• Please read through my musings. I truly hope to create a dialogue of ideas. So, if you agree, or more importantly, if you disagree, post a comment and I will respond. On the "About" page is more of my rationale for writing and my desire to encourage discussion. *With thanks and a nod to Robert Fulghum
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Process and Words

The Workplace

I have been thinking about how we articulate processes.

In my current project, I have had to integrate existing operational processes into a canned computer software package.  I have no access to the code, and making specific changes is problematic to the point of not being an option.

I have recently been amazed, amused, and a more than a little embarrassed by how easy it is to make assumptions based on what has not been said.  Amazed and amused because the engineers with whom I am working are very good at assuming that we are all on the same page. Embarrassed because I have gotten pretty good at it, too.

I have experienced, just in the last few weeks, a lot of wasted effort and some frustration, both internal and external.  Maybe a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or maybe better yet still, knowledge and objectivity do not coexist easily.

To compensate, I have gotten a little obsessed with making sure that everything is said in words.  It is an interesting experience to be force the conversation to slow down and to force people (including myself) to actually say what they are thinking.

An interesting experience, and because it is being done as the reestablishment of a discipline, which means that we are that much more aware of it, the effectiveness and efficiency of doing so is extremely clear.

The lesson here, as I see it, is that words are inexpensive, so we may as well use a lot of them

The lesson here, as I see it, is that we communicate what we do, what we need, what we want much more clearly when we take the time to ask the “obvious”,  to ask the questions to which we already know the answers just so that we can get all of the words out, to give the answers that we believe that everyone else knows.

The lesson here, as I see it is to drive out fear.  One of W. Edwards Deming’s 14 rules is to “abolish fear”.  In his context, it is the fear of proposing new ideas and the tyranny of management.   In my context, there is the fear of appearing not to know, or not to understand something.  It is that fear that stops us from asking or answering or simply articulating what we are thinking.

The lesson here, as I see it, is that in developing or defining process, we need to balance the big picture thought process against the discussions of detailed operations.  Both are important and we need to be able to speak clearly not only in both contexts, but in the context of integrating the two.

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The Workplace

I have been thinking about how we manage change.

I am working on a project that will bring a lot of procedural change to an organization.  We are at a project milestone where a major new portion will be implemented and will impact a large percentage of staff and I have been wondering how they will deal with the changes that are going to come with this.

I have been down this road before, and I know how difficult this can be, if for no other reason that we resist change.  I understand what my responsibilities are in this deal.  Hopefully the testing and documentation that I have done, in conjunction with the PR work, will pay off.  This group is probably a little more open to a change than others with whom I have worked, so that will make things easier.  What makes it harder is that I am not on par, technologically, with them, so it is harder (albeit not impossible) to relate to what they do.

What are the rules for successful procedural change?

Firstly, direction should be communicated top down in such a fashion so that there is comfort that this is not change for change sake, that there is a rationale and a valid payback.  And then, go out and sell it by understanding what people need and look for ways to say “this system will do that for you, and give you more….”  Understand what they would like to see, as well.  As project manager, credibility is everything.  Spend the time, up front, to understand not only the impact of the project on the team but just what they do.  Ask questions–what are you working on?  How does that work?  Earn that trust and respect.

Secondly, staff needs to buy into the process.  What is in this for me?  Firstly, how will it help me do my job?  And then, as an afterthought, how will it help the overall organization?  How well I sell this deal, given that I have signed on, becomes a function of how well it will be received.  Honesty counts.  I don’t negate the pain of change, or the fact that to get worthwhile and meaningful data out, some additional work will be required to get data in.

Thirdly, the implementation must be well controlled, so that any issues that crop out are dealt with immediately.  At this point, if something got missed, there needs to be a tiger team mentality towards fixing it.  False starts are a killer and the penalty is a loss of credibility that will hinder this and any future steps of this project, as well as future projects.

Of course, it is more complex than just this, but from a change standpoint, this is a good start.  More to come.

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The Workplace

I have been thinking about balance.

A friend of mine has asked me to address the sociology class that he is teaching.  The class addresses family dynamics, and he wants me to speak on balancing work and family.  This is the same friend for whom I presented “Life in the Workplace” several times to his Intro to Sociology classes in the past.  The presentation has a few slides at the end which address balance, but they are more questions than answers and certainly not enough to cover a full presentation.

I need to address the basics of establishing priorities between work-life  and home-life, between work and friends, between work and having a life for oneself.  How do we quantify how to strike this balance?  I know that you start by establishing your priorities, but I also know that execution can be difficult since there are so many variables.

