Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sad to see him go

Congress lost a weiner this week. While some might say that it's about time, I think we all needed the distraction. Comedians had easy access to some great fodder, and for a few days we could forget that there was anything going on anywhere else in the world. The trial of that psychopathic mother in Florida elbowed its way in to the news cycle, but that's because people love a good murder trial, especially when the defendant is so easy to hate. Yet the Weiner dominated, reinforcing the belief all men have on that topic.

It got me to thinking about quitting and how that relates to leadership. Once upon a time in Japan, whenever a grievous error happened in a company, the company's leader would resign. It was seen as a way to save face for the business. By quitting, the leader took upon himself the blame for whatever went wrong. Whether or not he felt any guilt is beside the point; I like to believe that many of them felt some small sense of remorse. That doesn't matter, though; what's important is that they took responsibility.

That doesn't happen in the US. There is a belief here that executives have plausible deniability. And they do, I guess. My CEO probably believes everything is hunky-dory in my department. The reality is quite different; some horrible mistakes have been made that are only now showing their results. Not to toot my own horn, but I predicted the problems; evidently nobody believed me then, and nobody remembers it now. In part that's because Americans love working in a reactive mode. Football is the perfect example of this. Coaches come up with a game plan, but most of the game is a reaction to what the other team is doing. Basketball is an even better example. Our leaders don't always know what's going on at the lower levels because the lower level leaders don't want them to know; that's common sense, I guess. Who wants to tell the CEO that they screwed up? Unfortunately, I'm one of those that would say that. Ask me what the problems are and I'll tell you, and I'll own up to my part of it. That's because I believe all humans are fallible. We all make mistakes. As I tell my baseball team, ESPN makes a fortune selling blooper DVDs. No matter what your level of play, you will screw up. It isn't the mistake that makes the man, but it's how we react to it.

Leaders must understand quitting. They have to know when it happens and why. A leader must have the ability to take responsibility and, if needed, quit for the good of the company. Weiner finally decided to quit and it's the right thing to do. Too bad other politicians don't understand this. I'm looking at you, Gingrich.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Digital Age

There are times when I feel somewhat sorry for people running for elected office. Nothing escapes scrutiny these days, and sometimes the scrutiny isn't always fair. Do we really need to know about every dumb thing someone says? Like when Sarah Palin misspoke about Paul Revere. I don't like Sarah Palin; I think she's a perfect example of what is wrong with politics, and she has absolutely no qualification to hold elected office. But I also don't think her gaffe about Paul Revere is the worst thing in the world, either. To me it just highlights how unqualified she is, but we really should know that by now. Unfortunately, there is a segment of our population that will lean towards her because of such mistakes, because those are mistakes that they, too, make. For some reason we don't want leaders smarter than ourselves.

Then there are people who are just plain stupid. Chris Lee, for example, sending pics of his body to a woman, or Anthony Weiner who supposedly sent pics of his "bulge" over Twitter. And there are many cases of people caught saying stupid stuff because they didn't realize a microphone was on.  Add to this the number of stars who are caught topless or intentionally take pictures of themselves nude. Every time, they get mad that someone leaked the pictures (or audio). Come on, folks, it's 2011. The technology to do this sort of thing has been around for a very long time. Whereas before it took actually processing film, now as soon as a picture is taken it can be sent around the world before the person in the pic even knows about it. Every cell phone has a camera and microphone.

I guess it's too much to expect that leaders always be on their A-game. Personally I don't hold anyone to that high of a standard; we're all human, and we all do stupid stuff. If you were to ever record what I say about other drivers, you would think I'm a horrible person. But if the person has access to really screw up my life (politicians in particular), then I expect that at a minimum they understand the world they're moving in and stop trying to lie their way out of things. If you don't take a picture of your wang, then there's no way a picture of your wang can get circulated around the Internet. So ... don't do things so impossibly stupid. It makes the gaffe's by Palin look like child's play.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shock and Awe

There are times in life when you cannot simple lead through idle means. Everyone has bad days, everyone makes mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is to keep things status-quo when that just isn't working. Never mind that it has worked; sometimes the process needs to change. Or, if not the actual process, then the perception of the process.

That's where shock and awe come in.

