22 June, 2009
17 June, 2009
16 June, 2009
Remembering Former University of Charleston Business Professor, Susan Hitt, with - What Else? - A Case Study
The Following Case Study Is Offered In Memory of Professor Susan Hitt Who Helped Me Become A Systems Thinker
Several of my LinkedIn discussion forums are asking why there are so many managers who aren't systems thinkers, who can't see systems. Why there are so many managers who treat symptoms instead of curing the disease that causes the symptoms?
“If only they studied Deming” say some. I agree. Managers need to study Deming.
“If only they would read Goldratt” say others.
"If only they took some management theory courses from Susan Hitt" I recently said.
Professor Hitt loved to assign “case studies”, an assignment type familiar to all business majors, so for all my systems thinking online friends out there I have decided to write a case study of my own in memory of my favorite University of Charleston business professor, Susan Hitt, who passed away 8 May 2009 at the young age of 56.
Professor Hitt encouraged my tendency to see relationships between seemingly unrelated things or events, to see connections that weren’t obvious to everybody. Professor Hitt loved it when I used analogies from theology or music or even from movies to solve or describe business problems.
Professor Hitt taught me that logic is logic and that there isn’t some secret or special kind of logic for business and another kind for everything else. She taught me trust my reasoning power and to follow the logic trail wherever it led me.
But business problems are not solved by logic alone because most business problems have something to do with the human element and Professor Hitt was at her best when she lectured about “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”, “The Hawthorne Effect”, the “Western Electric” studies, “The Pygmalion Effect” and how business management is not primarily about managing inventories and numbers but about managing people. Professor Hitt was a little bit psychologist, anthropologist and sociologist. I remember thinking she’d make a great boss.
Professor Hitt had a lot to do with teaching me that it was OK to think. And even to think differently.
She taught me it was OK to notice when smart, well-educated managers did dumb things.
Perhaps most importantly, Professor Hitt gave me a license to question the data that I’m being served up, to ask where it came from, who had opportunity or reason to “cook it”, to question why we measure A and not B and to indulge my INTPness, my tendency to question everything, to analyze everything.
So, systems thinkers and others, the following “case study” I offer to you for your amusement, and trenchant analysis in memory of my late business professor, Susan Hitt, who had a lot to do with teaching me to see and think in systems.
I’d like to thank Dr. Anna Parkman for breaking the bad news of Professor Hitt’s death to me and for giving me a pre-blog “sanity check” of the words I wrote about Professor Hitt.
To see Professor Hitt’s online obituary, go to: http://www.therecorddelta.com/V2_news_articles.php?heading=0&story_id=2342&page=74
Would Professor Hitt Call These Online Retailers "Systems Thinkers"?
A certain "online retailer" ships books and DVDs and other merchandise from a huge "fulfillment center". Think of the fulfillment center as a shopping mall where thousands of personal shoppers find the merchandise consumers order, pack it and ship it.
The corrugated boxes in which orders are packed and shipped are manufactured onsite in what the online retailer calls a "Meta farm", so named because the machines that make the boxes are built by Meta Systems. There are half a dozen or so Metas in the Meta farm. Each Meta is preprogrammed to make a specific size carton. Each machine requires an operator to keep it filled with corrugate and glue, to clean out the occasional "jams", and to idle the machine when boxes of that size aren't needed. Corrugate and glue go in one end, a finished carton comes out the other. As finished cartons exit the Meta, they travel down a short conveyor where the Meta operator transfers the cartons to a much larger serpentine conveyor that carries cartons of all sizes from the Meta farm past the various packing stations where "personal shoppers" are waiting for the right size boxes in which to pack and ship orders.
Along the full length of the serpentine trolley dangle hundreds of swaying, color-coded "trolleys". Each Meta operator waits for his color trolley to clank past and on it he places the prescribed number of cartons. An orange trolley may get 3 cartons of size A, a green trolley may get 4 cartons of size B and so on. As long as the machine operators always place the the designated number of their size cartons on the trolleys that correspond to their carton size, the online retailer knows they will always make cartons in approximately the right proportions every day. During periods of low order volume the serpentine conveyor runs slowly. When order volumes are high the conveyor speed is increased.
