Confusion over two words

element-of-confusion-teeThere are two words that are bandied about organisations, often interchangeably…but I think we need to take great care over their use.

These two words are ‘Manager’ and ‘Leader’.

Using the example of a sports team to explain:

  • the person installed as Captain may not be a leader i.e. if the Coach has got the wrong (wo)man for the job; however
  • many players may lead, despite not being bestowed with the role of Captain.

One is a hierarchical/ formal role granted from above, the other is natural.

You can be given the title of ‘Manager’ and this be a fact, whether people like it or not.

Conversely, you can’t give yourself the moniker of ‘Leader’ (or have this formally bestowed on you) if this is not so! You either lead or you don’t. People follow or they don’t.

You can become a leader by your words and deed. Equally, you can lose your leadership mojo. You aren’t really someone’s leader, just because you say so. Conversely, you may be leading (influencing) people without this being obvious to ‘Management’.

I am not suggesting that there isn’t a relationship between ‘Manager’ and ‘Leader’:

  • the formal position you are given (and, with this, the likely resources at your disposal) will impact the degree of influence that you can have; and
  • obvious leaders may very well be given formal management positions…but this doesn’t secure them as a leader going forwards.

All the more reason to understand the distinction between Management and Leadership.

Finally: It’s worth noting that being good at leading shouldn’t be mistaken for being a leader for good: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. were clearly leaders! They inspired many people to dream, learn, do and become more….but not as we would consider towards a purpose that we would agree with.

Getting over the God Complex

infallible2I recently came across a superb (and highly relevant) TED talk by Tim Harford called ‘Trial, error and the God complex’. I humbly suggest that it is worth your while watching it – it (like most TED talks) is 18 mins. long.

(Note: For those of you who haven’t heard of Tim Harford, he is an economist and writes a great column in the (UK) Financial Times called ‘The Undercover Economist’. His columns have been drawn together into some really interesting books by the same name)

In the TED video, Tim tells us the story of how Archie Cochrane fought all his life against what he called ‘the God complex’, where the symptoms of this complex are:

“No matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution.”

In fact we see people with the God complex around us all the time:

  • Our medical experts (Doctors)
  • Our economists
  • Our business leaders
  • Our politicians that we vote for
  • ….etc.
  • “people who, in the face of an incredibly complicated world, are nevertheless absolutely convinced that they understand the way that the world [as is relevant to them and what they want to achieve] works.”

Added to this, there is even a relatively new ‘business’ book genre out there that tells us we can all ‘fake it to make it’…which essentially encourages us to see if we can ‘catch’ the God complex because this will no doubt be good for us and our careers!

Tim nicely explains that the world is simply far too complicated for us to understand. It’s unbelievable how complicated the world has become…and is so far removed from the simple societies in which our brain evolved.

We find the God complex so tempting….we want to draw a few graphs (maybe a two-by-two matrix for those management consultants amongst us) and then say “yes, we get it, we understand how this all works!” BUT we don’t get it, and we never do!

This isn’t saying that we can’t solve complicated problems in a complicated world – we clearly can…but not by presuming we know the answer!

“The way we solve [complicated problems] is by humility: to abandon the God complex and to actually use a problem solving technique that works…and we have [such a] technique. You show me a successful complex system and I’ll show you a system that has evolved through trial and error.”

He goes on to give some excellent examples of trial and error* that have achieved great success (*which in my ‘Lean Thinking’ course we explain as the scientific method of experimentation). These successes couldn’t have been achieved by subscribing to the God complex, which would have meant finding an expert who allegedly had (or can work out) ‘the answer’.

“The moment you step back from the God complex and you say ‘let’s just try a bunch of stuff, let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not’, you can solve your problem”

Tim’s research (explained in his latest book) has concluded that the process of trial and error is far more common in successful institutions than we care to recognise. It is how they can be successful!

I love the bit where Tim basically says that, whilst lots of people say that his point (about experimentation) is blindingly obvious so “duh, nothing new there Tim”, he will only accept the ‘it’s obvious so no need to bang on about it’ critique when we change the way we educate our children, when our politicians change the platform that they campaign on (and how they act in office) and even more importantly, when we change the way that we vote accordingly.

I would add “…and our business leaders change the way that they ‘run’ our organisations”.

Tim’s message aligns perfectly with:

  • W Edwards Deming’s message of constant ‘Plan, Do, Study, Act’ cycles;
  • Taiichi Ohno’s message of going to the Gemba – studying the actual facts (evidence) rather than dealing in opinions;
  • Mike Rother’s message of setting a target condition (not a target) and experimenting through the obstacles to get there;
  • John Seddon’s message of understanding your system (study, get knowledge) before making any interventions;
  • …and on and on through the great System Thinking giants.

