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Eliminating defects – or multiplying talent? November 25, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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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.

Is your experience getting in the way of your knowledge? February 18, 2013

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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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:

Trimotor Model

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.

Model Project

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.

Employee Ethics November 20, 2012

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses, Management.
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Taking a step back from our day-to-day work, it is always interesting to examine reasons and motivations for our actions. Any given industry comprises every background imaginable and represents cultures from around the globe. However, despite our differences, most professionals (engineers, lawyers, doctors, even project managers) are obligated to similar ethical codes and owe a duty to the public to act for their benefit. Further, each individual is bound by their own personal morals as well as their employer’s particular culture. But what happens when an individual’s personal moral code conflicts with the firm’s?

(more…)

A Little Housekeeping November 17, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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My guest posts over at How to Manage a Camel have new URLs.  Rather than fix all the old tags, here are the updated links:

Two Laws You Must Know – Time and Revenue

How Much Is Too Much? – Break three rules every day

The Flip Side – Accepting Delegation

Who Put You in Charge? – Sell the Project Management skill

Follow Through – It’s not enough to just direct the work

Break In The Chain – Communication, not command

Read It Again – Thoughts on books

Hiring Practices November 16, 2010

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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With the continuing concern over the future of engineering education, there is a greater need than ever to rethink the hiring practices of typical engineering firms. Whether or not there is an overall, worldwide shortage of engineering graduates, recent data in the United States does point to declines in engineering enrollment and subsequent graduation. If we take this to its logical conclusion, we are faced with (more…)

Disabling the Alarms July 26, 2010

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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A Transocean engineer has testified that several warning systems and alarms were disabled on the sunken Deepwater Horizon drilling rig – potentially some of the links in the disastrous chain of events leading to BP’s environmental and public relations nightmare.

Happily, few of us will have the misfortune of such severe consequences, but there is still a lesson for anyone in business:

What warnings are you inhibiting that might otherwise give you notice that something is not quite right?  Are you surrounded by yes-men or others who are afraid of giving you bad news (or waking you up at 3 a.m.)?  Is your array of financial and competitive sensors tuned to the changes in your markets and your clients?  Or is there an explosive cloud hanging over your head just waiting for the right circumstances to blow up?

If you are fortunate enough to have the right metrics, don’t ignore their sometimes subtle warnings.

They Don’t Understand My Job April 16, 2010

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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How many times have you heard (or thought) that?  How many times does a manager or supervisor have expectations or assignments that aren’t aligned with how the work actually gets done?

It may be unrealistic timelines or simply being unaware of the “off org-chart” communication, but whatever the situation, it needs to be addressed.  Why?  The status quo is simply not sustainable.  It puts a project or process at high risk of failure when managers don’t make the connection between a desired outcome and the day-to-day activities of the staff.  And it goes both ways; staff needs to understand how they directly and indirectly affect the organization’s profitability, reputation, and client relationships.

There is quite a movement afoot to address this concern by ensuring “transparency”.  That’s fine, but what are the recipients of that information doing with it?  If it’s knowledge for the sake of knowledge, it’s not providing any real value.  If staff clamors to see a closely-held firm’s books, they better be prepared to make some changes in their behaviors to improve them.

Management may not know what magic you perform to get the work done, but by closely tying the staff’s daily activities to the bottom line, there is greater understanding up and down the line of how those actions (tangible) can affect the relatively vague concept of profitability.

Just Making Conversation January 4, 2010

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Perhaps the most common advice for any kind of management or leadership position is to initiate and reinforce communication among the staff or project team. To accomplish this, managers are taught to ask questions of their staff and, whenever appropriate, to discover some of their personal goals and motivations. The purpose is clear: By engaging in meaningful conversation, managers are able to monitor and evaluate the employees’ capabilities and attitudes while promoting teamwork and moving projects forward. Many recommendations regarding communication do not, however, emphasize the information-gathering tools that are necessary to rise above simple conversation and engage in a real transfer of knowledge. Put simply, there is a dramatic difference between asking, “How’s it going?” and asking for specific details about progress, resource shortages, or training. (more…)

Who Put You In Charge September 3, 2009

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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From my “Manage a Camel” guest post in the UK:

A project manager’s job is never performed in a vacuum.  Not only is he or she responsible for the project team, the customer, and the various support staff, but the PM has also been specifically selected by someone to perform the job in the first place.  Especially if you are being chosen for a larger responsibility or an unusual project, it is fair to ask, “what makes me qualified to do this job?”  MORE…

The Flip Side – Camel Guest Post July 23, 2009

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From my “Manage a Camel” guest post in the UK:

It isn’t hard to find resources promoting effective management – whether of projects or people.  From IT to manufacturing to engineering, one of the most common recommendations – nay, directives – is to delegate.  To believe some of the various posts, the job of an effective manager entails continuously foisting work off onto subordinates in order to have time to “manage” the job.  And if you are one of those subordinates, it is usually pretty obvious when one of your many bosses has recently read about the latest fad and decided to send all the unpleasant work your way.  But that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  MORE…