Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It doesn't need to be this way

The last little while has seen the full spectrum of management and leadership. I would like to explore these two words that seem to be abused of late in an effort to assist the young executive, manager or supervisor.

I had the recent joy of having a few drinks with colleagues and the discussion invariably turned to leadership and management. The other parties knew this was like throwing fuel on an open fire with me.

As stated in earlier blogs, I have a very strong opinion on leadership and management. My basic position is this. Management ensures the work is done. Leadership ensures the work that is done has purpose. Managers inspect and leaders motivate. This may seem simple but trust me it is not. Leaders can be taught to be better leaders. I firmly believe you cannot make leaders, you can only make them better. Managers can be created, taught and guided. Being a manager does NOT make you a leader. Being a leader does not make you a manager. Hence the dichotomy of the words.

I would like to use two recent major incidents to emphasize my position.

The first incident is the BP oil spill and the second is the Chilean mine incident. Both topics are overused but I believe my use of them may be different. BP is an example of excellent management, truly. The mining incident is an example of excellent leadership based management. Let me explain.



The media has covered this story to death and I will not go into all the details but some serious backdrop is needed before the press makes some lazy engineer's email into a hero story.

Background on the management decisions without leadership that were made.

Drilling into the deep trough instead of the shelf. This was purely done due to cost saving. It is easier to drill water than rock. Yes, it is sad but true. This is why it took so long to dig relief wells. This also added to the extreme complexities due to depth and going too deep. Leadership management would have drilled on the shelf with a relief well being deployed in the trough. The accountants won the first round and the engineers too enamoured with the cool toys won until the disaster happened. Further evidence that engineers and accountants are just really high profile score keepers.

Management when the accident happens

Focus becomes on saving the well and not stopping the oil. Stopping the oil is a risk issue. By now we have competing management objectives on how best to save the well and mitigate the risk of the oil. Scientists, engineers and accountants are working the numbers and not the problem. The result is that some very bad remediation occurs. Plans become asynchronous and not synchronous. The fact that they never had more than one plan on the move is pure management. Leaders work as many options as possible to get the most out of the people, the resources and the situation.

Layers of abstraction

BP creates a condition of abstracting the business units to defer risk and to manage the bottom line and NOT the long term. By creating distance between the executive branch, the operations group and the consultants the firm is insulated from financial and litigation exposure. This is an excellent fund management strategy but a very poor business execution strategy. In times of crisis an organization needs to gel and be cohesive not fragmented and dysfunctional.

The overall effect here is to have as many layers as possible between risk elements and decision makers. So anyone complaining about a problem cannot get directly to the person who created the condition or who can remedy the situation.

Defer the risk (blame game)

Management decides to spread the risk and share some of the monies with contractors. The contractors as explained to the shareholders are lower cost and are NOT burden by our restrictions. This is the first red flag for poor accountability but a great management strategy. In most cases this strategy works. BP projects have a very poor safety record but BP as a corporation has a good safety record.


To this I have to tip my hat to management. In the midst of this chaos they were able to prevent the US government from intervening, and for technology to be deployed to demonstrate the gravity of the issue. This was mind boggling to me.

The US government has the largest navy in the world and not a single one of its massive assets was sent to act as a barge to stop the oil and to assess the damage. The was Obama's time to shine and he blew it. Millions upon millions of Americans were put in harm's way by this and he sat there neutered. It was painful to watch. All the talk in the world will not stop the oil from spreading. This was classic analysis paralysis. His country is being crushed by banks taking over his country and when his country is being attacked by a runaway oil spill he trusts the "company" that created the problem to own up to its mess. The really sad part of this, is that it was allowed to happen. His only feint moment of truth was when he was going to stop BP from paying its dividends. That almost worked till he found out that too many of his starving pensioners have BP stock and depend on those dividends. How very sad for the young president. He cannot blame anyone for his complete lack of leadership during his watch. He did, however, do a fair job managing it though.

Most times, action will trump inaction. The Obama administration so failed on this one. It was his country at stake with its shoreline and its livelihood.