I love this quote:

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.” (H L Mecken)

Finally, a couple of warnings:

  • Beware of shonky experiments , in which you are merely going through the motions of what you want to do anyway; and
  • If you offer rewards contingent on the success of an experiment then don’t expect unbiased results!

The only true experiment is one in which you are open minded as to the outcome…and you should remove any instruments that might put this in jeopardy.

(Credit: the cartoon is of ‘Captain Infallible’ taken from doctorinsan

A state of flow

rock_climb_will_mono-2I often talk about flow in the sense of how value flows through a value stream from a customer’s demand trigger through to its satisfaction.

However, this post is all about a different use of the word ‘flow’.

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – I’m not going to pronounce that! – is world famous for his studies and writings on happiness and creativity. His seminal book ‘Flow: The psychology of optimal experience’ (1990) outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow.

If you are in a state of ‘flow’ then this means that you are completely absorbed by an activity and a situation…and you are so involved that nothing else matters. It’s what is often described as being ‘in the zone’.

It is the optimal state of intrinsic motivation and is something that we all experience at times, even to the point that you forget about time, food, self ego and so on. And, given this, you can see that it is an incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable state to be in.

It has been noted that this flow state is a functional mode of ‘being’ that eastern meditation masters have been pointing to for millennia.

An example:

“The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are in flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow)

It just so happens that, having regularly climbed some years ago, I really ‘get’ his example…and even if you are afraid of heights but have been on a climbing wall once in your life I bet you weren’t thinking about much else whilst holding on!

Your flow examples will be different to mine – other activities often cited as examples are musicians lost in their music and painters becoming one with the process of painting i.e. they experience ‘the suspension of time’. Have a think about when you are totally in the zone and not thinking about the rest of the world.

So what?!

Now, I know I can’t spend all my days [climbing/….] (please substitute your personal flow activities in here) and that I need to earn money to live…but wouldn’t it be brilliant if I could regularly attain a state of flow in my work?!

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that flow occurs when there is neither anxiety nor boredom.

Anxiety occurs when the challenge of the moment exceeds our capabilities. Boredom occurs when we are capable of doing considerably more than the challenge presented to us.

Tying this in to Frederick Hertzberg’s theory of motivation: Anxiety and boredom are demotivating, flow is motivating.

A command-and-control management system is likely to:

  • dictate methods/ solutions/ activities to the workers;
  • set grand ‘implementation’ plans that seem massive and unachievable “given what we know about our reality!”;
  • focus on results, rather than constant iterative improvement;
  • set targets that may be impossible or out of our control (leading to anxiety) or
  • may be easily achieved (boredom)
    • “….though, if I get a bonus for achieving the easy target, I am unlikely to tell someone I am bored for fear of being given the impossible instead.”
  • use end-game language (such as ‘best practice’, ‘target operating model’, ‘solution’, ‘project completion’…) rather than focusing on the journey;
  • likely lock-in ‘the plan’ and focus much effort on forensic examination (and blame) of variance rather constant learning and adjustment.

…but, ultimately, provides an environment that constrains people’s ability to achieve flow in their work.

We can see that the Systems thinking ‘scientific method’ of:

  • constant/ never-ending:
  • experimentation;
  • by the workers/ management together;
  • to attain progressively more challenging target conditions;
  • which are meaningful to the customer

is most likely to provide workers and management with a state of enjoyable psychological flow where their skills, and the challenges they take on will constantly grow.

I love being in a state of flow…and I expect you do too.

Demand, demand everywhere…but not a drop of value to drink!

PhoneScream…so I contact a (world renowned) bank about opening an account, but it’s not a basic request:

The comedy begins:

