Management attention as a constraint – Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I introduced management attention as a constraint. This second post goes on with more reasons why management fail to pay the necessary attention to the factor limiting the whole system’s performance.

Unaware or wrong about the constraint

Management attention might be on the wrong things because manager are unaware of or are wrong about the system’s constraint.

Spotting the real constraint of a system can be tricky, see my series of posts about this topic: How to identify the constraint of a system?

Not able to identify the constraint

Many managers are unaware about the system’s constraint, in other words: what really limits the system performance. Despite the number of people pretending to have basic understanding of Theory of Constraints, few really have enough understanding to spot the real constraint and to manage it as it should. Instead, many of them are still stuck in older paradigms, seeking the maximum output at every process step and trying to minimize unit costs.

True Theory of Constraints-aware people know that this approach is bound to fail as the global optimum cannot be the sum of local optima. Local objectives will simply compete against each other at the expense of the overall performance.

Unaware of the true limiting factor, management simply cannot focus on what matters.

Identifying the wrong constraint

It is common to mismatch bottlenecks and constraints and also common to wrongly identify a resource or a process as a constraint when it is not. When management identifies the wrong constraint, its attention is focused on the wrong spot and the decisions made won’t help the overall performance.

From a Theory of Constraints perspective, management attention is therefore a constraint itself because it does not focus on the right spot, the real constraint.

Lack of focus

As we have seen in part 1 of this series, lack of focus can come from lack of clarity about the Goal, lax attitude or mismatching the constraint. It can also come from lack of self-discipline or a personal difficulty to keep focused on something for a longer period of time.

Another possible cause is the overwhelming number of things managers must take care of. Their attention is required by so many things that they will task switch (notice I didn’t write multitask), losing their focus to a new problem as soon as it pops up.

Manager’s time is a scarce resource so it must be used wisely. Therefore, managers themselves must know what to focus on and, maybe more important is to understand what’s NOT to spend time on.

Especially in an industrial environment opportunities for improvement are literally endless. It’s very easy to start project on something that looks good and promising but doesn’t benefit the system as a whole.

Therefore it’s very important for management to refrain giving attention to everything and discriminate what will benefit the system and what is just a local improvement.

From a Theory of Constraints perspective, If making more goal-units (often money) is your goal, throughput is your obsession. And if throughput is your obsession, you’ll have literally to sit on the constraint and make the most out of it. Keep focused!

Not enough feedback

Senior management and middle management may be well aware about the organization’s Goal and the system constraint, but do not pay enough attention to give feedback to the teams lower in the organisation. Without clear guidance, those teams can go astray without even noticing, burning up precious and scarce resources working on the wrong subjects. This is a variant of lack of management’s direction and lack of management focus, described in part 1 of this series.

Lack of management support

Subordinates may be willing to work on the right thing but for some reason need management support they can’t get. Management then turns out to be the blocking point, thus the constraint.

There are some legit cases for which subordinates cannot act without management support, but if subordinates are too dependent upon management, there is something wrong.

Many organizations don’t use the principle of subsidiarity, which means delegating action to the lowest possible level. Some managers love to be asked over and over for help and support, but keeping subordinates in this dependency is not a good investment for the future. The flattered managers, making themselves indispensable, are in reality trapped as they have to continuously backup their teams.

Managers should develop their teams to be more autonomous so that they can focus on manager’s tasks, like taking care of the system’s constraint and not turn themselves into one!

Lack of management commitment

Some managers do not buy-in the objectives, the strategy or the organization’s Goal. This may be the case after a merger and acquisition, when a new vision is set by the acquirer, for example. Those managers stay with the new structure to collect their paycheck but pay only lip service to the job to be done. Lack of commitment creates lack of focus and probably a lax attitude.

I’ve met such kind of middle managers in charge of a critical process or constrained resources that didn’t give a dime managing it properly, even after in-depth explanation of its importance for the whole organization. Needless to say that their future wasn’t as comfortable as their past from this point.

