Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Cause of Sickness

As you can probably discern from the volume of my recent blog output, I’ve been out sick. This made me think of the root cause of sickness or at least of the common cold.

Doctors tell us that virus and bacteria cause infectious diseases. If I recall correctly, viruses cause most colds. While that is true, not getting enough sleep, breathing in cold damp air, and eating junk food contribute to a weakened immune system. So while I don’t have direct control over the true root cause, I do have direct control over several of the contributing factors.

What does this have to do with work balance? We often experience a similar conundrum at work. We have little or no control over the root cause of a problem or barrier. Therefore, always take positive action over contributing factors that are within your sphere of influence. Complaining about issues we can’t control is about as effective as yelling at a microbe.

Friday, February 29, 2008

High Flyin'

The Contral Endeavor 1 of 7
High Flyin' as told by Otto Margus

The Blue Elephant caters to the business crowd. The atmosphere speaks to an elegant comfort. Patrons enjoy the quick service and the ability to network with business associates in the local community. Even if no resume changing experience occurs, they get an opportunity to “kick back” and relax.

Peter Schiller decided to go to the
Blue Elephant for the free appetizers on Thursdays. While most of the other customers were ordering what was on tap, Peter asked for tonic on ice with a slice of lime (no gin). A man with a clean shaven head and a curly mustache noticed Peter momentarily before ordering another bourbon (neat). While slowly swirling the bourbon around his glass, the clean shaven headed man detected Peter’s cufflinks. They displayed a symbol depicting an anvil and a quill on opposite sides of a simple scale.

The clean shaven headed man kept dividing his gaze between the cufflinks and the bourbon. Finally the cufflinks won. “Say, I gotta know. What’s the deal with those cufflinks?”

Peter first looked at the finely waxed mustache and then up directly into the man’s eyes. “Before I answer, can you tell me what you think of them?”

The man with the curly mustache said, “As a piece of artwork, I don’t see much to them. I’m guessing there is something more involved like a logo or a specific meaning.”

Pointing to one of the cufflinks Peter replied, “This is the symbol for ergolibrium”.

“Never heard of it.”

“I’m not surprised; I formulated the idea. Perhaps a little explanation is in order. Do you think work is more like walking a tightrope or digging a ditch?”

The clean shaven headed man took a small swig from his bourbon causing his mustache curls to dance unexpectedly. He momentarily looked upwards and to the right. He smiled and exclaimed, “Work is like digging a ditch while you’re on a tightrope!”

Peter gave a slight snicker and responded, “That must be the first time I’ve heard that response, but if you have to choose one or the other, how would you answer?”

“I really don’t like being backed into a corner.”

Peter said consolingly, “I promise there is no wrong answer here.”

“Not a chance. What’s the point of asking a question if the answer is meaningless?”

Peter responded, “Let me ask another way. Have you had any recent work experiences that remind you of walking a tightrope?”

The man with the clean shaven headed retorted, “Man have I!”

“Can you tell me about it?”

The clean shaven headed man swirled his bourbon once, took a long sip, swirled it three more times, and gently placed it down. He began speaking.

I work for an outfit called Custom Toilet. We meet the customer need. Our roots go back before they invented indoor plumbing. We provide safety and reliability with a touch of flare.
This whole thing started when I met with Danny our designer, Sarah Rasis our sales rep, and Paula Mensi our project manager. No one talked to me before the meeting. Sarah wouldn’t blink an eye about doing something like that, but I was surprised Paula did. She’s usually a straight shooter. Anyway, the meeting turned out to be about some project called the Contral Endeavor.

I can’t remember whose idea it was, but they decided to call the name of the project the Contral Endeavor after the customer’s name, Contral. That was a lousy idea. Custom Toilet helps all our customers not just one. Why doesn’t anybody listen to me? We are extremely competent in custom work, but we get there by leveraging our expertise for everyone’s benefit!

The key point I remember coming out of that meeting is cloud 9. Sarah Rasis wanted the customer to feel like they were on cloud 9 when using this product. Although our toilets are already the most comfortable, elegant, and function rich in the business, I took this as a real challenge. I still have the brainstorming notes I took after that first meeting. The Contral Endeavor needed to create the following toilet product:

  • When you sit on this one, you should feel like you are in a 747.

  • Sink and controls are in total stainless steel.

  • Everything within reach of the smallest person.

  • High Flyin’, High Flyin’, High Flyin’!

