The Problem We Name

“You said you had one problem, but you were able to tell me several more,” I started. “Here’s the list –

  • An upset customer.
  • A RUSH order that delayed other orders.
  • A rogue salesperson that went around protocol.
  • A quality inspection process that wasn’t followed.
  • A shortage of raw materials with a lead time.

“Yep, I think you got them all,” Mason shook his head.

“And, I asked you which problem you were going to solve, knowing that everyone on your team, and everyone on the sales team sees the problem in a different way. Even the customer sees the problem in a different way.”

“And, I was just thinking last week that everything was under control,” Mason surmised.

“So, which problem are you going to solve? You see, each stakeholder sees the problem differently because they see the solution (that they want) differently. Each stakeholder would name the problem differently because they each see a different solution. The problem we name is the problem we solve.”

Which Problem?

“I have a problem,” Mason explained. “We just produced a batch of 1000 parts that are all defective.”

“Tell me more?” I asked.

“It was a RUSH order for a new customer. Came in at the last minute, the salesperson wanted to impress, so he worked around all our procedures and expedited the order, against all caution.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“The problem is we have an upset customer for that order and now we are late on all the other orders that were already in the queue.”

“And?”

“And, I have a rogue salesperson who doesn’t follow protocol,” Mason backpedaled.

“And?”

“And, we have a quality problem on first-piece-inspections.”

“And?”

“And, now we are out-of-stock on raw material because we used it all up for this rush order, with a three day lead-time.”

“So, which problem are you going to solve?”

Four Factors of Competence

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about competence as a primary driver of performance. If the underperformance is a matter of competence, what do I look for? It is too easy to say, “Oh, that person is just incompetent.”

Response:
Competence is made up of four things –

  • Capability
  • Skill
  • Interest or passion for the work
  • Required behaviors

These four factors can be used to trouble-shoot any underperformance, even mis-behavior.

Capability
Capability is an elusive concept to articulate, but we understand it intuitively through analogies. Some call it horsepower, mental acuity, light bulbs in the box, a few cards light in the deck. Most would agree that some problems are simple, some more complex. And, that some people can solve simple problems, but struggle when the level of problem solving becomes more complex. This is not just grasping all the facts to make a decision, but making a decision in the absence of facts, where there is ambiguity and uncertainty.

Skill
Where capability is more difficult to articulate, skill is easy. Competence related to skill is observable. There is evidence of output. A skill is anything that can be learned, anything that can be taught. Two pieces to every skill, one is technical knowledge, the other is practiced performance.

Interest or passion for the work
Without interest or passion, it is unlikely the person will put in the time to practice the skill. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, talks about 10,000 hours of practice required to master (become competent) a skill. A person who has no interest will not put in the time.

Required behaviors
There are three strings connected to required behaviors, contracted behaviors, habits and culture. There are some behaviors we simply contract for, like showing up on time for work. Competence can also be observed in habits. We are competent in those behaviors that are repeated (practiced), routine, grooved. As an organization (or team, or group) we enforce some required behaviors through culture.

So when I look for competence in performance, these are the four things I look for.

Discretionary Behavior

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You indicate the reason people do what they do is because they can. How does if-they-can relate to competence? And, if someone can-do, has the competence to-do, then how do we get them to do it? I am always looking for discretionary behavior.

Response:
Lot’s of questions embedded here. The first cause of underperformance is the lack of competence to perform. The accountability for this goes to the manager. It is the manager that determines the capability and skills required for the role. The manager is accountable for selecting the team member for the role based on their possession of that capability and skills. If the team member does not possess the requisite capability and skills, then that is poor selection on the part of the manager. This has nothing to do with discretionary behavior, this has only to do with competence.

If someone has the competence to perform, the only way for a manager to influence effective behavior is to make it necessary. The reason we don’t get the performance we want, and need, is because we do not make it necessary. If a person has the requisite skills and capability (competence) and the performance has been made necessary, then the only reason for underperformance is a matter of discretion. We can only assume underperformance occurs, is because underperformance was chosen.

