Archive for March, 2013


Free to work

March 31, 2013

When you interviewed for the job, the manager made sure you were a “team player”. You have to work in a team, you need to make sure you put the team first, not your own needs.

When you interviewed for the job, the manager made sure you had initiative, you do not need to be continuously micro-managed, followed, told what to do every step of the way. You need to be able to make your own decisions and choices, organize yourself.

When you interviewed for the job, the manager made sure that you were trustworthy, honest, that you would report your progress truthfully and correctly. You need to be able to take control of things, do your work and not try to just make them believe that you have done more.

Now you have the job.

You are being told precisely what to do and how, you are given manuals and procedures and forms and templates and processes you need to follow as written down.

You are being continuously monitored and measured, filling in time sheets which are reviewed and audited and controlled and approved.

You are getting no feedback regarding what has been done with all these data or what management thinks of your work. At the beginning you had to wait 6 months to get a review, now it’s once a year. The review is largely vacuous, your manager has desperately tried to find something positive and something negative to say — the chosen comments appear to relate to the past two weeks exclusively and the items raised are largely insignificant details.

What happened?


When you interviewed the candidates, you made sure you could hire someone who would fit into the team, who would be an asset to the organizational culture.

When you interviewed the candidates, you made sure you could hire someone who was enthusiastic and energetic, who would have ideas and get things moving.

When you interviewed the candidates, you made sure that you could hire someone who could think, take initiative, who would not sit around waiting for management to give detailed instructions every step of the way.

Yet, the person you hired was a pain in the neck, always criticizing the way we have always done things, continuously telling everyone that “where I used to work, we…”

The person you hired resented providing the data which we need in order to report progress to the board.

The person you hired no longer accepts responsibility, but hides behind “the team” or “the process” every time something goes wrong, yet tries to take credit for the decisions you made.

The person you hired works from 9 to 5 and always has an excuse not to be available for overtime.

What happened?


We play a farce in the work place in which managers hire people whom they believe (?) they can trust, but they never demonstrate that trust. The lack of trust managers show towards the people they hire naturally generates a lack of trust of employees toward their management.

The role of management is to provide the means and the support their staff needs in order to perform the work for which they were hired. Managers who do not trust their staff members obviously do not trust their own capacity to hire competent people.

Managers need to focus on the people, not on the tools, budgets and reports. Their role is to provide the professionals in their team the resources, training, support, and anything else they might need to do their work. They need to trust the professionals to select the most appropriate approach within the context of the given framework and limitations. Micro-managing them will only serve to de-motivate and reduce performance, both in terms of productivity and quality.

Management is hiring good people, giving them the means and allowing them to do that for which they were hired.

The rest is interfering.



March 26, 2013

One of my main concerns in most organizations I get to visit is the concept that people are being rushed into producing bad quality products, which can be fixed later. This is compounded by the constant complaint that “we don’t have enough resources”. My glib answer to that complaint is usually to state that “you have enough resources, the problem is that you have too much work”. This is not just a glib comment, it really is based in the concept that there comes a time when you need to be able to say “no” to your customers. A hotel has to stop renting out rooms when all the rooms are gone, a restaurant has to turn away customers when all the tables are taken, a baker has to stop selling when all the bread is gone, yet engineering and service organizations continue to seek to sell more time, when all the work-hours are already taken.

The consequences of the current pressure put on organizations and workers are first of all that people do not have the time to do work correctly. We live in a society where fast and cheap have replaced the notion of quality. We believe that it is a good thing to be able to throw away and buy a new product when something breaks rather than going through the trouble of repairing it; it can be very difficult for most people to find someone who can repair a clock today. For larger engineering work, management appears to never be able to free up people to do the work correctly, but is always able to find them when the customer complains about the bad quality. This is a self-defeating approach to engineering, which increases costs, time to market, stress while reducing customer satisfaction and job satisfaction.

Some of the reasons for this approach to business is the lack of management of the estimating and planning activities. It all starts when a potential customer requests a quote for a job: we have four weeks to respond, no rush, the request remains lying in the wrong person’s in-box for three weeks, then is rushed through without having time to make a proper estimate of the real work required. If the people doing the work have the opportunity and time to make a valid, detailed estimate of the amount of effort required and the probable duration of the project, management will frequently feel entitled to cut the estimate by 10% in order to ensure that the contract is signed, sales will feel they need to cut another 20% because “engineers always over-estimate everything”.

When the work is finally attributed, team members are required to work on three, four, five or more different projects at the same time, based on the understanding that if you start early, you will finish earlier. However, the legend of multitasking is a long living fallacy. If you want to multitask, you need to take on tasks that occupy completely different sections of your mind, like listening to music while you work, or chewing gum while walking. The evidence is there to prove that if you do four similar (intellectual) tasks – like project management – one after the other, you will finish all four in less time than if you try to do them at the same time, continuously jumping from one to the other.

Naturally, telling people that they should take all the time they need to do a good job can lead to a whole new set of commercial issues — but, that is the solution we need to consider if we want to solve a whole series of quality related issues. This is not a fact just in your industry, it is the foundation of a growing movement in all areas to redefine the quality as a key component in our lives and our happiness, while speed only leads to stress and all kinds of new issues (look up the “Slow Movement”).

One of the key solutions in solving this conundrum is found in the estimating and planning activities, activities which are often downgraded in favour of more “productive” activities. If you want to reach your destination at the right time and you don’t want the stress of rushing to get there, you need to leave on time, with a good understanding of how long it will take to get there. The same is true for any work: if you understand where you are going, what you need to do in order to get there and start on time, you will reach it successfully.