It can take many forms. Maybe it's a stern lecture. Maybe it's no stern lecture. An unexpected gift or praise will often suffice, as will a kind word completely unrelated to anything else. What makes this complicated is that each person reacts differently. Some people are team players, and some are not. That's the challenge of leadership.

The true struggle, however, comes when a leader feels like he is alone. They say it's lonely at the top. And I suppose it is. But it's even lonelier to be a leader who isn't at the top. To sit and try hard to achieve success, and to fail, is not easy; the emotions become very complex when there is no support structure, when those you need to have helping you refuse to do so, and offer criticism. It is the nature of leadership to deal with that. You cannot make everyone happy, and the leader that attempts to do that will ultimately fail. And that's been a hard lesson, made harder.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sports Leadership Lessons

Yesterday I played soccer. Today I hurt. My ankles, knees, back are all protesting the rough treatment.

As I attempted to keep up with people ten years younger than me, I had time to reflect on how a group of guys playing soccer mirrors a lot of what I have seen over the years at work.

First, let me explain how we play. Nobody has an assigned position. If you're feeling energetic, you run forward; if you're tired you play back. Most people try to balance their play so others can have chances to make shots. Nearly everyone takes their turn as keeper.

There are a few types of players. Some are content to spend more time on defense. They're good at that and, recognizing their skill, they play the position that offers the most benefit to the team. Others are more balanced and play all over. Some are more likely to keep up the pressure.

We have players who constantly look to make a play; they work to make or receive passes. They don't simply kick the ball when they have it, and they don't selfishly keep possession. Some players aren't sure where they're supposed to be on the field and either run around or stand still. A few are there to socialize; they like to play, but they're really wanting to talk and hang out. And some want to win, they're there to play hard and always look for ways to make that happen.

None of these types are necessarily good or bad. It's not a competition team. At our core, we're just a bunch of guys either approaching or just past middle age, and without exception we enjoy ourselves. Our type of play gives everyone a chance to achieve whatever their personal goals are, and I don't think I've ever heard of someone walking away dissatisfied.

Companies can learn from this model of play. Some already behave this way. There is an ebb and flow to life. Some days people want to push their limits. At other times they are tired or sore and need to slow down. Some people go to work to socialize, and are content if they aren't in the limelight. Others are motivated to succeed and always push the envelope.

There is no leader on our team. We have people who lead, people who are dynamic and help direct everyone's efforts. But nobody is assigned that role. And we succeed. Sometimes leadership is about more than the position of "leader." Employees usually have their own reasons to show up for work every day, and seek their own rewards that can be different than the corporate goal. Certainly some want the company to "win," but that's because, in "winning," the company helps the person achieve their personal objective, be it to make a better salary, to attain a high rank, or to simply stay employed.

In thinking about this, I wonder if I don't play soccer so aggressively because I don't have that level of success in the "real world." There is little reward for the work I do, either financially or emotionally. The older I get, the more I want to succeed at least in some small way. So I play soccer. I bend a shot in from the left side and play it off as a fluke, but inside I beam because that was my intention. There are no such opportunities in most of our lives at work. We're not given a chance to even touch the ball, much less take a shot on goal. That is a failing of companies. Employees want to succeed. It might not be easy to find out why and cater to that, and some might argue that it's not needed. But success for the company is exponentially increased when the individuals who make up the team are able to reach their own success.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Leadership is about making choices. In my last post I talked about my baseball team and our struggles. Last night we struggled again, losing 28-0 to a team of Goliaths. They truly have no business playing us, and after our first loss perhaps I should have emailed their coach (who is also the commissioner for our age group) and asked to change the game to a weaker team.

But I didn't, because that's not the right thing to do. You can't run from battles. You have to stand up and take it sometimes, because that's your job. As their leader, I hated to see them get beat so badly. But they didn't give up. If anything, they tried too hard. They learned respect for losing, they learned the bad taste of it. And hopefully they learned what a bad winner is, because there were many kids on the other team that fit that category.