I like to think of the serpentine conveyor as a kind of algorithm or formula that, when sped up and slowed down according to order volumes, is designed to distribute the right number of cartons, in the right proportions no matter whether order volumes are high or low.
When order volume is high and the serpentine conveyor is moving rapidly, it's all that a Meta operator can do to keep his Meta supplied with corrugate and glue, keep the machine jam-free, and load boxes onto his colored trolleys as they speed past his Meta. In fact, during periods of very high volume, the machine operators fall behind on carton production. During the time it takes to load a stack of flat corrugate into the baler or clear a jam, dozens of his colored trolleys can speed by him.
There is no redundancy in the Meta farm. If machine A is out of corrugate or jammed., production of Box A ceases because nearby machines cannot be retooled to make cartons of size A.
When packers don’t get enough boxes, orders pile up around them. When this happens, management sets up an elaborate alternative distribution system. Using temporary staff, management shuttles boxes , by hand cart, directly to the packing area. After the machine operator clears his jammed machine or gets it filled with corrugate and starts making boxes again, a temp worker grabs these boxes and stacks them onto a pallet. When the pallet is full another temp drags the pallet by handcart to the packing area to the waiting packers. Depending on how many machine operators are falling behind in production, there could be as many as half a dozen or so temps collecting, shuttling and delivering boxes.
Systems thinkers have already defined the issue here and have have rendered a verdict on whether or not the online retailer’s management is making the best use of their temps and whether their ad hoc carton shuttle solves the core problem.
The “case” I’ve described here is not fiction. I have accurately described how a real online retailer manufactures its own cartons onsite, how it distributes these cartons to the people who pack them with orders and ship them and how this online retailer’s management deploys temp workers during periods of high order volume when the packers aren't getting enough boxes.
If you are a systems thinker, you already know if this online retailer’s management are systems thinkers or not. You quickly defined the core or root problem. You rendered a judgment about this online retailer’s ad hoc shuttle distribution system and whether or not they are making the best use of their temps.
For the rest of you, here are some “discussion questions” that may help you decide if the online retailer’s management handles periods of high order volume correctly:
1. During periods of high order volume, what, exactly, is the root or core problem that needs to be solved?
2. Does redeploying temp workers to their ad hoc carton shuttle system address the core or root problem? If not, is there a way the temp workers could be deployed that would address the core or root problem?
3. Would Professor Susan Hitt call these online retailers systems thinkers?
14 June, 2009
Job Search Hard Fact # 1: It Is Who You Know, Life Isn't A Meritocracy, Job Search Isn't Fair
Your first clue that you're not likely to get the job you're applying for is that you're applying for it. Your second clue is that you're interviewing for it. HR departments don't want you to know this and they work very hard to preserve the illusion that their searches are thorough and meritocratic but they almost never are. I say this with no bitterness. I have benefited from the unfairness. Several times in my first career as a health industry manager I got jobs I didn't apply for, never wrote a resume for and never interviewed for. I was never the best candidate for the job, I was just the candidate who knew somebody, was known by somebody. Then I changed industries and found myself actually competing for jobs, filling out applications, writing resumes, interviewing. I once "interviewed" for a job while the guy who already had the job offer was literally moving into his new office just yards away from where the hiring manager was conducting our show interview so he could tell HR he'd interviewed several "candidates". Truth is, I was never a "candidate". I was window-dressing to preserve the illusion that the hiring process is meritocratic and that the best candidate wins.
I'm sure our teachers, parents and other adult authority figures thought they were doing the Lord's work when they prepared us for a meritocratic world which doesn't exist and never has, but even though I wasn't the sharpest 7th grader at St. Albans Junior High School I suspected that my home room teacher doth protest too much when, once a week or so, he climbed up on his big, hardwood, 4-pedestal banker's desk - like the kind that rich cigar-chomping fat cats sat behind in old movies - and jumped up and down preaching against the saying "it ain't what you know, it's who you know." When it comes to job-seeking, everything in my adult experience has taught me that even if a man you're supposed to trust screams it with floor-shaking, jowl-jiggling, red-faced, clenched fisted, dignity destroying drama, don't believe anybody who tells you job search is fair. There's nothing fair about it. If the best man gets the job it's only because he also knew somebody who helped him get the job.
