Tag Archives: problem solving

Discretion in the Quality of the Data

“You describe the role as entry level. The output must conform to strict guidelines, which creates the quality standard. What are the decisions that must be made in connection with the work?”

Arlene was shaking her head from side to side. “We don’t allow a lot of latitude with this work. Sending prescription drugs by common carrier is serious business.”

“You think you don’t allow latitude. In fact, you tell your team members there isn’t a lot of latitude, when in fact there is. There are a ton of decisions that must be made.”

Arlene was quiet.

“Look, most of the prescribed duties involve collecting data from your customers to determine their qualifications. While it seems cut and dried, there are many decisions that must be made about the quality of their responses, the accuracy and completeness of the data.

  • Is the customer address we have on file their current mailing address?
  • Is the customer mailing address the same as the shipping address?
  • Is the telephone number we have on file a mobile number we can send a confirmation text message to?
  • Will the shipping priority we have on file assure the product reaches the customer on time?
  • If the customer does not answer the door, is it okay to leave the product on the front porch, or is there another more secure location?

“The difference between ok performance and outstanding performance is not in filling out the forms, but in the decisions related to the quality of the data that goes on the forms. The job may be completing the forms, but the work is the decisions that must be made.

“An important discussion between the manager and the team member is not about the forms, but about those decisions.”

Entry Level Work, Not Cut and Dried

“I still don’t know what you are getting at,” Arlene shook her head. “It’s entry level work. You are right, it’s not that interesting.”

“Don’t be so swift,” I reprimanded. “Let’s talk about this entry-level work. First, what is work?”

Arlene was looking up, retrieving the answer planted in her mind some weeks ago. “I remember. Work is making decisions and solving problems.”

“Okay. And what decisions must be made in connection with this entry-level work?”

“It’s pretty cut and dried,” Arlene related. “Our work is highly regulated. Everything we do has to be within very specific guidelines.”

“And what if it’s not cut and dried,” I challenged. “You see, the guidelines you work under only set the quality standards for the output. Let’s ask the question again. What decisions must be made in connection with this work? And as we answer, I think you will find this work is quite a bit more than entry-level.”

Interest in the Work (Not the Job)

“What’s missing in this young recruit’s career?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Arlene replied. “All she seemed interested in was how many vacation days she is going to get.”

“Why do you think she is focused on her vacation days? What’s missing? What was missing in her work before she came to your company two months ago? And perhaps is still missing in her work?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Arlene. “It is pretty basic, entry level work. Perhaps there really isn’t that much to focus on, except how much vacation comes with the job.”

“You might be right be right about the job,” I agreed. “But what about the work?”

Leadership Charisma

Leadership is a billion dollar business, yet all around us, we rarely see effective leadership. There are books, seminars, groups and programs to build better leaders (that’s the billion dollar business), yet much of that effort is wasted and fruitless.

The effectiveness of an organization is based on its structure and the role of leadership is to design and build that structure. Effective leadership has less to do with charisma and personality, more to do with building an organizational system to get work done.

Structure begins with the founder, a structure of one. There is work to be done and the founder is doing the work. There is always work left over, so the founder hires three or four people. These people do a little bit of everything. The work is organized around the scarce resources of infant structure. At some point the founder realizes the work can no longer be organized around the people, the people have to be organized around the work.

Organizing the people around the work requires that specialized roles be defined, tasks, activities and expected outputs from those activities. This is the emergence of roles.

This organization is no longer a structure of one, but a structure of many. It is not enough for each person to play their role, the roles have to be designed to work together, more complex than a structure of one, a structure of many. And, organizational structure is born.

Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. The two things that must be defined are –

  • In this working relationship, what is the accountability?
  • In this working relationship, what is the authority? Authority to do what? Make decisions and solve problems the way I would have them solved.

And, so the structure of one becomes the structure of an organization. I don’t care about your personality or charisma as a leader. I only care whether you can design and execute the structure, to get some work done.

What’s Wrong With My Org Chart?

“What’s wrong with my org chart?” Ron wanted to know.

“You tell me,” I said.  “An org chart is just a piece of paper with a picture of the way you think.”

“What do you mean?”

“Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people.  Org structure is a mental construct, your mental picture of the way people ought to get on together at work.  You drew the picture.  What did you have in mind?  You tell me where the friction is?”

“Okay,” Ron started.  “Just this morning, the sales manager called a meeting with the marketing manager to talk about their expenses to date related to the budget each submitted at the end of last year.”

“And?”

“And, the marketing manager said it wasn’t the sales manager’s business to see how marketing dollars are spent.  She tactfully refused to attend the meeting.  She said the sales manager was NOT her manager and declined to go.”

“What was your response?” I asked.

“I had to admit, the marketing manager has a point.  The sales manager is not her manager.  When she took the position, we were very clear that it was her department.  She has very clear objectives and unless she is off track, we expect her to run things without interference.  But, still, declining to go to the meeting seemed a little insensitive.”

“So, when you think about their working relationship, how do you see it?  Clearly, neither is each other’s manager.” I said.

“Well, they seem to get along fine, at least until this meeting thing,” Ron shook his head.

