Tag Archives: manager

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.”

It’s Not a Breakdown in Communication

“You are dipping your toes in this subject area called trust,” I nodded. “If the manager is to trust the team member, it starts with selection. I get that. But, how does accountability, laid at the feet of the manager, engender a sense of trust?”

“If the manager understands their accountability for output of the team member, blame goes away,” Pablo replied. “We often think blame is a personality disorder, or a breakdown in communication. Blame gets resolved, not through a communication seminar, but by defining, understanding the working relationship between the manager and the team member. When the manager understands, assumes accountability for output, there is no one to blame. The manager has to look inward, to determine what change the manager can make to impact the output.

“You see,” Pablo continued. “Let’s say we get a shipment of defective parts on an assembly line, a little plastic burr that has to be ground off before it can be assembled, and the grinding takes an extra 30 seconds. If our production output was intended to be 100 units per hour, but those 100 units now cause 50 minutes an hour of deburring, we can get behind quickly. And, that’s no matter how hard the team member works, it still takes 30 seconds extra per unit.”

“What does this have to do with trust and mistrust?” I wanted to know.

Pablo obliged. “If the team member is held to account for the output, they have nothing to say except to point out the deburring work. The team member cannot authorize someone from another team to come to help, or to pull two other deburring grinders from another work cell. They have no context for the output of the other work cells. And, if they are already doing their best, they can work no harder, they can work no faster, the deburring still takes an extra 30 seconds. If they are berated by their manager for the shortfall in output, there begins a mistrust of their manager. The team has little control over the conditions of their raw materials, it is only their manager that can accommodate the anomaly in production. This small bit of mistrust can begin to grow and ultimately erode the relationship. And, it is not personalities or miscommunication that is causing the mistrust, it is the definition of the working relationship between the manager and the team member AND where we place accountability for output.”

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.”

Fix Accountability

“All well and good,” I said. “If we want to build managerial systems based on something other than greed, status and power, where do we start?”

“All at once, and all over,” Pablo chuckled. “Look, the first place we start is by clearly defining the working relationships people have with each other. There are two types, vertical managerial relationships and horizontal cross-functional relationships. When we look at those two types of working relationships, we most often fail to define the accurate placement of accountability and exact scope of authority.”

“Accountability?” I prompted.

“All too often, we fix accountability one level of work too low in the organization, and it plays into the blame game,” Pablo explained. “Between the team member and the manager, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“How so?”

“Simple,” Pablo said. “The manager selected the team member, trained the team member, provided the tools for the team member, selected the project for the team member, created the working environment for the team member. The manager controls all the variables around the team member, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But if the team member underperforms, doesn’t that point the finger at the team member?” I countered.

“See, you fell right into the blame game,” Pablo smiled. “The team member does have an accountability, and that is to show up to work each and every day, to bring their full potential, to exercise their best judgement, in short, to do their best. It is the manager accountable for the team member’s output. The first place to start is to fix clear accountability.”

Breaking Dependence on the Manager

It was late in the afternoon when I stopped by to check on Nathan. We agreed that he would circulate with his team, asking a variation of one simple question –

“When things are going well, and your job is going well, how do you do what you do?”

“That’s a great question,” I said. Nathan was beaming. I could tell the response from his team had been positive.

“It’s funny,” he shook his head. “When they describe how they do what they do, sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they get it almost right. But since I gave them the chance to tell me first, when we talk about the almost right stuff, it comes a lot easier. They are much more willing to listen.”

“So, what is the lesson for you?” I asked.

“It’s not so important that I be right, or that I be in control, whatever that means. What is important is that my team members are thinking about what they are doing. They are thinking about what they are doing that is right and thinking about what they are doing that needs improvement.”

Nathan stopped cold. A new niche just opened in his thinking.

“It’s like before, they just depended on me to tell them what they were doing wrong so they never had to think about it. They knew that if they were doing something wrong, they would get a lecture from me and that would be that, so they didn’t have to think about it. When I stop giving the lecture and ask them, they suddenly begin to think.”

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.

Before Anything Else

Nathan waited for me in my favorite place, the coffee room. “What are we going to talk about today?” I asked.

“You said we were going to talk about the Prime Directive,” Nathan responded.

“Which is what?”

“My role, as a manager is to add value to the decision making and problem solving of my team members.”

“And you were going to bring me a list of ways you could do that.”

“Indeed,” Nathan announced, proudly producing a single sheet with several items on it.

“So, look down your list and pick the top three items that make sense to do first,” I directed.

Nathan was proud of his list, but he had not considered that some things made sense to do before other things. Finally, he spoke. “Well, I have twelve things on my list, but the thing I need to do first isn’t on here.”

“Which is?”

“I think before I do anything, I have to create a sense of trust. In fact, without a sense of trust, none of the things on the list are possible.”

“In your meetings, you invited Rachel, Edward and Billy to run certain parts. Does that create trust or distrust?”

“Well, trust,” blurted Nathan.

“So, you have already started to build the trust that is required to be effective. What’s next?”

A Manager’s Focus

Nathan survived his next meeting. No one walked out. It was a productive ten minutes. Maybe his team was going to give him a chance.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Prime Directive,” I stated flatly.

“Prime Directive?”

“Bring value to the decision making and problem solving of each team member.”

Nathan’s face became a jigsaw puzzle. “What does that mean?” he asked.

“Look, Nathan, there are a number of things that are required of an effective manager. Some things you do will work against you. Some things will work for you. Remember the Prime Directive.”

I detected a glimmer of understanding in Nathan’s eyes.

“You are a new Manager. You were a successful supervisor, but your focus needs to be different, now. Over the next 24 hours, I want you to make a list of what you think your role is, related to the Prime Directive.”