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Learning how to play the “gray” scales


9 Value Scale

I was watching my husband create a “simple” 9 value scale the other day. He started with a pile of black paint (1) on the left and a pile of white paint on the right (9). He then mixed a middle tone gray (5) which was half way between the two. He then mixed a 7, half way between 5 and 9, eventually completing his chart. He had to keep a healthy balance between being too dark or light in order to keep a gentle graduation of gray (his words, not mine.)

In a similar fashion, strong organizations have a healthy balance between “strict processes” and “flexible solutions”. Leaning too far in either direction can cause an organization to become unhealthy (Defined as not being able to meet their goals).

If an organization has “strict processes”, it leaves no room for dealing with surprises, or disruptions. If something does not fit neatly into a box, a “strict process” organization will either ignore the issue or use an ill-fitting process to address it. Thus, over time these issues will add up to stagnation and un-health.

If an organization has no processes and uses only flexible solutions (one offs / different every time), it will soon overtax its resources. Over time the organization will drown in the urgent with no time for the important.

Processes allow organizations to quickly deal with things that are repetitive, things that have best practice solutions, and things that can be improved over time from repetitiveness. They allow the organization to clearly communicate based on a foundation of understanding. However, if there is not space for a “middle gray” (meaning the organization recognizes that some things don’t fit the norm and need special solutions), the organization will find itself too rigid to meet changing needs of the market place.

Finding the right balance of “gray” is a must for a strong healthy organization.

Be intentional,

Why manners matter to the professional in you

People love to comment on how professional someone is or isn’t, especially if they are irritated with the person. Professionalism is all about how someone acts and how they treat others.

Growing up, my mother had a different word for the same thing: manners. You knew how to act at the grocery store (no, the cookies are not yours, put them down), you knew how to act at school (if the teacher calls me you’ll be in worse trouble when you get home), you knew how to play with the kids on your street (sharing is expected), you knew how to have a conversation with other parents who were also in authority (Thank you, thank you Mr and Mrs. Greenberg!), and you knew how to act in church (no carrying on when the preacher’s preaching).

One could say there are some basic, maybe foundational, rules of conduct that apply to everyday life. If you master them, you will also be seen as “acting professional”. Here are a few things to consider that a professional-acting person does in her or his day job:

  • Be on time, the world does not revolve around you
  • Look people in the eye (unless in a culture that does not appreciate that, meaning you’re respectful and mindful of where you are)
  • Pay attention when someone is talking (Put the phone down – it can wait)
  • Don’t talk over others, allow them to finish their thought
  • Keep your swearing to yourself (why share how limited your vocabulary really is)
  • Treat people as people, not objects to do your bidding.
  • Be respectful of other people’s time – be prepared, be organized, “be brief, be bright, and be gone”

This is only a starter list. I’m sure if I had more time to list “professional manners” we’d soon cross over into Miss Manner’s guide to basic living in rather short order.

Be intentional,

Communicating from within the Information Tsunami

“You have 60 unread emails” and it’s only 8am in the morning. Ugh. It’s shaping up to be your fourth Friday* in a row. Why is it that at the most inconvenient time, the pace doubles and the information flows faster than your filter can absorb?

What do you do in that moment to process and “communicate” from within the information tsunami? Think about it for a moment. Communication is the lifeblood of manufacturing. Communication ensures good decisions have a chance to be made, communication enables good prioritization of tasks and initiatives, communication reinforces the team’s direction.

I’ll ask again, how do you filter the information coming and going during a day like this?

Let’s start by acknowledging that email is not the end all be all. Heresy! One time in the automotive industry I watched emails flying back and forth between two of my staff who were sitting less than 15′ apart. I finally had had enough and dragged them into a conference room and said, “Fix it.”

To be fair, we all have a preferred method of communication be it Email – Text – Daily Reports – Phone – Face/Face. But instead of thinking of yourself. Why not flip it and ask yourself, “What does the situation require of you to communicate best in?” In a fluid day, an email may languish in an overflowing inbox whereas a text will be acted upon.

When sending emails, pay attention to your “subject” line wording. Some folks support multiple business areas, so just saying “Yesterday’s meeting notes” isn’t helpful. That is why Miss Grammar created “adjectives” – “Yesterday’s Production meeting notes” is more descriptive. Use key words in the subject including the project, location, etc. Help the email receiver help you.

For the millennials, go ahead and smile, because while I’m a boomer, I think a text message can be the best way to keep information flowing in certain situations. Each company’s environment differs so use this to augment and reinforce the communication for those times when “instant” means now, not an hour from now.

Daily Reports
We all get “daily” reports. Sometimes the Daily report isn’t first on the must read now list. You can filter these as needed to fit your rhythm. Sometimes you may even discern a pattern that you never tend to read a particular report – would it be crazy to suggest removing yourself from that particular thread?

Conversations (Phone or Face/Face)
Fast conversations can prevent a cluttered email box. Let me say it again – conversations save inbox overload.

If an email chain becomes a “back and forth” conversation – either drop everyone else off or better yet pick up the phone. Realize that not everyone is on the computer all the time and not everyone has smart phones. If you need an immediate answer or have time-critical information – don’t use email. Text, call or go find the person.

When you find the information tsunami is in full force, take a moment to be respectful of others and their priorities. If someone doesn’t immediately respond to you, don’t assume they are ignoring you. While you may have 60 unread emails, they may have 100. It’s hard to believe that your priorities may not be someone else’s too.

Plan ahead, don’t procrastinate, allow people time to respond based on the situation.