The second containment issue that was too bizarre to believe was the "live spill cam" showing the oil spill. Ok, this is another sign of the apocalypse. They can get a camera down there and get it on the web but somehow they can't get a good camera down there. Much has been said about James Cameron offering his camera and technology to the cause. He was serious and it would have been very effective if BP was actually trying to do what they said they were trying to do. Here is the deal, grainy pictures give the illusion of action but they also knew the risk if good quality pictures where broadcasted to the world. Their quess-timates of the volume being poured out would have been challenged by sharper minds then whom they had on staff. Trust me, this was by design and not by accident.

"who is in charge"

The BP incident and Katrina both suffered from this greatly. Who really was in charge. You have groups dropping oil containment socks and another spaying dispersants to dilute the oil. One counter acts the other. But we are doing something, please be patient, trust us. Then they only had one plan at a time. This wasn't some lab exercise it was suppose to be real. Even when they were able to pump the oil they didn't bring enough ships to hold it. But they did manage to save the oil.

The winners

BP and all its shareholders won on this one. The company survived, maybe a little bruised but functional. They will pay their billions and marketing companies will make a fortune spinning the new BP.

The losers

The poor souls who lost their lives and their families. For BP has and will not change their ways and other workers are still at risk. They just don't happen to work for BP directly.

The American people have lost their coast line and their ocean based economy.

Obama lost a real time to lead. Kennedy had his "Cuban Crisis", and NASA had its Apollo 13. Obama had the resources, the timing, and the will of the people but he lacked the execution. People do want to be managed they want to be lead. The sad part is that his bid for election was about leadership and he did show signs of actually understanding that. However, never confuse "the sell" with "the install".


A Chilean deep hard rock mine that has seen its share of turmoil and ownership changes. The mine suffers a major rock burst and it is shut down from access. The emergency procedure are followed and they determine 33 miners are unaccounted for. The search for survivors commences. It was this natural use of the emergency procedures and its execution that would lead to the most dramatic rescue in recent mining history.

Leadership management before the incident

The leadership of the company, had emergency shelters, food, ventilation and more importantly emergency protocols. These protocols were not just pieces of paper but regularly checked and validated procedures. Workers were trained and practiced on the procedures. This was considered a cost of doing business and the right thing to do.

Leadership at the time of the incident

On the surface the emergency response teams started to execute a prepared emergency plan. All elements of the plan were put in motion. There was no one waiting to see who was in charge. The plan had factored this in, the mine management engaged the resources and drew from internal and external resources. It was not about saving the mine it was about saving the miners. Immediate action trumped any naval gazing. Teams were devised to search for survivors and to drill ventilation tubes into underground emergency shelters in the event miners had made it to the safe houses.

After days of executing the plan without deviation and doubt, the first real miracle occurred. The miracle was a note stuck to the drill rod of the vent shaft. The note was simple, there are 33 of us and we are fine.

From underground the miners had already rationed the supplies, natural leaders emerged to execute the plan and to assess the situation. Work was broken down and each member had something to do to ease the stress and to improve the situation. These men just did not sit down and blame an external force on their misfortune. They started to work the problem and were coming up with plans and options on their own.

Leadership when the miners where found

Once the trapped miners were found, the country stepped in and released the full power of resources and not the ego. The broke the problem down and had several teams working several options. All the time there were communicating with the miners and their families. They took the approach "Success is all 33 are coming home", failure and the associated risks were understood but not the focus. Leaders have doubts after decisions are made and not before.

The extraction

Once the true realization of the facts were known, the rescue was broken down into major parallel tasks. All factors were considered, health, hygiene, body sizes, mental health, extreme exposure to no natural light, geological issues, access to equipment, food, shelter, extraction bullet, physics, engineering, emergency services, etc. Each area had a lead and each lead reported back the executive. The key here is that they worked on many issues at the same time but with a solid communications and control mechanism.

The celebration

Here was another part that showed the true leadership of the event. The celebration was about the miners and NOT the company or the rescuers. Their reward was seeing the 33 happy faces not the padding of their paychecks (the latter occurred naturally for doing a good job, not by demanding it).

The president of Chile and Bolivia (one miner was from Bolivia) were there not for the glory but real leaders, lead by example. The photo ops happened of course they do, but for the right reasons.

The winners

The family and miners, the Chilean government for it showed the world how to deal with a crisis, the mine for it has been able to maintain its reputation of taking care of their own and lastly the people of Chile, for they have a restored hope in hope.