  • I look up the bank’s internet site to find a number to ring for my specific need. I can’t find anything that fits. The best I find is a ‘contact us’ email form, so I fill it in, explaining my need and asking for the right contact number.
  • I get an email back providing me with a contact number and instructions as to which IVR selections to make when I ring it (‘press 2 for blah, then 1 for blah, then 3 for blah’).
  • I ring the number. The IVR is nothing like the instructions. I listen to the (long list of) options. None fit my need so I wait for someone to pick up.
  • I explain my need to the agent that picks up and am told that “oh no, we don’t deal with that. You need to speak with ‘abc’ department. Would you like me to pass you through to them?” I say that, yes, I surely would.
  • I am ‘cold passed’ to this 2nd queue and therefore have to wait in line and then re-explain my need to the agent. They say “No, they shouldn’t have passed you through to us. You need ‘xyz’ department. I’ll put you through.”
  • Once again, I am ‘cold passed’ through to a 3rd queue, wait in line and re-explain. They say “We don’t deal with that. You need to speak with ‘blah’ department”
  • I listen to the original bloody IVR again! I’m really annoyed now. I think about hanging up, but I really want to talk to someone about my need. I decide to wait.
  • I get another agent and explain about what has just happened to me…this took time and I was clearly exhibiting signs of annoyance (funny that!). I asked them to PLEASE listen to my actual need and spend time with me to figure out if they can assist and then who can. They say that they need to transfer me to someone who can help. I pleadingly ask them to ‘warm transfer’ me over to that person so that I don’t start the merry-go-round again!
  • I was cold transferred to another number!!! After waiting for an agent, guess what, they couldn’t help and would need to transfer me to…..I hung up.
  • I went back on to the website, found the ‘contact us’ email address and wrote what I shall describe as a ‘strong email’….I am yet to receive a response.

Now, whilst the above is (verging on) humorous for those not involved, sadly I bet most of you reading it have examples of similar ‘service’ experiences to have happened to you.

To summarise the above:

  • there was 1 ‘white marble’ of value demand, the actual need for which the bank is there for;
  • there were 6 ‘blue marbles’ of failure demand (so far!), each of which the bank had to handle*, as if it were a valid unit of production;
    • * for each unit of demand they had to: plan and roster staff; handle the queue; handle the call (welcome, understand need, action, closure); record in their systems; performance review the agent as to how the call was ‘handled’….etc
  • each silo within the bank experienced their vertical unit of activity and probably met each target they set themselves: call answering time, average handling time, call resolution rate….and probably celebrated their success, perhaps with some awards, even some contingent rewards! ;
  • the bank is oblivious to the horizontal flow that I experienced;
  • and, worst of all, my need remained unresolved!
    • simply and clearly explaining to me that they can’t do what I was asking (if this were the case) would have resolved my value demand.

To use a current buzz phrase, there is nothing ‘customer-centric’ about this experience.

Why does the bank have this problem?

Because it bought into the economies of scale mantra of ‘standardise, specialise, centralise.’

Because it believed that what has been seen/ heard about in manufacturing can simply be applied to service.

Because it bought into technology as an automator of service provision.

What does this cause?

Silo’d thinking, in which effort is put into the efficiency of each vertical activity…at the expense of the effectiveness of the horizontal flow of value, from customer demand through to its satisfaction.

Massive waste that is unseen (though paid for) by the business yet is acutely felt by the customer.

“Cost is in flow, not activity….economies come from flow, not scale.” (John Seddon)

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” (Peter Drucker)

Now you might laugh at this, and think “wow, daft bank!” but, before we dismiss this as not something that could happen to us, I could equally have written about a similar experience I had from ringing an internal helpline at the company I work for. I didn’t (and won’t) write about this internal example because the point is to think about the problem and its causes, not to get caught by the error of blame.

The reason for the madness is the system (and management’s beliefs and behaviours), not the people within it.

None of the ‘customer service agents’ will have enjoyed handling my units of demand – there was no satisfaction to be had in helping me with my need. Each will have been left hollow by their inability to assist…and then they will have moved on to their next call….safe in the knowledge that they cannot change their reality whilst they work within their ‘command and control’ paradigm.

People are people so why should it be?

6508-mouse…so we are stood around the visual management board, considering a problem:

There’s been lots of talking, but an impasse has been reached.

  • After a while a ‘quiet mouse’ of a person (almost imperceptibly) whispers something that is actually quite profound….but no one seems to have heard it;
  • The ‘fog horn’ person doesn’t realise that he did in fact subconsciously overhear this whisper and blurts out similar words, thinking that he’s just had an original thought;
  • “Wow”, everyone thinks, “that’s a great idea!”
  • ‘Quiet mouse’ shifts back a little and thinks “that’s basically what I just said”…but is too polite to point this out;
  • Then the ‘really awkward’ person says something which annoyingly (for ‘fog horn’), yet totally justifiably, questions the great idea;
  • The ‘comedian’ says something funny that removes the tension in the air between ‘fog horn’ and ‘really awkward’;
  • Which causes the ‘deep thought’ person to ponder ‘really awkward’s challenge and carefully suggest a logical revision to the idea;
  • To which ‘fog horn’ adds his support, ‘comedian’ makes a joke out of this …and the group unite on fleshing out what experiment they are going to run to test out the idea and then conclude.