Distracted managers

Managers may be attracted (distracted would be more appropriate) by some project or endeavour they like but without connection to the system performance as a whole. Especially nowadays with the hype of the concepts like factory of the future, the industrial internet and the like, it’s very easy to get allured by some new technology and behave like a big child in front of brand new toys.

While dreaming about their new “toys”, the distracted managers don’t take care about the actual critical resources that limit the system throughput.


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About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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Management attention as a constraint – Part 1

A system’s constraint, the limiting factor that is an obstacle to getting more Goal units* from the system, can be pretty difficult to identify (hence the success of my post on the topic: How to identify a constraint?!).

*”Goal units” can be money, profit, services to citizens, number of patients treated, free meals served, or whatever the organization delivers to achieve its Goal.

The Theory of Constraints community discusses the management attention as a constraint for a long time now and Goldratt himself called management attention the ultimate constraint (the one remaining when all others have been elevated). My own experience convinced me that management attention can indeed be a constraint for the whole system, from the beginning.

Misaligned organization

Striving to achieve the organization’s Goal is management’s sacred mission and it is management’s duty to align the efforts of their subordinates to achieve that objective. Lean Management uses the “True North” metaphor and Hoshin Kanri or Policy Deployment to achieve it. The Logical Thinking Process calls it the Goal and have the Goal Tree as a roadmap and benchmark. Both approaches and their tool sets can be combined.

Now too often management does not clearly communicate about the Goal neither ensure their staff’s energy and initiatives are well oriented towards achieving the Goal.

Surprisingly, some senior managers are not clear among themselves what the organization’s Goal is. Bill Dettmer published a paper on such an experience with a crowd of executives and almost as many Goals as people! The paper is downloadable at http://www.goalsys.com/books/documents/WhatisOurGoal-v5_000.pdf

Management’s attention is on something else, but not on the main objective.

When this happens, scarce resources are often wasted for meaningless purposes, on the wrong things. The longer this goes on, the stronger the evidence that management attention isn’t focused, for whatever reasons, on what really matters.

Chances are that middle managers lacking a clear stated and often reminded Goal define their own objectives for the need of guidance.

Self defined objectives

When subordinates define their own objectives because they have no “True North” to align their own and/or their staff’s work, they may define these objectives to fit their own purpose, their own views or to optimize their department’s performance. Doing so, the probability is high that the self defined objectives will be in conflict with another department’s objectives and at the expenses of the overall organization performance.

Myths and false assumptions

Lack of clear communication about the Goal and lax management may let myths and false assumptions flourish. Most often, myths and false assumptions are the result of lack of clarity, misunderstanding or overinterpretation of some “strategic intent” or senior management statements.

Management attention must foremost be on clarity of purpose, second on the alignment of all actions towards achieving the Goal. With constant attention and frequent repetition about the Goal and checking the progress towards it, deviations as well as false assumptions and misunderstandings can be detected and corrected.

Lax management

Many people have been promoted to management positions even so they lacked the necessary soft skills. Some because it was a reward for past dedication and good job, others because they were technically good and the assumption was they would also be good at managing others. The latter often does not happen.

Unfit for their position, uneasy especially when taking command over former colleagues, lacking the charisma and know-how, many hide themselves behind computers screens or in meetings and shun contact with their subordinates. Management attention is purposely not on what matters because of a form of cowardice, or to put it softer, because of uneasiness.

In order to keep social peace, middle management (at least in France) often tries to avoid frontal assault against deviant behaviors, absenteeism, poor performance and sub-standard achievement.

The situation is often paradoxical between the pressure from above to achieve the objectives and at the same time the strong recommendation not to mess up with work force to avoid social unrest, that middle management is torn between conflicting objectives.

This probably led to management positions popularity to sink to an abyssal low. The younger generations don’t want management jobs anymore.

Additionally, the new generations and their ways of teaming up, networking and work around obstacles. They have no interest in traditional management. They don’t want that kind of job and do not pay the same respect to rank like previous generations did. For them and growing part of the workforce, leadership is more important than status.