The losers

The media that played to the drama of the one miner who had a mistress. This was noise for the west and irrelevant to the event. Big mining companies who freely admitted prior to the extraction that it could not be done and they would never take the risks. The only risks they wouldn't take was to their back accounts. It was a sad statement from some of the largest mining companies and the some of the larger mining labour groups.

In conclusion

The Chilean leadership based approach pre, during and after the incident if applied to the BP incident would have had a better ending for all parties. If the BP management approach had been applied to the Chilean incident, families would have been given compensation payments in front of the media and a tombstone at the base of the mine to lay claim to 33 dead miners.

We as a society need to promote and demand leadership. Our people in leadership positions today are so concerned with management of numbers, expectation and the next poll or quarter that they have missed the bigger opportunities.

This is being echoed by governments and what the media is trying to call national debates. We need real discourse and engaged communities not people who are being managed (read manipulated) by 30 second sound bites.

In the technology field this is such an easy trap to fall into. Groups will hide behind management decisions and chase the new shiny tool instead of making the current ones work effectively and with purpose.

You lead from the front and with you head held high. Build a strong team that is armed to execute plans and to be creative to gain a better end result. The more we allow basic management to prevail, the softer and less competitive we all become.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Detention time verses dwell time

Recently, I was asked to explain the difference between dwell time and detention time.  This is a common question that plagues the transportation industry and as such there is likely more than one explanation.  Here is how I explained it.


The first question that some of you will ask is why is this even a discussion?  The answer in the transportation industry is that you generally only get paid when assets are being utilized.  The challenge becomes knowing what has moved to make money and what has just moved in general.
For the purposes of this discussion the following definitions are required for the reader to continue.
Detention Time
detention Time graphic
This is the calculation that something has actually physically not moved.  This uses the specific latitude and longitude reading of a GPS device and checks to see if the asset actually moved.  This can be very helpful to find assets that are “static” regardless of where they are.  An example of this is a dropped trailer that has been forgotten or that has been abandoned by a tractor. 
1) See what is actually not moving, literally.
2) Find misplaced or static assets regardless of where they are suppose to be.
The biggest challenge is to account for GPS drift.  GPS drift is when the latitude and longitude can shift due to GPS tracking precision.  GPS location is based on triangulation.  As the number of satellites change over time the accuracy of the latitude and longitude can vary.  This is called drift.  The 4 decimal place precision is roughly 11 meters.  What this means is that over time a very static GPS location device could look like it moved up to 11 meters and it did not actually move.  This is addressed by using math to account for the drift and then comparing the results against a drift algorithm.  The answer will come back with it did or did not move + or – of the drift value.

Dwell Time

Dwell time graphic
Dwell time time is very similar in thinking to detention but with one large variance.  Dwell time is primarily focused on assets that have NOT left a geo-fenced area.
A geo-fenced area is when you place a boundary around a specific landmark.  This landmark could be a terminal yard, customer site or any other geo-spacial location that has a complete closed logical perimeter (circle, square or polygon).
Dwell time will tell us if an asset has NOT left a defined location.
One of the biggest benefits to the organization is that it will tell you if an asset has not left a location.  What can cause this is if the asset has been shunted around the yard for various reason but has not left the yard.  Customers will do this with trailers specifically.  They could be using them for mobile warehouses yet from a latitude and longitude perspective the asset is moving and would not be caught by using latitude and longitude only.
The biggest challenge facing dwell time is the interval of the GPS latitude and longitude reporting.  Let’s say that you have a device that is reporting location every 8 hours.  It is possible for a pulse to happen within the location, then, the asset leaves the location and returns prior to the next pulse.  This condition would give a false positive.  To combat this you may have to look at both detention and dwell to isolate patterns.  Another alternative is to increase the polling cycle.

Business questions answered

1) What is not moving = Detention
2) What is not moving and I do not care where it is = Detention
3) What is hanging around a yard and not making money = Dwell
4) What is at my customers and not moving or leaving = Dwell
5) Looking for lost revenue for assets domiciled at customer locations = Dwell
6) Misplaced assets = Detention
7) Dropped trailers = Detention

Visit my trailer tracking site to learn more.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Strategic Planning

This post will deal with the specific issues around strategic planning regardless of organizational size. The same rules apply for all.  I am a big proponent of planning and specifically strategic planning.  It is critically important to know how to plan so you can build the road ahead.  It provides for downstream direction and more importantly a reduction in dysfunctional behaviour.

