Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lessons from Honda #2: The Bus

In hindsight, testing the hypothesis of 'overtime is wasted time' wasn't really as such a lesson learnt more of a hypothesis confirmed. I actually got tipped off to it by James Fox in his book "How to become CEO" long before I even started working.
The moral of that whole escapade was really 'apply personal discipline'.
Today I'd rather focus on a highlighting of my relative inexperience, this blog did used to be called 'stupid thoughts of a stupid guy' and that is the basis from which I seek growth.
Firstly the players, lets call one Character "me", let's call another character "newb" and yet another character "C". I will leave the names out but will foreclose that I am going to be brutally honest in this post, but that the story is from my perspective as it happened and that my knowledge of all factors at play remains opaque, I only made personal decisions and the knowledge garnered from the process is my own learning rather than any greater universal truths.

Me started work at the office in my department 3 years ago from now, coming into a pretty crazy and loveable team. The job was not particularly challanging, answer the phone, key some data, run the occasional report, check the faxes, so on. Boredom was my number one challange. I signed onto the Job figuring I'd try it for a year and make the decision to leave or stay at the end of my first contract.
I made the decision to leave a bit prematurely in my first year by a month or so based on my boredom. My boss at the time whilst I was thinking about resigning pulled me into his office to discuss my future, he then gave me three pretty broad duties for a new role which was to be mine and was expansive. I thought about it, other members of the team were similarly reshuffled and all seemed well. I also looked forward to the transition because it meant that they would bring in someone new and strengthen the team. This did not eventuate.
What happened instead was that I moved desk in a token side step, more symbolic that I had a new role than for any functional purpose. Then it was announced that team member "C" was going to step into my old role.
This was incredibly dissapointing, not only had we ditched a chance to introduce some new talent, new blood into the company we put someone into my old role that was actually, far less capable of performing it. I can say that fairly objectively because the hard skills, or behaviours were lacking namely excel, the various reporting functionality and what not.
This is where Drucker and I divert, Drucker says you pick the person for the role and you absolutely do not let peers have input in the hiring decision, which I think if its the case you can't trust your employees to make hiring decisions in the company or organisations interest above their own social personal preferences, you probably shouldn't be employing those people anyway. All I'm saying is input.
And here is where I want to do a semi analyses and speculate as to what brought about that decision. I think it was an emotional fluffy decision that tragically ultimately lead to C's undoing in the company. From discussions with my past manager I garnered the impression that his appraisal of C's ability was in all probability deflated from my own. Hence hencely I gather that he had imput and that he made an emotional decision. Furthermore C's childish conduct was well known, entitlement certainly prevailed over earn in the mindset, a princess, a daddy's girl she was a window and a mirror to be sure, but when things went wrong she looked out the window to cast responsibility on others or her environment and when they went right she looked in the mirror and really built her self up, more than that she looked at others to praise and compliment her and prop up her esteem.
She was predictably fairly unempowered, completely at the mercy of her boyfriend, friends, family and work. It was an attitude that prevailed in all aspects of her life as far as I could tell, and particularly low capacity to empathise. A damning review perhaps but on a personal level, a quite liked C she was in her own unique way entertaining, good company and sweet. I think this was largely an opinion shared by all.
But it didn't really work in her favour. In noticing that almost everyone in the department was getting a form of 'promotion' or change or different responsibilities I suspect, but can say with no authority that her very sweet nature is what prompted my manager and my boss to protect her fragile ego by 'promoting' her to my position.
Not only did they miss a chance to role the dice on a new applicant, they effictively instead of feeding back to C directly that she had to change her behaviour if she wanted to succeed they rewarded her poor attitude.
But for the time being I was only dissapointed, and it prevented anyone from dealing with this awkward business. To my managers credit he had considered removing C from the company previously but again the position had been defended.

