Eliminating defects – or multiplying talent? November 25, 2013Posted by Jason in Management.
Tags: Management, Talent
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“First, Break All The Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman has been out for nearly 15 years. If you are a manager, work for a manager, or even work near a manager, I highly recommend it as a quick read with some good ideas. Like any management book, there are few one-size-fits-all solutions to the range of organizations out there, but this one – as the title suggests – provides a different perspective on the business world in general and highlights many of the dysfunctions that keep the average organization from being excellent.
Rather than summarize the whole book (which by the way has been distilled into a great set of notes a la Powerpoint) I took note of one easily overlooked point. The book is geared toward management and managers, being organized around interviewing, motivating, and retaining truly great employees. However, nestled in the chapter about hiring talented individuals is a bit of a footnote section called “Study Your Best”.
However your current team has been assembled, it will demonstrate some range of performance. In many organizations, managers fight an uphill battle to reduce failures, defects, weaknesses, and overall poor performance, often by creating more and more policies, procedures, and rigid enforcement of things like TPS reports. In my own consulting engagements, this is a natural pursuit, as it yields quick, measurable results for the client. The authors point out however,
Conventional wisdom asserts that good is the opposite of bad, that if you want to understand excellence, you should investigate failure and then invert it. In society at large, we define good health as the absence of disease…In the working world, this fascination with pathology is just as pervasive…
Rather, you should
Learn the whys, the hows, and the whos of your best and then select for similar talents.
“Fewer Defects” is an example of one tool that organizations use to work toward true excellence, but it does not in and of itself get them there. You can’t have an excellent organization if you produce defective products, but 100% accuracy does not mean you have an excellent organization. Instead, focus on those things that your people do well, and apply them to others. Don’t waste time filling in gaps of talent with more and more policies and procedures.
Truly excellent people find the right way to do their job for their individual talents – and love doing so. Anything else is papering over people who may simply not be in a job that makes the best use of their talents.
Scaffolding of Change September 10, 2013Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
Tags: Behavior, Change
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Quite often during a consulting engagement, a client will question the need for a particular tool or meeting that has been implemented as part of the project. It might be a new method of data collection, additional paperwork for change management, or a rigorous weekly review of project deliverables.
In some cases, these things are intended to become part of the client’s new way of doing business. It is what they have paid the consultant to bring to the organization: some change in the way managers make decisions, the way their product is developed and produced, or increased efficiency of the operation. Quite often however, the ultimate outcome – behavior change – doesn’t depend on any particular form or spreadsheet or meeting. The specific tool is less relevant than its use in facilitating and catalyzing the desired change. Indeed, it is merely scaffolding – something that is necessary for construction but nevertheless temporary.
Many clients fail to recognize the time and effort required to construct this scaffolding (and tear it down at the end). It can be a project in and of itself, but is not the “real work” that they expect to see. The deliverables of scaffolding – the most visible and tangible of the consultant’s early work on a project – are often frustrating distractions from the true operation. It is often difficult to perceive the behavior change going on behind the scenes and this can in turn can put the project at risk.
From the consultant’s point of view, it is important to clarify as early as possible what the project will and won’t deliver. It’s also important to outline the need for some of the tools that will be used during the engagement and specify which will be permanent and which will be temporary. The client then is obligated to take on some of this “extra work” as their part of the bargain. They hired the consultant to facilitate organizational change – this won’t occur without the processes more regimented than they were used to before.
Small Victories July 22, 2013Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
Tags: Behavior, Change, Tradeoffs
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So often, especially with social media posts flying like mosquitoes around a barbecue, we read the same platitudes over and over, having long since taken any real meaning from them. Sometimes, however, someone will recast even tired sayings with a different perspective – and in the process provide a way to create real actions out of them.
In today’s Monday Morning Memo, Alan Weiss sums up in just a few words what many consultants’ clients often have the most difficulty with.
“If you never fail, you become comfortable with increasingly minor victories.”
I can’t count how many times I have advised clients that they need to just take that first step. Develop a log of actions for the week, start breaking long-term, unmanageable tasks into smaller bite-size chunks. And it works…for a while. Alan’s advice warns that the small satisfactions obtained from crossing off to-do lists is only good as we progress forward a few steps – it is not a path to long-term growth.
Another aspect of my consulting work is continuous improvement. Once an organization has mastered a particular method, it’s time to look ahead to how it can be improved. This may mean, by the way, that it be eliminated in favor of a new method. Need to have a meeting established to implement a new program? Fine. But don’t forget to terminate it when the project is done. Don’t even let it “evolve” into a meeting that covers some other topic. Make conscious decisions to maintain those tools that continue to add value. Be especially critical of meetings, but really, anything goes. Forms, procedures, job descriptions – everything will eventually change to accommodate new technologies, skills, competitors, and regulations.
