Stump the chump and the art of accountability

business relationships teams friendsThis past Thursday night I delivered a presentation on understanding the 7 Wastes of Lean and how they are manifested in project management.  It was the largest gathering I’ve spoken to yet, and presented some interesting audience dynamics that were far different from when I presented the same topic to about 50-60 people at the New Hampshire chapter.  Overall, the presentation was fairly well received, however, and I think I delivered my point.  It was good speaking experience and gives me some time to reflect on how to work a larger room.

At the end of the presentation, a question was asked of me by an audience member:  “How do you make people accountable?”

It was clear that the situation this person was in had caused a great deal of frustration and difficulty.  As I pressed for details, it appeared that the situation was one in which a project had been assigned in typical “responsibility without authority” fashion.  Supposed team mates who needed to be a part of the project simply weren’t complying and, it also seemed obvious to me, the naming, blaming and shaming had begun.

My response?  A very unsatisfying quip that the project was doomed before it began.   The truth is, it looks like this project was sponsored via edict, by someone with no ability to grasp the difficulty of the situation or, even worse, someone who had and decided to place the responsibility for it upon the shoulders of an underling.  Also, I asked why people are resisting the change?  The answer was that they were afraid to change.  So, in my estimation, they were in an environment of disrespect because, lets’ face it, if you are fearful you are being disrespected, given the way things at work tend to go.

While likely accurate, those observations don’t really help the poor project manager who must deal with such a lousy situation.  The truth is, it’s always easy to blame management (which I also stated), however, you can influence from your own level on down.  So, I am sorry to say, that while the environment this Project Manager was in was entirely toxic and the assignment was probably doomed, there was a lot more that could have been done to make the situation better.

So, upon reflection over the course of the weekend, I have come up with some other advice.  Now, I won’t bore people with the usual rhetoric:  Approach the sponsor for additional support, lay out ground rules for the project team, establish tasks and task owners.  Those things are fairly simple and rely on utilizing tools rather than getting down into core people-centered concepts.  My best advice, then, is this:

Make friends.

I am as guilty as the next person in relying too much on being right and too little on being liked.  While all those smarts turn up evidence that is undeniable, people will still tend to go the other way, preferring to be wrong with friends than right and alone.  If you spend time making friends with people, they will do more to help you and be sympathetic when you are handed that miserable dog of a project.  Having those relationships does, indeed, make things easier and, therefore, enables the participation and experimentation needed to bring about success.

Now, people will say that such things ought not to be necessary and, if you are dedicated to a task or a company, that people should put aside their personal feelings and get the job done.  True.  They should.  True, also, that they won’t.  If you establish personal ties, however, people will choose to help you, they will choose to work on things they don’t want to just to spend time with people they like, they will choose to do a good job in order to make you look good, and they will choose to hold up their end so that they do not let you down.

In short, they will choose to be accountable.

Managing the complex organization

Traffic Pro

Traffic Pro by marie carrion

A great read popped up over at this week.  The author, Ilyz Pozin, is a successful entrepreneur with several successful companies under his belt.  The article, entitled, “Want Happier Employees? Get Rid of the Bosses” describes his foray into the world of innovative management practices.  Along the way, he learns something about mentoring vs. directing, allowing teams to self-manage, the elimination of hierarchies based on titles, eliminating worry over salaries and incomes, and rewarding people for performance instead of activity.Those things are, in a nutshell, at the core of every bit of innovation in management writing over the last 30-40 years or so.  Which doesn’t make any of it a bad thing – it’s just a reminder that these ideas have been around for a very long time, and maybe we’re finally starting to see some of them come into fruition.

Unfortunately, despite all the cries to the contrary (including those coming from yours truly) – management is still, and always will be, quite necessary.

For instance, Pozin tells us that his innovative approach to managing his company – where people are organized into self-directed teams, has been going on for just 3 months. That is hardly long enough to declare sustainability to the approach.  He also declares, “Individuals need to be managed, but teams manage themselves.”  That statement, I believe, is wrong.  Or, at the very least, it’s mostly wrong…and it is mostly wrong due to a chronic misunderstanding and misapplication of what management is and should be.