I recently ran across a couple of quotes that all jobseekers should stick to their refrigerator doors, to the dashboards of their cars and to their computer screens:
"All I ask is an unfair advantage." - W C Fields
"If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck." - John Steinbeck
What every job seeker needs, what he or she should be seeking is to avoid being in a "fair fight". Playing by the rules, trying to write the perfect resume, learning how to interview better - these are the tactics of suckers who still live under the delusion that life is fair and job search is meritocratic. LIsten, while you're out there waiting in the lobby for your chance at a fair fight, the guy you're supposed to meet with is on the phone or at the Starbucks next door getting introduced to the guy who's going to get the job offer. What every job seeker needs and should be seeking is an unfair advantage. The unfair advantage is a relationship that your competitors don't have. Most of the time, hiring processes and interview processes are meaningless shows because in most hiring processes, there's a candidate with an unfair advantage - a relationship - and he or she is the candidate who will get the job. As a job seeker, your job is to make sure the candidate with the relationship is you.
Ask yourself this question: Suppose I offered you a choice of two envelopes. In envelope one are 100 job leads where you get to "compete" against hundreds of applicants, write 100 targeted, taylored resumes, send them out and wait for invitations to interview.
In envelope two is the name of an employer where you have a relationship that will give you the edge you need to get the offer before anybody else even knows about the job. Which envelope do you want?
That's what I'm talking about. Spend your time finding the place where you have an unfair advantage. Don't spend your time looking for a fair fight. In what's supposed to be a fair competition, there's always somebody who's not in a fair fight, somebody who's related to the hiring manager, goes to church with the hiring manager, is an old sorority sister or frat brother with the hiring manager or is the friend of the friend of the hiring manager. Unless the hiring manager is new in town, has no friends, has no network, there's always somebody in the "fair fight" who's carrying a secret weapon you don't have. So don't go to fair fights. Only go where you're the guy with the secret weapon: to your network.
No, I'm not saying education and talent and hard work aren't necessary, too. What I am saying is that a certain degree of merit is necessary but not sufficient to land you the job you want. What Harry Beckwith said about "firms" is true of job seekers, too: "Competence gets [a job seeker] into a game that relationships win." This is the whole truth. I could stop right there and a thoughtful reader could extrapolate everything that follows.
Job Search Hard Fact # 2: Trying to Get A Job By Sending Resumes, Going To Interviews and Submitting Applications By Submission "Deadline" Is A Low Percentage Game That Rarely Results In A Job Offer Unless You Already Had An Insider Advantage In The Form of Relationship
If your primary job search strategy is to send resumes to people you don't know in hopes of getting interviewed by people you don't know, you're playing a very low percentage game and you know it. Yes, it's possible this will lead to a job but probably not the job you want. Those jobs, the best jobs, go to people who didn't write a resume and didn't interview for the job. Why? A candidate with a great resume is no match for a candidate with the right relationship. First, the best jobs are hardly ever advertised and if they are they're filled before they're posted. Second, for all their talk about skills and qualifications and selection tools, hiring decisions are made by irrational creatures called people and these irrational people hire people they want to hang out with 10 hours a day, people they feel comfortable with.
I got what I call my "first real job" because the hiring manager's dad knew my dad. I got my first management job - without sending a resume- because two guys met for a beer and one of them mentioned my name. A friend of mine once went to a job interview where she was told that the President of the company, whom I barely knew, would like to talk to me. Yes, that’s right, my friend wrote a resume, went to an interview and didn't get the job. I did NONE of those things and got the job. In each of the above cases I have no doubt that I was NOT the best candidate for the job. Heck, in all but the first case, I wasn't even a candidate. But in each of the above cases I had one thing that better candidates didn’t: I had a relationship they didn't have - and a candidate with a great resume is no match for a candidate with a relationship. Oh, yes, corporate recruiters will deny it and they'll tell you to apply at their website but here's the truth: it's the hiring manager, not the HR department, that decides who gets the job.
Oh, and if you're unemployed, you're about to find out who your friends are. Your friends are the ones who are providing you with job leads, offering to introduce you to hiring managers, and mentioning your name to people who can hire you because it's through such "networking" that you're most likely to get a great job. But keep in mind that some of your friends "don't have the networking gene" and it doesn't really come naturally for them to think this way so don't hesitate to call people and ask them to introduce you to somebody who can hire you.
