Wednesday, July 6, 2011

It’s 8:00 A.M., Do You Know Where Your Job Is?

Executive Summary:
We adopt or integrate elaborate continuous improvement skills and systems to improve our businesses and solve problems.  Sometimes, though, the big problems are just simple misunderstandings, often resulting from continuous change.  Don’t let basic understanding, or misunderstanding, turn into business failures.

The Rest of the Story:
In the last two weeks, I have conversed with two friends, in two different companies with similar problems.  In both cases the problem is not one that most continuous improvement programs would address.  The problem is one of not understanding one’s role in the business.  Ironically, both of these examples involve the Quality function.

One of my friends was telling me a story of how she was called, unexpectedly, into a meeting between her company’s Quality team and a Quality and Conformance representative from one of their customers.  In short, the Quality team did not know how to explain its own role and responsibilities to the customer and needed her help.

My friend is a chief or principle engineer for her company and, as a result, understands the roles and responsibilities of just about every person or team in the company, even given all of the continuous improvement changes that have happened over the years.  She is also one of those “untitled” leaders whom people naturally seek for help and advice, so she was asked to come into the meeting.

She explained to the customer that the Quality team’s role was to inspect the product and ensure that it is completed according to specification and print, and to authorize it for shipment.  The team is to inspect each and every product.  If a discrepancy is identified, the inspector is to write it up, stop the product from shipping, and bring his or her findings to the lead engineer for the project.

It is the lead engineer’s responsibility to ensure the product is correct and that all conformances are validated.  The Quality team is only there to ensure that mistakes don’t make it to the customer.  The Quality team is not responsible for correcting any findings, only for reporting them and preventing escapes.

Of course, as my friend is explaining the details to the customer, she is also explaining the same things to the Quality team.  In fact, the team asked “what if” questions of her and got instructions for handling some of the issues identified with the same set of product the customer representative had come to see.

Now, inspecting every product before shipment may seem extreme to most readers, just as a customer representative visiting to inspect a shipment might.  In this case, the product is a reasonably complex and somewhat customized safety system, upon which people’s health and lives might depend.  Defects are a big deal.

Also, the explanation of the Quality team’s role might seem obvious to you and I reading this post.  However, in an environment of constant change, where business pressures discourage holding up any shipment for any reason, and everyone is busy working on a new project instead of worrying about the one already released to production, it gets confusing about who is responsible for deciding what to do about a problem, or who is supposed to fix it.

This is what the Quality team faced.  They honestly didn’t know anymore who was responsible to do what about the problem and didn’t know how to tell the customer how or when it would be resolved.  They had lost track of their own role and responsibilities, and those of the rest of the product development participants.

I get the impression from my friend’s telling of the story that the Quality manager was not present or available for the meeting.  All I can think is, “What an incredibly embarrassing situation to be in with a customer.”

Before we talk about how we get into these situations and why we don’t automatically get out of them, let me relay a second example.  It too demonstrates an entire team of functional personnel that have lost sight of their purpose.

Another friend of mine just accepted a new role inside the company he works for as Quality Manager.  He will report to the business unit director and the corporate sector’s quality director, who resides in a different headquarters location.  This is an important detail to understand the problem my friend faces.

The sector quality director didn’t understand, until the interview process for a new quality manager began, that the Quality team for the business unit was essentially failing in it’s purpose and needed to be rescued.  The business unit director was aware of the team’s reputation, but didn’t understand the details or why the team performed so poorly other than that it needed a new leader.

My friend was offered the challenge of turning this failing team around, and accepted it.  In part, I believe, he was given the opportunity because he was able to explain to his new bosses what the problems with the team were specifically.

Without a history lesson, in short, the challenges are a combination of attitude adjustments that must be made and a complete loss of perspective of how the team is supposed to serve the big picture of the business.  In this case, the team has detailed instructions and forms to process and they know how to follow these procedures.  However, without any perspective of how these procedures are supposed to ensure the performance of services rendered or products produced, the output of the team is generally perceived as unconstructive and useless.  The team is perceived as wholly incompetent by the rest of the business unit.

It might help to understand that this business unit provides contracted engineering services, including the construction of custom-designed systems.  My friend’s challenge will be to help the Quality team understand how it is to use its role to serve the other functions and the rest of the business, to ensure that the services and products are appropriately provided.

So if we take a look at these two examples, we see two Quality teams essentially failing in their duties because they simply don’t understand their role and responsibilities for their respective businesses.  How does this happen?

Well, one of the easiest things to identify is the phenomenon of continuous change, particularly changes in leadership, organization, and policy.  We often take for granted that everyone knows their role and their duties.  However, after a set of changes, particularly when somewhere along the line either communications or leadership failed to explain a new set of rules, our roles can often become confusing.