There can be as many methodologies for planning as there are plans.  Do not let the different approaches confuse what is the purpose of the plan.

Strategic blocks 

The information for the plan flows from the bottom up and is distilled from the higher levels to make the plan.   Once the plan is made then it must be lead from the top down.  The vision must come from the top.  It may seem simple but all to often this is not the case.  When the plan is driven from the bottom the phrase “the inmates are running the mad house” comes to mind.

What is the function of each of the areas?


The strategy function is the high level that defines where is the organization and why does it want to be there.  The vision in short. The goals are based typically on the SMART acronym of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and finally Time Framed.  This is typically driven from the mission.

Let’s break this down.  The goals have to be specific and not some nebulous touchy feely element.  You want to grow the company by X or you want to have all products under one group, or you will acquire companies for volume or product growth.

You need to measure the goal so you will know when you have gotten there and more importantly, what needs to be done to get there.  People do not do what you “expect” they do what you “inspect”.  The inspect portion is the measurement.  Another caution here is to measure what gets you somewhere and not burden down the system by too many measures.  I have seen firms spend more on  the measurement then on what the function brings in value.  This is a real concern and as a leader of the strategic plan you need to have your measurements be part of the overall plan and with the correct tools to measure effectively.

The goals have to be achievable.  You cannot put a goal out there that no one believes is reachable.  You want to create stretch goals that make the organization better but not so stretched that buy in to the goal will not be supported.

Realistic goals are those goals that fit the culture of the organization and the overarching team to achieve the goals.  This part of the discussion leads to comments about hiring new skills or rethinking some approach to realistically attain the goal without undo harm to the overall organization.

Without a timeline, most goals are not reached.  The interest wanes and the prospect dims.  Once the timelines are in place then you need to have regular checkpoints to see how you are progressing.  Failure to do so may surprise you when you are getting close to the deadline and you are not there.  This goes hand in hand with measurements.  Your measurements should have expected values for each of these checkpoints.

The strategic plan should be an inclusive approach from the bottom up to gather as much information as possible.  However, the final decisions have to come from the leaders in order to be executed properly.  Strategic plans can be managed to success but they are lead to greatness.  You want to give a clear picture of the plan and why you want to get there.

The strategic plan should span years and have regular checkpoints to ensure you are on track.  It also gives you time to adjust elements in order to achieve the goals.


The tactical plan is how you break down the goals into major functions so you can achieve the goals in the timelines specified.

This part of the exercise is where everyone takes their areas of the goals and breaks them down into relevant and meaningful objectives.  These objectives are the building blocks to achieve the goals.  The increment steps to success.

Objectives will span disciplines and departments and will require coordination between the major players.  These objectives can also use the SMART acronym but have a lower context view of the issues.  You may need several objectives to attain just one part of the goal.  The issue and focus has to be on how do we deliver the parts of the solution for the goal in a structured deliberate way.

The tactical plan is typically 6 months to a year and involves shorter checkpoints.  These shorter checkpoints allow for quicker decision making and minor adjustments.


The operational plan are the short term tasks to achieve the objectives of the tactical plan.  These may projects that deliver key elements for the tactical objectives to attained.  These short term tasks are very specific and will be larger in number than objectives.  The objectives may create many tasks in order to achieve the objective.

The teams required here are more specialized and rarely cross boundaries.  These smaller units are able stay focused on the tasks and have insight into the objectives.  They will know of the goals but will have little insight into the actual progress of the goals.  They should have insight into the objectives.

What are the elements of a strategic plan?


The vision is what you want to be.  A future statement of how and what your organization will be know for.  It is a small statement that reflects a line in the sand that can be defined.  It should not be a novel with legal, politically correct statements.  If you need to have a coffee and muffin to read it, then the vision can be effective.  The vision is the point in the future.  An example is

“To be the #1 choice of our customers”


How will you get there is the mission.  The mission statement is the action item to deliver the vision.  Using the example above the mission statement could read

“We will focus on value, a superior customer experience and innovation”


Goals are the key elements to execute the mission to realise the vision.  The Goals to support the fictitious Mission and Vision above could be.