All this lead many middle managers to compromise and get lax in their management or give it up for good. Management positions are now harder to man as this kind of job lost much consideration.

Therefore, even if those managers know well about the Goal they should work to achieve, their ability or personal lax attitude does not transmit the necessary energy or inputs to their teams.

Next: Management attention as a constraint – Part 2

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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About Clarity, Focus, Discipline, and Engagement

This post is inspired by Karen Martin’s (author of Shingo Research Award-winning book, The Outstanding Organization)  interview by Ron Pereira (Gemba Academy). In this interview (https://www.ksmartin.com/videos/the-outstanding-organization-interview/) Karen explains the importance of Clarity, Focus, Discipline, and Engagement. These are the four fundamental behaviors or common patterns in successful organizations, that are strong foundations upon which to build improvement programs up to outstanding organizations.

This interview resonated with me especially because the company I was trying to help at the very moment I heard the interview lacked every one of these four “pillars” and I truly believe this was the cause of all its trouble.

Here is my take on Clarity, Focus, Discipline, and Engagement, piggybacking on the interview. These opinions are mine, they may not reflect Mrs Martin’s opinions.

Clarity

Clarity is first of all about the clarity of purpose, about making it very clear for everybody within the organisation what the organization is supposed to achieve. Why the organization was put in place in the first place and/or what Goal the founders are/were pursuing?

This Goal can be referred to as “True North” in Lean parlance and is called the “Goal” in the Logical Thinking Process. Both are a long-term objective that will turn a Vision into reality.

Once this purpose is clearly communicated, everyone can align his/her actions onto the organization’s Goal. Management is supposed to derive contributing intermediate objectives that make sense to their subordinates, in their daily jobs, while ensuring alignment onto the Goal.

Yet when circumstances require swift decisions, even without management around to give instructions, the clarity of purpose helps subordinates to take consistent decisions with the organization’s Goal.

Clarity is also, according to Karen Martin, about the lingo in the organization. Indeed, many employees use acronyms they are often unable to explain or worse, don’t understand! This makes it tough for any newcomer or temporary help to be at ease with the job, procedures, etc.

It can lead to misunderstandings, errors, interpretation, ambiguity, and slowing a process that could run smoothly if everything was clear.

For knowledge workers or for those that can work from home, without as much guidance and reminders than in a corporate building, clarity about the Goal is also important in order to keep focused.

Focus

With clarity of purpose it is easy* to focus on what really matters. Resources and time can be well used on what is important. Conversely, lacking clarity opens many options to go astray and waste precious and scarce resources on the wrong things. Alas, the latter is more common than the former.

When some people lose their focus, it is easier for themselves, for management or even colleagues to remind the Goal and what to focus on and why, when the Goal has been stated with clarity, communicated, and repeated.

Focus requires also to track progress with KPIs and review the progress regularly in order to correct the deviations.

*Staying focused needs discipline.

Discipline

Discipline is about the ability to stay focused on the objective or to accept being reset onto the right objective. Discipline is also about sticking to the rules, using the defined standards, the official good practices, methods, systems and tools. Without sufficient discipline, chaos finds its way in. Little variations, little bits of ill-used freedom may lead to major problems.

It doesn’t look very harmful to download data from an ERP into a spreadsheet and drive processes from this copy, but at some point data may be so divergent that the situation becomes a mess. A little deviation messed up in unexpected proportions.

How many times manual data inputs do not follow the rules and the dataset is littered with entries that should be in the same format but do not accumulate properly because of scripting variations?

Now some degree of freedom is necessary to adjust to the circumstances as no procedure or work guide can describe every possible case and provide all necessary answers. So discipline is also acting in the interest of the organization while remaining the closest to the rules and standards. The latter should be adjusted with the lessons learned.

I was shocked to hear that some people in an organization, without the position giving them the freedom to act like this, chose themselves to stop reporting or stop attending meetings. I was even more shocked to hear that management did not react to these deviant behaviors. Here the lack of discipline goes both ways, bottom-up and top-down.