Sometimes it really sucks to go into a situation knowing you have little hope of winning. As a leader, the job is harder because you cannot admit defeat before the game has even started. You must work on strategy and make decisions that give the team the best chance to win. I feel I accomplished that last night. The loss was worse than our first game against that team last week. But the effort given was greater by far. The difference was that the other team hit better (two home runs made the biggest difference, both by the same kid, one of which was a grand slam). Sometimes a win is in how you measure it. We were the better team last night in terms of heart, effort, and sportsmanship. Those are the only things I have any control over in the short term that is a game. I am proud of them. Now I must prepare them for the next game.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Little League

I'm getting tired of losing baseball games. When I volunteered to coach the team, I didn't realize the stress involved. It's a good kind of stress, for the most part. But there are times, like yesterday's game, that push me to the limit.

I don't ask much of the team. For example, a couple of games ago a player was unhappy that he didn't get the "game ball." He felt that he deserved the honor because he'd had a good hit and made some good stops. I explained to him that the things he did were the minimum I expect.

You don't get a reward for doing the minimum. Just because only a few of his teammates reached even that basic level doesn't mean he was exceptional. Our level of play has been low the last couple of games. I take that upon myself. It's my job to get the players to live up to their potential. I can make plenty of excuses; we haven't been able to practice much because of rain, and some of the kids have issues at home that distract them; for that matter, I have my own distractions with work that frustrate me; truth is, if I could coach full-time, I would, and I'd be good at it. But I can't, and my players depend on me to guide them through their own obstacles. It is the coach's responsibility to prepare the team. And I've obviously done something wrong.

And to top it off, I had a parent complain that his son didn't get to play at all in the previous game.

We are in the competitive division. There is no rule that says I have to play anyone in any game. I explained this to parents at the beginning of the season. It is very taxing to try your best to be fair while at the same time fielding a team that has the best chance to win. The player whose father complained is not good. He lacks confidence. He doesn't listen. He doesn't pay attention. I can't even say he tries very hard, though I'm certain he and his parents would disagree with that. In short, he doesn't reach the minimum expectation. Yet the parent expects me to reward him.

I cannot do that; philosophically I disagree with rewarding mediocrity when others have put more effort and deserve higher praise. Don't misunderstand; I will play him; I have played him, when probably I shouldn't have. Other coaches would not have. In the last three games we were only on the field for three innings, either due to reaching the run limit by the fourth inning or running out of time. (As I said, the games have been hard to watch; in one we lost 16 to 0.) That means that I have very little opportunity to put his son in. He isn't a starter.

This puts me in a pickle. But that's what leaders do. It's very easy to watch from the stands and judge. It's different to sit and try to be fair to all 12 kids. So I take it on the chin and then turn back around to take it some more. I've now had two parents complain about playing time.

Most likely we'll lose our next game; I know this, and the players know this. It'll be hard to inspire them to do their best (it's the team that gave us the 16-0 thumping). But, as they say, that's why I get the big bucks. It's a process. A leader must see that process, must see more than the events of a single day. That's what I focus on when parents complain. It's not about their son. It isn't about mine. It's about all 12 kids, and it's about 2 months of games. I want to win. I'm very driven by that. But I'll accept defeat as long as we can hold our heads high and say we did our best. We could not do that yesterday. Hopefully we can on Monday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Stress Factor

The Peter Principle says that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." This concept fascinates me. I don't want to be that person; I don't want to get promoted into a position that I cannot do. At the same time I wonder, will I know when I've reached that point?

In terms of leaders, many people know a manager/director/VP/etc. who is not capable of doing their job effectively. Perhaps they were promoted because they were good at Power Point, or Excel, or Visio. Maybe their manager doesn't see their incompetence. Even the most beautiful creature on earth is not so attractive when viewed from the ass end. The person riding the horse doesn't know where the crap falls; all she knows is that the horse is beautiful. But I think the main failing of newly minted managers is stress. It's not easy to be a manager. If you've been promoted from within the ranks, you know everybody's faults and it's hard to not act on those; perhaps you've got a secret grudge or personal dislike that's been festering over many years of cohabitation in the cubicle farm. If you're promoted form outside the team, then people will wonder if you know what they're doing, and will question your ability to manage them if you don't. These factors cause stress, and stress is the undoing of most of us, at one time or another.