What followed was an attitude change, that was the promotion predictably (although acknowledging that my position was superior to hers even though I started after her) went to her head. And the bizarre window and mirror took effect. That was, I was to help her in every single duty she had, whilst she patently refused to help out my good friend and fellow team member with any duties relating to her old role. Pathetically (but as a result of her conditioning upbringing) she also stooped to bitching about our friend for being arrogant.
I felt a little arrogant too, when I discovered that whilst she was away on sick leave, it was much more efficient for me to wrap up her entire days duties in 45 minutes and then get on with my own work than 'helping' her do it while she was there.
I had her take notes, showed her things and I was amazed to find I'd never found anyone more resistent to learning. I just was at whits end, and this went on for about 5 months, I had made my managers aware and others were aware aswell, furthermore general consensus was that she had transformed into a nigh on useless employee. C was a problem. But a problem pushed to the bottom of the heirarchial pyramid.
I realise for my part that I was an enabler, I did actually tell her how on a daily basis to avoid mistakes she would otherwise have made and learned from, I did often do her work for her. I devoted a lot of energy, gave her motivational talks and such but was confounded by the lack of progress, my managers moved my desk into the marketing department to put some distance between us and try and jump start her independance.
I wonder how conscious she was that it was such a bad situation. Her self esteem issues and lack of personal empowerment made her on paper a low risk investment for the company, they culd pay her the lowest wage and she could do all the shitkicker chores. But on the whole she also performed the opposite of leverage, which is when in a good case you have a PA take over a whole bunch of duties to enable a higher paid knowledge worker to devote maximum time to important stuff.
Instead C consumed enormous energy of myself, our team members, her managers right up the chain, our customers, our Sales reps. An effective black hole of wages that was diverted to the resolution of fairly low value activities.
Our energies flowed to our weaknesses not our strengths.
But she was such a sweet girl, it tried everyones patience, after moving desk I did get a lot more time to myself, I also did a lot more walking to C's desk, and it was literally like a crying infant. After 1 year she used up her 9 lives with me, unfortunately she still had about 5 more with our manager.
Everybody wanted her to succeed. I think that is the thing to keep in mind, she was never maliciously set up for failure. Whilst the clear abscence of any vision of actual growth potential disturbed me. Nobody at any point had given her a duty that she was literally not capable of doing. It's true that she was less capable then me her predecessor, but not that she was actually incapable all together. It was always going to take more time and energy to build her skills. Its not anything she did particularly wrong, nor was it sufficient excuse to deny her opportunity.
But in the end she got promoted beyond her level of competence, that is my verdict. Tragically the very decision I speculate that was made to protect her esteem, ended up being her undoing.
And I wasted a lot of her life. The turning point was after running the dozenth report for her, and checking and doing equations for her, I realised that after a year all she was comfortable with was pushing the 'go' button, all the actual work the prep work, the analysis and calculation was still done by me. Nor did she have any particular zeal for appropriating new abilities. I was frustrated and gave her a reprimand. And then my friend in the team whom, she had resolutely refused to help reported back to me that the moment my back was turned she had bitten the very person who was trying to help her.
This just ticked me off, true that I wasn't very good at giving feedback, did not infact know how, but I had at least practically given her a heads up, that she was in trouble. She chose to regard this as a personal attack and got defensive. I learned there and then that intent doesn't count for much in communication, I was trying to help C, she interpreted my message as an attack.