Engagement

Engagement is the commitment to work on achieving the organization’s Goal. It is, in my opinion the result of Clarity, Focus and Discipline that provide the necessary framework, with sufficient empowerment to adjust to circumstances plus the feedback and management support to keep motivated.

Many surveys show that disengagement is way more common than engagement. So if we start from disengagement all the way back up, we can assume that disengaged staff doesn’t take it so seriously with discipline, as they don’t care.

If there is no motivation and probably poor discipline, focus is not likely to be kept on what matters. And if focus isn’t kept nor reinforced, it doesn’t matter if the purpose and the Goal have been communicated with clarity.

Employee engagement is key and engagement is something the organization can only facilitate but not order nor buy.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you

If you check the Internet for this quote, chances are that it will be attributed to Confucius. It’s variations can found in many religions and cultures (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule) and can be easily understood as a basic code of conduct in a relationship based on reciprocal respect.

Now here is an incoming (unsolicited) e-mail from an unknown lady. She’s offering me to give a course in some public sector in-house university. For me the interest is limited, but the mail is very polite.

The proposal does not fit my agenda nor the usage I’d like to do with my very scarce private time, but in order to be polite and acknowledge the opportunity, I will of course answer.

The irony is that immediately after my answer was sent, an automatic mail message came back, explaining that my correspondent wants to shield herself off any unwanted e-mail (spam of course) and therefore, if I wish to overcome the digital blockade, I have to go through a procedure to identify myself.

If I don’t, the time invested in my polite reply will be lost as well as my nice guy reputation.

Hmm, isn’t it ironic that this lady, protecting herself from unsolicited e-mails:

  • doesn’t apply the same rule to herself
  • amplifies (involuntarily I believe) the inconvenience for the people she’s more or less asking a favor from.

So I went through the procedure and invested more time. I then felt this could be shared as a post on my blog and invested much more time.

Thank you lady. If you happen to read this post, please meditate on this maxim: Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you. And check your anti spam policy.

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What it takes to achieve your objective: Means, Method and Motivation

When facing a challenge, many subordinates quickly complain about the lack of means and  scarce resources. But what it takes to achieve an objective is more than just means.

The common complaints about means

Complaining about scarcity of means or resources is a convenient way to push the responsibility of the difficulty of the challenge and the possible failure to the boss, and often comes without any evidence for the resources really being scarce.

You may like my post Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are

Time allocated to achieve something can be considered as a means. If the management gives no time or too few time for some tasks but expect a result nevertheless, the complaint about not having enough time can be legit.

This is the case with daily machines cleaning  (Autonomous Maintenance) after the shift is over, allocating some time to stop production and clean, lubricate and visually inspect the machines for the sake of failure prevention. But if production is late and management orders to work till the very last minute, there is no time left for the daily basic maintenance. If this is repeating over and over, the machines’ condition may decline and a serious failure stop them for a longer period.

Some means are absolute prerequisites to achieve the objective and if they are not granted, the objective may be out of reach, despite the alternative or creative ways people try.

Means are also often confused with method or a process, and people complaining about insufficient means are in reality worrying about how to proceed. Having the appropriate means is then synonymous to knowing how to do, with the hope that this or that tool, machine, equipment, etc. will bring the solution with it.

The triple prerequisite to achieve an objective

Besides appropriate means, the method or way to proceed is another prerequisite. If you get all the parts necessary to assemble a computer but have no idea how to assemble them, you have all the necessary means but are still unable to have a working computer. Therefore, the second prerequisite, besides means, is method or know-how or knowledge, procedure, instructions, etc.

There is a third prerequisite to achieve an objective: motivation. If you have all necessary means and have necessary know-how and skills but no motivation (or will, desire), the objective will not be achieved.

The triple requirement for achieving an objective is to have appropriate Means, Method and Motivation, which can be memorized as 3Ms.

Now when assigning tasks or objectives to teams, managers better make sure the means are provided, the know-how or skills are available and check the motivation.