“Let me be more specific in my question,” I replied.  “How do you see these two questions? –

  • In their working relationship, what is the accountability for each of them?
  • In their working relationship, what is their authority?

“Well, when you put it that way, marketing should coordinate with sales, and sales should coordinate with marketing.  We have significant trades shows we attend that eat up a lot of marketing budget.  Our trade show booth is generally staffed with people from the sales department.  So, the two departments need to coordinate together.  The company has a high vested interest in their coordination.”

“And, in their working relationship, what is their authority to make what decisions?”

“Each department has a department budget, submitted each year and approved by their manager?”

“Same manager, between the two of them?”

“Yes, our VP of business development is the manager of both,” Ron clarified.

“How clearly have you spelled out their accountability and authority in the work they do together?  You just explained it to me, how well have you explained it to them?”

“But, they are supposed to work together, shouldn’t they be able to figure it out?” Ron asked.

“Apparently not.  You think you understand their working relationship, in fact, on your org chart, you drew a dotted line.  So, the situation looks like insensitivity, when the friction is because you failed to define the accountability and the authority in that dotted line.  You put the dotted line there for a reason, but failed to define it.”

Spares?

“Looking at the future,” Glen contended, “we are desperately looking for that new something that is going to help replace some our declining lines of business. We find something, we gear up for it, commit some people to the project, but so far, all of those projects have failed. We end up pulling the plug.”

“Who have you committed to these new projects?” I asked.

“Well, they are new projects, so we generally take those people that we can spare from our core project lines.”

“Are these your best and brightest people?”

“Well, no. Our best people are still running our core projects. But we can usually spare a couple of people from one of their teams.”

“So, you are trying to cobble together a launch team, in an untried project area, where unforeseen problems have to be detected and corrected, and you are doing this with spares?”

It’s the Job of a Manager

“What kind of questions?” asked Ted.

“Look, in your position, as Manager, you often don’t have the technical details necessary to make a decision. As a Manager, that’s not your job. Your job is to bring value to the thinking and work of your team.” I waited for Ted to catch up.

“By asking questions?”

“Most Managers think their team will see them weak if they have difficulty making a decision, even if the Manager doesn’t have the technical details. So, sometimes Managers make a decision because they think it’s their job.

“If you have two engineers, each with a different method of solving a problem, you may not know which method is technically the best way.”

“So, how do you make the decision?”

“You don’t bring value by telling them what to do. You bring value by asking questions.

  • What were the top three criteria on which you based your recommendation?
  • What impact will your recommendation have on the time frame of the project?
  • What two things could go wrong with your recommendation?

“Your job, as Manager, is not telling people what to do. Your job is to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.”

Freedom in Limits

“But, I want my team to feel free to approach problems on their own terms,” Monica insisted.  “I don’t want to stifle their creativity.  But often, my team just wanders in a state of confusion, trying to solve a problem that’s not that difficult.”

“It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it?” I replied.  “We think if we set limits, then we stifle the team, when limits can be actually be very productive.  If we set the limits too narrow, then there is little opportunity to discover a new or better method.  Yet, if we set the limits too wide, we promote confusion, disarray, introduce delay.”

“That’s what I see, I think I am promoting creativity by giving free reign, but the outcome often falls short,” Monica nodded.

“The thing is, we live with limits all the time.  Social structures are designed to impose limits on those involved.  Organizational structures are designed to define the limits within which reality lives.  They are not designed to stifle, but designed to release creativity in real productive ways.”

“Like, when I tell the team to contribute ideas where money is no object, when the reality is, there is always a limit to the budget.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “You may gather ideas with an unlimited budget, but there is always that reality that tempers the ideas.  Brainstorming has its place, but so does problem-solving.”

Not a Communication Problem

“I think I have a communication problem with my team,” Jordan explained. “It seems like I have to constantly explain, interpret, assign and reassign, clarify, all to come back and do it over again. I think my team needs a communication seminar.”

“And, what would you hope the outcome of this seminar to be?” I asked.

“That the team understands,” Jordan simply put.

“And, what if I told you I don’t think you have a communication problem?”

“What do you mean? It sounds like a communication problem to me.”

“My telephone rings for two reasons,” I replied. “Most people call to tell me they are in the midst of a communication crisis, or have an unresolvable personality conflict on their team.”

“Like me, a communication problem.”

“In my experience, in the throes of explaining and clarifying, you fail to establish two things. I don’t think you have a communication problem, I think you have an accountability and authority issue. You failed to establish, in the task, in the working relationship, what is the accountability, meaning, what is the output? The second thing missing, in the pursuit of that output, who has the authority to make decisions and solve problems?”

“So, I need my warehouse crew to move material, according to a list, from the warehouse to a staging area for a project. I explain what needs to be done, give them the checklist and then they get stuck.”

“Stuck on what?” I asked.

“The material to move is blocked by other material, the forklift aisle isn’t wide enough for the material, or the forklift is down for maintenance,” Jordan shook his head, “so I have to come back and solve those problems before the team can do their work.”

“Not a communication problem. It’s an accountability and authority problem. What is the accountability (output)? And who has the authority to shift materials, find an alternate forklift aisle or fix the forklift?”