Those small victories are indeed critical to building positive habits and motivating an organization going through a difficult change process. But small victories eventually will only provide the illusion of progress through activity rather than bona fide results. Crossing off to-do lists is an important step, but always challenge yourself and your organization to take on ever bigger goals. Continuous improvement comes at a price: not being 100% perfect. Accept that some ‘failures’ will occur and that your learning of a new process is as important as getting it right the first time.
Can you manage people without destroying trust? May 28, 2013Posted by Jason in Management.
Tags: Behavior, Contracts, Organization
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Most of us might not readily associate project management – or any other management – with the fields of sociology or political science. But just as engineering is the application of scientific principles toward a specific objective, management is very much the application of social sciences to coordinating groups toward an objective.
Unfortunately, sociology is rarely given much consideration in engineering curricula, and only passing interest in many business courses. Surely, many business concepts are founded on sociological and psychological theory, but students aren’t often exposed to the raw studies or how more obscure analysis might be applied in new ways. What is business and economics but a subset of the continual interactions we have with others every day of our lives?
Columbia University sociologist Herbert J. Gans wrote Middle American Individualism in 1988 as a short examination of the public’s relationship to Big Business and Big Government, especially Americans’ unique distrust of large organizations. Though focused on how government can better reach such a disaffected population, the book yields some very interesting insights – several of which crop up again in the more recent Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam.
Putnam highlights the significant drop in “social capital” since the 1960′s and uses decades of survey data to analyze reasons and consequences. He singles out our collective trust in each other – or rather lack of it – as being a contributing force in our declining social capital, the glue that allows our various short- and long-term activities to be reciprocated in the future. Social capital could in some ways be a synonym for a more familiar business buzzword: synergy. In short, the sum of our social connections is greater than the individuals we know.
In particular, Putnam highlights the concept of economic “transaction costs” as a consequence of less social capital and trust. It is these transaction costs that hold particular pertinence to management. We can think of transaction costs as the various tangible and intangible investments, such as research, bargaining, and enforcement (especially through contracts and courts), of any particular exchange. These may be informal and individual (the time and effort involved in preparing a dinner for a sick neighbor) or complex business agreements (the process of hiring an engineer, preparing a contract, and executing the work).
Whenever we use a written contract, we increase the cost of that transaction – sometimes literally when we pay attorneys to draft them. Aside from this, there are other intangible costs derived from the effort involved in setting up the agreement, managing the specific deliverables, and enforcing any variances. To be sure, complex engineering designs do require clear contracts. But has our litigious society forced us into formal agreements for even trivial matters? When we micro-manage a project, do we inherently distrust the other parties when we insist on written documentation of every single activity?
Many businesspeople around Montana pride themselves on the magnitude of agreements executed with a handshake. Similarly, master consultant Alan Weiss has noted that contracts are part of the implementation, not the sales process. If you haven’t established the deliverables beforehand, the contract is premature at best. Quite often, you may find yourself explaining away these written documents as “formalities”. By requiring them, we are expressing at least some degree of distrust. When developing relationships, that is the last thing you want to do.
The United States of Energy May 7, 2013Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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This is a very compelling visual presentation of the U.S. energy resources, as well as some interesting statistics about production and consumption. Well researched and well put together.
However, from a mining perspective, there is an interesting discontinuity in the selection of resources. The map clearly outlines oil, gas, and coal reserves, with the implicit knowledge that these are raw materials that must be processed in order to be useful.
Similarly, wind, geothermal, and solar are shown in areas where they are most likely to be efficiently produced. In a sense, they are like the reserves of more familiar resources.
Hydro is unique, but only in the sense that a dam is required, so the discrete facility seems an appropriate metric. One could theoretically map individual rivers based on their flows and gradients, but that would become unwieldy. I find the map characterizes this resource well.
But what about nuclear? Interestingly, the chart’s authors have chosen to map nuclear power plants rather than the mineral deposits that fuel them. Just like oil, coal, and gas are shipped to a variety of refineries for downstream processing, nuclear fuels move across state lines as well. But refineries and coal- and gas-fired power plants aren’t shown on the map – nor should they be. They don’t represent resources, just links in the chain between the raw fuel and the end user. Interesting statistics perhaps, but a different topic.
If the authors intend to show the energy resources available in the U.S., uranium reserves are an important part of the discussion. We often think of oil drilling as being distinct from mining, not only in form, but in product. Generally, mining consumes energy from other sources to produce non-energy products. In the case of nuclear fuels – as with coal – mining plays an equally important role and the accompanying resources represent important aspects of our energy policy.