I know the questions, and I even know some of the answers that work for me, but I am looking for some additional perspectives to lend some balance (no pun intended) to be able to offer to this class.  Can you tell me how you do it?  What works for you?   For instance:

How do you balance important versus pressing? 

How do you balance your responsibilities to your family against your responsibilities to your work teammates?

How do you balance your investment in your career versus your investment in your family?

How do you support your significant other in their career quest?

Those are some of the big questions and they easily form the basis for an interesting discussion.  We will also discuss the desire for material things, for status, for power.  How much of this is “generational”?  How much is by gender?

If you want to share your viewpoints, that would be great.

I know that I have to be careful not to give too many answers, because they are my answers.  It will be better to let them give the answers, which they will if I can lead them down the right path. 

Daddy always said that if you ask the question correctly, it can answer itself.  We shall see.


Leaders and Managers

The Workplace

I have been thinking again about the roles that we play.

I have spent a lot of the last year talking about leaders and managers.  Perhaps I should clarify one very important facet of these roles.  They are very very different and, in my experience, the person who tries to do both can find himself in a very challenging position.

Leaders are our big idea people, they are the visionaries who start on a journey and encourage others to come along and help.  Managers, on the other hand, are the nuts and bolts people, who can facilitate the implementation of the leader’s vision.  How parallel is this to the Generalists and Specialists ?

This is not about peoples skill or effectiveness at filling these roles, but rather about the differences in the roles themselves.  Just like anything else, how important is it for us to understand the role(s) that we fill?  How can we fill these roles without identifying what we are.

Being both a manager and a leader is a challenge, and yet we, as managers, all provide leadership.  We, as leaders, all manage. 
So to further clarify the question, I ask you this:  Are you a leader/manager or a manager/leader?  What are your primary and secondary strengths?  What do you like to do?  How do you best support the enterprise?  Many years ago, in a job interview, the position was specifically described as a management and not a leadership role.  I responded that I could deal with that, and that I could lead from the back or the middle as well as I could from the front.  When asked to explain,  I said that I could lead by example, by supporting and living the vision of the leadership of the company.  In my day to day encounters with others, both in the office and on the factory floor, I could operate in such a fashion as to bring others along. 

It is OK to be a manager/leader.  I am a manager/leader and I am comfortable with that.  I like to think that in my management roles I have been able to lead and inspire, from the front, from the back, from the middle.  It is OK to be a leader/manager.  I have known and worked for leader/managers who could both develop the plan and live the details.  They were comfortable with that.  I have also known leaders, who although they had a vision, they could not relate to the implementation and needed strong managers, and I have known managers who although they could assign tasks and manage the resources, were never adept at inspiring staff.   

Just like the generalists and specialists, leaders and managers, in the best of situations, develop a natural working relationship in which they each rely on the other’ss skills and respect the other’s responsibilities and authorities.  

Just like the generalists and specialists, it is critical that you know what you are. 

So, what are you?  Where is your comfort zone and what are your skill sets?  How well do you understand the need for both roles to be filled within the organization?

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Not Thinking

Life in General

I have been thinking about not thinking.

Last time, I wrote about my need for the degree of quiet that allows me to think through an issue.  It occurs to me that sometimes the best way to deal with the daily overload is to not think about it at all.  I see a value in doing something else, and immersing myself so deeply in it that I can not think about whatever the problem of the day is.

My best avenue for doing this is flying.   Since I don’t fly as often as I would like (it is an expensive hobby), I often fly with a very specific script of the flight maneuvers that I am going to practice.  When I fly in that mode, I think about flying.  I become completely engrossed in navigation, in watching for other traffic, in practicing flight maneuvers as precisely as I can.  There is no room for extraneous thoughts.  I can go up and fly, and be in an environment in which I can block out any nonflying thinking.  The effort of that degree of concentration does not allow for distractions, which only helps to enforce the “non-thinking” approach to things.   And, when I land, I like to take the time to just sit in the plane and relive the flight in my head.  Getting away from whatever I am dealing with, even for a little while allows me to come back to it with a clearer perspective.  (And just as a disclaimer, I do have flights that are designed specifically to enjoy the sights and appreciate the beauty around me.   You should see Shenandoah from the air when the fall folliage is at its peak)

I had the same experience when I did pottery.  Doing it well, as a student, required all of my concentration, so my work-a-day problems just got pushed to the side for a couple of hours.

Whatever escape works for you, do it!  And maybe escape is not the right word.  It really is a thinking strategy, this non-thinking.  It is a valid methodology to keep one’s thinking clear, by not thinking.  A sort of reset, if you will.  Don’t worry, you will get back to it, but maybe, just maybe you will be able to have a clearer picture when you do.