Teams in simple environments are more able to “manage” themselves – which means they are able to organize their own activities and determine how to go about their work, assigning tasks to each person within the team.  Disputes are resolved, ideas are discussed, actions are taken.  All of which is to say that these teams, perhaps, don’t “manage” themselves – but, rather, that they lead themselves.  Managing is, of necessity, a bureaucratic and dogmatic process.  Coordinating the activities of a group of teams, especially as an organization grows increasingly complex, requires someone to help all those teams get organized.  In other words, someone must manage the interactions.Managing becomes necessary the more complex the organization becomes. Not “leading” or “coaching” or “mentoring” –  but “managing.”  Groups  of teams need coordination – Not in the childish way we push people around and call it “management” or bastardize such things into calling them “leadership,” but management – the coordinating of activities and the people who are going to perform them.

Someone needs to ensure the free flow of work throughout the organization.  Even the highest performing teams will need to have administrative things taken care of for them – facilities to work in, team members recruited, retained and substituted, legalities administered, etc.  Which, and especially in a highly complex organization, will require someone to coordinate the effort between teams and to identify and remove the roadblocks.  This means management.

The key is to make that management valuable and prevent it from becoming the hierarchical enigma we’ve all come to know – one whose only purpose is to maintain the hierarchy for its own sake regardless of the quality of work the teams that depend upon that management produce.  Management, when viewed as something that exists only to facilitate and enable the performance of work, becomes an important, vital and valuable function within the workplace.  When it exists to provide a layer of blind enforcement, unnecessary political and procedural activity, and as a salary enhancement vehicle for the technically proficient – its value diminishes to the point of being worthless.

You can’t buy pride (and I just like to write)


Writer by jacobdca

Many times, I have been asked with regards to this blog, “What do you expect to et out of this?”

Well, fame, fortune, world-wide recognition for being an intellectual genius, a great job, tons of friends, an awesome new car, my kids’ college tuitions paid for and a bottomless glass of beer would be nice.

Unfortunately, as much as I can dream, I don’t actually think I’ll get those things (at least, not all of them).  So what do I honestly  expect?

Writing this blog is, sort of, its own end.  Yes, I’d love to have achieved all these wonderful things as a result of my writing, and maybe I will.  However, even if I don’t – I will keep writing.  Because it’s the one thing that comes easily and naturally, and that people seem to tell me I’m pretty good at.

And, it has some very, very nice rewards, too.  I’ve interacted with many great people, who have done amazoing things that make me envious.  My words have reached 6 continents and been cited by corporate honchos and students conducting research alike.  In perfect alignment with my  mid-life crisis, that gives me some feeling of having at least a little bit of a legacy to leave behind, long after my remains join the floating particles of the universe.

So, in a way, that’s what I expect to get from this – some recognition.  And that has come with a wonderful sense of purpose and pride that ought to be cultivated in everyone from an early age.  All too ften, however, pride gets muddled together with the brute application of effort – and that is supposed to be a healthy trait – working through arduous, difficult circumstances for the sake of doing a good job or one’s duty.  We really don’t do enough to tell people to play to their sttrengths and enjoy what they are good at.  Rather, we reward those who have overcome something difficult – even if the difficulty, in reality, was self-imposed.

Perhaps we ought to rethink the things we take pride in.  Perhaps, then, we will focus more on the people who do the little things to avoid fires rather than make heroes of those who put them out (figuratively, of course – real firefighters are, genuinely, heroic). 

Pride can’t be bought.  You can’t simply give someone a heap of rewards and expect them to be prideful.  It is an innate sense of producing something the individual cares about – even if the larger organization surrounding the person doesn’t.  If you can recognize and appreciate what a person cares about, and provide them with opportunities to do exactly that thing in such a way that they can be prideful in their work and benefit the organization – I am willing to bet you will have given that person not just a sense of pride, but of purpose as well.  They will no longer be working only for themselves – but for both their own sense of self as well as the good of the group.

The interactions I’ve had so far as a result of writing this blog have certainly created a sense of purpose and pride that are far greater than any monetary rewards. 

Now, if only I could get paid for it…….




ROWE – Give them what they want – for a while


Lollipop by SliceofCake on

Last week, a bit of a discussion occurred on the blog, in response to my post, “Raising Awareness of ROWE and Lean”

I was happy to see all of the comments, and especially enjoyed the points of view from some those whose primary background is in Lean.  While I still think there’s a significant place within Lean for ROWE-based management styles, I also found the challenges to some of my assumptions to be quite thought-provoking.  Clearly, this is not an idea that has reached its full maturity.

