Archive for June, 2008

Commitments

25/June/2008

I was going to my parents home last weekend. I use to take the highway more because the fact that it us more secure than for being the speediest way to get there. About halfway, the traffic slowed down and what use to be a half an hour trip became an hour and a half. The traffic jam hadn’t ended when I left the highway, and there was no kind of indication nor alternatives signalled by the highway operator, but I must pay the toll charge anyway. They did not comply with their obligations, nor for the commitment of “free toll if delayed more than x minutes”. Off course, the rest of my family was taking the dessert at the time I arrived, ans I had to lunch alone the “very very well done” barbecue… I was not pissed off, but very dissapointed.

You and me rely on assumptions all the time. Those are based on some tacit and some explicit commitments from other people we interact all the time. It would be very ineffective if we don’t do it that way. Just imagine calling the bus company before leaving home everyday to ask if the bus service is working, just to confirm. Or checking the voltage on the wall before connecting any device.
Sadly, not all the commitments are made with the same level of responsibility or thought. Some people really work to accomplish their promises, some don’t think about what they are compromising for and make promises not taking into account if they have or don’t have to comply them.

Even some promises can be categorized as “white lies”, mainly because nobody plans to honor them, but they are, at least apparently, harmless. Or it can be a plain lie, period.

Everyday I rely on the people working with me doing their chores at a professional level. I supervise some of the projects personally if they have some impact on other areas, and leader a small number of them that can have a major impact in cross company areas or from a bunch to all the clients. The order of importance is based on the impact over others, as the others use my commitments to do promises to third parties and the impact can multiply by a big number.

Not going to very big commitments, we usually act and organize our lives, and l am talking now about the work life, around the promises of our coworkers, providers and clients. Getting on time to meetings, sending the email with the information we promised or give our people the free day we offered when we needed them to work very late that “budget night” last month are just very quick and dirty examples. Some of them will trigger new actions, some of them will build confidence about our word and honor and, probably, give us the opportunity of giving out very well backed up promises in the future.

I am tempted to promise you I will see you soon, but it is impossible to honor that promise.

Regards,

    Diego :D

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Signals

16/June/2008

I know that some day I will learn; in the meantime, I will continue making this kind of mistakes and collecting stories to share with you…

I was driving in a street and, having to turn right next corner, I positioned myself on the righmost lane. Some meters before the crossing the car ahead of me stopped without a warning, the driver step out the car and started to help his children out of it, there, stopped in the middle of the street. He was there three or four minutes during which I haven’t had a chance to change lanes to follow my way. I ended up really pissed off.

It is probably not the best example of what we are teached about signalling, but I think it applies to the concept. We face everyday situations like that one. We want to do something and we depend on the action or inaction if someone else to be allowed to do our movement. In my “story of the day”, if only the driver just turned on the emergency lights announcing his intention to stop, I wouldn’t changed my lane and continued my way without a problem.

We use to apply the term “signalling” to strategic decisions about competition moves, but it can be used more widely. For example, when someone from our team wants to do something we know it will be of negative impact in someone else, but we decide to silently let him do it and later stop him in the middle of the move, we fail to signal him. You can’t stop in the air after jumping; if you didn’t wanted me jumping, signal me before starting. The sooner the better.

We do it everyday; a look to let him pass ahead of me into the elevator, an email to warn about the effect a delay in the project will have in the company’s results, or simply the distribution of a new edition of the Code of Ethics of the company, can be an effective signal for those who are looking for them. Off course, some people need bigger signals than others, so feedback is necessary to be sure everyone understood the warning.

Going further, the same idea applies to our people’s careers. We can signal our teams if they can grow in other areas or if they can’t grow anymore in the company, for example, or if they must change some attitude or get a new skill to continue working with us; they can take a different decision path if only know that someone or something ahead will stop them.

From very small and almost insignificant situations, to very important ones, even to the point that it can change the life of someone, we are responsible if we could signal the other part and we fail to do it. Battles and wars have been won without human losses, just with the right amount of signals. And it is also our responsibility to understand the signals from the other parts. It is useless, or even harmful to ourselves, to ignore them.

I must stop writing right now. I think some is trying to yell me something, but I can not hearing him because the fire alarm is too loud.

Regards,

Diego :D

The phantom menace

9/June/2008

I arranged to pick up my kids at school, so there I was, trying to park in the very car-crowded blocks around it. I picked an apparent empty place 50 meters ahead and, when getting there, it was the front of a building in construction stage. The space was “reserved” for the trucks delivering work materials the next morning, but it is reserved from the afternoon of the previous day by means of rests of iron bars and rocks on the sidewalk very near the border of the street. Anyone who dares to park there, can end with deep marks in the paint of the car. They really piss me off.

Is kind of a threat, tacit but it is a threat. Another everyday example: there are some areas in the city that have free parking. During special events, some people start to “help” the drivers to park, given the scarce spaces, and offer to “take care” of the car. They have no kind of identification, nor allowance from the government to do that, so it is up to you to give them money or not. But you know what can happen you don’t give them money: your car can be the only one in blocks with the windshell broken, the music equipment stolen and have a very nice “human product” gift in the front seat.

