Tag Archives: competence

Creating Co-dependents

Emily was now seated in a chair at the front of the class.

“Emily, you think there is a morale problem on the line,” Ernesto began. “But, that’s not the problem. You know the team is not meeting their daily quota, but you haven’t shared the numbers with them. Bottom line, you are not telling the truth because you are afraid you might hurt someone’s feelings. By not telling the truth, you made them incapable of improvement.”

Emily’s body language retreated. Ernesto continued.

“And you have created co-dependents out of them. They are just fine not knowing what the quota is. As long as they don’t know, they don’t have to perform to it.

“When you tell them they are short, they think it’s your problem not theirs. They are perfectly willing to continue this non-accountable relationship. No skin off their nose.”

The color in Emily’s face began to pale. I called a time out. The room was very still and quiet.

“The problem we name is the problem we solve. That is why it is so important to name the problem correctly,” I said. “How will we name this problem?”

Just Try Harder

Emily was nervous as she entered the classroom. She knew that I would not allow her to be a passive observer, but front and center in the crucible. I turned to greet the other folks streaming in.

“I would like everyone to meet Emily. She has an interesting problem at work. With our help, she is going to walk us through some solutions.” Emily looked at me sideways. It would take her a bit to trust this group.

Up at the front, Emily stood. “I really don’t know what kind of problem I have,” she started. “Our manufacturing line is not meeting its daily quota and the reject rate is at 11 percent.” Emily continued to describe the circumstances, considering morale, motivation and working conditions. Then the questions came from the group.

“Who decides the daily quota?”
“How is the daily target communicated to the line?”
“Who tracks the number of completed units?”
“How does the line know if they are falling short or getting ahead of the target?”

Emily responded crisply, “The daily quota is determined by the sales forecast and what we need in stock, but the people on the line don’t need to know that. They just need to build the units faster. When the QC people pick up the units for inspection at the end of the day, they count them and it’s on my report the next day.”

Ernesto raised his hand. “So, the line doesn’t know how far they missed Tuesday’s quota until Wednesday?”

“Not exactly,” Emily replied. “I don’t want to discourage them, so I just tell them they were a little short, that they are doing good job and to try harder. I am worried about morale getting lower.”

Ernesto tilted his head to directly engage Emily. “You are treating this issue as a morale problem. Morale is only a symptom. You have to treat the root cause of the problem, not the symptom.”

Randy dragged a chair up front for Emily to sit. We were going to be there a while.

Name the Problem

It was early. Early, meaning we were the only two people on the plant floor. Emily drew a flow chart of how materials were received, then assembled and carted off to QC for inspection. She defended the competence of her workers in the assembly process.

“The issue isn’t assembly,” I said. “The issue is speed and accuracy. Have you ever counted rejects off the line?”

“Well, no,” replied Emily. “That’s what our Quality Department does.”

“So, when units leave this line, we have no idea which ones meet spec and which ones are defective?”

Emily searched in her mind for a better answer, but she couldn’t find one. “No,” she replied.

“Emily, we are talking about competence. The biggest reason for failure is incompetence. Most managers will accept all kinds of excuses. The problem is not that the line is running too fast or too slow or that it is too hot or too cold, or that we don’t have great health insurance or that the team isn’t motivated. The problem is incompetence. Most managers won’t call it incompetence, because they don’t know how to solve that problem. The problem you name is the problem you solve. The issue is speed and accuracy. The problem is incompetence.”

“So, what should I do?” Emily asked.

“Funny, you should ask. Tonight, in class, we are going to talk about control systems and feedback loops. Why don’t you come, as my guest? I will help you teach the subject.”

Did Not Do It, Because I Couldn’t

“But, I just told you that my people are competent,” Emily protested. “They have been working on the line for several years.”

“You said, the problem was reject rates. Yes, your team is competent at the task, but not competent at accuracy and speed,” I explained. “I used to work in an accounting firm. When I started, I thought I was great at adding up numbers. And I was. I was extremely competent at adding numbers (after all, I did manage to graduate from second grade). But I was incompetent at accuracy and speed.