And so, we encourage “slow-stimating”, or taking the time to estimate and plan correctly before doing the work. There is no real success coming out of rushing the estimating and planning activity, there is no improvement when the estimates are cut down to make them unrealistic.

You need to encourage the people who are doing the work to estimate what needs to be done, how the tasks are inter-related and what is the effort required before trying to put together a plan. Then, I encourage management to challenge these estimates, not so as to increase pressure and reduce delays, but quite the contrary: challenge them to identify what they have missed, what are the risks, the dependencies, what could possibly go wrong… What you really want to identify at the start of a task is how long this might take (the upper limit) rather than trying to identify how long this could take (the lower limit). Once that has been identified, we can then start implementing a strategy to see how the amount of work can be organized to see what can be done in parallel, how we can start mitigating the risks from the beginning, whether we can perform more efficiently with an original investment in training, tooling, process improvement…

Check the estimates:

  • Did they build a reasonably detailed work breakdown structure (WBS) in which the tasks are identified with an appropriate amount of detail, including the necessary preparation, planning, verification and validation, corrective actions, etc?
  • Are the estimates based on wishful thinking or can you identify and approve the data, the measurements, the experience which proves that they are realistic? Many project managers believe at the start that “this time things will work correctly” even though experience proves it never goes as smoothly as you plan…
  • Has an appropriate effort been focused on identifying, analysing, understanding and planning for risks? Things will go wrong, usually someone already knows what will/might go wrong and you need to make sure that people have been consulted.
  • Have the staffing and skills been considered in a realistic manner? Do you truly believe that you are likely to have those people available as and when they are needed or are they going to be busy on other projects? I am frequently astonished at organizations who bid or start work without considering that their staff will not be available over various festive and holiday seasons…

In conclusion, I would like to see projects started up on a realistic basis, with an understanding of what is likely to happen. Pressuring people to do more work faster, does not help quality or productivity. The only ones who benefit from the classical approach of selling more for less are the salespeople who are being rewarded based on signatures brought in and not on products delivered (and stress counselors).


Learning to be Stupid

March 11, 2013

I was recently requested to comment on an article about “Functional Stupidity“. This paper presents the concept of stupidity as being something that has positive and negative outcomes within an organization, and gives rise to “stupidity management” seeking to repress doubt and challenging questions within an organization.

This is not a new concept. It has been promoted for centuries by organizations such as the Roman Catholic church. I do not want to alienate the Catholics who may be reading this, but concepts such as papal infallibility are promotions of blind obedience, what the authors here call stupidity management. Challenging the authority of the Holy See gave raise to all kinds of “interventions” (from excommunication to the inquisition); it took centuries for Rome to finally accept that Galileo was right… A few years ago, a company with which I was working hired an enthusiastic young man for their change management team. I told his manager to make the best of him before he gets morally killed off by the corporate powers. One year later, he was doing his nine-to-five like everyone else.

The authors of the article tend to confuse the matter first by defining “leaders” in terms of their “followers”. Apparently, followers are people who trust their “leader” to have all the answers, to be trusted implicitly and to be obeyed in all times. This is the definition of leader which is used in North Korea and, in previous times was used by people such as Mao Zedong and Stalin. If that is what is understood by leader, God preserve me of followers. For me a leader is someone who inspires you to think and to challenge the status-quo. The leader should inspire trust, but not faith.

Three key aspects define what the authors call functional stupidity:

  1. Lack of reflexivity, or the unwillingness to question claims and norms. This characteristic is the foundation stone of all bureaucracy.
  2. Lack of justification, or the absence of reasons or explanations behind decisions. This is akin to the mother telling the 4 year-old “because I say so”. In an era when most organizations advertise the intelligence of their staffing, and happily use terms like knowledge management and business intelligence, the lack of willingness to provide reasoning to the staff is a unacceptable.
  3. Lack of substantive reasoning, or the focus on the task at hand without clear understanding of the context or purpose. In the UK, the term “jobsworth” defines this attitude of “doing what I am told, leaving at 5:30”.

Functional stupidity is encouraged by management by repeatedly “shooting the messenger”. This includes refusing to respond to a question, blaming people for daring to question a management decision or identifying risks which management had not noticed previously. The benefits of functional stupidity include “certainty”, “organization focus” and even “team spirit” – in fact the benefits the authors present are basically the same as those you would get from any other religion. They even allow for the negative aspect of “dissonance” in which team members are expected to hold contradictory ideas as true without questioning: what management says and what management does. George Orwell in his novel 1984 called this “doublethink“. There is no contradiction, because there is faith.

Unfortunately any organization considering this approach seriously is doomed to failure in the twenty-first century. We are living in a world in which everything is changing at an increasing rate and it is required for all participants that they are willing to continuously challenge the way things are done in order to fit into a given direction.  Serious leaders need to learn to encourage bad news and risks. However, in order to do so, the leadership needs to have a clear objective and purpose, they need to explain and motivate people into understanding and accepting their vision through education and listening.

I hope that the ambition of the authors of this article was to warn organization against this approach, but frequently that does not come through, it appears at times that they believe this is a valid management technique. The organization in the 21st century needs to be customer focused, place service delivery first and trust the staff to know how to perform this efficiently. If (as I have seen many times), management does not trust their staff with the data regarding success and failures, if management does not trust their staff to do the right thing with the right information, it is because that management team has hired the wrong people and they know it. Many managers have tried to hire people who were less capable then themselves in order to strengthen their own authority – this does not work.

The future lies in educating people and encouraging them to think for themselves.

More of my thoughts on this topic can be found in my “Prezi” presentation FP2.


Too much improvement?

March 4, 2013


Do you ever feeling like you are drowning?

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