There are some tacit threats in your private life, as the previous examples, and some in your work everyday. You give a tip to the waiter of your everyday coffee store even if you have not had a good service, just to be sure your next coffee will be just coffee, and you laugh at a gross joke from your boss about a non-present person just to be part of the “team”. There is something in common to all the examples: a risk to loss something; it can be your position, your car, your health or your secrets, you fear to loose something.

There is a darker view to this kind of situations, and is the fact that there are people that take into account your fears. It is a group of people for who the threatening is a common situation, almost a way of life. Some of them are easy to nullify, but others are not so easy. The latters are the people that have someone or something that “protects” them; thay have power, or they are protected by someone who has it, or maybe just a very developed ability.

The fear directs people to do things that are very near to the irrational. Michael Jensen, creator of the REMM model, describes those kind of behaviors as “Pain avoidance” model, in contrast to the “Resourceful, economical and maximizer”, where people start to act to diminish the pain in that moment, not taking into account the future. You pay for the “protection” of your car, but that only generates a feedback loop that attracts more people to “aid” you to park.

The examples apply to the work, off course. If a Manager ask an employee to end certain “very urgent task” very near the annual revision date, it is very likely that he will accept the task, even when he knows for certain that it is impossible to end it in the timeframe imposed by his boss. Or the fear to signal a bad action of a coworker because you can be seen as a “non team working” by the rest of the team.

Are those real threats?  There is no blackmail, no verbal or written menace, just the feeling of the “victim” that there can be consequences. It is even very difficult to do a formal accusation, not because the probable revenge, but because there is no proof.

As I mentioned earlier, some people use this behavior in their own benefit. They have mastered in the art of psicological menace. They are law offenders in the street; at work, it is called mobbing. As managers, we are responsible of our employees. It is our job to know the mobbers and ask them to stop.

There is a thin line between “stressing” the team and threating it. The power of the words is huge; use them to good. Respect your team’s values and yours, not doing to others what is wrong if being done to you. At the end of the day, we all want to go home happy about the day and want to return happy tomorroy.

See you. Regards,

    Diego :D

 

 

 

The sting (Just in time)

1/June/2008

I was driving in a shallow street, only three lanes wide, with the righmost allowed to park, so there were only two free for the cars. There was not too much traffic, but enough to fill both free lanes all the way. Suddenly everything started to slowdown a lot, almost to a full stop. After some minutes at near zero speed, there was the answer: a person parked ok the left; a taxi driver to be precise and he was with the emergency yellow lights turned on. He was for sure waiting for his passenger; in fact, we all were waiting for his passenger. Both of them, taxi driver and passenger, pissed me off.

I can assure, almost without a minor chance of a mistake, that there is in the world no city designed to support the number of vehicles in its streets in this days. But a lot of people, I assume, work everyday to redesign the traffic flows so the city, at least, doesn’t colapse. And is a very difficult task; and I know there are situations where people not doing his chores can ruin everything. Like the taxi driver and the delayed passenger.

This is a world of performance. There is so much distributed knowledge and is so easy to get that knowledge, that the competitive advantages a company can have over others will be effective only if they are doing their best in the most basic and commoditized areas. So, companies focus and spend a lot of time designing, redesigning and optimizing their processes, as the traffic experts do for the cities (I am not happy with the job done by the latters, but is not the point in this post). The production processes are so optimized that everything must go very smoothly; just in time, to add some theory. If something happens, it can crash the whole process.

I remember a professor in my last year in high school: he asked our team to design a platform that can be used to transport a car over it. When we where done, the question was: With what tolerance did you designed it? We asked back: Tolerance? And here comes the expert’s answer (the professor): did you expect that something four meters long will be built up to the millimeter? 

Today, some processes are build so tight, that a minor delay in one area can crash it completely. It can be human factor or mechanical or external, but there will be one. The responsibility of the process designer is not to have a backup for every situation, but to know all the significant situations that can occur and to have the impact evaluated for each instance, and to implement workarounds for those considered important enough. For the taxi driver example, probably the construction of booths where the taxis can stop to wait for a passenger will be enough to keep the rest of the traffic flowing smoothly. Another example: remember the movie The Sting? One of my favorites. The planner (Henry) decided to put a protection on a critical part of the plan (Johnny); he really didn’t know if it was going to be necessary, but the risk was so high that it paid by itself.

By the way: don’t forget to put the impact on the people, being them the company’s employees or the citizens affected, when evaluating the consequences. They are not just spectators; they area also your clients and investors, the people you live with. You do it everyday (add tolerance) when you add some minutes to the time you expect will spend for going from here to there to be sure you arrive on time. It is suboptimal for sure if you only take your time as the important factor in the equation, but is the correct one when you add the respect for the others as one of the factors. In a production process, you will probably size for 11 units if it is very critical to obtain 10; again, is suboptimal, but probably will be worst if something in the process fails and you can have only 8 o 9 units of output.

I am leaving; I have thirty seconds to get to a meeting two floors from here. I should take the stairs, just in case someone stops the elevator to chat with a person in the lobby…

Regards,

    Diego :D