust begins a slow nuanced dance, often imperceptible. But it’s there. People begin to feel insecure about their own jobs, not sure where this career may or may not be taking them, squabbles emerge about equitable pay, stress among working relationships and blaming behavior.”

“Sounds like a bit of insecurity?” I ask. “Isn’t that why we do psychometric testing, to weed those people out?”

“People behave as people behave, in the context of their surroundings,” Pablo chuckled. “We think the success of a managerial system depends of the psychology of its individuals, when its success depends more on its design. Change the context, behavior follows. Go into a church or synagogue and you will see people sitting quietly, barely speaking. Does that mean they are all introverts and poor communicators? Go to a soccer stadium where a goal has just been scored and you will see people screaming, jumping up and down. Does that mean they are all extroverts with a boisterous personality. It’s all about context.”

Pablo stopped before he finished. “Fixing accountability is the first step to creating a context of trust.”

A Well Argued Decision

“Let’s take meetings,” Pablo suggested. “Lots of managers AND their teams work hard to gain concensus, avoid conflict, at times even attempt to make decisions democratically.”

“I have seen that,” I said.

“And that manager of the team, also has a manager, let’s call that role, the manager-once-removed, the manager’s manager,” Pablo described the setup. “If the team and their manager engage in democratic decision making and make a bone-headed decision, who does the manager-once-removed hold accountable?”

Manager-Once-Removed (MOR)
————————-
Manager
————————-
Team

“Well, I assume it would be the whole team, manager included,” I observed.

“Who is the manager-once-removed going to call into the office to discuss this bone-headed decision, the whole team? If we are going to call in the whole team, what do we need the manager for?”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“And, what of the dynamics in the decision meeting? If the decision is to be democratic, then team members will lobby their own agendas, sometimes hidden politics emerge to gain support from other members, perhaps a little arm-twisting. The manager almost becomes a bystander. And, yet, at the end of the day, it is the manager called to account for the bone-headed decision.”

“And?” I asked.

“It is only when the manager becomes accountable for the decision, that we can make headway,” Pablo described. “Team members now show up to provide feedback and support to the manager, who will make and be accountable for the decision. The team will play devil’s advocate, argue this position or that position, in short, create conflict. The point of the meeting is not to manage conflict, but create it, for the benefit of the decision. Don’t manage conflict, manage agreement.”

“And, the benefit?”

“A well argued decision,” Pablo said. “This only happens when we understand the working relationship between the team and the manager, with the manager accountable for the output of the team.”

Carrots and Sticks

“People have a fair, intuitive sense of their own capability,” Pablo continued. “And, they yearn for opportunity to exercise their full potential. To do otherwise causes people to wilt. A great deal of a person’s self-esteem, even identity comes from the value they see in the work that they do.”

“So, the system in which they work has impact on how they behave?” I floated.

“It’s not just the system, it’s what people believe about the system. What we believe, our assumptions, the way we see the world is what drives our behavior. Look, the real question is, if we believe that people want to fully participate at their highest level of capability, spread their wings toward independence, that they do not need a carrot and stick to get on with their work, then what kind of managerial system would we create?”

“This sounds a bit idealistic, don’t you think?” I countered.

“Not at all,” Pablo replied. “This is about hard nosed work. Making decisions and solving problems, tough decisions and difficult problems.”

The Accountability of the CEO

“You survived,” I said. “I mean, your company survived.”

“We did okay,” Pablo replied. “We were essential, so we never had to shut down. Had to change a few things in the physical layout, and we had some outbreaks. We did okay.”

“Most important lesson, for you, as the CEO?” I asked.

“The most important lesson is the security the company provided to everyone who works here,” he said.

“Security? This was hardly a time of security.”

“I think it is important to understand how deeply our company affects the lives of people who work here. It impacts not only their economic lives, but their social lives. It impacts their self-esteem, and what they achieve in life.

“I remember, a year ago, when COVID was least understood,” Pablo continued. “I announced in an all-company meeting, that every one of their jobs was secure. I was out on a bit of a limb, because, by a whim of government, we were essential. You see, I know every team member goes home each and every day with either a feeling of frustration, or a feeling of satisfaction, depending on how the day went. They either feel secure or insecure, as a result of the managerial systems we have in place. We either build trust and security or mistrust and insecurity. That’s my job.”

Tell or Ask?

“I think, when I tell people what to do, acting like a big shot, that does not create trust,” Nathan started. “In fact, I don’t even have to act like a big shot to be perceived as a big shot.”

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“It seems that no matter how tactful I am, or how I sugarcoat it, when I tell people what to do, I sound like a critical parent.”

“That is quite a discovery,” I remarked. “So, how do you tell people what to do, without sounding like a critical parent?”

“I don’t think I can. I can’t tell them, they have to tell me.”

I knew Nathan was on the right path, just curious if he was putting it all together. “What do you mean?”

Nathan thought for a bit. “Instead of telling my team member what to do, I should ask them how they intend to accomplish the task at hand. Instead of me telling, I want them telling.”

Nathan waited for my response, but he didn’t get the advice he was looking for. “So, let’s go try it out,” I said.