1) Reduce order process times to 1 day

2) Provide a new major release every 6 months

3) Decrease billing errors to .01 percent.

What are the impacts to the plan?


People need to buy in in order for the goals to be achieved the mission to be executed and the vision to be realized.  To do this you need to open communications from the bottom up.  Get the input from the operational people.  Distil this information and let it provide insight into your vision.  The vision, must be reflective of what your people can achieve.  They may need assistance to get there but that will be flushed out in the goals.

I cannot stress enough you need input NOT decisions from the bottom.  All too often I hear, well that is what the department wanted.  This is so wrong on so many levels.  How can we expect a line person to understand the entire machine.  Their insight is very helpful in how we deliver the end product or service but their view is limited to their area.

All too many projects have failed for they tried to please everyone and when you are trying to perform structural change this is not a realistic condition.  Fess up early and get the people to understand or at least know the reason why of the vision.

Remember people respond to what you inspect.  Your measurements should be sensitive to positive outcomes and not compliance.


The day to day processes need to be aligned with the objectives and goals.  Failure to do so, will make the attainment of the objectives and goals highly unlikely. 

The measurement components should be non-obtrusive and the analysis of them part of the process. 

Processes may need to change to support your goals and objectives.  Ensure everyone knows why this is being done.  When processes are aligned you will get buy in and you will not get trapped in the bureaucracy of management of measurements.  I too see this often.  If the measurements are not part of the process then people start to manage the numbers and not the process.  This is very dysfunctional.  The measure has to support the end means and not just be a box to fill in. 


In most cases in order to truly be successful, the people need to have bought in and the processes have to aligned.  Typically doing this will also ensure you have tools to easily measure the outcomes and to provide this information to the people required to action this to achieve the goals and objectives.

In Conclusion

Plan the work and work the plan.  It is as old as the Romans and still very relevant.  Strategic planning is very important and should be part of any organization regardless of size.

Larger organizations will have formal processes and will have disciplines in place to adhere to the processes.  When and if you become part of these plans, be proactive, probe deeper and find out why certain goals need to be achieved.  It will go a long way in making sure your objectives meet the overall goals.

If your organization does not have a formal process, make one for your area.  The rest of the organization will follow.  If you do not have vision how do your expect your people to follow you.

Another question I get asked often is “I am only a manager how do I do strategic planning”.  This is actually quite simple.  It is a matter of perspective.

The executive branch makes the strategic plans for the whole organizations, Directors then provide tactical plans to achieve this.  Their managers will then in turn be given tasks to achieve the objectives.

Now comes the fun part.  To the organization above you are providing operational tasks.  However, to your staff you are providing strategic goals.  Then the supervisors below you are now giving you tactical plans  and the line staff are given operational tasks to achieve their tactical goals.  It is the water fall effect.

I am currently a Director.  I get my marching orders from the CFO.  I then translate them into tactical plans and operational plans.  To my staff I am providing strategic direction but to my boss I am providing tactical leadership.  You just keep doing this till you run out of reporting layers.

Information and metrics follow the same path.

The executive team decide where they want the ship to travel based on forecasts, staff input and their personal leadership positions.  They they ask the staff to ensure all the elements of the ship can be monitored and managed to arrive at the destination.

By everyone focussing on their role and contributing in a positive way the organization will achieve the plan and hopefully the plan was a good plan.  If the plan was faulty but is being followed correctly then adjustments become easier to apply.  When there is no formal process and everyone is rowing at their own pace and direction, the ship will go nowhere but everyone will be working hard.  Working hard is not the way to success, working effectively is.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Circling the dragon

This is a phrase I use frequently when I am trying to find a stubborn or elusive problem.  I am not always sure everyone understands the statement.  The short definition of the phrase is to keep chipping away on the periphery issues to get to the root (dragon) of the issue.  It also means sometimes you cannot solve the problem in one step and you have to plan your way to resolution.

I will explore both options in this post.

The graphic below shows the dragon in the midst of the OODA loop.  This is by design.  The approach to basic and pragmatic trouble shooting is to follow the loop.

Getting to the dragon by process of elimination

This approach is used when you are not entirely sure of what or where the dragon is.  An analogy would be of a dragon slayer going on a quest to find the dragon.  The dragon slayer would follow the trail and the evidence till the dragon was found. 