So, who did well in this discussion? Who did ‘best’? Who deserves praise? And, assuming that the subsequent experiment shows that the great idea has legs, which one deserves an award! Hang on…why are we trying to create a competition out of this?!

In reality, the good idea needed each and every one of ‘quiet mouse’, ‘fog horn’, ‘really awkward’, ‘comedian’ and ‘deep thought’ and the combined skills and personalities that they bring to the table. Remove any of these from the mix and we might not have got anywhere.

Those of you with even a mild eye for detail may protest that I have well and truly butchered Dr Meredith Belbin’s ‘Team Roles’ (I don’t think his list includes ‘quiet mouse’)…this was semi-intentional. Whilst Belbin’s research is hugely important (and very interesting), we shouldn’t really need the actual list of researched people characteristics to conclude that everyone’s different!

If you were to study a group of people working together over a period of time, you would see how dynamic (and necessary) the interplays are….but you know this!

However, a ‘command and control’ organisation looks to:

  • single out people to praise for their ‘individual brilliance’; and
  • rate and rank people against a supposedly desirable personality type.

An organisation is a highly complex living (as opposed to mechanistic) system. We should be celebrating the differences within our people. We should want to encourage each of them to develop their own innate skills AND the ability to collaborate.

A reminder of Deming’s wonderful quote about people:

“a [true] manager of people understands that people are different from each other. He [or she] tries to create for everybody interest and challenge and joy in work. He tries to optimise the family background, education, skills, hopes and abilities of everyone. This is not ranking of people. It is, instead, recognition of differences between people, and an attempt to put everybody in position for development.”

So what’s the point?

The success of an organisation will be best achieved through respecting each and every person and who they are….and helping them become who they can be. It will be damaged most by competition and pushing people to be who they are not.

This needs a rethink of the ‘command and control’ management system that creates the environment that many (most) of us work within.

End note: Does the title of this post mean anything to you? A 1980s song lyric? (…or perhaps it’s just my youth)

An Exercise in Futility

Dalmatian-chasing-tail-006Now this post is a bit longer than normal, but I hope that the 1st quote grabs you and sucks you in…I reckon that once you start you won’t stop 

“Performance evaluation is an exercise in futility” (Scholtes)

Every organisation operating a ‘command and control’ management system uses the performance appraisal as a key tool in its arsenal.

The contention in this post is that one of the key steps in providing an environment that fosters a highly motivated and capable workforce is to scrap the performance appraisal system and replace it with something far better.

Problems with performance appraisals

Let’s first consider just some of the problems with actually carrying out what might be considered a valid performance appraisal of an individual – that’s you and me:

  • Appraiser Bias: Performance assessments tell us as much about the appraiser as the appraisee. It tells us how harsh a critic the manager is, how good a job he/she expects the employee to do, how well the two of them get along, what basic values they share and even whether their backgrounds are similar; 
  • Management performance: The quality of management has a huge influence. “any individual’s performance is, to a considerable extent, a function of how they are managed…so the manager is in part evaluating him/herself without appearing to do so.” (McGregor) 
  • Interdependence: None of us act alone. “Almost nothing is accomplished by an individual operating alone. Most work is obviously a collective effort. Yet even workers who seem quite independent depend on others for ideas, stimulation, feedback, moral support and administrative services.

When an individual makes some heroic effort and accomplishes an extraordinary task, often he or she can take the time to do that work only because others have filled in on the less heroic parts of the job. When someone is credited with a success, he or she is individually honoured [e.g. by money, award, public acclaim] for what was most likely the work of many.” (Scholtes)

  • The effects of the system: Deming used his famous red bead experiment to illustrate this point simply yet brilliantly. He explains that the performance of the employee is 95% governed by the system that they work within. The ranking of people is actually merely ranking the effect of the system on the people. 

“It is simply unfair to the extent that employees are held responsible for what are, in reality, systemic factors that are beyond their control.” (Kohn)  

  • A straight jacket: Appraisals ‘compare’ everyone against a uniform expectation (albeit per manager – see 1. above) rather than understand and embrace the reality that everyone is unique, with very different (often subtle) contributions to make.

Deming wrote the wonderful words that “a [true] manager of people understands that people are different from each other. He [or she] tries to create for everybody interest and challenge and joy in work. He tries to optimise the family background, education, skills, hopes and abilities of everyone. This is not ranking of people. It is, instead, recognition of differences between people, and an attempt to put everybody in position for development.”  

  • Ignoring variation: The work of each individual is characterised by variability…it will naturally fluctuate! You cannot be the same every minute of every day….if you were, you would be a machine! Further, the major causes of such variation are beyond the attributes of the individual. So should you be criticised or praised because of ups and downs in your supposed ‘performance’ outside of your control?