But at anyrate I calmed down, did her work for her, then told my manager that I had no confidence that she would ever be capable of fulfilling her duty. As I said C still had about 5 lives with said manager, and his response was "what are we going to do?" in the process of the meeting, we talked about ways to peel back her new duties from her, we both skirted around the fact that this effectively left C as a seat warmer. Without again hurting her feelings.
For me, the learning model came to mind in this meeting, and that is that everyone has a comfort zone, learning occurs when we step out of our comfort zone, we gain competence and then our comfort zone expands. I am very comfortable doing most things, but an example is that I was as a child always very nervous about taking a shot in a basketball game, I felt inconsiderate to the team if I didn't make the shot and we lost possession, so I never took a shot. Even though I could shoot in practice.
Later on in playing streetball I simply stopped caring, and eventually I was confident enough just to bomb in a three pointer even when the game was on the line. Because there are always more games. Never risking a shot eventually lead to me being benched longer and longer, even though for me the enjoyment of the game was in runnning chase after chase on a fast break defensively (although also frightened of getting fouls).
What happened with C though was that she had a comfort zone, but if she made a one of mistake it actually diminished her confidence, then her comfort zone decreased and she became reluctant to take on duties that she had been performing. In other words, and I have never seen it before or since, she was unlearning. She was decreasing in value to the company.
I could of waited for market forces, but I was heartbroken by this, I wanted her to succeed, to earn independantly and become a valued member of the team. Giving up meant failure for me.
I was up at night, I thought about her all weekend, and then eventually whilst reading "Good to Great" I realised what I had to do, namely it was about the Bus.
The good to great study companies all had in common that they often first set about assembling a great team, then started working on the strategic. The referred to this as 'making sure the right people are on the bus, and that the wrong people are off the bus" and particularly they referred to the discipline of getting people off the bus.
It's a lose lose game when someone is wrong for the team. The symptoms are:
1. When you start designing systems and processes to get around their shortcomings.
2. They add to your stress rather than diminish it.
3. You think about them outside of work hours, eating into your personal time.
And the fact is that the person is suffering the blow of having to turn up to a job that they are failing in, this is a huge psychological burden, and C was so chronic that her fear of having to find a new job, was perpetually greater than the fear that she was failing right now.
So one day I photocopied the relevant page, and went to see my boss. And though it broke my heart, I asked him to fire C.
I talked about the 'reverse learning', the diminished stress when they were away, the increased stress when she was here, highlighted specific examples, and struggled furiously to keep my emotions from overcoming me. I didn't mention that I felt that I had been betrayed. Though we did discuss the fact of my surprise when she got appointed to my position. That it devalued my sense of achievement by appointing an incapable replacement. I made a case that her rewards for poor performance (that is, getting paid) were demotivating to the strong performers and perhaps unethically I spoke on others behalf to say that she was consuming other peoples energy unfairly aswell, this was really their own business and I shouldn't have done it. It probably wasn't necessary anyway. But I will say in my defence, that I actually do spend a lot of time thinking about other peoples wellbeing, callous and uncouth as I may be.
And that was that, about 2 or 3 months later C got the tap on the shoulder, I was informed that it didn't directly relate to my discussion, I speculate that he could see I felt incredibly guilty when it happened. But in truth, although I was shocked, I was glad, and I would like to think that a discussion I had that had cost me so much to do would infact have a bearing on such a decision, even if it only made the inevitable easier.
Officially C was made redundant, and this in all probability and practicality is true, I could cover for her daily efforts in 45 minutes, phone traffic was another thing, but it had diminished due to the drought. C was the obvious choice if headcount had to be reduced. I would like to think in other circumstances she simply would have been dismissed for poor performance though.