Job Search Hard Fact # 3: The Next Best Thing To Getting A Job For Yourself Is Getting A Job For Somebody Else
Not only does it feel good to help a deserving job seeker get a job, each time you do so you "seed" a company with someone who thinks you're great and will be there to drop your name to the appropriate person at the appropriate time.
Job Search Hard Fact #4: Statistically Speaking, Your Next Great Job Will Most Likely Be The Result Of A Weak Relationship, Not A Close Or Intimate Relationship
This final observation is not original with me, but you're more likely to get a great new job as a result of a weak friendship than as a result of a close one. Why? It's simple math. Most of us only have a handful of close friends and relatives but we may know hundreds of people a little bit. People we went to school with. People we used to work with but haven't stayed in touch with very well. People we used to go to the same church with but didn't stay in touch with. For instance, of my 300+ LinkedIn "connections" I'm only "close friends" with a few. But my universe of potential job referrals is at least 300 - and this number doesn't include the people I know who aren't members of LinkedIn. The universe of people who might potentially serve to help me find my next great job might be more like 500 or 600.
This is why professional and social networking is so important. I wasn’t close friends with the guy who mentioned my name in a hotel bar and helped me get my first management job. I hardly knew the company president who offered me the job my friend interviewed for. I once got $26k in business as a result of a phone call with a guy I’d never met in person who then passed my name to a friend who, as it turned out, needed my services.
Let me say it again. Harry Beckwith spoke the entire truth when he said “Competence gets [job seekers] into a game that relationships win.” All other job search truths can be deduced or extrapolated from that simple statement.
13 June, 2009
Dangerous Business Books That May Ruin Your Professional Life By Making You Want Your Company To Be Better Than Your Boss Wants It To Be
For some time now I've been warning my friends and clients about dangerous business books that may ruin their professional lives by showing them how their companies can be more efficient, more harmonious, more productive and more profitable than their bosses want them to be, bringing them into career-wrecking, poor-annual-review-resulting misalignment with their boss's goals and objectives. Wanting to make your company better than your small-minded, misoneist boss wants it to be and he'll say you're "not a team player" which is management speak for "All I wanted was a pair of hands, but what I got was a whole person." (Henry Ford). The truth is, your boss probably has no idea what the word "team" means, which brings me to number one on my list of dangerous, career-wrecking books:
The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team by Patrick Lencioni. Other books on teambuilding tell us in one way or another that working together as teams involves building trust, removing the fear of conflict, getting individual buy-in or commitment, holding everybody accountable and getting everybody to be focused on results. None of this is new. What makes The Five Dysfunctions of a Team dangerous is that it's written like a novel - or a "leadership fable" as Lencioni calls it - so that the reader can more easily visualize what teams actually look like and how they function. After reading this book you'll expect staff meetings to be events where real work actually gets done, where real issues are actually debated and where team members come to the meeting expecting to be held accountable for results, not promises. You'll expect leaders to demand and facilitate communication between silos and even between other leaders who don't see eye to eye. You'll expect uncommitted or disruptive team members to have the integrity to resign. If they won't resign, you'll expect management to dismiss them. It's an easy but dangerous 230 pages that will make you want your workplace to be more productive than it is, perhaps more productive than your boss wants it to be.
Because I've seen more productivity lost to poor communication than to any other single workplace plague, I've placed Susan Scott's Fierce Conversations on my list of dangerous books that might bring you into misalignment with your boss. It's a book about how to have the conversations we need to have, not just the conversations that are easy and routine. If your boss ever got his short fingered vulgarian hands on this book he would squirm as Susan Scott shows how "the bread crumbs always lead to the CEO”, how "the fish rots from the head" and how "nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it's the only one you have". If not for its unfortunate title, there's no telling how many careers this book could have ruined but the word "fierce" acts as a kind of prophylactic between its dangerous contents and people who think it's a book about how to be argumentative or a competitive conversationalist. Had Fierce Conversations instead been titled something like Getting Past "How Are You" (a heading in the book) or even The Answers Are In The Room, an already successful book might have ruined millions more careers.