How should a leader approach this? There are many books on how to handle stress, and the strategies are numerous. My personal belief is that the best way to avoid stress ruining your management career (at least when viewed from behind) is to not forget your place. You're not a demigod. You have power, yes, and control, but you're just as capable of fault as the people you manage. And that's the key: people will make mistakes. The second thing to do is to relax; leaders must have the long view. Life isn't lived in a short-term time frame. That perspective helps me to manage my stress. So I get blessed out. So I make a mistake. I pick myself up, dust myself off, and try to remember that I've got many years on this earth yet to live. One day/week/month of difficulty will not ruin me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Measured by Mistakes

Life is too often measured not by the good we do, but by the good we don't do. Our mistakes define us. Consider a baseball player who does everything right, but makes ESPN because of a mistake. The reason is that doing things right is the expectation. That's the minimum. But is it right?

A good leader should weigh mistakes carefully. It's important to understand what led to the mistake. Not the short-term stuff. That's usually easy. Maybe a worker forgot to copy a person on an email, and that led to a firestorm that could have been prevented had that person been on the email. That's a little mistake, but it is also one that is much too common. Leaders need to understand what's behind the mistake; maybe it's not the employee's mistake at all, but came about because of the customer didn't clearly communicate who needed to be on the email.

But here's the thing. If a leader is looking at the positives, then that simple mistake is no big deal. If the focus is on the things people do wrong, then that's all that will be seen. It isn't easy. Since the expectation is to do things right, mistakes are usually glaring. They're obvious. It's hard for a leader to not see the mistakes. Usually, though, errors are only obvious because they're supported by a firm foundation of success.

We all want recognition for doing things right. It doesn't have to be anything big. Maybe it's doughnuts, or taking the team to lunch, or just going to lunch together, even if everyone pays their own way. A good leader finds more ways to help and thank their people than they do ways to punish them. A good leader defends and deflects.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Salary-to-happiness ratio

Every so often, Yahoo! posts stories about the salaries of various professions. The general trend seems to be to show jobs that pay high wages. Here's an example of one such article:

I have a couple of problems with these articles. First, we focus very strongly on salary. While I believe the expression "money can't buy happiness" is, in a general sense, not true, most people will never earn a salary that can, in fact, buy happiness. There have been many studies on the happiness of being wealthy. But while I would love to break the $50K, I don't know why; I'm pretty sure it wouldn't make me any more satisfied. I would have a little more after paying my bills, and that money would go into savings that I will probably use. But I am good with my money; we spend fairly sensibly, not too frugal, not too wasteful. We have ample savings. Not a lot, and I'll never get to retire at the rate I'm on, but I'd have to make considerably more than $50K a year to change that.

The point is that we must be careful pursuing only money. That leads to an empty life. The irony is that most people think having more money will lead to a full life. Quite the contrary. Families were just as happy - if not happier - decades ago when rooms were small and everyone shared a bathroom. Most homes didn't have master baths. They might have had a bathroom off the main bedroom, but it was no better than the other toilets. Families were forced into common areas. They had to interact. People learned what other people were like, even if the sample population didn't extend beyond their own families. Things were bought with cash. If you had debt it was a mark of shame. You paid off your loans as soon as you could. The pursuit of money is as old as the world; for most of that time it was an unreachable goal. We should strive to return to those days, and work to be happy and satisfied rather than rich.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The art of being led

I have a fascination with leadership. But the problem is, most leadership courses, books, seminars, etc. look at the topic from the POV of the leader. That's good, except for two things.

First, if a leader - or someone who studies, lectures, writes, etc. on leadership - does not understand the people they lead, then they will ultimately fail. This is particularly true of middle- and lower-level leaders. Typically they've reached that role because they were good at their job; who better to lead than someone who was in the job? But this is a fallacy. For one thing, if they were poorly led to begin with, then they will not be a good leader of their former peers. For another, even if they are replacing a good leader in a strong organization, just because you are good at putting one widget to another widget doesn't mean you are going to be good at teaching others to do that. But this exposes the big lie - the major flaw - of promotion: too often a person isn't put in a leadership position in order to be a role model for their team, but to do spreadsheets, power points, etc. that makes the upper management types look and feel better. That's not leadership. That's just work.

