Q&A from Quora

These answers are a collection of multiple years. My point of view might have changed between when I answered the question, many years ago, and now.

There are several. I’ll point out a few.

The goal is to produce (in a factory. For a service company this would be different) your parts in a single piece flow. This means no inventory and no (minimal) buffers between production stages. This goal requires several things to be aligned.

Each process step would need to require the same amount of time, or you would need multiple parallel processes so that the effective process time would be halved. When each process has a different process time, you will automatically create buffers. There are many reasons to work towards a single piece flow, but one of the most important ones is to make problems visible. And problems is what you want to see and address.

Now comes the most important part that is almost always overlooked. You want your people on the work floor to show and address the problems. This means that they need to learn how to analyse the problems and to come up with ideas to address them. In many companies this is done by e.g. adding buffers, but that’s not the right way as it removes you from the single piece flow. People need to be able to experiment with different ideas which will ONLY work if they are allowed to make mistakes in the process. This means that you need a culture with psychological safety. And that is what is missing in many companies.

When people are judged by errors and hitting the numbers, no-one will come forward with problems and they will certainly not invest time to analyse the problem. Their goal is to hide errors and to continue producing to make the numbers.

By defining what it is that you want in your company (e.g. employees with structured thought, and tactical solutions) and then to define what ENVIRONMENT the employees would need to get there and STAY there. In other words, the first thing to do is to look at the way the ORGANISATION is managed right now. What is the corporate culture and how does this culture promote or suppress this desired behaviour?

Many organisations start with a program to “change” the employees, instead of changing the way people are treated, i.e. changing the way that top management behaves. This might sound vague, so let me give you an example of a poor culture that doesn’t promote the desired behaviour. In this culture people have numeric goals (x number of widgets, closing support calls within 180 seconds) and the employees are punished or even fired when the goals are not achieved. Those who achieve the goals are rewarded and promoted. This is the way that Jack Welch managed GE with his Forced Ranking System.

What happens in such an organisation?

  • Many people will cheat to make the numbers look better.
  • Helping a colleague takes time away to achieve your own goals and reduces the distance in the ranking, so it is avoided.
  • Problems and errors are hidden as it reflects badly on your performance. The longer a problem goes undetected, the more expensive it is to correct and the more difficult it is to find out how (in many organisations WHO) this could happen.
  • People will try to optimise their own work, which often doesn’t mean an optimisation of the total production chain (lack of system thinking).

There are more negative aspects, but these are the major ones.

Does this culture promote cooperation? Does it give the employees time to think about structural improvements? Do people feel safe to experiment, knowing that mistakes are frowned upon? Have people been coached on how to find solutions (improvements) in a structured and scientific way or do you just fire those who can’t (yet) without giving them a chance to learn (up or out)?

When you want to learn HOW to do this differently, study Dr. W. Edwards Deming (difficult) or Toyota (a company that uses much, if not all, of the Deming philosophy for the last 70 years). The Dr. W. Edwards Deming philosophy consists of 14 points. Although statistics plays an important role in his philosophy, Deming makes clear that psychology is at least as important because you need to ban out fear so that employees feel secure enough to admit errors and failures.

This paradoxically leads to an organisation with a lot of visible problems (as opposed to those organisations where problems are hidden), but once the problems surface, you can start looking for ways to improve the system, workflow, procedures to avoid these problems in the future. This of course is much more work than the traditional “stern discussion” and discipline of the victim as done in traditional organisations.

In the question, you mention tactical solutions. These are closely linked to strategic plans. Often strategic plans don’t consider the current tactical options available because the strategic plans are created by top management without consulting the employees who will need to execute these plans. Once you start to involve the employees and mention the problems you are trying to tackle (instead of presenting the ready made solution), you might find out that there are many other options available that are much more practical. The question is do you trust your employees to come up with their own options and are you respectful enough towards your own employees that you can share your real reasons why you want to change course?

I assume that this is a task given to you from above. Before spending too much time on this dying method, may I suggest that you look at companies all over the world who have decided to ditch this method, as it is not working*.

Unless the objective is to get rid of people and to ensure that the company ruins the employee engagement through judgements. In that situation the performance evaluations are the perfect tool. If on the other hand, your goal is to develop your people and to help them to achieve the best they can give, then look at ways to support them. In many of my other contributions, you can read how to do that. If you have any specific questions after you red these contributions, feel free to ask.

* it is great at undermining: system thinking, collaboration, cost reduction, quality, team spirit, openness, learning, error reduction and continuous improvements.

By starting with RESPECT!

By thanking them when they achieve or exceed their deadline goals or when I see that they actually implemented an improvement.
By thanking them when they tell me about problems or errors. By Acknowledging their (task specific) knowledge and skills when we look for root causes and corrective actions to address the problems.
By not blaming them for problems or delays, but by looking at (and improving) the systems that didn’t prevent the problem or caused the delay. My employees always try their best to achieve the goals and objectives (where quality trumps quantity), but are often hampered by old thinking, systems and structures that I inherited.