A few days later, I met with Danny and Bart Andress. This was one of those boilerplate meetings I’ve had about 15 billion times. Bart always goes through a 95 page presentation deck that he hasn’t changed in three years. I’ve learned to tune him out until we get to the part where he asked if there are any questions. (A couple of years ago, I interrupted him and demanded he get to the point. That meeting went overtime and I later got dressed down by a couple of high level managers for not being a team player.) During the questions part, I layed out my ideas. Danny just gave me a blank stare. Bart blandly told me those ideas had to be discussed with the project team; this meeting was about process.

I’m amazed we got anything off the ground with the Contral Endeavor. Somehow the company put together a “project” team that had nothing in common. I’ve heard that bunk about diversity before, but we all needed to be on the same page. From day one, no one wanted to be on the same page with me.

Our designer Danny remained quiet at every meeting. Whenever I asked him a direct question, he answered with a bunch of techno-babble. How hard can it be to answer yes or no to a question? If I thought he had more imagination, I would have accused him of being a politician. He can never go straight to point number 4 or 5, but has to start with 1, 2, and 3 first. I got long involved mumbo jumbo answers to questions like “when will this be done?” or “who is going to take care of customer service problems?”. Let’s put this into a formula even Danny can understand. Where DP is Danny’s personality, DP = zero.

I’ve got to admit Sarah Rasis has some verve. She sells even when there is nothing to sell.
With this Contral Endeavor, she tried to sell the world when all she had was the dream of an out house. I’ll give her a nod for her gutsy approach. She doesn’t let anyone in or out of Custom Toilet from dampening the gleam in her eyes when she’s working the sale.

When it comes down to it, Bart Andress is nothing but a Process Nazi. It’s really fun telling him that to his face. When that happens, Bart goes even more by the book (if that’s possible). He doesn’t let you say anything unless the right form has been filled out and signed by umpteen people. He probably wouldn’t let us use one of our products unless we had a form filled out in triplicate.

I’m in awe of the Project Sponsor, Petra Schuler. No matter what problem I bring up to her, she comes back with a highly charged emotional response. You would think that I’d get annoyed by that. When Petra does it, I forget about the reality of the situation and get excited. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought she is some charismatic evangelical leader in a mega church. I guess there’s more money working for Custom Toilet.

The jury is still out on Paula Mensi (at least the jury locked up in my gray cells!). She overdoes the diplomatic approach. She never gets upset with anyone, but never seems to take a stand with anyone either. Paula does like to blame process for problems that come up. I had to chuckle out loud once when Bart Andress turned red because Paula said we need a process improvement. I get the sense I could really use her for something useful if she reported to me. Instead she’s wasting herself on this project management stuff.

The weekly “project” meetings were particularly a joke. Paula Mensi just can’t handle it if you bring up something that is not on the agenda. One time when I brought up a cost overrun on one of the aspects of seat manufacturing, Paula Mensi and Bart Andress both gave me the third degree. I hadn’t followed some pet process they have for communicating problems. If speaking your mind in an open forum isn’t a good way to communicate, I don’t know what is!

In spite of all these issues, the Contral Endeavor was a total success. I don’t know how we pulled it off, but this was High Flyin’! I’m disappointed when I don’t get to sit on the High Flyin’ special. When I see the gleam of the stainless steel and know I can reach anything without standing up, I fell on top of the world. Move over Mount Everest!

I have to admit the project wasn’t all wine and roses. The design team had no feel for manufacturing, marketing or the customer. Danny has no flare at all. He took the simplest approach possible and then didn’t agree to any changes. When I didn’t like something I was totally ignored. When Danny didn’t like something, he somehow took control of matters in the blandest way possible. No passion, no excitement, he just didn’t do anything he didn’t think wasn’t good for the design team.

This whole idea of naming the project after the customer really reeked of a poorly designed Custom Toilet. We want to meet customer’s needs, but we need to leverage everything we do for the benefit of all customers. I have nothing against Contral personally, but the Contral Endeavor sounds more like some spy mission than a project to develop a Custom Toilet. But, as I’ve been telling you, no one listens to me.

After verifying the bourbon was finished, the bald shaven man pushed his glass forward and motioned that he didn’t want any more. He said, “I’d love to talk more about your anvil and quill thing, but I’ve got to get going.”

Peter asked, “It was nice to meet you. My name is Peter Schiller. My I ask your name? You appear to be quite the sales guy.”

“Otto Margus is the name and I wouldn’t want to be associated with the sales department if they were the last department in the company. They magnify customer issues with no regard for the rest of the company.”