It is, of course, more difficult to apply this to the work environment.  Most of us don’t have the kind of jobs that allow us to walk away for a long enough period of time to clear the brain.  All the more reason to do it away from work.

Again, maybe this is not your way, or there is another method that works for you.  No rights and wrongs here, just different approaches.  I just know what works for me, and again, if you are struggling, it may be worth a try.

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I have been thinking about quiet.

I guess because Sue and I were hiking in Shenandoah this morning and between little snippets of conversations, it was quiet.

When I say quiet, I meant no animals, no wind, no other people on the trail, just quiet, silent quiet.  What a peaceful feeling that is for me.  When we hike together, it is not, by mutual understanding, not a time for deep discussion.  We both enjoy the scenery, we will point specific things out to each other, and share random thoughts, but mostly it is a time to enjoy the surroundings.  Sometimes, I hike alone, and one of things that I enjoy then is the total quiet of a lonely trail, and the solitude that allows me to think without interruption.  I can appreciate the sights around me, to be sure, but the recharging comes from the silence.

Sometimes, in the work environment, we need some quiet but there is none to be found.  There you are, working at your desk, and someone has a question, your boss needs something, the phone is ringing.  Just trying to think a complete thought is a challenge.  That is the nature of our working worlds, but I sometimes wonder if it is the most efficient way to operate.  I can remember times when I would run a meeting and then just sit in the conference room by myself, just to gather my thoughts, maybe make a few notes, and be quiet for just a moment. 

Sometimes, the decision making process begins to go faster than the thought process and it is time to slow down.  I need time to mull, I just need some quiet time.  I find that then is when I find the missing pieces of a puzzle, the consequence or payback that I had missed.  It happens best when it is quiet. 

Just having that quiet time, whether it is a little or a lot, helps me to get my thinking together.  Perhaps it is the luxury of having the time to take a thought all the way from beginning to end without any other distractions.  Perhaps it is the ability to just absorb a heavy influx of information.

These are things that work for me.  Maybe you are the exact opposite and thrive on the constant rush of activity.  I certainly don’t mean to imply that one way is right and one is wrong.  But maybe you are, from time to time,  just a little bit frazzled.  If so, maybe I have an approach that will work for you.  Try it and let me know.

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I have been thinking about corporate cultures.

Specifically, the culture at my new position and my responsibility to fit into it.

In the Life in the Workplace presentation, I address the need for new employees to fit into the existing culture, to understand the workplace dynamic.   For the sake of discussion, lets assume that we are talking about properly functional cultures.  If so, there are two aspects to the culture.  Firstly, is the overriding “people” culture of human interaction, the facet wherein respect and trust are the overriding tenets.  The second aspect is the “operational” culture, and relates to the type of organization.  A manufacturing culture is different from an academic culture is different from a service culture.  These two aspects are related, are intertwined, but  the “people” aspect is the driver, since without that, the other doesn’t really matter.  In the presentation, we address the “people” side of the equation; we talk about earning trust and respect, and allowing others to earn your trust and respect.  We talk about teamwork and responsibility, of dealing with mistakes and handling conflict.  We also address the “operational” aspect from the standpoint of determining in which what type of culture (creative vs. rule based for example) someone would want to work.  No right answer there, just a question of personal preference.

I spent the first almost 25 years of my work career at the same company, so I had the opportunity to heed my own advice to learn and adapt to the culture (good, bad, or indifferent) and then over time become a force to help mold that culture.  In the process, I came to expect my  new employees to do the same.  Again, this was for both facets of culture.  Our “people” culture was not perfect, but we had a core group who were willing to work at it, and we had a handle on where we thought we were going.  Our “operational” culture was a manufacturing culture.  Again, not perfect, but we were trying.  It was a fit for me.  I know and love the manufacturing environment.  I like having rules and defined procedures.

In the past 10 years, I have had, until this new position, three different jobs.  I went into all three with the intent of become part of a new team and totally willing to adapt.  In the first two, it would be easy, I thought, since they were both manufacturing operations, there would not be that much change.  The third was not in manufacturing, but was looking for some manufacturing type control for the planning and execution of a testing protocol.  Long story short.  I was wrong about the ease of adjustment.  I was overoptimistic about my ability to impact culture.  Three positions, three cultural bru-ha-has.  Dysfunctional people cultures can completely obscure anything that is happening on the operational side.  My idealistic viewpoint of how corporate cultures are supposed to work got slammed and my pragmatic side got a little cynical.