I could go on…but I fear that I would write a book!

The performance appraisal creates the illusion that management have indeed isolated and determined the performance of an individual. Worse still, it allows management to abdicate their responsibilities – they will simply meet the person each period, get the person to justify themselves (with evidence!) and then judge them….no need to actually get to understand who they are, what their dreams and aspirations are, and therefore discuss how they can help them become reality.

The effects of performance appraisals

Most organisations running performance appraisal systems will answer back in denial: “yes, we know all about the above and we have ‘continuously improved’ our process through much iteration so there’s no such problems here!”

I would contend that they may have succeeded in creating a (laborious, bureaucratic and wasteful) process that masks (i.e. disregards) the above, but they cannot remove them.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s just suppose they have….what about the effects of the performance appraisal:

[the system by which merit is appraised and rewarded is] “the most powerful inhibitor to quality and productivity in the Western world….it nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry…and leaves people bitter.” (Deming)

“Even if performance appraisals were adequate to gauge how well people were doing their effects are usually so destructive that they shouldn’t be used anyway. Not only is the fact of interdependence in the workplace ignored, but people are discouraged from cooperating in the future.” (Kohn)

“Appraisals leave people bitter, bruised, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some severely depressed.” (Seddon)

What do people running performance appraisals say they are for?

Rather than simply looking for a new technique to continue with the old flawed logic, let’s consider why people are being evaluated.

Kohn notes four ‘defences’ as being used by those that contend performance appraisals are required. They say they are needed to:

  1. Determine how much each employee should be paid and/or who should receive various awards and incentives;
  2. Make employees perform better for fear of receiving a negative evaluation or in the hope of getting a positive one;
  3. Sort employees on the basis of how good a job they are doing so we know who to promote; and
  4. Provide feedback, discuss problems, and identify needs in order to help each employee do a better job.

Taking each of these in turn, and using some of my previous posts so that you and I can finish this post today!!…

Regarding 1: Please read the following posts already on the blog that debunk the use of contingent rewards: The Chasm and Money as pay

Regarding 2: Please read Oh no, not that old theory and Making a wrong thing righter that explain why ‘carrot and stick’ approaches to motivation are counter-productive.

Regarding 3: Please read Anointing heroes. Further, there is a whole post to be written on promotion (I’ll add it to my list!). It’s not a good reason to carry out performance appraisals.

Defences 1 – 3 are about doing things to people…which leaves 4 as the only one which could be about working with people….mmm, if we got rid of 1 -3 then this is sounding promising! Read on.

So what should we replace performance appraisals with?

Kohn suggests that, if the over-riding purpose is to foster improvement (for the individual, and for the organisation) then the following principles take shape:

  • A two-way conversation:
    • An opportunity to trade ideas and ask questions;
    • NOT a series of judgements about one person pronounced by another;
  • A continuous process, rather than a time bound event (e.g. annual, quarterly);
  • It never involves any sort of relative ranking or competition (no scoring!);
  • It is utterly divorced from decisions about compensation
    • “Providing feedback that employees can use to do a better job ought never to be confused or combined with controlling them by offering (or withholding) rewards.” (Kohn)
    • It is “foolish to have a manager serving in the self-conflicting role as a counsellor (helping someone improve performance) when, at the same time, he or she is presiding as judge over the same employee’s salary” (Meyer)

Essentially, Kohn is arguing for good old fashioned regular and meaningful conversations between employee and manager within an environment of openness and mutual trust. I’ll have some of that!

Scholtes takes this further: Performance appraisals focus on the wrong target! The true opportunities for improvement are in an organisation’s systems and processes, rather than individuals or groups. Instead of focusing on individuals, managers should be working with individuals to focus on the problems with the system.

It’s worth noting that an organisation taking the above seriously won’t be able to move to this highly desirable state overnight: Once the scoring, ranking, rating and rewarding has been stripped out, it will take a bit of time for managers to establish the trust of their employees.

On the plus side, the vast majority of managers will relish the removal of the hugely wasteful processes and painful conversations of the old way…and will really enjoy spending the newly created time actually helping their team.

What about the advice from all those expensive consultants?

You will find queues of expensive consultants who will tell you otherwise.

Scholtes notes that most ‘research’ on performance appraisals consists of opinion polls asking “which kind of performance appraisal do you prefer?” They are usually:

  • conducted by consulting companies selling their ‘Human Capital’ services;
  • filled out by HR managers who, as a group, are predisposed in favour of performance appraisal…no disrespect meant but it is, after all, a major part of their (current) job; and then
  • sent back out to the same group of HR managers in glossy consultancy report format along with a nicely worded proposal as to how the consultancy can help implement what they now claim to be ‘best practise’ and move them up some supposed ‘maturity curve’!