Be intentional

*I have nothing against those who love Fridays. But after 30 years in the manufacturing world, if something is going to go wrong, it will be on a Friday or the day before a long holiday weekend… That’s when you just have to smile and say, let’s figure it out…

The one characteristic that sets leaders apart

We’ve all read the business books that explain “formal” and “informal” leaders within organizations and that leaders exist within all levels of an organization. One characteristic I think that distinguishes a leader from the pack is that they view  their area of influence through an “ownership lens”.

A leader  takes “ownership” of an issue (idea, solution set, etc.) and will see it through to completion – whether good or bad. If you’ve been in business for any number of years you’ll know that it is a rare solution set that is all good or all bad. Very few solutions fit into a neat and tidy box because there are always trade offs. Sometimes a “good” solution set has some “bad” mixed in and vice-versa. There is no perfect. However, whatever the final solution, the leader who exhibits ownership never flinches from their responsibility to own the outcome.

Before you go all “Rambo” and start thinking you’re alone in the corporate wilderness – let me be clear – ownership doesn’t mean going it alone. In fact, it means quite the opposite. So relax, you don’t have to be Rambo after all. (Which is a relief because I don’t do well sleeping in tents. My husband got me to go camping, once. But that’s for another story.)

Leadership requires that you:

  • Work within your team and your sphere of influence for the good of the organization, not necessarily for yourself
  • Build consensus across the organization
  • Own the facts so you can explain the details without editorializing or sensationalism
  • See the issue to its conclusion
  • Become the advocate for solving the issue (decision, solution set, et al.)

A long time ago I had a boss who didn’t always take credit for our team’s solutions. I once asked her why. She said, “Don’t kid yourself, I own the outcome but it’s not necessary for me to always be in the spotlight. It’s far more important that the team is. It’s about doing the right things right because they are right.” Altruistic? Perhaps. But working for her changed my view of leaders forever.

Being a leader and embracing ownership means you won’t always get to credit for the answer. It means you are willing to not be the center of attention. It means you are willing to work behind the scenes content in the knowledge that the “right things are done rightly”. It means you own the solution even if your name doesn’t appear on it. But like my old boss knew, your fingerprints will be all over that solution.

Lots of people are good at talking about problems. How good are you at quietly stepping up and fixing them? Own what’s yours and then some. Do the right things right because they are right.

Be intentional

What makes a team, a team?

The other night we watched Believeland, a 30 for 30 sports story on ESPN and it got me thinking about what makes a team, a team?

What makes a team able to achieve more than any of its individual people could on their own? Is Lebron James the greatest ever to play the game? Some would say yes, while others, like my husband would say no. But even having King James on the team hasn’t assured a Cleveland championship.

Every organization needs a complete team in order to achieve its goals. Take for instance my hometown team – the Detroit Pistons. Everyone loved hating the Bad Boys of the 90s but they put together a complete team over a few seasons building toward their back to back championships. They drafted Isaiah Thomas and then built their own culture (and not all of it good).

What makes a team? Is there a secret ingredient or a special sauce? While there are lots of books written on teamwork and team forming, I would like to offer the following as what I think is a team’s “secret sauce”:

1. Someone needs to have the vision to form a team (a team owner like Bill Davidson)
2. There has to be something for the team to rally around (an NBA championship)
3. The team has to own their culture (positive peer pressure and norms)

In order to win, the Pistons needed to build a complete team but they couldn’t do it with just anybody. They needed players who fit their particular culture and bought into their particular vision. I remember an interview where Isaiah said the team’s senior leadership met with incoming players and told them “this is how we do things here”. He said not everyone accepted their vision and as a result they didn’t last long in their organization.

People don’t naturally just become a team because a team doesn’t happen overnight. There have to be shared moments (triumphs and losses) which help the team bond. At some point the players on these respective championship teams knew they “had arrived” as a complete unit. They’d bonded.

We, in the manufacturing world, would do well to think through how we could better form our teams by providing the right vision, the right goal to rally around and by allowing our teams to own their culture. While there won’t be any replays of our successful meetings or deliveries on ESPN, we will have won our own respective championships.

Be intentional

Form, Function and Your Organizational Structure.

An organizational structure is one of those things that can make or break a team’s ability to deliver the goal. It is a topic some leaders, at their own peril, choose to ignore.

There are many debates, and some holding passionate positions, on the kinds of organizational structures that work. A matrix organization can be centralized or decentralized but should you matrix in the first place? A matrix may remove silos but, as the human capital argument goes, how well does an employee do with more than one boss? An analogy is having two simultaneous bills due but only enough cash to pay one. Who does the employee “pay”? This question has filled many volumes of business journals.

What about centralization versus de-centralization. Do you centralize or de-centralize the operations? Both have pros and cons. A centralized operation, if not careful, can get bogged down in decision making and many layers of management whereas a de-centralized operation may end up with competing points of view on direction. Before throwing your hands in the air and walking away, maybe you could consider a hybrid of the two.

If we called the organizational structure you operate under the “form” and what you do, your “function” then maybe, “Form follows function”. Yes I know it’s a 20th century principle more associated with architecture and industrial design (which, yes, has been endlessly debated as well). But something about it appeals to my inner engineer.

The essence of form following function is that how something is shaped should be based upon its intended purpose. If we took that idea and applied it to an organizational structure, then how a group is organized should be based on its purpose – they are tightly linked.

There are volumes written on the subject of matrix, centralized or de-centralized organizations – and my intent here is not to say one is particularly better than the other. What I am trying to get at is you should take the time to make a rational decision for your environment. Don’t leave it up to chance. If there’s a “function” issue for your organization, consider looking deeper into its “form”.

Be intentional,