Peter commented, “Thanks for telling me the story of The Contral Endeavor. You’ve once again convinced me that work is more like walking a tightrope than digging a ditch.”

The clean shaven headed man smiled, waved, and walked out of the Blue Elephant acting as if he was walking a tight rope. He put both arms out, pretended to walk a line in the floor, and moved his whole body with a few fake feigns as if he had difficulty staying on the line.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to work situations, toilets, or conversations (past or present) is purely coincidental. Any similarity to future events is your responsibility. Graphics used are either in the public domain or covered under the GNU Free Documentation license.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Seatbelt

Although not a jet-setter, I do occasionally fly for business purposes. I’ve been through the flight attendant speech enough times to categorically tune it out. I’ve learned how to buckle and unbuckle the seatbelt (I still wonder why airplane seatbelts and car seatbelts don’t unbuckle the same way). I know where to find the exits and could probably locate the life vest under my seat.

This brings me to the subject of rules. I know I have to wear the seatbelt when I fly. The flight attendants make sure I have my seatbelt fastened before take off. Due to the cramped environment of an airplane, complaints tend to surface more frequently while flying than in other circumstances. And yet, I’ve not heard anyone complain about wearing a seatbelt (at least not so far). People tend to abide by rules that make sense and are enforced.

When you get beyond rules that make sense and are enforced, you are imposing unbalanced rules. If the parties involved need to look up rules in detail to see if they are being followed, you’ve got a sign that the rules are too complex to make sense. If there is no obvious way to enforce the rule, it easily goes unheeded.

Therefore, I advise you to either create a simple enforceable rule or instead create a guideline. A guideline will force the appropriate conversation between the two or more parties at odds in a work situation. A convoluted rule will require the same conversation to take place, but everyone will righteously assume that their view is backed by organizational mandate. If you can’t make a seatbelt rule, make a guideline instead.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Freeness of Speech

I saw an interesting communication phenomena a few years back. I was running a project for one line of business while I actually reported to a different line of business. There was some new business case process being implemented and a special meeting was called. Most of the people attending the meeting were two or three levels of management below the lady who facilitated the discussion. She went through her spiel and asked if there were any questions. Although I was not disrespectful, I was forthright in my questions and expected candid responses. The other attendees were considerably more timid. It was clear they had a reverence for the facilitator and did not want to do or say anything that would reflect badly on anyone.

Then and since, I’ve observed this particular manager through impartial eyes. She treats her people fairly with appropriate body language and verbal etiquette. In other words, making people feel comfortable to open up their true feelings requires skill and diligence. Hierarchy structured organization makes this particularly challenging. Therefore, don’t forget the importance of fostering freeness of speech.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Short Meetings

Communication is always key in any work endeavor, however, you have to remember that how we communicate has as big an impact as the message being communicated. You may want to check this post about how programmers feel about meetings (http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2008/02/22/what-motivates-programmers/). Rarely should a meeting be the only way to communicate something. A long meeting is never an appropriate way to communicate since our attention will drift in and out over long periods of time. The shorter your meetings, the more you will be liked and the more effective the meeting results.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Snowflake

As I write this, snow is falling. Every snowflake is unique. We often don’t think of their distinctiveness when shoveling snow or throwing snowballs. One snowflake may do us little good, but many, many snowflakes together can make up a snowball, a snowman, or a ski run.

This brings synergy to my mind. When we purchase a product or use a service, we often only think of the product, service, or company as a one entity. I don’t know if snowballs wouldn’t be possible if snowflakes weren’t unique. Synergy, however, wouldn’t be possible if people weren’t unique. I encourage you to value every person that’s part of any business process. By valuing each person individually, whether you are on the buy or sell side of a transaction, your snowballs will pack a greater punch.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Is that sanction or sanction?

Do you want to sanction that or should we put a sanction on it? That sounds redundant, however, sanction can have two diametrically opposite meanings. It can mean to formally approve, but sanction also means a formal restriction.

Yesterday I saw a woman walking about ten yards from me. She tilted her head to one side. She may have been holding a cell phone, but from the angle I saw her I couldn’t say for sure. She emanated either hysterical laughing or deep sobbing. I couldn’t tell if she just lost her job or had found out great news.

These examples indicate the importance of true communication. We have to provide an atmosphere where open and honest communication is possible. An important aspect on our part is sensitivity. If we lash out formally or informally when we hear something we don’t like or don’t understand, we are creating a communication barrier. Others should feel comfortable asking if we mean sanction or sanction. We need the sensitivity to discern if someone is upset or if they are experiencing schadenfreude.