This post was inspired by an explanation of my friend and mentor Bill Dettmer during a Logical Thinking Process training course. You may listen and watch Bill’s explanation in the video beneath. To understand the context you may read my post Goal Tree Chronicles – Enablers vs.triggers.


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You are entering unclear territory

This post is inspired by some pictures* in Mike Rother’s book “Toyota Kata”, very relevant in our actual changing times and complex situations. I really like the figures that remind that the journey towards a goal requires entering unclear territory at some point.

Unclear territory

Adapted from “Toyota Kata”, Mike Rother

Experience from the military tells that no plan, regardless how carefully it was planned, will survive contact with the enemy.

No plan survives contact with the enemy.
Helmuth von Moltke
https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Helmuth_von_Moltke_the_Elder

What this means is that unknown facts, unexpected events and dynamic complex interrelated relationships will interfere with the plan based on partial knowledge, biased perception and simplified hypotheses.

Plans are important because they allow to explore hypotheses and be prepared accordingly but most plans are useless as reality often unfolds differently as expected.

This is why, when starting a journey toward a significant change or a Lean transformation for example, the plan will probably last only for the few first steps, but barely further. Once the journey started, unexpected circumstances will reveal themselves and require adjustment.

This is similar to exploring a dark room with a flashlight**. Only a part of the room is visible and every move is done accordingly to visibility and noticed obstacles. As one moves forward the line of sight extends and the vision clears further one step at a time. New obstacles appear, requiring new adjustment, and so on. The path across the dark room is probably not straight, but must get past several obstacles.

The same happens while hiking. The goal is set, the map shows the terrain and the compass helps for the bearing. Yet the map may show the canyon, the river and the forest, but none of the boulders, the fallen trees across the path neither the recently flooded areas. Those obstacles will appear once the hikers come close. In this case too, the hikers have to adjust to circumstances and find alternate routes to reach their goal. The one they had in mind while planning the hike is no more relevant.

Leaders must be able to lead through unclear territories

Unclear territories of all sorts are more and more common. Even what we believed familiar ground can be disrupted overnight. Everything is going “VUCA”, meaning being increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. More decisions must be taken, more frequently and often with incomplete data and only partial understanding of the situation.

Among all decisions, some – and hopefully few – will show unadapted, requiring new adjustments. Wandering in unclear territories is a new fate. Being able to make quick and good decisions in unclear territories is a necessary aptitude for aspiring leaders.

What are good decisions? Those enabling the organization to achieve its goal despite the obstacles and unexpected difficulties, those solving the problems to clear the way towards the goal or choosing alternate routes to get closer to the goal.
Therefore, having a clear Goal onto which aligning actions, projects and initiatives when going through unclear territory is mandatory.

Followers too must understand “unclear territories”

Unclear territory is not a concept for leaders only, the followers must understand it too. What does it mean? It means that once entering unclear territories:

  • leaders (managers, people in charge…) may get surprised by unexpected events and this does not make them bad leaders
  • leaders, managers, etc. don’t have all the answers to all difficulties and problems that arise along the journey
  • plans and projects sometimes have to be reoriented, which may look like poor management or a fantasy but isn’t
  • some invested efforts and actions must be abandoned due to new circumstances, it’s disappointing, but that’s life

One may wonder how to distinguish poor leadership from the necessities to adapt to new circumstances? I would suggest to prevent the question from arising by establishing a clear communication upfront, giving frequent and transparent updates and have everyone exploring the unclear territory by teamwork.


*Mike Rother “Toyota Kata: Managing People For Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results”, McGraw-Hill Professional, 2010. Pictures mentioned are page 8; 120; 124; 133; 163

**Flashlight metaphor, page 133


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Jim Womack’s hansei on where lean has failed

Lean leading figure Jim Womack posted a sincere and critical reflection (hansei) on where Lean has failed and why not to give up. I was impressed when reading it and it reinforced my respect and admiration for the author.