Learning from Mayo April 3, 2013Posted by Jason in Management.
Tags: Medicine, Quality
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Here in Montana, one of our local hospitals recently partnered with the Mayo Clinic. As someone who thankfully doesn’t yet require the services of this world-class organization, I am one of many people who have heard of how great it is, but didn’t really understand what made it different. As happens quite often, I found a great resource that opened up a new world of management methods – but I had to look in a different section of the library.
Deep in the MSU Billings library – in the healthcare management section – you can find “Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic: Inside One of the World’s Most Admired Service Organizations.“ This quick read highlights many of the Mayo brothers’ approaches to healthcare and management, and is purposefully sprinkled with examples for managers in other industries. Like so many other gems however, you often have to look outside your own sector for new insights.
What does the Mayo Clinic have to do with, say, engineering or project management? Plenty. Here are two important examples:
Mayo Clinic practices what they call “destination medicine”. Physicians, radiologists, specialists, surgeons, labs – all in one place. The patient doesn’t cross town from clinic to clinic, waiting days for test results or diagnoses. Engineers might call their operations “full service”. But it’s not as easy as putting a slogan on your website.
Mayo is designed around a collaborative environment. They don’t start with a particular specialty and then hire for it. They start with people who are hired for their commitment to their patients and their professional development – as well as the development of their colleagues. Being a medical “destination” is not simply having a large campus and a catalog of services – it is the open interaction among professionals that allows patients the effective care they need to define Mayo as the destination in their own minds. The question for other sectors: Are you providing truly integrated services, or are your business offerings still siloed by overprotective managers and excessive bureaucracy?
Next, Mayo goes out of its way to present a professional appearance and instill confidence in the brand. From dress codes to personal attention by any staff member, the leadership understands that patients cannot necessarily judge their services on a technical level. Rather, they (and all of us) will substitute other aspects to decide whether the organization is “professional”.
Physical spaces, for instance, are well lit and noise is kept to a minimum. These are not necessarily important for quality clinical care (though it probably helps), but a patient would surely not feel as at ease in a tightly confined, noisy office. The doctor may truly know his stuff, but he isn’t exactly presenting the best image.
Similarly, are your project managers presenting a professional image to your clients? Are your offices kept neat, with quiet spaces for meetings and clean desks? Perhaps this isn’t important to you and your staff, but it may make the difference if a client is trying to determine whether your firm has the professionalism to undertake the next big project.
Though most organizations will not have the weighty impact that comes from saving lives, the organizational leadership in any firm can learn a lot from those that do. Remember to look outside your own industry now and again for great insights into management successes.
One-way Trip to the Twitterverse April 2, 2013Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
Tags: Media, Twitter
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More and more of my own interests are taking flight on Twitter. Primarily to follow important news in project management (business) and aviation (mostly pleasure, sometimes business), I am now up and running in the Twittersphere as well.
A happy consequence is that I can now also tweet some of the things that don’t quite make it into this blog. You definitely won’t find any celebrity updates or sports analysis, but please do follow if you’re interested in management, psychology, economics, organizational behavior, or business in general (and the occasional aviation comment).
You can find me @JBurkePE
See you out there.
Repeating the Past March 27, 2013Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
Tags: History, Working
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
We have all heard or read this important quote. It is a critical reminder that we have exceedingly short memories, and we have also done unthinkable horrible acts throughout human history.
But what of the positive, progressive acts? What of the connections we have lost and strive to regain?
Seth Godin again reminds us that our window to the past is often narrow, but always selective. Some have a big picture view, but more likely we are limited to what we are able to immediately recall. The wisdom of old age is often simply the ability to synthesize years of memory and experience into a cognitive prediction of the near future. Nonetheless, certain aspects of our lives have been constant for so long, we forget there was ever another way.
Seth’s description of the industrial age and our concept of unemployment illustrates that our world view is wide open for debate. Our modern, western perception of work – from the hierarchical organization to workdays versus weekends – is but one manifestation of our semi-capitalist system. Not only are there many different perspectives, but they are alive and well around the world today.
I found evidence of this firsthand as I interviewed several local businesspeople in the antique and pawn trade for an upcoming article. One in particular stood out, and related the increase of younger people visiting her shop. At least here in Montana, there is a visible need to reconnect with simpler, more human-centric products and tools. I wonder if it is as prevalent elsewhere in the country, but I suspect it may not be as significant elsewhere in the world where the generational gap is not so wide.
If nothing else, Seth’s article points to the fact that our industrial age may well turn out to be less than a blip on the human timeline. If the Iron Age lasted 1,500 years and warrants little more than a chapter in a high school history book, imagine the possibility that the industrial age – so far barely 300 years old – will only be worthy of mention to serious history scholars in the year 3013. For now, however, we often work because it’s as much a part of our culture as education or religion. Perhaps the industrial and information ages will simply be lumped together into the next 1,000 year cycle, called the “Working Age”.