The conditions for performance require –

  • Competence
  • Necessity

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For a more thorough discussion, please read Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing by Lee Thayer

Because They Can

“But, isn’t it important, for a manager, to understand the reasons people do what they do?” Bailey was on a roll with her very best stiff-arm.

“For a manager, there is only one reason people do what they do. And, this is essential for every manager.” I waited to make sure Bailey was listening. “The only reason people do what they do is because they CAN. The only measure of performance is performance.”

“Sounds a little redundant to me. Are you sure this isn’t just hyperbole?” Bailey was insistent, unconvinced.

“Simple to understand. You will never find a person doing something they do not have the capability to do. You can line up all the rewards, intrinsic motivation cooked up by industrial psychologists, if a person does not possess the capability, they will underperform. Underperform or engage in diversionary behavior.”

Who People Are

“But, I think understanding motivation is important for a manager,” Bailey protested.

“And so, when did you become a mind reader?” I asked.

“You know very well, I don’t pretend to be a mind reader,” Bailey continued to push back.

“Yet, there you go, looking for something inside a person that you cannot see.”

“Then, just exactly what are we supposed to do?”

“Don’t play amateur psychologist. Stay out of people’s heads. If you want to know who people are and what they are capable of, don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do. If you want to play the motivation game, you will find a ton of popular psychology, pop psychology, answers. There are books and assessments that propose to teach you the insights we should all have, as leaders, about those on our teams. But, if you want to be an effective manager, you have to think differently. And you cannot think differently if you continue your search in this invisible stuff. You will confuse yourself and those around you.

“If you want to know who people are and what they are capable of, watch what they do.”*
____
These were the watchwords of the late Charles Krauthammer observing the behavior of presidents and presidential candidates. “Don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do.”

Cause To Be Different

“But, don’t you think it’s important that a leader understands why people do what they do?” Bailey asked.

“The problem with understanding why people do what they do, is that we often look in the wrong place to find that answer,” I replied.

“What do you mean, where are we supposed to look?”

“Think about it. When you look to discover the why in someone’s behavior, what are your clues?”

“Well, first,” Bailey started, “I would look at their intentions, you know, their internal motivations.”

“And, why would that be important?”

“If I understood their motivations more clearly, perhaps I could genuinely influence their behavior toward the goals, expectations we set for the role.”

“So, you think you can cause the other person to be different?” I paused, waiting for the obligatory nod. “Bailey, I ask you to think about yourself, be honest, with yourself. How easy is it to cause yourself to be different? You think you can cause something in another person, that you find difficult to cause in yourself.”

It’s All About the Work

“Look,” I started. “You took a course in psychology in college, but you don’t have a degree in psychology. You are not certified by the state to practice psychotherapy. So, stop trying to judge a person by climbing inside their head.”

I could tell Roger was tensing up.

“But, tell me,” I continued, “can you spot positive behavior on the plant floor, in the field? Can you spot negative behavior? How long does it take you to tell the difference?”

Roger began to nod.

“Your best judgement of other people is not to understand their internal motivation, it’s whether or not they can do the work. It’s all about the work. Ask about the work.”

Misinterpretation

“I just wish I understood people better,” Roger complained.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Sometimes, when I interview a candidate, I wish I could better interpret what they say. You know, their underlying motivation.”

“So, sometimes, you misinterpret what a candidate says?”

Roger thought for a minute. “More than sometimes. A lot.”

“In the interview, why do you think you misinterpret a response to your question?” I pressed.

“I told you,” Roger replied, “I just don’t understand people.”

“I think the reason you misinterpret responses, is because you ask questions that require interpretation.”

How People Think

“What do you mean?” Roger replied. “How am I going to know how people think?”

“In the interview, why do you want to know how people think?” I asked.

“I thought that’s what the interview was for,” Roger protested.

“If you want to know how people think, watch what they do. Don’t ask people questions about how they think. Ask about what they did. Ask how they did it. The more you get wrapped up in their psychological motivation for this or that, the more likely you are to misinterpret. Don’t play amateur psychologist. Stop it.”