Scholtes notes “when biased people ask the opinions of biased people, the results cannot be described as research.” This quote is so relevant to many a ‘big consultancy’ report purporting to be ‘research’.

…and finally: what do the Japanese do?

A really nice story from John Seddon:

“I was asked to write an article exposing the problems with performance appraisals for a Sunday newspaper. I submitted my 1st draft.

  • The editor suggested I should provide balance by talking about what to do instead.
  • My response was that you don’t need to find an alternative to doing a bad thing – you should just stop doing it!
  • The editor said ‘ring your friends in Japan and find out what they do’.
  • …so I did.
  • I asked ‘what do you do about performance appraisal?’
  • The reply was ‘what is that?’
  • …I explained.
  • Japanese people tend to be too polite to laugh.”

…so you got an award!

gold-trophy-cup1So your organisation has just found out that it has ‘won’ an award, put forward by an external party. Before I offer my congratulations…

Why did you get this award?

  • Did you go searching for it; OR
  • Did it come to you?

Why do ‘they’ want to give out an award?

  • As much for their benefit as yours (e.g. to drive your and others behaviours); OR
  • For the furtherance of an honourable cause?

Did you WANT the award and why?

  • “Too right – are you mad?!”; OR
  • “We just wanted to get some feedback as to what we are doing and see if we could learn anything from articulating this to others.”

What did you tell them in order to get the award?

  • A beautifully crafted and selective ‘case study’; OR
  • The warts and all reality

How did you tell them?

  • A slick ‘look at me’ boast; OR
  • A humble ‘matter of fact, if you are interested’ way

Who ‘made the pitch’/ ‘did the explaining’? (as appropriate from your answers above!)

  • The commander-and-controller; OR
  • A representative team of the doers?

How do you feel about the award?

  • “Yes, get in. This will make me us look really good!!”; OR
  • “That’s great…but let’s not let it distract us from what we are actually trying to achieve. We’ll move on now to the next challenge!”

And the most important question (I should be able to predict the answer from your responses to the above):

What is the award going to do for you?

  • Make you crow, and sit back on your laurels praising your own brilliance because “wow, we clearly know how to do stuff round here!”; OR
  • A renewed drive to keep on towards your true purpose, taking on board the learning gained from the experience…but clear that the award changes nothing in this regard.

And finally:

What are you going to do with the physical trophy that you likely received?

  • Put it on display for all your customers to see, so that they are being force-fed how great you are despite what service their unit of demand is actually receiving; OR
  • Allow the doers to decide where they’d like to keep it…which will probably be in something like the tea room along with other mementos that embody their team work…but you don’t ‘rub’ your customers’ face in it because it has no bearing on helping them with their specific units of demand.

Your answers to the above will reflect which management environment you work within.

The chasm

dollar-trap…between what science knows & what business does!

In my 3 day ‘Lean/Systems Thinking’ course, I ‘mess with the heads’ of the participants about incentives and motivation. I use material from a fabulous book called ‘Punished by Rewards’ written by Alfie Kohn (1993/1999).

Now, a number of course attendees comment back to me that “isn’t what you are saying the same as that Dan Pink guy?” * and, yes, basically it is. Pink is what I might call the modern day Kohn, the ‘in vogue’ management guru on this stuff…not that Alfie has gone anywhere!

[* Dan Pink wrote a 2009 book on the same subject area as Alfie Kohn’s earlier book. Pink’s book is called ‘Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us’. I’ve noticed a Dan Pink RSAnimate informally making its way round]

This post is about a Dan Pink TED talk passed to me by a participant on one of my courses (thanks for sharing), in which Pink eloquently and passionately puts across his points. It is 18 mins. long and well worth watching.

The key message in the TED talk is that:

There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

‘Carrot and stick’ (as in contingent rewards) is an ideology, not a proven method to get the desired results. In fact, worse than being ineffective, it can do much harm.

Now, once you’ve watched the TED talk, you will know what the key message is about and that Dan Pink puts forward some scientific research as evidence. You might think “yeah, anyone can put forward an experiment or two, but I bet there are other experiments that ‘prove’ the opposite!”

To answer this: If you read Kohn’s book (which is a detailed and brilliantly written review of the body of research around incentives) you will find that:

  • experiments have been done on this stuff since the 1950’s, each and every decade, right up to today;
  • the results of these experiments have been replicated again and again and again; and
  • there isn’t any credible scientific evidence that contradicts the findings.

