Category Archives: Timespan

The Source of Our Trouble

“Did you hear the one about the horse that walked into a bar?” I asked. “The bartender walked up and said – why the long face?”

Dalton looked up and a grin flashed across his face. “You’re talking about me, aren’t you?” he said.

I nodded. “Why the long face?”

Dalton sat up. “I just had a talk with my manager about my team’s performance, or should I say lack of performance. I tried to tell him the reasons why, materials late, a machine that broke down, Fred didn’t show up for work and didn’t even call in.” Dalton stopped. “My manager didn’t want to hear the reasons. He just told me to get out there and fix it.”

“And?” I prodded.

“And, I’m not sure what to do. I am almost in shock that my manager didn’t want to hear my story. My stomach is upside down. I feel guilty, like it’s all my fault. I know I will figure it out, but right now, it doesn’t feel very good.”

“May I share something with you?” I asked. “It’s not going to make your long face go away, but it will give you a place to start.”

Dalton’s eyes widened. He leaned forward.

I continued. “Whenever I am in distress, I realize that all of my discomfort is self-generated. All of my emotions like disappointment, resentment, anger, stress, guilt all comes from inside me. I may want to place that feeling on something outside of me, like my manager, but until I acknowledge that it is me, creating those emotions, I will stay stuck in that emotion.”

“Yeah, but this is different,” Dalton protested.

“I said ALL my distress. If you allow even one exception, you start down a slippery slope of placing all blame on things around you, instead of looking inside. So, why the long face?”

Output Capacity

“Is is possible for sales to sell so much stuff that operations struggles to fulfill?” I asked.

“Yes, it happens,” Hector replied.

“So, what’s the problem?” I added.

Hector scratched the back of his neck. “Well, I would say that we have a communication problem. Sales isn’t communicating effectively with operations. Or, it could be a personality conflict that the sales manager doesn’t like the operations manager.”

“It always looks like a communication problem,” I replied. “But, more likely it is a structural problem, looking at output capacity. The output capacity of sales has outstripped the output capacity of operations. You can have all the communication seminars you want or conduct personality testing, but you will still not fix the problem until you understand the output capacity of each function. The solution is optimizing the output of each function so that it doesn’t outstrip the capacity of its neighboring functions. That’s integration.”

Not a Communication Breakdown

“I think we are having a communication breakdown,” James shook his head.

“How, so?” I asked.

“My Sales Manager says the Operations Manager told him to stop selling, that Operatons was having trouble keeping up with the orders already in backlog.”

“That communication sounds pretty clear to me,” I replied.

“But, it’s creating friction between the two departments,” James said.

“I don’t think you have a communication problem. I think you have an accountability and authority problem.”

“What do you mean?” James wanted to know.

“Is the Sales Manager the manager of the Operations Manager?”


“Is the Operations Manager the manager of the Sales Manager?”


“So, you have two people who have to work together, but neither is each other’s manager. And, you failed to define, in that working relationship, what is the accountability and who has the authority to make which decisions. It looks like a communication breakdown, but it’s an accountability and authority problem.”

What’s the Level of Work?

“But, we need to ramp up quickly,” Bruce explained. “We have a lot riding on this project.”

“What’s the rush,” I asked.

“We didn’t know if we were going to get the project, it was a very competitive bid process. But we pulled it off, at least the contract. It’s fast track, four months to complete with liquidated damages on the back end if we miss the deadline.”

“When you say ramp up, what do you mean?” I wanted to know.

“We have the production crew to do the work, they’re coming off of another project. But, the project manager is moving to Seattle to start another job. He was good, and a great opportunity for him. Unfortunately, that leaves us in the lurch. I need a project manager and I need one, now!”

“What’s the level of work on this project?”

Bruce stopped to think. “It’s only a four month project, so that’s S-II. I am hoping there will be a decent candidate pool. Sometimes, we post for a job and no one shows up.”

“How does risk play into understanding the level of work in this project?” I pressed.

“There are lots of moving parts, lots of detail, and if we miss the deadline, our profit could be wiped out pretty quick,” he replied.

“But, we have computer software to handle the detail,” I nodded. “What about the risk embedded in the uncertainty of the project?”

“What do you mean?” Bruce furrowed his brow.

“Will you need to trust your suppliers to deliver on time? Hold their pricing? Are the materials in the spec even available? What’s the lead time on materials? Will you depend on your client for approvals? What could hold up the permits for approval? I know you will have subs on the job. Are they dependable and available in each phase schedule? What if there are change orders? How quickly can you identify something out of scope and its impact on the contract? Is the client litigious? To keep the project on track, how will you schedule quality inspections to make sure each phase meets spec before you can move to the next phase?”

I saw the blood begin to drain from Bruce’s face. I continued. “I think this project has more to it than the 4 months timespan after mobilization. The relationships and synchronicity required have to be developed way before mobilization. The trust in your subcontractors needs to already be in place now. This is more likely an S-III project that started before you even got the contract. The biggest mistake most companies make is underestimating the level of work in the project.”

Uncertainty in the Project

“Let’s look at some of the specific decisions that you have to make today that will have impact later in the project?” I said.

Taylor sat back. “Okay. Let’s just look at the buy out,” he started. “In the buy out, I have to purchase some large pieces of equipment that will be installed. I have to work with our project managers and also with our purchasing guy. Here are some of my decisions that I have to make today, but it may be months before we find out if it was the right decision.

“Will the price of this equipment (to be installed) go up or go down. If I make a commitment now and the price goes up, I am a hero. If I wait to make the purchase and the price goes up, I am a goat.

