Tag Archives: capability

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.”

Too Hot? Too Cold? Just Right?

“So, how do we measure Hector?” Eduardo asked. “I’m all ears. I understand how to measure the time span of the tasks that Hector is responsible for. And, the longest task is three months. But, how do we measure Hector?”

“It is really very simple. You now know the time span of the longest task in the role that Hector plays. Here is the question.

“Does Hector, in your judgment as his manager, have the capability to perform the tasks in his role as freight supervisor? Or does he fall short in his capability to perform those tasks? Or does he have the capability to perform tasks with a longer time span?

“It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Is the porridge too hot? Too cold? Or is it just right?”

Eduardo squinted, “That’s it? Too hot, too cold or just right?”

I nodded, “Which is it?”

“Well, Hector does most of the job okay, but when it comes to the more complicated stuff, he falls short.”

“So, to recap your judgment, as his manager, Hector falls short?” I repeated.

“But, I knew that already,” Eduardo complained.

“Yes, you did, but you did not have a way to measure what you already knew. Now, you know that Hector falls short in capability at three months. If you define the time span of the shorter tasks he completes, you will have a very precise measure of his capability.”

Eduardo was quiet, then spoke. “Hector handles the one month stuff well. But falls short on the three month stuff. Hector’s time span is on the up side of one month, but the short side of three months.”

“So, now, is the question. How is this helpful to you as his manager?”

What’s the Level of Work?

“Where do we start?” Eduardo asked.

“Where do you think we should start?” I replied.

“We are trying to measure Hector’s capability. Is he big enough for the role. That’s the goal of this session,” Eduardo established.

“So, what unit of measure have we talked about when it comes to defining the tasks involved in his job?”

“We talked about time span,” he said.

“And, what was the measure of the longest task in Hector’s job?”

“We said, one month. Hector is in charge of shipping, but it’s more than just getting freight out the door. He is responsible for proper crating, working with vendors to select the proper crating materials, collecting information about product damage in transit. It is really a big job. Some of the problems that have to be solved involve testing in-house, you know, crash testing and then field testing.

“So, I don’t think one month is accurate. I think, to be successful, the longest task is three months. It takes that long to solve some of the material damage issues in that department,” Eduardo concluded.

“Okay, three months is the longest task required. To be successful running the shipping area requires the ability to work three months into the future, without direction, using his own discretionary judgment?”

Eduardo nodded, “Yes, I need Hector to carry the ball the whole way. I may check up on him more frequently to see if he still has the ball, but I need him to supervise the resolution to some of these issues without me. If I really have to get involved, then Hector is not doing the necessary work.”

“So, success in the job requires a time span of three months?” I asked.


“That is step one. Firmly establishing the time span of the longest task, establishing the required time span for the role.

“Are you ready for step two? The next part is to measure Hector.”

Why Time Span is Important

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Why is Time Span important? I don’t see how the length of time it takes, to complete a task makes a difference in writing the role description.

Calibrating the level of work in the role description is absolutely critical for the manager to gain insight into the decision making and problem solving required for success in the role. If the hiring manager cannot determine the level of decision making and problem solving, the successful search for a candidate will mostly be based on luck.

Intuitively, we can agree that some problems are more complex than other problems. Intuitively, we can agree that some decisions are more complex than other decisions. But, intuitive understanding does not help us measure that complexity.

And I am not talking about detailed complexity. Engineers love detailed complexity. They write computer software to handle all the detail in scalable databases. That is not the complexity I am talking about.

The complexity I am talking about, is the complexity created by the uncertainty of the future, the complexity created by the ambiguity of the future. That complexity can be measured by identifying the target completion time (Time Span).

Do you remember Murphy? Murphy has a law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. How long do we give Murphy to play? That is Time Span.

The Time Span of a problem or the Time Span of a decision will give the hiring manager insight into the talent (capability of the candidate) required to be effective in the role.

  • Short term problems can be solved through trial and error.
  • Medium term problems may require experience (documented experience).
  • Long term problems (problems we have never solved before) may require root-cause or comparative analysis.

The Time Span of the problem will indicate the method (and capability) required to solve it.

Remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? The Time Span of the problem at hand was short. The problem required an emergency solution. We watched on television, in real time, as engineers cobbled together trial and error solutions. We did not need a sophisticated well thought out solution. There was no time for longitudinal studies of hydraulic pressures in geological fissures. We just needed a mechanical wrench to choke off a hole in an underwater pipe.

But longer term, when drilling rigs are designed, to simultaneously get to the oil AND safely protect the operating crew AND protect the long term environmental impact, well, that solution will require a bit more than choking off a hole in a pipe.

The Time Span of a problem or the Time Span of a decision gives us insight into the talent required to be effective in the solution. And the person selected out of the candidate pool makes all the difference.

The solution is seldom a matter of WHAT, more often a matter of WHO.

Role Mis-Match?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

How do you deal (humanely) with someone who clearly is holding an S-IV role, but only appears to have S-III capability?

First, understand that this person is doing their best, and the mistake was made by the manager (I assume that is you) who promoted this person into that role without proper due diligence.

Now, what to do?

Pull out the role description and carefully examine those Key Result Areas that describe decision making and problem solving at S-IV (multi-system analysis and system integration). Using the role description, you can either manicure the role to reassign those accountabilities to someone else or choose to transfer the person to another role which better matches their capability.

The most important part of this managerial move is to understand, the discussion centers around the tasks, activities, decisions and problem solving. The discussion does NOT center around the stratum level capability of the person. This is an important nuance.

As the manager you have the following authority –

  • Determine the level of work in the role.
  • Determine the effectiveness of the person in the role.

As the manager, you do NOT have the authority –

  • To guess the stratum level of capability of the person.
  • To guess the potential capability of the person.