The second problem is that while a lot of people in leadership positions understand what they're supposed to say and do, they don't know why. This goes hand-in-hand with someone being promoted beyond their competency (the Peter Principle). They might have been really good at their job because they were very focused and detail oriented; they probably never thought about the bigger picture. If a person doesn't know the reason for an action, then they will face problems. I'll give you an example from the little league team I coach. A player stretched out a single into a double; it was a great run following a great hit. Knowing that he needs to lead off - because that's what we coached - he stood up and took his lead. The problem was that the short stop still had the ball in his glove. That's a coaching failure, of course; we immediately implemented measures to correct that problem. But it's also an issue of the player not knowing why he was leading off. That, too, is partially the issue of the coaches; but it's also the player's responsibility to think through why an action is being taken. Now - this is little league; it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But it illustrates the point. It also leads me to the next point.

The third problem is that leaders look at the trees rather than the forest. You must understand each thing in relation to every other thing. Let's say a problem comes up because an employee missed a critical step on a project. Further, the project was small and brought the company no income; and the employee had frequently told management that he was overworked, stressed, and afraid of making mistakes. Management ignored those clear warning signs. When the mistake happened, they yelled at the employee. Is it worth it? Management says "every customer is important" because that's what we know we're supposed to say. But is that really true? I hate to say it, but the reality is that if every customer is equal, we wouldn't measure the amount of money they bring to a company. We wouldn't care how long it takes to implement a product but how satisfied the customer is with the result. So, with the understanding that some customers are not as valuable - and, thus, not as important - as others, is it worth driving an employee to the edge when that employee has, otherwise, been exceptional?

These are things leaders must consider. It's not just power point presentations or spreadsheets. Management means to be in control of people's lives. And each action must be weighed against the bigger picture. We must assume the positive rather than the negative. I could argue that's what a Christian manager should do, and that's true; but it's also what every manager should do.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A story from the trenches

In a certain company there is a lady who has been with the business for many years. She has a reputation as a hard worker. When a manager came on she showed him many of the things he needed to do his job. While she doesn't have a college degree, she's plenty capable of doing the work, and she does it well.

The other day she was given her performance review (in April??). An upper manager with no direct connection to her gave her the news: she got a 5out of 10. That's not bad; but it's not excellent, either, and she felt she deserved a higher rating; others in he company agree with that assessment. In fact, others that have done less got higher ratings. She got a salary increase that comes out to about $1k a year.

There are many ways to look at this. But since this blog is all about ooking at management from the employee's perspective, we'll take that oute.

I guess the first thing that comes to mind is visibility. A manager must understand what it is an employee provides to the company, both in terms of tangibles and intangibles. It's the intangibles that push you up to
that next level. If an employee does their job at a satisfactory level - that's what we should expect of everyone. But what else do they do? When they go out of their way to improve the company, then they should be rewarded for that effort. Helping your peers with their jobs is part of that. When the employee in this case asked what they needed to do in order to get an excellent, the reply was that they needed to work 60 hours a week. IMHO the manager should be at a minimum reprimanded for making such a statement, and I personally would consider firing them; that's not healthy for the company. It drives away good employees. By "good employee" I mean someone who is good not just at the job they do, but at raising the level of satisfaction of those around them. It is important to have people on your team that make everyone else feel good about showing up for work. It's important to have people of strong moral fiber, folks with a good character. I've seen people get unofficially reprimanded for doing too much outside of work, like coaching or even working during lunch hours to raise money for charity. Those are activities that make a person strong, and having an employee like that makes a company strong.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Art of the Warrior

One of my favorite books is Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa. It's not that it's especially well written; it isn't really historically accurate; the content, however - the story's meaning - is something that aligns with my soul. And that's important.

The book is about Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi had a tough life from the beginning. He had no mother, and his father was pretty much a jerk. He had a sister but she was older and lived away from him. In the book, Musashi is referred to as a bully, and it seems he probably was. It didn't help that he was bigger, stronger, faster, and all around physically superior to anyone around him. From age seven he was raised by his uncle, a monk at a temple in the rugged mountains west of Himeji, Japan. At age thirteen he fought his first dual. He won against a much older adversary. At age sixteen he won another prominent dual. Such was the pattern of his life. He fought in the legendary battles for control of Japan between the Toyotomi and Hideyoshi. He then went on to fortune and fame, courted by some of the most powerful men in the country, but he was a dedicated ronin, a masterless samurai, a warrior who sought to master all elements of his craft, an artist of rare ability, an architect - in short, a renaissance man. The only times he worked for a master was when it suited his purpose.