You need to really focus on the OODA loop here.  The first step is to clearly observe all the elements not just one the ones you are comfortable with.  Look at it from different angles and from different perspectives.  In the orientation phase of your observation you are likely seeing just a symptom of the deeper problem.  If you could see the root problem (dragon) you would take a different path to solution.  For this discussion we are going to state you are just seeing the symptom. 

Once you have oriented yourself to the observation you need to list the options (decisions) you have.  Play it out in your head what happens with this test or with this action.  Visualize the process.  This will give you what you expect to learn or gain from the exercise.  This is where I see most trouble shooters fail.  They tend to hack away at things and in doing so miss the relevant.  They also, end up wasting time and more importantly they tend to add to the problem. 

The approach of elimination is just that.  Break down the issues in systematic and measured steps.  You should have an expected result from the effort.  Sometimes the effort is to just prove what it is not.  This is OK, sometimes you need to validate the known so you can find the unknown.  As Spock use to say in Star Trek, “if you eliminate the possible all that is left is the impossible”.  There is a lot of wisdom in that.  All too often we jump on the obvious, only to find out it did not solve the problem and we have learned little from the exercise.  By taking a step back before we jump in, we can see if jumping in is even worthwhile.

Once you have played out the possible decisions you need to act on them.  I am amazed at how many people freeze here.  They have a solid basis for their approach, it is based on solid observation and alignment (orientation) with the decisions and yet they do not act.  My favourite clue for this, becomes the accountability blame game.  It manifests itself in statements like “I do not have authority to do this or I sent an email and no one responded”.  This shows lack of ownership and commitment.  If you do not act then how do you expect to solve the problem.  Hiding behind email shows lack of personal accountability and leadership.

Once you act on your decision then you need to start all over again.  What did your action do to change the situation at all?  Even a nothing change is telling you something.  If nothing happens, you may have to undo your action.  If it did in fact change something what did it change.  The exercise of “what is it telling me?” is critical in the orientation step of the repeatable loop.  Force yourself to dig deeper and in doing so you will be given different decisions to draw from.  Once a list of decisions is made act on your plan.  Once the action is done, start all over again.  Are you sensing a theme yet?

Eventually, even if it is just shear will power, you will find the dragon and reduced it to its smallest elements.  The result is the dragon is gone.  Now like all dragon slayers you have to go and find a new one to battle.  How you defeated this dragon now becomes knowledge you can use for your next encounter.

Slaying the Dragon in steps

When you know what the dragon is and where the dragon can be found you may need to take several steps to get to it.  If so, then it becomes all about the planning and execution of the plan.  It is the deeper, more mature, application of the OODA loop.  When you have found the root cause and you know it cannot be slain in one cut then you need to plan and prepare for its exorcism.  To be fair, of late, this is lacking in so many firms and people in  our industry.  We have become obsessed with the tools and the analytics but little work is actually done solving the problem.  We have better diagnostic tools then we ever have had and yet we still are falling behind in solving issues.  This is not unique to the information technology field, all one has to do is look at our health care and you will see we are more focused on the problem then we are on the solution.
In building your plan you need to break it down into its appropriate steps.  Once each step is defined you need to mentally validate that the steps are in the correct order and what is the expected outcome of each step. 

Doing so is critical to the OODA loop execution.
So once you have made your plan, you observe the environment.  This can be done by doing a baseline test and measurement.  You then orient yourself to the observations.  Has this baseline highlighted anything or shown a pattern you were unaware of?  Note these observations for future reference.  Make a decision as to the plan execution.  Execute (Act) on the first step of the plan.

Once the plan is in motion, observe what is happening.  Orient yourself to your expected outcomes.  Are the expected outcomes being realized?  If not, what have you found out?  Do you need to change the plan?  Once you have made up your mind then act on your decisions and the next step of the plan.  Start the loop again at the observe step. 

Doing so will quickly, and hopefully, predictably slay the dragon.  The key is that you must be adaptable to what you are seeing and you must be able to orient yourself to your observations.  Your decisions need to be based on what you see and what the context is of what you saw.  Lastly, without action you become the victim of inertia and in problem solving inertia or inaction is the enemy. 