Is your experience getting in the way of your knowledge? February 18, 2013Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
Tags: Change, Management, Project Planning
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All too often in the consulting world, we find individuals in client organizations who have been beating their heads against a wall for years. They are smart people with good ideas who, for various bureaucratic or political reasons, have been unable to effect real, lasting change in their organizations. We probably all know people like this – happy with their work in theory, but frustrated that valuable improvements remain ignored or impeded.
However, there is another category, not lacking good intentions, who inadvertently contribute to the first group’s angst. I had the chance to observe this firsthand – in my own home workshop.
Perhaps something of a dying art, I build plastic models (especially during cold Montana winters). Here is my latest project, a Ford Trimotor that I picked up two years ago, but which sat in storage during my time in Australia:
As a project manager, such a “project” seems a good fit with my day job, but it occurred to me that I approach my models differently than a real project. Definitely, there is a budget and I maintain my own personal standards of quality. I establish the deliverable, determining whether I build the kit “out of the box” or include any modifications or new techniques.
But when it comes to the other fundamental leg of any true project – time – I let the art-like nature of the model go with the flow. Like other hobbies, a kit like this might wallow half-done in a box somewhere for months or years. There is no pressure to complete it “on time” – if ever.
A true challenge lay in developing a project schedule around a new kit, predicting the time involved for each stage of production.
And this is where such a simple plan revealed just how little my 30 years of model building experience actually “knew”. Like many of my clients, I thought I knew the job. But if anyone asked how long it took to build a typical model, I would have only the most rudimentary estimate. Too often, my recollection is clouded by time and the various delays that go along with any hobby – a kit that takes just hours of working time may actually have taken weeks to complete. It is, of course, a supposedly relaxing diversion, so I wasn’t exactly keeping meticulous records.
In many organizations, these same conditions can – inadvertently or otherwise – stymie a change initiative. People that have done the job for 10, 20, or 30 years may indeed know their jobs better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean they know as much as they could – especially if they require improvement. Without a solid baseline and a clear understanding of the work involved, there is no way to effectively manage the job itself, let alone any changes.
Hence the challenge, and one of the benefits of having an outsider’s point of view. The consultant is in a position to objectively measure and quantify critical aspects of the job (the easy part) and communicate them with sensitivity and understanding to the client team members (quite difficult – this is where consultants make their money). The overall goals are the same – the team wants to do the job better and the consultant wants to help them achieve the target. The team provides the experience and the knowledge, while the consultant provides the tools to separate what they know from what they think they know. And if there’s anything that recent psychological research has shown, it’s that we think we know significantly more than we really do.
It can be quite uncomfortable to face the cognitive dissonance that comes from raw data highlighting your mistakes (my next model is already off target, and I’ve barely scratched the surface). But if you are truly dedicated to constant learning and becoming an expert in your field, the hard lesson comes with a big payoff – more efficient operations, better control over variances, and improved morale as problems are anticipated and handled at the source rather than after the fact.
Just how accurate are your eyes? February 6, 2013Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
Tags: Behavior, Decisions
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Our local news station’s weather department came up with an interesting little slogan for their mid-day ads. As probably every local weather reporter does, ours wants you to know that when the storm of the century hits, he’ll be there to keep you informed.
So, it’s all the more interesting that they selected the slogan, “Nothing more accurate than seeing it yourself.” As in, if you look out the window, you’ll know more than we can tell you from the TV station. Strange as it is for our weatherman to promote, does this phrase even hold true?
On one level, it does. We trust our eyes to absorb the visual spectrum and our brains to interpret those signals, presenting “factual” information and predictions. We believe that which we “see”. Speaking of weather, we could all be professional meteorologists if the extent of the job were to look outside and report rain, snow, or sleet.
Of course, it is much more than that. First, what you see is not always what it seems. Science has shown that in addition to cognitive biases, we also suffer visual limitations when concentrating on particular tasks. We can literally be blind to something right in front of us, as this great video summary of Daniel Kahneman’s work shows.
On another level, we can ask what “accuracy” even means. It’s probably fair to say that most people don’t need a meteorologist to decide whether to carry an umbrella RIGHT NOW. On the other hand, most of us would be at a loss to guess whether it will be raining in three hours, or three days. Our “accurate” visual understanding of the environment becomes almost useless very quickly.
We need meteorologists (and doctors, and engineers) to help interpret observations and then literally PREDICT THE FUTURE – at least with a reasonable degree of certainty. I would trust the professional estimate any day over what my eyes may be telling me at that moment.