In the Yoshikawa story, Musashi went off to war expecting to become a leader of men. His father was a famous swordsman, so it was natural to think he would get at a minimum sloppy seconds, so to speak. But it didn't happen. Instead, he was made a foot soldier and almost died. For the rest of the book he gets no respect from anyone, despite his uncanny ability. The story provides him with a protagonist with uncommon venom towards him, and despite success after success, he does not "succeed" in the way men of his age aspire.
He says it doesn't bother him. Yet I wonder. Musashi was a competitive man. He was confident in his abilities. He achieved success. But despite that, despite gaining audience with some of the era's most powerful leaders, he still doesn't get to that next level. That would be frustrating to any young man. The book hints at this throughout, and only in the end, when he wins his final dual, do we get even a glimmer of hope that Musashi will find peace.

How many of us worker bees have felt the same way? The scale is different, but we work hard, we slave at our jobs, we exceed expectations, and get kudos from some important people. But it's all for nothing. The bar is continually higher, the standard we must meet always tougher. Will there be peace? Perhaps. One moral of the story is to do what you love. If you are doing a job that you want to do, then you can carry whatever burden is thrust upon your back because you know it'll be worth it.

No doubt many of Musashi's "managers" were very frustrated with him. They saw his potential and wanted to exploit it for their own gains. He would have none of it. That's the true lesson in the story: he had not only a goal but a path to get to that goal. That's the difference between a goal and a dream. A goal is just a dream that we know how to achieve.

So go out and find a goal. Not a dream. Stop trying to make dreams come true. Find a way to make your goals come true.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

John's law of promotion

John's law of promotion: If an employee who, on paper, seems to be an ideal candidate for promotion, has not been promoted, future managers will believe prior managers knew something they don't know, and will not promote the employee.

This is in a way the inverse of the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle says that a person will get promoted one level beyond their competency. John's Law of Promotion says that a person qualified for promotion will not get promoted despite no good reason to do so.

Neither actually makes much sense. Leaders should get promoted. If a person does not want promotion, there is no good reason to promote them; let the employee continue to do the job they enjoy - and are good at - doing. If an employee is good at their job, wants promotion, and demonstrates leadership - that's the person you want leading a team. It isn't enough to simply want to lead; there are plenty of people who want success without earning it. Companies should look for people who not only want to lead, but have proven their ability. (A good indication of this is when someone says "He/She has natural leadership ability.")

It's a challenge. How do you know if someone is a good leader? And, more important, as an employee how can we know if we're truly capable of being a leader. More to the point: how do we show that?

This leads to my second business law: The Frustration Factor. This says that if an employee wants to achieve a goal, but is denied a path to reach that goal, will become frustrated in the attempt, thus providing management with an excuse to not open a path to the goal.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Does efficiency mean easy

I'm sitting in Starbucks as I write this, pondering the meaning and nature of efficiency. Yes, this is how I spend my Sunday mornings: wake up at 5:30, brain running at a mile a minute, thinking of things that I have no control over and which, in the big picture, have only proved a hindrance in my career.

Anyway, as I sat, thinking, I noticed a man in an SUV pull into the fire lane. He Got out of his vehicle (left it running), and walked in to get his coffee. He ordered a non-espresso drink, and was out within at most 2 minutes.

In some ways what he did was very efficient. He put his vehicle in the closest possible proximity to the door and left it running so as to save a few seconds on the other end of his journey. Since he was getting the simplest drink in the shop, and since he obviously was a repeat customer (the barrista's knew what he wanted and had it ready), he took very little time in his overall task. Yet a couple of criticisms come to mind. First, it's illegal to park in the fire lane. Second, it's wasteful to leave a vehicle running (it was a newer Volvo SUV). And finally, while he wasn't obese, the man could have benefited from even a marginally further drive (the parking lot was empty; the nearest space was perhaps 20 feet away).

