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?