So what about service organisations?

Cast your mind back to the candle problem that Pink refers to, and whether the tacks are provided inside or outside of the box.

In service, the necessary actions are rarely a simple and obvious ‘cookie cutter’ response. Rather, the tacks might be scattered under the table, the box still a flat pack and the candle missing a wick!

Every customer service person should be thinking about the unique customer they are dealing with, their unique reality and then providing excellent service that satisfies (and hopefully exceeds) their specific needs.

You might come back at me and say “but if we standardise everything then our people don’t need to think. They just need to ‘turn the handle’ and THEN incentives work…don’t they?”

Two comments on this:

  • do you think the customer wants to be standardised?
  • do you think our people simply want to ‘turn a handle’?

I think not!

Be careful of gimmicky management fads:

Pink talks about a number of innovative techniques to get people thinking autonomously. He refers to Atlasian’s FEDEX day, Google’s 20% time and ROWE. Each makes some sense.

However, if a company simply picks up one of these ideas and ‘implements it’ BUT doesn’t change the underlying thinking, it won’t work.

It’s not about the gimmick (and you don’t need to copy theirs), it’s about the underlying thinking!

Kohn sets out a 3-step approach:

  1. abolish extrinsic motivators (incentives, competitive awards….);

(“pay people well and fairly…then put [incentives] out of their minds.”)

  1. then re-evaluate ‘evaluations’: move from formal time-batched judgement events to continual 2-way conversations divorced from the issue of compensation;
  2. then create the conditions for authentic motivation:
    • Collaboration: across the horizontal value stream
    • Work content: make it interesting
    • Choice: allow people to experiment and learn

And a reminder of that great John Seddon quote:

“with every pair of hands you get a free brain – but whether the brain is engaged depends on the design of the work.”

…but why?

downloadProject Steering Group Meeting starts:

Project Manager: “We’ve had a major setback and we can’t ‘go live’ next week as per the original target date set. We’ve worked some long hours to think about this and what we need to do and have re-planned. We have worked out that, if we work really smart and hard and everything goes to plan, we believe we could be back on track in 8 weeks time.”

Big tough Leader: “I want it in 4 weeks.”

Project Manager: “I know it’s disappointing and you would like it as quickly as possible. That’s why when we did the re-planning we cut out all the fat AND used really stretching estimates…and it is this that gives us the 8 weeks….it could easily have come out at 12 weeks or more.”

Big tough Leader: You’ve got 4 weeks.”

Project Manager: “I’ve spoken with everyone. We got together as a team to work out what is possible. They all rolled their sleeves up, did some good honest talking and they tell me that they will move heaven and earth to hit 8 weeks.”

Big tough Leader: “Look at my fingers [holds up four fingers]. I’m not going to discuss it anymore.”

…and so the meeting ends, with the Big Tough Leader walking off pleased with him/herself and the Project Manager having the unenviable task of trying to explain to the troops and keep them motivated…all of which will take further time (which could have been spent delivering value).

It’s at this point that I would want to press the ‘stop’ button in the conversation, wind back and at the point that the Big Tough Leader says “you’ve got 4 weeks”, I would want the Project manager to say “…but why?”

Now, there appear to be two logical answers to this question:

  1. The leader knows something that the Project Manager doesn’t, like there’s an important constraint that means that 8 weeks is no good….in which case the Project Manager (and the team) needs to know the full facts and can enter a proper dialogue about the options available…with some likely innovative ideas coming out; or
  2. The leader is attempting to ‘manage by fear’ and thinks that their clever ‘stretch-target’ will motivate (!) the workers. Further, it shows that the leader doesn’t trust his/her people and thinks they are lazy, that they are holding effort back and need a carrot/ stick management approach.

So, what actually happens when unrealistic target dates are set?

  • disbelief by those who actually know the reality of the situation…de-motivation…and therefore a major disconnect between worker and leader…leading to an understandable lack of respect in the leader;
  • de-scoping of value from the work so as to hit an arbitrary target date (“we delivered something!”), as opposed to achieving a target condition;
  • the customer (the people receiving the outcomes) never believing the dates that you give them along the lines of ‘the boy that cries wolf’ fable. This is because big tough target dates are published (“because, then, that’ll make ’em work harder!“) and then have to be continually re-published as reality bites and dates are re-set;
  • much effort is wasted ‘analysing’ variances between what was dictated vs. what eventuated…none of which comes as much of a surprise to the workers who knew anyway;
  • much wasted effort is spent after ‘go-live’ coping with the semi-complete outcome and the customer fallout.

Okay, so you hit a published target deadline…big deal!