I'm anal on the fire lane parking thing. I hate it. I hate it almost as much as folks who park in handicap spots. It brings up the question of efficiency on the grand scale versus small scale efficiency. What the man did benefited him directly. And, since it's gawd-awful early, he really didn't pose a hindrance to anyone else (I count about ten cars in the parking lot, and most of those belong to employees of either Starbucks or the Kroger next door; only one other person is in Starbucks with me). But he could have. And that's something that I think on way too much: the future, the possible scenarios that make a present decision bad. For example: what if the man had tripped? What if he'd had a heart attack (okay, that's extreme, but he *was* a portly older man)? Both scenarios are possible, if unlikely, and both would have meant his vehicle was now an obstruction to the very rescue vehicle that would come to help him, not to mention that somebody would have to move the Volvo because it couldn't sit in the fire lane running all morning. Maybe that's all silly, you say. And I guess it is, on a level. But isn't that at the core of efficiency planning? We must see the big picture. It isn't about just making the one task for one person better, but is about making the entire organization - including the individual, the people the individual interacts with, etc. - a smoother running operation. What good is it to improve efficiency in one area if it is a negative force in another?

A perfect example (and I'll keep this brief) is leaving a shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot. It's much easier for the person who used the cart; they gingerly park it in front of or beside their car rather than take it fifty feet (at most) to the cart rack; but it poses an obstacle to the next person, and on a windy day can cause damage to another person's vehicle; I've seen that happen while pondering this stuff in Starbucks, which is why I always put up stray carts when I see them.

People like the power of breaking the rules. We have very little power in our lives, very little control, and there are some people who - probably subconsciously - break the rules as a way to do something that is within their control. For the guy in the Volvo it's probably arrogance that drives him; he doesn't think about the rules as a barrier, because he most likely is one of the population who makes the rules, thus giving him (again, subconsciously) the right to break them.

So what's a company to do? Empower the employees to assist in the rules-making process? I think not. That would mean the employees would not be immediately productive; they'd have to not work in order to help in that planning. Of course, a progressive company would say that the long-term benefits of involving the employees outweigh any short-term negatives. Maybe a company could empower the employees in other ways, say by doing small things that make them happier in their daily lives? It depends on the company. I've worked in places that do many small things, and in others that do a couple and then wonder why people aren't happier. It's a fine line. When I went to India the group I worked with there took an entire afternoon off in order to have a celebration of their relationship with my company. That's four hours when people didn't work. That company moves its people around a lot, too; if you succeed in one area, they'll gladly move you to another. In the three weeks I was there I participated in numerous birthday celebrations (including one for me, on my first day, even though I didn't know a soul). This is why the Indian outsourcing companies will beat us: they understand what it means to make an employee happy, and they understand that employee satisfaction is critical to success. It's more efficient to make an employee happy. But it's also hard to quantify. And as long as that's the case, companies that rely on six-sigma and other measures - usually poorly applied - will continue to wallow in mediocrity. And, sadly, upper management will be left wondering why, as is illustrated in this comic:

Friday, March 25, 2011

A lesson for managers

There are two ways to look at a situation: positively and negatively. There is no neutral, no matter what you might think. Let me give an illustration.

Recently an employee made a mistake on a project and his manager wanted to discuss it. The manager had a couple of options.

  1. Treat the situation as a fact of life; mistakes happen
  2. Use some perspective. Sure the mistake was clearly a lapse of judgement, but the employee has earned millions for the company, and the project that had the mistake has no income tied to it.
  3. Flip out and treat the employee like a wicked child
Care to guess which option the manager took? If you said "3" you win the big prize.

Perspective is key to management. Everyone makes mistakes. And the more overworked an employee is, the more mistakes, and the more perspective that's needed by the managers. Losing an employee over a small error is not worth it; overreacting to little mistakes - and never praising positive achievements - will (and should) cause employees to reconsider their job situation. Is that where it starts? If management is so focused on little mistakes, and reacts so negatively to them, what will they do when the inevitable big mistake comes along?

The First Post

We are required to work. If we want to eat, sleep, drive, or pretty much anything else - it requires work. Civilization was started by some primitive six-sigma-type that wanted to make more efficient the whole hunter-gatherer business. And they've been screwing up good things ever since.

You'll find I have a low tolerance threshold for quantitative efficiency. It has its place. Manufacturing, for example. Not in the real world, trenches of white collar labor. Not that things cannot be made more efficient; they can, and should. But it's not always something that can be digested into a calculation. At least that's my experience. I welcome an education in this, because I'm certain there is a benefit; why else would companies continue to ask outsiders how to make more efficient processes used by us humps in the field? Why not ask the people doing the work?