Here I am at the fourth position and at the opposite extreme.   They really have the  people aspect under control.  There is trust and respect and a sense of “team”.  Everyone seems to be moving in the same direction.  There is a sense of mentoring and support.  There is an understanding of the workplace/have a life balance.  This is a good thing and maybe I can hush my cynicitism for a while.  It is not a culture that I created, but it is one into which I can fit.  The operational culture is also very different from those in which I have worked in the past, it is much more, for lack of a better word,  ”academic” (but without the negative connotations).  Interestingly enough, that is not where I ever imagined that I would have a harder time adapting.  This is a much more creative environment than I have ever been involved with.  I will adapt, to be sure, and it is made so much easier because of the people culture.  And as they grow, they know that they need the rules and procedures, so I see an avenue in which I can make my contribution.

Think about how you deal with culture.  Are you a culture maker? or just a supporter? or a detractor.  We can all make it better, and in doing so make things better for ourselves and for those with whom we work.

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Life in General, The Workplace

I have been thinking about the passion that we bring to the job with us.

Before I go on, the Executive Committee and I have been on sabbatical for a few months–actually things have been quite hectic.  The contracting gig that I have had for the last year has turned into a full time job  (as of the end of June) and that has been keeping me quite busy and spending full days on the computer did not leave me (or my eyes) in much shape for doing much writing at night.  I am back now, certainly not ready to get off of my soapbox.

It is in the context of my work, however, that I have been thinking about passion.  A couple of things happened.  In an interview with another company this spring, I was asked “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”  Fortunately, I can give an immediate answer to that one–”The opportunity to help an organization meet and exceed the metrics that define its success”.  That is the gist of the Objective line on my resume, and I believe it.  Even as a contract employee, with no vested interest, I believe that I gave everything that I had to the organization.  When we were in negotiations, I noted to one manager that I felt as if I was running out of time, that I was 57 years old, and wanted another chance to make an impact on an operation.  It is how I operate.

I made a re-connection with a schoolmate of mine from many years back.  She told me of her many paths, and how she was now a school principal and her passion was in helping the students succeed and how one of her tools was her teaching staff.  She talked about how working with them helped them and the students.  A win-win situation.  What struck me, was the passion that she brought with her.

I read my daughter’s posts about her yarn spinning and knitting and see the passion for a hobby spilling out of each sentence.  I like that.

Throughout my career, I have worked with people with the passion and with people who just worked.  While I think that the passionate ones were overall happier, they were also the more frustrated, as their passion met corporate culture (or disculture), politics, and the like.  There is probably a greater sense of victory when you can get things done in a dysfunctional environment, but a greater sense of regret when you cannot.  I have been in those environments, too.  The lack of loyalty, in both directions, only makes things harder.  I find myself now in a positive environment, with a good culture in place, so I am looking forward to some satisfaction.

There is a passion that I have for what I am doing.  Whether I am doing it for the company or for my own self satisfaction is another story, and I think that it is likely a little of both.  I think that this is true for all of us, and that we need to be able to understand where we stand on that scale as well.  For me, it helps to think in terms of having to look at myself in the mirror in the mornings and like who I see.

I hope that you have some passion for what you are doing, either at work, at home, for your family or friends.


What do you do?

The Workplace

I have been thinking about how we explain to people what we do and how we do it.

I know that I have touched on this before, but there have been a few things in the past few weeks that have brought it back to the surface.

Let’s assume that you are good at what you do, whatever it is.  You have been doing it for a while and you understand the ins and outs of the task.

Now, how well can you explain it to me, just coming in off the street?  Remember, I don’t know what you do, but I’m 1) pretty smart, and 2) in charge of analyzing and documenting procedures.

Give me an executive summary.  In 5 minutes or less, tell me what you do.  That’s the easy part.  Now, let’s go through the process.  Tell me, step by step, how you accomplish your task.  I will write it down and I will guarantee that you will miss several steps.

The point is this–even when we know what we are doing, we take things for granted and we don’t have the skill set to explain, to instruct how we do things.  I not even talking about the “exceptions” that are specific to certain situations (customers, vendors, special processes), although this is an issue.  I am talking about the steps such  as how to sign onto a given website, the protocol for changing the password.  It could be as simple as “oh, you have to be on this tab to get to a specific check box.”  It could be that field headings can change based on context.  (Some UPS Worldship fieldnames, for instance change dependent on if you are doing a domestic or an international shipment)  All the little steps that you accomplish, but do not think about, are landmines for the people that you have to teach.