Lesson learned about the bus and shit? not quite.

At the same time C had her desk packed up (allowing me to also return from exile in marketing to my beloved team) newb had arrived on the seen. Newb was a highlevel recruit into our deprtment from an outside company. Newb seemed affable, professional and certainly had the endorsement of my boss.
Newb brought about change, his style and personality was different, I particularly being analytical and detail minded and a bullshitter clashed with him when he first came, because he would ask me questions and then seem uninterested in the answer. He didn't seem to value any of the detail of my reports and my approach was to try and adapt.
Fundamentally I believe a manager is entitled to their own style, so I tried to accomodate newb by talking with the training manager and trying to pick up some tactics on how to behave and communicate to facilitate working with him better.
This wasn't the most popular course of action though, people mostly just reflexively reacted to the change, it severly dampened morale in the environment. Arguements were rife, closed door meetings, power plays, people marching across the office.
To me newb style seemed to be relatively simple, from my perspective it was set unrealistic goals, shake desks to startle people into action, make a point of authority and chase targets beyond all else.
There were two things that concerned me, one newb's authority started being circumvented, people started trying to work around him to get things done they always were done. Furthermore newb seemed to have alienated himself, I didn't think he had a friend in the office.
Newb had a strong personality and I never saw any evidence that concern number 2 concerned him, but I can't imagine anyone enjoying being isolated in their workplace, considering it takes so much of our lives.
The first one though I started seeing him having to 'borrow' the authority of the big bosses when his own had been lost. This was arguably a waste of their time, having to intervene in the squabbles of our department, but also concerning from an organisational perspective because, authority is like currency, you can spend it, invest it and lend it. Spending it, gets someone to do what you want, but you may never see it come back, investing it is where you act on authority usually your own in your own sphere and it works out, you garner respect and as such your authority increases. Loaning it works the same way, you back a person who uses your authority, now they either spend it or invest it. If there is nothing different in their use of your authority though, that lead them to squander their own, you end up with a bad debt, you are never getting that authority back.
In my mind I saw this as massively destabilizing, it concerned me. After 3 sleepless nights I drew the conclusion: newb had to get off the buss.
This was a whole different kettle of fish though. I collected my thoughts, arguements and observences as a first step. And then I sent an email to newb's boss stating that 'I had no confidence in his management ability. I am happy to discuss specifics' and left it at that. Newb was high level, I had no power of my own to effect change apart from my attempt to change my own behaviour, but this wasn't catching on in the broader sense and the pressure was weighing on everybody.
I didn't invoke my others opinions this time. Just went through the incidences and gave my verdict.
That was, that newb having botched the first impression, had a harder time now of winning over the team than he did when he first started, he had to work up from a deficit. Furthermore, the best employees were likely to act and leave the company, as I had certainly considered, kept their more by the awkward predicament that I already had plans in place to travel and it was convenient to just weather the storm till then.
The ones that would suffer most though were the employees kept by inertia, their job satisfaction and satisfaction in life would just decrease.
I felt compelled to step forward because from my father's experience of being left by retiree's problems at work this can be devestating. I had to take responsibility for what was concerning me, not cowardly hiding until I could jump ship. And I care about my colleagues and the organisation.
How glorious I am! So of course newb got fired in a couple of months just like C, I had learned my lesson and I'm a genius and all that shit.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. I did see change though. In a matter of weeks, newb just changed his act and approach. My lack of experience had lead me to believe that newb was either A) inherantly flawed or B) not worth the effort and investment of bringing up to standard. It turns out that newb had simply been utilising the tools of success that had gotten him thus far at his previous employers, our personalities were still pretty much opposite, but the fact was that newb was able to change his behaviour and gradually it all started coming around. Everybody relaxed and I regained my confidence that newb actually could succeed.
I speculate now, that I had overlooked the fact that my boss had picked newb, had good and rational reason to believe that he could succeed. Furthermore, experience had probably shown that the situation had gotten out of hand either through a communication breakdown or mere abscence, not being able to experience the situation first hand.
As such, employing a few resources and giving some decent feedback paid remarkably simple dividends. Newb unlike C was fully capable of tring new approaches.
And that is the full bus analogy, not just putting the right people on the bus, but putting them in the right seat, and if shuffling seats doesn't produce a fit, then and only then do you act (and act swiftly) to get the person off the bus.

In both cases, I or indeed you could save a lot of grief by articulating the problem appropriately much faster. In hindsight my criteria of losing 3 nights sleep was probably 2 nights too excessive, the other thing is that if you give people a decent constructive chance, that is opt for win-win before win-lose, you can acheive the best outcome. But if you don't do either, you are left with lose-lose and you gotta get out of that as soon as you can.
I was naive to believe i could get a manager fired, but that is not because I could not effectively do so, rather because I naively had considered relatively few options.
For my defence though, I had assumed that newb's behaviour was the source of his success and as such, his esteem rested heavily on it, so I had assumed he was resistent to change.
To newb's great credit, and fine example for others, his ability to lern and develop, rather than resist, is precisely what all good companies need.

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