“Never in my life, was I taught to error-check a column of numbers by adding the column twice and comparing the totals. That practice never occurred to me. And if it had occurred, I would have immediately concluded that it would take twice the time to add the numbers twice. Logic told me so.

“I had to learn a new skill. I had to become competent at using an adding machine without looking. I never did it before, because I couldn’t.

“Before, I would add numbers up with an occasional mistake. Now, I add them up twice in less time, virtually error-free.

“Your people on the line are competent at the task, but not competent at accuracy and speed.”

Emily was silent. Finally she spoke, “Okay, I think I get it. But I am not sure what to do. How do I bring up their competence in accuracy and speed?”

“First, we are going to have to count some things.”

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.”

Habits Help, Habits Hurt

“But habits can help and habits can kill,” I said.

“I don’t understand,” Muriel replied. “We just talked about how competence and habits go hand in hand.”

“Yes, they do and like many things, your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.” I could see Muriel’s face scrunch up, mixed in resistance and curiosity.

“Competence requires a set of habits. Habits help us, habits hurt us. Think about a new problem that must be solved, like that change in production last month.”

Muriel winced. “I know, I know. We practiced hard on producing that left element. We were really good at it, and it was difficult. Then we got the machine. Using the machine was even harder, so my team kept doing it manually. Someone even sabotaged the machine configuration that kept it out of the loop for two days. All in all, it took us three weeks to become competent on the machine, when it should have taken only five days.”

“Habits can sometimes be a powerful force in resisting change. Habits are grooves in the way we think. They can be helpful, but sometimes, we have to get out of the groove and it’s tough.” -Tom

Slow Down to Go Fast

“If habits are connected to competence, why is that so important?” I asked.

“Sometimes, when I am faced with a problem, especially a new problem, that is difficult to solve,” Muriel was thinking out loud. “Competence is the ability to bring my thinking and resources to the problem quickly. Not just quickly, but easily. Almost like an instinct. Only I know it’s not instinct, because it is something I learned and had to practice,” she replied.

“Give me an example,” I said, looking for clarity.

“Okay, planning. As a manager, I know it is very tempting, when faced with a problem, to just jump in and solve it, dictate a course of action and move on. What I found was, that whenever I did that, I would fail to notice some critical element, misdirect my people and end up with my team losing its confidence in me.

“It took me a while to learn that I needed to slow down, get to the root cause of the problem, then create a plan. It was painful, in the beginning, because planning was not me.

“I would have to stop everything, clear the decks, drag out my books on planning. It was excruciating, worse, it took too long. Sometimes we would miss a deadline because the process took too long. It was difficult not to go back, jump in, dictate a course and move on, even if it was in the wrong direction.

“It was only when I committed the planning model to memory, that things began to change. Once I had it in my head, I could access the steps without having to look them up in my book. I began to break down every problem this way. Planning became quicker and quicker. Better yet, I was able to involve my team in creating the solution by using the steps. We seldom overlooked critical items. The best part was that everyone was on-board when we finished planning.

“Now, planning is a habit. My team does it all the time. It is a competence.”

Competence and Habits

“How are habits connected to competence?” I asked.

Muriel looked at me and remembered. It was a short trip down memory lane. “When I first became a manager,” she started, “I was awful. I thought I was such a hot shot, walking around telling everyone what to do. Within a couple of weeks, productivity in my department was at an all time low, and I couldn’t figure it out.

“So, I started asking questions. Instead of telling my team how to do the work more efficiently, I began asking them how they could do the work more efficiently. I didn’t do it very often, but when I did, remarkable things happened. Over time, I got better at asking questions. Practice. Practice makes permanent. Now, asking questions is a habit.”

“So, describe the competence connected to the habit?” I pressed.

“The competence is challenging my team. Challenging them to higher levels of performance, productivity, efficiency.”

“So, competence is about acquiring a new habit.”