What matters is what was actually achieved in respect of the purpose of the value stream being affected. Is the value stream more or less capable in the eyes of the customer?

Now, obviously any roll out needs to know a date to be able to plan its implementation, BUT we should be trying to delay the setting of this date as long as possible in the work so that we have the most certainty as to what it will actually be – a ‘just in time’ mentality rather than a ‘hook to hang people on’.

Let’s try to move:

  • away from thinking setting target dates as a management tool is a good thing;
  • to thinking that setting target conditions* is the right thing to do, and then providing an environment in which everyone works to achieve this as effectively as possible.

* A reminder: a target condition is a description of the desired future state (how a process should operate, the intended normal pattern of operation). It is NOT a numerical activity target or deadline.

“First determine where you want to go, then consider how to get there within financial and other constraints.” (Mike Rother)

Do you use target dates as a ‘management by fear’ tool to ‘make people comply’?!

A Gulf in Thinking

keep-calm-and-pull-andon-cord-4The Toyota Production System famously uses the andon system: the provision of a cord hanging from the ceiling* at every worker’s station that, once pulled, indicates that the worker has identified a problem and that no more work should pass through their section of the line until this problem has been resolved.

(* it doesn’t have to be a cord, it can be a button or other such device.)

The problem could be anything. If the worker isn’t happy about something, then the cord gets pulled!

Once pulled, a light and/or buzzer will be triggered. The worker’s supervisor will come to their station and, together, they will consider the problem and how to resolve it. Depending on the problem, it may be resolved fully or temporarily whilst a better countermeasure is worked on in parallel (i.e. the temporary doesn’t become permanent!)

This ‘stop the line’ mentality means that:

  • No more units of work can go through the line whilst the problem exists, meaning that the customers are protected from receiving a defective product/ service;
  • The problem is solved as soon as it occurs. It’s not a case of “yeah, we’ve known about it for ages but no one’s done anything about it (yet!)…”; and
  • The process is continually improving naturally, as it operates. I love this bit – the workers are the source of this improvement rather than specialist improvement teams being sent in to monitor them and their work.

And to be clear, this andon system is equally applicable to a service organisation and its processes as it is to a manufacturing line. If you are performing a service but experience a problem…stop…don’t keep processing yet more units through the problem…work to remove the problem. This ‘stop’ doesn’t mean stop answering customer demand (such as picking up the phone) but it does mean stop doing things that you know aren’t going to be good for that, and future, units of work.

Now, obviously, a process performer is constrained by the system and can’t resolve problems by themselves. The andon system is far more than a cord! It is workers, supervisors and managers all working together with the same ‘stop the line and fix it’ mentality.

H. Thomas Johnson, in his highly regarded book ‘Profit beyond measure’ explains a conversation he had with a training executive from one of the American ‘Big Three’ auto companies who were trying to emulate Toyota by copying their tools and techniques.

This is what the executive said when Johnson asked how her company presents the andon system in employee training:

“Employees are told that the andon system is very important to achieving high quality, but they are told that they must use the cord responsibly. That means don’t pull it unless it is absolutely necessary, because pulling the cord and stopping the line is very costly.”

…and so this executive exposes the absolute gulf in thinking between her organisation and (System Thinking organisations such as) Toyota!

THE point of the andon system is that the employee is able to stop their work at will.

How the hell does the worker know if it’s ‘absolutely necessary’? What does that even mean? Toyota want the worker to ‘pull the cord’ even if they are simply uncertain about something…so that this uncertainty can be identified, understood and removed – it’s not the workers fault if they aren’t sure about something! It’s the system.

They also want the worker to pull the cord if they can’t keep pace with the line. Again, this is the worker telling them something that they need to know…not an opportunity to blame the worker as a ‘slacker’. They can then look at why the worker can’t keep pace. This could be for a myriad of reasons.

You can see why a Toyota line will continue to get better and better every day and their workers more expert, feeling more respected and as a result more engaged in wanting to improve.

You can also see that their American competitor is playing a ‘command and control’ mind game on their workers. The worker is thinking “should I pull the cord? Not sure…best not to since I don’t want to be blamed for the cost.”

Paradoxically, it will be Toyota’s costs that will be going down!!!

Now, Toyota does monitor the number of times the cords are pulled in a given period (i.e. they do care about who is pulling it and how often) but not as you might think…

…they are most concerned when the number of ‘stop the line’ signals goes down…because this indicates that they are not improving as much as they were…and this concerns them: more andon cord pulls please!!!

Oh, and one last (yet important) thing: targets, and contingent rewards , are the sworn enemy of stopping the line to resolve a problem!