As the manager, you may have an intuitive judgment about a person’s capability or potential capability. You may take action related to that judgment ONLY by testing the candidate against effectiveness in the role (or testing the candidate with project work similar to the level of work in the role). It’s all about the work, not about a number.

What to Do With Untapped Potential

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

What action should we take if we have a person with Stratum IV capability in a Stratum III role?

First, I would ask, how do you know?  What behavior are you seeing?

You might see competence.  Competence with spare time left over.  Spare time to help other people.  Spare time to coach others.  Spare time to train others, teach others.  Spare time to participate in higher level planning.  It’s not such a bad thing.

The problem with having someone with S-IV capability in an S-III role is to determine if there is enough challenge in the role to gain their long term interest.  You might observe boredom with their day to day problem solving and decision making.  Boredom can create sloppiness, inattention to detail.  But boredom can also lead to effective delegation, innovation, efficiency initiatives.  I can hear the words.

“I am a bit bored with this task.  In what way can I make it more efficient?  In what way can I delegate this task to someone who might see this work as a challenge, to help them develop professionally?  So I can get on with more interesting work.”

Having someone with S-IV capability in an S-III role is an opportunity.  Just ask them.

How to Evaluate Capability in a Candidate

From the Ask Tom mailbag –


How can I test to see if a person has Stratum II or Stratum III capability?


If you are looking for a paper and pencil test, there is none.  There is no test with a set of answers that you shove into a computer that divines a person’s capability.  Elliott chuckled when this question was posed.  Most psychometric instruments, he observed, have, at best, a .66 correlation with reality.  Most are based on personality, or behavior, or behavior connected to temperament.  While those tests, or profiles have statistical significance for repeatability and in most cases, a stunningly accurate description of a person’s tendencies or behaviors, their evidence of predictability, a specific profile for a specific role has significance barely above flipping a coin (.5 correlation).

Elliott conjectured, if there were a paper and pencil test for capability, its likelihood to stand the same test would likely yield no more than the same .66 correlation with reality.

But your question is still valid and there is a method to satisfy the high curiosity we have about a person’s capability related to the level of work.  There is no trick, no special technique, no psychological requirement that we climb inside the head of our candidate and play amateur psychologist.

Moreover, the validity of this method reveals between .89 and .97 inter-rater reliability.

It’s all about the work.  Focus on the work.  As you define the role, its task and activities, goals and objectives, what is the level of work?  Does the role contain Stratum II level of work or Stratum III level of work?  Examine the decisions that have to be made and the problems that have to be solved.  Examine the time-span of the goals and objectives in the role.  What is the longest time-span task in the role?

The biggest mistake most companies make is underestimating the level of work required in the role.  A defect in the definition of the level of work in the role will most assuredly result in hiring the wrong person.

Examine your role description.  What are the tasks and activities?  What are the decisions that have to be made?  What are the problems that have to be solved?  What is the time-span of the longest task assignment in the role?

Based on that definition of the role, does the candidate provide evidence of effective task completion?  It’s all about the work.

When we spend the time to accurately define the work, and accurately calibrate the level of work in the role, the questions become very simple.  Does this person work as effectively as someone in the top half of the role or the bottom half of the role?  And, in that half, does this person operate as effectively as someone in the top, middle or bottom.

When you ask the team member to do a self-assessment, ask the manager and ask the manager-once-removed (MOR) about effectiveness, the inter-rater agreement approaches .97 (.89-.97).  With this practical evaluation system, why would you want to resort to other methods that might only have a .66 correlation with reality?

It’s all about the work.

How to See Evidence of Potential in an Interview

“If you are not going to let me hope,” Monica protested, “then explain to me how I got this job? When I was promoted to manager, I had never been a manager before. If the interview had only centered around my prior role as a supervisor, then how did the interviewer make the judgment that I had the potential to be a manager?”

“Do you think the interviewer only had hope for you in this manager role?” I asked. “Monica, I watched you, in your role as a supervisor for three years. I sat in on the debriefing after you were interviewed for your current role as a manager. Do you think that decision was made based on hope?”

“Not if you were in the room,” Monica admitted. “But, then how did you know I had the potential to be a manager if I had never been a manager before?”

“Okay, let’s step through some questions. As a supervisor, do you think you were operating as effectively as someone in the top half of a supervisor’s role or the bottom half?”

Monica smiled politely, nodding, “Top.”

“And in the top half, were you operating as effectively as someone in the top third, middle third or bottom third?”

Monica continued to shake her head. “Top,” she repeated.

“What is the evidence for that?” I pressed.

“You always want evidence,” Monica replied. “My projects always came in on time, within the specs from the customer and always within budget.”

“And why did your projects always come in on time? Did you always get the easy projects or were there problems?”

“There are always problems, but you know, 90 percent of the obstacles are predictable. For example, permits are always a problem. And permits are outside my control, it’s a government agency that processes the permits. But I took the time to get to know the inspectors down at the building department. I know it is not part of my job description and sometimes they are not the easiest people to get acquainted with, but I also know it’s important.”

“So, you took the time to go beyond prescribed duties in your role as a supervisor. You anticipated obstacles that might get in the way and created alternate paths, to solve problems that might occur,” I recounted.

“Well, you know, if you don’t have a relationship with the building inspectors, then you don’t know what criteria they are using to get your project approved. And if you don’t know what they are looking for, your project can get stuck. It’s easy to blame it on the building department, but if your project is 18 months in scope, thirty days might mean the difference between an on-time finish or having to pay liquidated damages for coming in late. There is a lot of risk.”

“So, when we decided that you had the potential to be a manager, it is because we could see evidence of that potential beyond your role as a supervisor.”