It doesn’t help when other business teams have different ideas about what our roles should be or are and pressure us to conform to their expectations, right or wrong.  Also, a new leader may be put in charge of a team and might rely on the team to help him/her to understand the team’s or function’s role.  If the team isn’t clear, the new leader is in a pickle.

Just look around your own work environment.  I expect you can point your finger at one or more teams or functions to which the phenomenon described has happened, or at least at a near miss.  It happens easier than we might expect.

“But,” we might ask, “how is it allowed to persist?  Why doesn’t someone, like the team leader, correct the problem?”  I hate to say it, but I think we can all agree, not everyone we encounter in leadership positions in our businesses is a strong or daring leader.  Yes, I do believe that poor leadership is a root issue with these kinds of problems.

In the first case, either the quality manager or the quality director, or both, are oblivious to the fact that the Quality team doesn’t know it’s own job, or they are afraid to admit it and ask for help to correct the problem.  Perhaps they are just as confused as their team and don’t know how to ask for help without appearing incompetent themselves. 

In the second case, the off-site corporate quality director admittedly didn’t know there was a problem until the interview process started.  The business unit director was aware of the problem and knew that new leadership was needed, but didn’t know how or why the problem occurred.  In the second case, the team wasn’t confused so much as it lacked vision and perspective.

I admit that I’m speculating now on how each of these two examples ended up where they did, and I admit that there is certainly more to the story than I perceive or can share in this post.  I will not say that I would not have let it happen, but I think that the solution, regardless of the many causes, relies on basic, down home leadership and courage.

If you are in a situation where you don’t really know or understand the limits of your responsibilities, or you don’t know how your role fits the business’s big picture, you need to gather the courage to ask.  Ask your immediate functional leader first, then work your way up and through the system until you and everyone else knows a clear and decisive answer.

To save yourself the embarrassment of saying, “I don’t know my job anymore,” gather some examples of your challenge and present them.  Approach the problem form the standpoint of, “since these changes occurred it’s not clear,” or “these other functions seem to think that our job is…” to break the ice.  You may discover that your leader is very happy to help you solve the problem because it isn’t clear to your leader too.

In the first example the Quality team did go to someone they trusted to get the clarification they needed.  It’s embarrassing that they needed a customer to put them to the test before they could admit they needed help, but at least that’s one team that knows better now, although the fact that they didn’t get their answer from their functional leadership still needs to be addressed.

In the second example, the Quality team now has a leader with a strong grasp of the challenges and the cure, so we expect the problem should be corrected soon.  No doubt, my friend will be making an effort to close the understanding and communication gap between his team and his leaders as well.

No one likes to be embarrassed and it is embarrassing to admit that you don’t know the responsibilities of your own job.  Certainly, no one likes to be perceived as incompetent, especially when financial and unemployment pictures are exceptionally stressful.  As a result, as much as it should be done, it would be unnatural for teammates to come up to us and admit that they don’t know their jobs, especially if they have been in the role for a long time.

If you are the leader of a team, especially if you have teams reporting to leaders who report to you, take some time this week and inquire of other functional leaders how they perceive your team’s performance.  Solicit the honest feedback, not the feedback they think you want to hear.  Be all ears, no mouth.  You’ll have time later to correct their perceptions if they have their facts wrong.

Also, ask yourself honestly how well you know the roles and responsibilities of those who report within your purview.  One great way to get to the bottom of ensuring everyone knows his/her part, and to improve your own ability to lead your team is to take responsibility for your own understanding and set the example.

Pick a team member whose job you understand least well and talk with that team member.  Admit that you don’t understand his/her responsibilities and activities as well as you would like and you want him/her to educate you.  Taking this level of interest can open doors of long-term communication once you get past the suspicion that results from the sudden interest.

As you are talking with this team member, open the door for him/her to explain those parts of the job that are not clearly set down in policy or clearly bounded, with a commitment from you that you will help close the gap.  Just ensure that the conversation is conducted with a focus on educating you, not fixing them.

If you do this, you will not only learn how you can quickly, and often easily, fix problems for your team, but you will foster a stronger leadership relationship with your team.  You can repair damage quickly, or prevent the undesired perception of incompetence before it occurs.

No one wants to be, or be perceived to be, incompetent.  Don’t let yourself or your team fall into the trap because of confusion, change, and the embarrassing process of asking for clarity.  If you need help knowing your role, admit it and ask.  If you lead a team, take time this week to make sure it doesn’t face any confusion about its responsibilities.  In either case, in the end, you’ll be glad you did.

Stay wise, friends.

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