“Will the vendor that supplies the equipment still be in business a year from now. I may have to put down some deposit money. But even if we lose the deposit money, the real risk is trying to scramble at the last minute to find an alternate supplier. The costs may have changed and some of this stuff has lead times. If the project gets delayed because we don’t have the equipment on-site to be installed, we may be liable for a delay claim.”

Taylor stopped.

The Third Part of the Story

“I don’t understand,” Roger shook his head. “If Brad would just start earlier on these longer projects, things would be under control, and he wouldn’t be cutting unnecessary corners which compromise project quality.”

“Why do you think he procrastinates until the end?” I asked.

Roger shook his head.

“Because,” I continued, “he cannot see the end until he is two months away. On a project with a nine month deadline, Brad cannot see the end. It is too far away. There is so much uncertainty between now and nine months from now, that he cannot see it.

“So he takes no action.

“Of course, the pressure of the project builds, because now things are getting late, but even that is not what finally kicks Brad into action. With sixty days to go, Brad can now see the end. And when Brad can see the end, he starts to act. It is frustrating for us, because we saw this nine months ago.

“Everyone has a story. And every story has a beginning, middle and an end. When you listen to someone’s story, you will hear the Time Span of their story. They cannot take action in their story until they see the end of their story.”

Overtime and Weekends

I managed to get two steps up the food chain, talking with the boss of Olivia’s boss, a senior vice president in the company.

“So, how did the audit project get delayed for your ISO re-certification?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You spoke with Olivia, one of our supervisors. Her manager, Brad, is really in charge of that project, it’s a Stratum III role, and we have had more troubles than just the audit with Brad.”

“Procrastination?” I suggested.

His eyes grew wide and his head began to nod in agreement. Eyebrows furrowed. “Yes. And I have talked to him about getting a jump on these longer term projects. Brad is okay with projects of about 60 days, but anything longer than that and he really gets in the weeds. In the end, you start to see him power through, working overtime and weekends. When he started working here, he looked really dedicated, but as time goes on, I don’t see that as effective manager behavior.”

“What length project is Brad good at?”

“Two months.”

“And how much time is left before the audit?”

“Two months.”

“What connection can you make from that?”

Time Compression?

“We have an ISO process audit coming up in two months and we have to get all the documentation updated before it starts. So, that makes it a two month Time Span goal,” Olivia described. “I am not sure I understand. This is a very complex project. The documentation is very detailed and technical. It will require someone at my level to supervise, to make sure it is correct. If we fail this audit, it puts several contracts in jeopardy. But a two month Time Span looks like Stratum I work.”

“There are two kinds of complexity. One type is created by the amount of technical detail. The other type of complexity is created by uncertainty,” I replied.

“Okay, I understand that if something has a lot of technical detail, it will take a long time just to parse through it. That might make a project’s Time Span longer. But I cannot get over the fact that this project has to be complete in two months, but the level of work is definitely higher than Stratum I.”

“Don’t be fooled. Because you only have two months, a great deal of uncertainty is gone. While you may think this is a tough project (detailed complexity), the limited Time Span forces this to be a simpler project.

“In two months,” I continued, “you don’t have time to start your documentation over from scratch. You don’t have time for massive overhaul, no in-depth analysis. You only have time to perform a quick review, observe a limited number of examples and make some relatively minor changes. Here’s the rub.

“The real Time Span of this project started the moment you finished version one of your current documentation. The true Time Span of the project is closer to one year than two months. Unfortunately, no manager took this assignment. No work was done. Procrastination killed its true purpose, and likely, the quality of the end product.”

Who Has the Accountability?

Paula, one of the team members from administration, raised her hand. “It seems to me that no one can make a decision around here. Russ has his engineering agenda, and it’s important, but if we don’t get the project done on time, that’s a problem, too.”

“Paula, do you think Russ should fight less hard for project specifications that he believes in?” Alicia asked.

Paula shook her head, “No.”

“And do you think Russ should fight less hard to keep the project on track?”

Paula continued to move her head from side to side.

“So, who should make the decision?” Alicia looked at each team member, around the table, settling on herself. She looked down, then back up to the team.

Identifying Timespan

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Sometimes, identifying level of work seems elusive. I try to look at the timespan of the task, but sometimes, my intuition just seems off.

The biggest mistake most companies make is underestimating the timespan associated with a role. In addition to timespan, there are other clues that can help us with level of work.

Examine the task. The first clue to level of work is the timespan of the task. Here are the two questions. When does it start? When does it end? When we imagine a task, sometimes we focus on the middle without truly defining the start and end of the task.

While a craft trade (S-I) might look at a task as a one-day project, the supervisor (S-II) may be concerned about the permit inspection in two weeks. The manager (S-III) may be concerned with the system in which the project was completed, accountable for a one-year warranty that accompanies the work product. The VP of Quality Control (S-IV) may be accountable beyond the warranty to multi-year statutes related to defects. For the role, when does the project start, when does the project end?

Examine the tools. A craft trade (S-I) generally uses real tools, machinery, equipment. The supervisor (S-II) will use schedules, checklists and meetings. The manager (S-III) will use flowcharts, sequence and planning. The VP (S-IV) will use multi-project Gant charts.

Examine the problem solving. A craft trade (S-I) may make good use of trial and error problem solving. The supervisor (S-II) may rely on documented experience like SOPs and best practices. The manager (S-III) may employ root cause analysis. The VP (S-IV) has to look at multiple systems simultaneously, systems analysis.

All of these are clues. With the work defined, the next question, is the team member effective in the work?