In conclusion

Problem solving is about bringing solutions to bear.  There are many who can write emails and memos on the problems facing us all.  The real challenge is to bring solutions so the problem are resolved.  To the naysayers who wax poetic “there will always be dragons”, I say to them clearly and with purpose, “Lead, follow or get out of the way”.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The people side of problem solving

As of late the amount of work hitting our team has been staggering. The initial response by the team is that we are overworked. Fair enough….. or is it?

I have always struggled with this comment. My approach is and has always been, if you do it right and pay attention then you rarely have to go back and fix it. If this is a truism then the work you are doing is moving you forward not holding you back.

Since not many people give this argument much thought or at least my current team doesn’t, I thought I would take this blog to express my position or stance.

To solve a problem you have to first acknowledge there is a problem. Seems simple but it is not that simple based on the observations I make on a regular basis. Frequently, I have been known to say in passing “see a problem, fix a problem”. Typically this is something as simple as fixing a colleagues tangled phone cord when you borrow their phone. A simple gesture, but one I consistently do, just because. Other simple ones like filling the paper tray of a printer you walked by because you heard the error tones. Holding the door open for someone whose hands are full should not be something that has to be “memo’d” to be done.

Yet, as I look around I see most of us plodding along and doing as we are told. This is a huge burden for the person that is responsible for telling us work needs to be done. I can’t remember a time when my boss had to explicitly  tell me to do work. Sure, we have meetings to discuss priorities and new projects, but I would be insulted if he had to tell me do something that is clearly in my implicit mandate. An example is doing the annual Disaster Recover Plan. His job is ask what occurred, or to make a decision on if we are going to spend more money on it. He does have to “tell” me to get it done. That is my responsibility and accountability. It makes his life easier and it clears up our meetings for more strategic endeavours.

We are in the midst of a very large multi-vendor phone upgrade. It involves the lion’s share of our users and will impact the entire enterprise. It has been 10 months in the planning and will be executed over 5 weeks. We have fundamentally altered the way we use telephony. By all measures this is the single biggest project our infrastructure group as ever worked on. Saying this, my immediate expectation of my group is to be focused and to think of things that are not so obvious. Put yourself in the chair of the users.

For months I have been listening to the push backs and complaints of my team of how much work they are doing for preparation. I keep reminding them that this large effort will reduce our overall efforts in out years. The smarter ones get this, but the average ones do not. This is why I am writing this post.

Our cabling person is driving 2 hours to visit one of our closest sites to prep for the phone changes. Phones use cables, cable people put in the cable, putting in cables requires tools, cable person should be automatically bringing tools. NOT….. He wasn’t told to, and is very comfortable is stating this. Sadly, this is not such an uncommon event. I have been speaking to my other colleagues and they are experiencing the same type of behaviour. My simple response is “until there is a penalty there will be no change”. Yes I know this sounds harsh and the softer side of me says “you get more with honey then with vinegar”. But what do you do if the honey is not working? Common Human Resource procedure has the manager doing way too much work to get so little in return. So I continue to reward the good behaviour, and then acknowledge the bad behaviour. It makes for a long day at times and many visits to the human resource department.

As a person you have to want to fix the problem that is on the people side of the equation. If you or your team is not personally engaged to fix the problem, you likely will be dealing with the issue for a long time to come. However, if you are capable of creating a culture where your team cares about their job and their relationship with the larger firm, then you will be able to solve the problem right the first time.

pig and chicken

The above picture is one of my favourites. The saying goes something like this: “Who is more committed to the breakfast meal, the chicken or the pig?”. The answer is the pig, for it has to give up its life to provide the bacon for breakfast. As of late, I am finding way too many chicken’s laying the low fat, low content eggs and spouting off about how much work they have done. Whereas, the pig cannot say anything for it is too busy being the meal.

Be a real person when solving a problem, and remember that you are likely solving it for someone else. Also, it is not important who fixed it or who solved it. What is important is that it was fixed respectfully and effectively. Spread the praise of others and do not be afraid to call out the naysayers. If the naysayers want a voice, let it be the voice of self-defence instead of their smug offensive.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

My New Toy

Well I finally did it.  I supported the economy in my own little way.  I bought a brand new, gas guzzling, kick ass 4X4 truck. I am so happy.  Can you feel the testosterone?