Even though I don’t accept bad behaviour, even in these cases I try to research the causes of unacceptable behaviour as some behaviours have external reasons. Being cranky or weepy can be caused by problems at home (financial problems, marital problems, a family member that requires special care or maybe a car that is very unreliable, etc.). We take those employees under our wing and help them to address their debt situation (not by increasing their salary as that would not address the root cause). Addressing the financial situation often reduces marital stress as well and once we know the reasons, we can discuss options to address the care of a family member.

Showing up late could easily be caused by things like day-care not opening before 8:00 and the commute to work taking another 35 to 40 minutes, or someone who is dependent on public transport and has to choose to either be almost one hour too early, or a few minutes late each day…

Non of these things costs money, just time! The employees are always beaming when I thank them and since they know that I will not blame them for problems and errors, they come forward saying, “Robert, I made a mistake here…”.

This is invaluable information to improve the procedures TOGETHER. This vital problem information is hidden from managers in other organisations who blame their employees, as those employees will do everything to hide their mistakes. As Taiichi Ohno said: “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.”

I always differentiate between performance and behaviour issues.

YES, behaviour issues need to be addressed. I tell them what the issue is, as neutral and specific as possible. This might seem easy, but it isn’t. Before you know it, you will use judgemental language. E.g. someone shows up late every day. LATE is already a judgement. It is better to say “Today I saw you arrive at 9:18 and I want to discuss that with you”.

Then I try to find out what the reason for this behaviour is. It might be that the train arrives either at 8:05 or 9:05. With another 10 to 15 minutes walk, comes to 9:15–9:20. Once you know this, you can look for alternatives, or decide that there is no good solution other than e.g. starting at 9:20 and compensating it through salary or start one day a week at 8:20.

Bullying or sexist remarks is the same way. “I overheard you talking to xyz and I want to discuss that with you right now”. Here I will express how uncomfortable or even angry this behaviour makes me, and that I can’t accept this. I will listen to the reasons, but remain firm that this is not acceptable. Never! There is no adaptation period, the behaviour must change immediately and an excuse might be appropriate. I will discuss the situations that lead to these remarks and how he/she can recognise the escalation and get support and intervention by me.

Performance is different. Here you help the employee by looking at the way they “actually” work and try to identify issues that slow him/her down. It makes no sense to do this in a meeting room. You must be at the point where the work is done and observe for a long period of time. Just looking for 5 minutes will most likely not reveal the real issues. Here you coach and help adjust the workplace and processes to ensure that this person gets the most work done, at the required quality level, with the least amount of effort.

This is indeed a much underestimated factor, which is slowly getting more attention.

Initially lean was all about the analysis and tools. The fact that you need a culture that enables (free of fear) and empowers the employees to work on improvements in their own field of knowledge was ignored. This led to a top-down approach where a department with lean specialists would do the analysis and design a new process.

Instead of being empowered and involved, the lean specialists would do the improvements and the training department would instruct the employees how to work from now on. As a result, there is NO continuous improvement, but only when the lean specialists are around to do the analysis and improvements and compliance is low.

The philosophy that Dr. W. Edwards Deming had developed, which was adopted by Taiichi Ohno (Toyota), was one where the employees are not the problem to be dealt with, but the solution to the many problems a company has. Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy talks about creating a psychologically safe environment (ban out fear), so that the employees are not afraid to do experiments in order to reduce the workload, improve the quality, etc. When doing experiments, people are going to make mistakes. That is why the psychologically safe environment must be there. When things go wrong, everyone focuses on the procedure, not the person who made the mistake (and already feels horrible). Together they work on improvements. In such an environment, you DO have continuous improvement, because the employees are doing the improvements, not a distant lean expert. On top of that compliance is extremely high because they developed the improved procedures THEMSELVES!

Inspiration needs to come from the inside. “Inspiring” employees through the carrot and stick is all external and wears off very quickly.

In order to develop internal motivation, people need to feel valued and appreciated. But that’s not all. They need to know how their work contributes to the success of the whole company. They need to feel supported and free from fear to experiment with better ways of achieving the goals. When people can improve their own work, it often makes them very proud.

Even though I earlier said that the carrot and stick method wouldn’t work because it is a personal pressure method. This reduces cooperation and stops people from sharing tips and tricks with colleagues in order to stay ahead of their colleagues and it stimulates hiding problems in order to look good. Sharing in the success of the whole company is something else. Here people are rewarded for their cooperation and the success of the company.

I’m a manager. I made my team (25 FTE) autonomous. They do so good that I have nearly nothing to do. Should I be worried that the CEO will fire me?