You can read the August 29th, 2017 post on planet lean (http://planet-lean.com/jim-womack-on-where-lean-has-failed-and-why-not-to-give-up)

>Lisez-moi en français

Jim Womack is someone to take seriously when he expresses himself about Lean, so when he posts an article titled “where lean has failed” it is probably not just a clickbait nor a questionable joke. Indeed, the critical reflection Jim shares is truly about failure from his point of view. And his point of view with regards to Lean is one that really matters.

Where lean has failed

The failure is, in Mr Womack’s opinion, manyfold:

  • It is the failure to get big organizations to transform themselves in a Lean way and have, at least, “another Toyota” emerging.
  • It is the failure to reverse offshoring, despite the rational proof that companies would be better off keeping operations close instead of trading labor costs for logistics and quality costs.
  • It is the failure to see disaffection among the workers and the growing acceptance of things as they are, without attempt to resist or change them in the Lean Community itself.

This hurts.

I am impressed by the courage to analyze and acknowledge that situation of someone who dedicated his life to promote Lean and share the knowledge. After all the enthusiasm, hype, hope and successes, this must be bitter.

Many people in Mr Womack’s position would deny the situation and keep going on, their ego not allowing them to acknowledge failure. Jim Womack not only has the courage to do it, but refuses to give up and want to avoid the “muda of denial about the situation”.

What I see from my narrower and European (mainly in France) perspective is consistent with Mr Womack’s analysis: the number of lean managers and continuous improvement champions soared in the last years but no company advertises or gets attention because of drastic improvement of its performances.

Furthermore, when called for assistance in companies, I am most of the time appalled by the (very) limited competences of the people in charge of Lean or operational excellence, a fact also reported by Karen Martin in a post on the Lean Edge https://www.theleanedge.org/256088-karen-martin-technical-proficiency-and-leadership-acumen-can-you-nail-the-problem-statement-first-time-right/

So yes, “doing Lean” is reduced to running small kaizen workshops here and there without consistency nor link to a strategic intent. It is merely about patching broken processes,solving local problems at best, or opportunistic muda hunting.

This keeps the additional layer of “Lean” bureaucracy busy and living easy with a lot of complacency about local qualitative results. Once a 5S workshop went through the first 3Ss, they’re done and feel “Lean” now. This is how Lean looks like too often.

No wonder the questions about “what’s next” or “is lean dead?” arise.

Considering Lean transformations, like many armchair generals giving strategic advice in hindsight, I would say that Jim Womack and people around him did well  addressing the diagonal of the 2×2 change matrix: promoting the “pot of gold”, metaphor for reward and benefits of the change, as well as warning about the “alligator”, symbol of the danger of the status quo. I remember well Jim recommending to have a burning platform or even create a crisis to get the change done.

This was the rationale promoting the change, the Lean transformation.

What could have been underestimated was the other, emotional diagonal of the matrix. Many of the decision makers are in love with their “mermaid”. By definition, a mermaid cannot leave the sea and therefore the decision makers stay put, close to the object of love and happy with the current situation. A happiness, they believe, they can enjoy ONLY in their current situation.

Maybe the decision makers are risk averse and see nothing else than the frightening perspective of the “crutches”, the metaphor for risks and big efforts. Indeed, many decision makers may jeopardize their actual position if they dare going for a disruptive transformation with unforeseeable results. Leading a Lean transformation requires leadership, courage, confidence and the necessary freedom to act.

Why not to give up

Despite this bleak picture, Jim Womack is not ready to give up nor let “the muda of defeatism” get in his way. If no other Toyota is likely to emerge, other success stories can be reported. Successes may be experienced in and with start-ups for example.

Acknowledging the limits of the actual Lean promotion and Lean methods training ways, mainly through workshops and workbooks, Jim calls for “thinking hard about more effective ways to pass lean knowledge along to the next generation”.

The last paragraph of Jim Womack’s post sounds like a firm resolution “to rethink the (Lean community) tactics, stick to its purpose, and better understand the challenges preventing it from staying on course”.

I encourage everyone to read the original post as well as to have a look on the comments.