Mine of course is better than this picture. The picture is the same colour but mine has the soft tonneau cover, bug deflectors and the window vent visors.  Are you impressed?


my toy

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Where are “U” in the user experience?

What part of U 

This post is a result of the last few days and the constant reminding I have I had to give me team.  In the midst of a technical system failure it becomes so easy to lose track of the users, your role and the role of the people you are speaking to.  From the people, processes and tools approach I adhere to this post is clearly dealing with people issues. These issues are a direct reflection of how they interact with the tools and the processes.  I am a true believer in everyone is accountable for their actions and interactions with others.

Know your role


If you are the support person and you are being asked by your superior a question then please do a baseline assessment.  The mental assessment should go something like this “who are they?”, “what level of knowledge do they have?”, “How much context do I have to provide before I give the deeper answer?”.  It should not be “WHY are they asking”.  This is insulting to the person asking the question.  If your superior has asked a question please answer it.  If you want to have an esoteric mind conversation on the “why” and “conspiracy theories” do it on your own time.  For the most part when someone asks a question they really want an answer. If this is the typical courtesy “how are you today?” then by all means feel free to lie.  But when they ask a question of you because you are the support person, then answer with facts and stay on point.

If your role is support then please provide some.  Remember that you are being asked for your advice and consul to fix a problem.  It may not be your fault or it may be.  That should not affect the facts. Also get over yourself.  Just because you know more then the person who asked the question does not mean you know it all.  You may be surprised what the user and your superior know that could make you look silly if they choose to.  Do not give them a reason to exercise that option.

Treat both the user and your superiors with respect.  You do not have to like them to respect them.  This is a great position to take with anyone you work with, play with or live with.

Speak in the language and context of the person you are speaking to.  If the end user is from warehousing don’t be throwing acronyms their way or speak in geek speak.  Try to use their language.  If you do not know and you want to be successful then you should start to ask questions of them to educate you on the problem in their language.  Picture yourself in a foreign land with a foreign language and you need to get some directions.  Break the communications down to that level. They are likely the master’s of their domain and you can learn something from them instead of telling them things that make your world easier.

End user

If you are an end user and there has been a system failure you have a role to play as well.  It is a very important role.  You are the recipient of the direct pain of not having your system working.  You need to provide more insight then “it doesn’t work”.  Or my personal favourite, “I can’t get my work done and it’s IT’s fault”.  It may be the Information technology’s department fault or it may be what you the end user did.  Either way we need each other to get the problem resolved.  Please keep the drama for your friends in the lunch room and not for the ones who are trying to help.

Please pay attention to what you do when you are using a system and/or a process.  I know us IT folks like to poke fun at the dumb users but hey users get paid to do a job too and that job is rarely a direct result of the technology.  Sometimes it is and then I personally get frustrated when for example a programmer who uses a computer all day to do their job has to have the infrastructure group setup the new monitors or keyboards.  Come on .. . .  get real.  This is tantamount to driving a car and not knowing how to put fuel in it.  Yes I know they exist out there and they are also breeding but someone needs to educate them or better yet slap them.


If you are the leader please pay attention.  First, I did not use the word manager because that is completely different and was explained in a different post.  The leader has to assess all the facts and from all the players.  Do not get caught in the drama.  Stick to the facts, assess what and who is impacted.  Find out “what changed?”.  Have all parties quantify their statements.  I use the line “what evidence do you have to support your position?”  I get amazing results from this approach.  First it disarms those who want to finger point and it also forces the team to stay on facts and not conjecture.  Following my fact based strategy will save many cycles and reduce stress.

Prove and/or disprove all the theories coming at you.  Your role is to direct the flow of information and more importantly to get the decisions made.  Sometimes these decisions are not made by you but you need to get these decisions made by the correct people. 

You also need to ensure that all parties are not crossing boundaries.  This is very common in large projects and  when people start to influence peddle like a bunch of politicians at voting time.

Be confident of your role and do not let others dissuade you from your role.  It is not good for the team or for you.


Each and everyone of us has a role to play and the role changes as the situation changes.  Sometimes you are the leader, sometimes you the end user and other times you are the support person.

Each and every time you enter a new situation take the time to observe the roles of others and more importantly yourself.  This goes for when we are in informal situations as well.  The best leaders have proven they were also excellent followers.