While I was a bit disappointed at the relatively fewer responses from people with ROWE-specific or, perhaps, HR and Organizational Development backgrounds, I suppose some of that is to be expected.  After all, not only is Lean a much older  concept that is practices around the work, it also has an army of people with first-hand exposure to its teachings.  Also, there are plenty of people who are working as consultants, facilitating the Lean journey for others.  Rowe, having existed for only about a decade, has a long way to go to achieve the sheer volume of experience that Lean has, much less its depth.

That, being said, two things are currently standing out in my mind:

  1. ROWE represents the best in how people want to be treated while at work.  This does not, necessarily, indicate that the organization that provides it will be a raving marketplace success.  ROWE, in its current state, tends to focus much more heavily on the individual’s results, and not necessarily those of the organization as a whole.
  2. Lean represents the best in operational practices for achieving sustainable high performance and continuous improvement.  This does not indicate, however, that every day for employees is like wine & roses, either.  Lean looks for process excellence to drive results, not just the results without regard for the process that creates them.

This poses an interesting management dilemma – do you “Go ROWE” in order to improve employee morale and gain some short-term (granted, short term could mean a decade) improvements, or do you focus on long-term benefits to the enterprises, which becomes very employee-focused at some point in the future?  Or, do you suppose ROWE can yield sustained, long-term benefits without the over-arching system of continuous improvement and operational excellence offered by Lean and other process-based schools of thought?


Short-term thinking: Misery is OK, as long as it’s less lousy

Child Labor

Child Labor 4 by GMBAkash on

Last week, Mark Graban over at wrote a post that examined the labor practices at FoxConn, a supplier used by Apple and many other companies, where the working conditions are quite poor.  The post, entitled ““The speed and flexibility is breathtaking” – But in a good way?” generated quite a bit of discussion and a lot of ire directed at Apple by many – including yours truly.  It was pointed out, however, that Apple’s far from the only company utilizing FoxConn and turning a blind eye to its labor practices.  I am not an Apple fanatic – I’m a Droid & Samsung guy – but Samsung made the list of FoxConn’s customers.  Clearly, all of our smart phones and smart TV’s are coming with a heavy, human price tag.  I encourage you to click the link and head over to Mark Graban’s blog to join in on the discussion.

What I found really interesting on this topic is a sentiment I heard several times from other students while pusuing my MBA last year – When discussing third world textile plants, coal mines in the US, heavy manufacturing in Mexico and other, similar situations people would state these horrible conditions are acceptable since they allow people  working in those jobs to have it better than they would if the factories or mines had never been built.  In their minds, the factory jobs allow more people to have jobs and have more money, even if the safety records and environmental impact are seriously negative.

I think there are a lot of things wrong with that type of thinking.  Obviously, the long-term impacts to the environment, and the “use-them-up-and-spit-them-out” mindset don’t yield long-term, sustained growth.  The situation in these areas eventually leads to a Steinbeck-ian workers’ misery:  Workers must bid their labor lower and lower just to have any kind of income at all, even if that income isn’t enough to sustain them for very long.  Wrong is wrong.  Being less wrong doesn’t mean everything’s just fine – at best it means you’re on the right path upward, at worst, it means people who ought to be offended are willing to settle.

This post isn’t a pro-labor political statement, however.  What the situation makes me wonder about is how people at all levels – from students in a classroom, to policy makers, to captains of industry – take into account only what is needed right now and justify that any action taken is Okay as long as it settles some near-term turmoil.  Thinking about the future outcome of that action, or inaction, is often lost if it is even considered at all.

It’s not acceptable to say that today’s misery is acceptable as long as it’s not as bad as what the other guy is doing.  Why?  Because it’s also not as good as some other guy is doing, and we should always be pursuing the ideal.  Even if we do not know of a better way, we should be diligent in our minds about whether or not something is tolerable.  How often do we see underperforming departments, but continue to let them limp along?  How often do we see wasteful practices and ignore the problems?  Worse yet, how many senior members of the management team actively thwart their subordinates’ attempts at sharing information and voicing criticism?

It’s pretty well understood, I think, that allowing people at all levels to share and criticize is a hallmark of a good company culture.  If you are thinking about the long term, there’s not a single good reason to avoid process discipline, lean operations, worker-focused management styles, and the like.  It is only those short-term thinkers who would ever believe that poor practices are acceptable, and who are likely to enforce a mindset that prevents long-term thinking from ever taking hold.