Personal conclusion

It is a sad read, but I can only agree. I empathize with Jim Womack and again, I am impressed by his courage and humility.

Even if Lean loses its shine, I still measure what it brought – and still brings – to me. I think that true Lean-understanding people, once “infected”, will not get away from Lean Thinking. I will continue to promote and use everything Lean at personal and professional level, wherever and whenever it’s meaningful, which should be pretty often. Fashionable or not.

My personal belief is that Lean (Thinking) will keep lingering in operations, but the emphasis will probably shift upstreams to Product and Process Development. I also think that the irresistible wave of digitalization and all the news techs around smart factories will reshuffle the cards on how to plan, organize, drive and strive. All new opportunities to reinvent business and the philosophy, methods and tools that must come with.

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Did you already SWOT yourself?

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats and SWOT analysis is often used to assess a project, a venture or reflect on the organization’s relative forces compared to competition and business.

A SWOT analysis can be done on one’s self in order to get clarity about one’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, before a job interview or when facing an important decision.

“SWOTing” oneself can also be useful just to get clarity on one’s status, so to say. Being aware of these four dimensions helps to get clarity about thyself and to take decisions with more than just gut feeling. Let’s start with Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths and Weaknesses are very self-centered. It’s all about individual traits and how they compare to others. Of course, strengths and weaknesses are relative to the circumstances and the self-assessment should be done with a specific “use case” in mind.

Strengths

List your distinctive strengths, what you are really good at, what makes you different from colleagues and other people, what makes you stand out of the crowd, and would be a real advantage over similar profiles. Be honest.

Strengths must be specific and difficult or long to acquire for your “competitors”.

Weaknesses

Being clear about own weaknesses sets the boundaries about what you can do and what not. Awareness about your own limitations and weaknesses will probably prevent you to try something out of reach or likely to fail.

Weaknesses may be disqualifiers when applying for a job or when looking for a promotion.

It is also an indication of what to improve – if possible – and about what your competition is potentially better.

Now to the external factors. Circumstances and social and professional environment are changing constantly, providing new Opportunities but also exposing to Threats.

Opportunities

Circumstances and environment at large may provide personal development or new professional opportunities. Clarity about one’s strengths and weaknesses helps to decide to seize an opportunity or to get prepared for it. Sometimes the gap is too big and thanks again to clearly knowing one’s limits, the right decision can be made.

Threats

Everything is going VUCA, an acronym for Volatile or unstable, temporary, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Threats are somehow the flip side of the Opportunities: what can be a real chance for one can be disastrous for another.

Threats can come in a form of a new “competitor” or a technology that trump your skills or make you as a contributor… unnecessary.

Threat can be the obsolescence of your knowledge, the decline of some abilities in time…

Threats can come in so many ways that it is wise to question them about being plausible and their probability. Take into account only the most plausible and likely ones.

Once clear about the exposure to risks, figure out how to mitigate or bypass them.


Related: When facing a choice, get clarity with the change matrix

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When facing a choice, get clarity with the change matrix

The change matrix is primarily a tool to explain why people seem to resist change, but it can be used to make a decision when the appeal of the proposed change is facing some doubts about losing more than gaining.

Doing the exercise of filling the matrix should help getting clarity about the plusses and minuses of the change, and base the decision on some rational weighing.

In order to understand the matrix and the associated metaphors, I recommend watching the video.


When facing a choice with significant impact on current and future situation

An envisioned or proposed major change in life can be scary. Who never faced the dilemma of daring a change and face the uncertainty or keep everything as is for the sake of some “safety”?

The safety here can be nothing more than an illusion, but the familiarity of the current situation gives some impression to remain in control. In the current situation, everything seems predictable and known while a change will modify many things, adding a lot of unknown and uncertainty.

Furthermore the popular saying states that every improvement is a change but every change isn’t an improvement, adding to the fear of giving up something good for worse.

Relying only on gut feeling may not be the best way to make the decision unless one trusts his or her intuitions. The change matrix can bring some clarity when the exercise is done honestly.