Don’t misunderstand.  This is important.  Really important.  But as important as this is, its not easy.  We have to stop and think about what we are doing and that can be hard.  We do a lot of things without thinking and often, that is a good thing.  Think about thinking about driving (when you drive).  It is not going to work well.  If, however, we were teaching someone to drive, we need to think enough to explain the process.  We need  to be able to be disciplined enough in our thinking to be able to go through any process and be able to explain and document what we do.   We need to be able to describe out processes in such a fashion that that someone can some in behind us and, with minimal instruction, do what we do. 

Go back to the philosophy that I employed when I wrote protocols for software testing.  I wanted tests written in such a fashion that I could bring someone in “off the street” and all I needed was someone who was comfortable using a computer, who knew how to navigate in Windows. who knew the difference between a right click and left click, and could follow instructions.   I didn’t need an engineer, in fact, in my environment, I didn’t want an engineer.  I wanted a higher degree of objectivity (i.e. someone who didn’t know the software) someone who could report a problem without trying to fix it, or find a workaround.

Many years ago, to illustrate this issue, I asked my daughter about making hamburgers and we talked our way from beginning to end.  Ask her now, many years later, and she still really knows how to make one.

Think about what you do.  Describe the process, step by painstakingly anal step, and be able to explain it to someone else.  Only then do you truly understand what you do.

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Positive and Negative

Life in General

I have been thinking about certain expressions that we use.

Recently, I came across an old Ziggy card with the sentiment of “You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses”.   Another one is the old glass half empty or half full bromide.

Because I like to thing of my self as pragmatic, these expression, and others of their ilk bother me.

I recently read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  She makes, I believe a good case for the extent to which positive thinking, and the rejection of negative thinking has had a negative impact on our society. From cancer support groups to motivational seminars to the business world, she documents how the concepts of positive thinking have overpowered our thought processes.  As a cancer survivor, she recounts how the feelings of anger and frustration were rejected by support groups, because she was supposed to only have positive thoughts.  Valid emotions were devalued, negated, and deemed to be “bad”.  Motivational seminars tell you that if you visualize good things, then good things will happen and if they don’t, then you just didn’t visualize well enough.  In other words, it is all your fault. She gives examples of how businesses went under because managers did not want to hear bad or negative news.

While she made a good case, she did not do a good enough job of pulling it all together in the end. 

Positive thinking is not enough.  The object should be to gather as much information as you can, both good and bad, and act accordingly.  Don’t close your mind to a wealth of data because it is “negative”.  When we drive, if we drive well, we don’t wonder what will happen if everyone stays in their own lane, but rather we are prepared to react if someone cuts us off.  When I fly, I am on the lookout for places to land in an emergency.  My training has been couched in the negative, so that I don’t visualize that the engine will never fail or that the weather will stay good, but rather, I am continually prepared (not preoccupied or obsessed) for any eventualities.  Even chess players, thinking several moves ahead think and plan about how they will react to adverse activity.  Smart business managers plan for the downturn or the lost account.

Overly positive thinking is dangerous, as much so as overly negative thinking.  But, we really don’t want to deal with overtly negative people and they don’t want to deal with us when we are in that mode.  I submit to you that “Positive” people can balance the good and the bad and be positive because whatever plan they develop has accounted for all of the data.  “I can deal with this” is very different from “Don’t worry, it will all work out OK”.   In my lower moments of a job loss and the subsequent job hunt, the platitudes of “you’ll get something better”, or  ”this is really an opportunity for you” while well intentioned, are particularly frustrating.  The invalidation of angry, frustration, and fear–real and valid emotions is, to me, somewhat more damaging than the “help” that it is supposed to provide.

So no, I try to stay positive, both for myself and the people around me.  I am easier to help when I am this way, and it is much easier for me to develop strategies and solutions for myself, and to help others around me,  when I believe that there is a way out and up.

As I said, I like to be pragmatic, so let’s go back to the original quotes.  This is my take: 

Roses have thorns.  It is a package deal.  That’s the way it works.  Live with it.  It really shouldn’t be a question of complaining or rejoicing.  It just IS.  Take the good with the bad, enjoy the rose and watch out for the thorns.

Glass half empty or half full?  You need a little perspective.  It is not about positive or negative.  The lesson of life is that it really depends on whether you are filling or emptying the glass.  You have to have all of the facts.  If the glass started empty and the goal was to fill it, then it is half full.  If the glass was FULL, and the goal was to empty it, then it is half empty.  And if you don’t know, or you are dealing with a static situation, my brother, the engineer, just says that a half full (or empty) glass is just twice as big as it needs to be.  He is a pragmatist, too.

Gather your information, the good news and the bad news.  Put it all together and come up with a plan.

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