Everywhere I go whether it's to Starbucks or to one of LinkedIn's group discussions, people are bemoaning the stifling, toxic corporate cultures they have to endure and asking when one of these so-called "change management" people is going to change their culture for the better. Well, here's a dangerous book about how to create or change your corporate culture by changing the conversation that takes place in the workplace. It's called Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment by Jamie and Maren Showkeir. Like Susan Scott's book, this is a book that could ruin a lot more careers if not for its title. When this book starts showing up in used book stores, they'll probably shelve it in the "self help” section along with books about how to have better sex or how to use feng shui to raise your IQ. The Showkeirs could have ruined many more careers had they used the words "change" and "corporate culture" in the title. Everybody wants to be a "change agent", a "change manager" or a "change leader" these days. I recently ran a LinkedIn search on a Fortune 500 employer and could scarcely find a manager who didn't have the word "change" in his or her title or job description. Had the Showkeirs called their book How To Change Your Corporate Culture even managers would read it. Let me be clear, unless managers do read it and allow themselves to be influenced by it, people who work in stagnate, isolating, idea-choking corporate cultures should not order mass quantities of this eye-opening, corporate culture changing book and should not sit together having a brown bag lunch in the break room at work discussing this book. Unless your boss reads it with you, it'll just frustrate you and bring you into total misalignment with your boss.
Some companies try to get the PR value that comes from pretending to support the ideas contained in a book but then neutralize the potential effects of the book by hiring and promoting people who not only don't model the teachings of the book but actively seek out and suffocate any ideas or behaviors that might result from exposure to the dangerous book. Such was the case when, in the late 80s, I went to work for a Fortune 500 company that required all new hires to complete a class based on Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They even passed out little plastic 2X3 copies of the Seven Habits that we could carry around in our wallets. Yeah, they really had me fooled. The deception was made all the more convincing by the fact that my Seven Habits teacher, Sal Elmo, seemed to actually believe what he was teaching. Sal threw in everything but the kitchen sink to convince us of Habit Number Four: "Think Win/Win". Sal even used another dangerous book, Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation as a force multiplier to drive home the point Covey was making in The Seven Habits. Most of us are raised to think only in terms of somebody has to lose in order for me to win. In fact, as Sal demonstrated with an Axelrod-inspired classroom exercise, most of us don't even know how to think win/win. We default to zero sum thinking even in a game designed to demonstrate how to win bigger by letting the other guy win, too.
I still carry my little credit card size copy of The Seven Habits. I still believe in them. Heck, I believed in them before Stephen Covey wrote the book. "The Seven Habits" is one of those books that, in my view, nobody should have needed to write. I remember reading it (years before my Fortune 500 employer required me to) and thinking this stuff is just common sense.
Apparently, common sense is not a prerequisite for being promoted into management at that Fortune 500 company and neither, it seems, is a belief in The Seven Habits. During my nearly 7 years at this Fortune 500 employer I never worked for a boss who was an exemplar of Seven Habits thinking. I was never held accountable for modeling Seven Habits behavior. I never heard of a co-worker being "dinged" on is annual review because he didn't live and work The Seven Habits.
Somewhere deep in the bowels of this Fortune 500 employer who required us to learn but did not require anybody to actually practice The Seven Habits, I'm told that there is a guy who thinks he's "in charge of corporate culture" and that it is he, this corporate culture czar, who requires all new hires to take a Seven Habits class. I have a message for him and for all the other corporate culture czars out there: unless your hiring and promotion practices are consistent with your stated values, even dangerous books like "The Seven Habits " and The Evolution of Cooperation will not result in culture creation because, as one of your own managers once said "Your corporate culture is whatever your current boss says it is."
Speaking of hiring and promoting the wrong bosses, here is a dangerous book about that very topic, Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule. Robert Sutton first got on my radar when my business book discussion group read Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management, a dangerous book he wrote with Jeffrey Pfeffer. In The No Asshole Rule, Sutton's theme is simple and direct: under no circumstances should any company ever knowingly hire or tolerate an "asshole" - no matter how talented the asshole may be - because assholes do more damage to employee morale, create more employee turnover and inflict more harm to your corporate culture and to your brand than they are worth.