Pot of gold and mermaid

Write down all promoted benefits as well as those the intuition suggests. What makes the change desirable and that CANNOT be gotten or achieved in current situation?

Switch to the mermaid and ask yourself what would make you ignore the pot of gold, something of great value ONLY provided in current situation.

The capital letters stand for extreme wording, a technique useful for identifying false assumptions. If it sounds weird or not true, the assumption is probably false or overstated.

Crutches and alligators

Assess the risks of change figured by the crutches. What can possibly go wrong with the change that WILL end up with SIGNIFICANT damage?

On the other hand what CATASTROPHE WILL happen by keeping the status quo?

Looking at the matrix

It is time to look at all quadrants and check in which direction the matrix points. Hopefully a clear indication is shown, either favoring change or recommending to stay put.

The last time I applied the matrix to a personal important choice I was surprised how clear the best choice appeared.

It was consistent with my intuition but was more elaborate, thus added much clarity to the best choice. The result could have been opposite and could have put a rationalized end to a fantasy. The clarity and the list of pro and cons gives great confidence about the decision to make. I really recommend to give it a try.

Possible biases

When facing a desirable change, one may overestimate the size of the pot of gold as well as the threat of alligators while underestimating the risks (the crutches) and the sex-appeal of the mermaid.

In plain English this means overestimate the gain or benefits of the change as well as the potential danger of not changing, thus making the change desirable. This looks much like fulfilling a self prophecy.

In order to complete the demonstration or reinforce the desirability of the change, the risks associated with the change are minimized or ignored and the advantages of the status quo downplayed.

Conversely, when facing a less desirable change and even more in case of an undesirable change, the person may evaluate the quadrants in an opposite manner: overestimating the number of crutches and the sex-appeal of the mermaid while underestimating the value in the pot of gold as well as playing down the threat of alligators.

Again the translation in plain English: to justify the rejection of a proposed change the risks of the change are magnified and the advantages of the status quo highlighted while the benefits of the change are questioned and the threat of not changing minimized or even denied.

I  order to avoid this pitfall, it is meaningful to share all (emphasize “all”) the elements of the choice in the most neutral manner to a person of confidence or (someone selected as) a coach. A new external point of view may question the rationale and propose a new perspective.


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Autonomy, accountability and tunnel effect

One young employee told me “I don’t like my manager to ask me over and over again about the progress of my work. I like to get my objective and then be let on my own to achieve it, I’ll report when I’m done”.

Well I thought, you have never been project manager nor in charge of a team. You probably barely know anything about project management techniques and the difficulties to synchronize multiple outcomes, and probably voluntarily ignore the existence of dependencies between tasks for your own selfish comfort.

This kind of cocky open arrogance from someone without significant experience is not something a seasoned project manager will appreciate. Chances are that facing such a mindset, the manager will reinforce his/her control.

It is one thing to demand empowerment, autonomy and be willing to take accountability, it is another to give periodic feedback about the progress of a task or project.

What managers or project managers don’t like at all is the tunnel effect, a common metaphor in France and in project management parlance that describes the extended period during which, the customer and/or the project manager are left in the dark, without any clue about the progress of the job do be done.

At the end of the tunnel, when customers and/or project managers discover the results, chances are that the outcome is not satisfactory or can even endanger the whole project! Something that could have been prevented if there had been periodical feedback, assessment and realignment if required.

This is why software development went for methods insuring loops, scrums, instances during which the stakeholders can share the state of current development, mitigate the risks and even take into account late changes.

Giving periodic feedback is not only something to please customers and project managers, it is also something useful for colleagues and other stakeholders that are dependent on tasks or outputs. By getting feedback and insight, those stakeholders can adjust their own schedules and actions according to current progress.

Management at all levels is highly facilitated through shared visual management, like for example using a Fever Chart, a simple visual dashboard/indicator introduced by Critical Chain Project Management.

Therefore, even in organizations granting a large autonomy to their associates, there is no such a thing as getting an objective and returning to report when it’s achieved.

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