My friend, I once worked myself into the same situation. Fortunately higher management decided to give me more departments that were struggling. But even though this initially occupied almost all of my time, after a few months, they also had learned to work autonomously (helping each other) and how to learn from their mistakes.

For a while, I spent time developing new technologies and ways to work and stay ahead of the competition. Once that dried up I started to spend more time to analyse the problems in other departments (not mine). I made suggestions on how to reduce their reliance on training (my department) by looking at the larger system, empower the employees, change the structure, document processes (our training manuals acted as their process manuals, which is the wrong way around), improve systems and processes, etc.

This was NOT appreciated. My department just had to provide the training they requested. That the return on investment of these training programs was extremely poor because the departments were poorly managed and we primarily provided workarounds so that the employees were able to survive, not thrive.

I requested and indeed received full backup from the headquarters that my approach was to be followed, but that only made the other directors more angry with my suggested way of working. Only a few years later, I realised that my way of working was extremely similar to Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy. So now I am a great follower of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s work.

After a year I decided to leave the company as almost no-one understood my way of working. They saw that my departments required little to no management and were extremely successful, but instead of being curious as to why?, they just said that I was lucky to have such easy employees.

Roughly speaking, there are two knowledge management strategies.

  • Company controlled.
  • Employee supported.

Let me explain. Many companies that introduce knowledge management, do so because they try to reduce the costs of training. They however want to stay in control of what information is disseminated and who can access it. They select the top-down (supply driven) approach and create a knowledge management team that creates a database with answers. Creating a useful database this way is extremely difficult as the “non-experts” have to know what to write about, then investigate the subject matter, come up with an answer and write it down. When the pressure to write answers is high, the quality and usefulness of the answers drops. This type of strategy is often linked to a command and control organisation, which seldom shows a great performance.

Then there is the bottom-up (demand driven) knowledge management strategy like StackOverflow (with the current flood of paid for questions, Quora doesn’t truly fit in this category any longer). There are corporate solutions as well that follow this model. Here you start with an empty database. Whenever an employee has a question, he/she asks the question (with the anonymous option) and all other employees see the question. Those who can (and are willing to) help write an answer. The best answers are voted up and partial answers are enhanced. The company often has no (need to) control over who sees what or the content of the answer. Employees get answers from colleagues who might be in totally different locations. This requires a psychologically safe environment where people are not afraid to say something wrong or make a mistake. This kind of environment often also supports employee initiative to improve the workflow and processes.

For the company, such a system offers additional advantages. By looking at the questions that can’t be answered. This gives an indication of knowledge gaps within the company. By analysing the data and clusters of questions you can find many more signals that can be used to support the employees to perform better in a fear free environment.

Nothing will last when you don’t actively steer in the desired direction.

Building a sustainable company culture that is both supportive and respectful towards the employees and works toward high quality and high performance has all kinds of convictions that it needs to fight against.

The most prevalent convictions come from:

  • the interpretations of Frederick Taylor’s “Scientific Management”,
  • the pressure from investors (Wall street) to give priority to short term gains instead of longer term successes,
  • The generation of spreadsheet managers who manage their staff as if they are programmable robots.
  • the lack of basic psychological knowledge around the effects of working in a psychologically unsafe environment.

I can recommend that you look at the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming and people/companies that have adopted his philosophy:

  • Taiichi Ohno (Toyota),
  • Art Byrne (Wiremold),
  • Bob Chapman (Barry-Wehmiller),
  • Paul Ackers (FastCap). YouTube FastCap!

But also people/companies like Ricardo Semler (Semco), Paul O’Neill (Alcoa), Herb Kelleher (SouthWest Airlines), Bob Davids (multiple companies) who followed a slightly different philosophy but where respect for employees is paramount everywhere.

I will repeat my answer as given in previous questions.

Forced Ranking/Distribution as promoted by Jack Welch in the 90-ies is the worst performance management system available. This system assumes that the distribution of performance follows a standard Gaussian distribution (bell curve) and that you improve this by promoting the top performers whilst sacking the low performers.

Yes, the distribution of performance WOULD follow the standard distribution if you had no hiring process and just gave jobs to random people. Normally you do have a thorough selection process, so the distribution will be skewed. But for argument sake, let’s ignore this fact and look at the effects of this system.

When you, as an employee, will be ranked against your colleagues, you want to make sure that you are in the top 70 percentile.
This leads to:

  • Not sharing information and tips about doing your work better or easier.
  • Tooting your own horn as loud as possible.
  • Hiding your mistakes.
  • Or pin your mistakes on your colleagues.
  • Skew/be creative with your numbers.
  • Have quantity trump quality.
  • Use shortcuts.
  • Blame others for your low performance.
  • Select the easy tasks and leave the complicated jobs for others to solve.
  • Only show the successes, not the warehouse full of defects.

Once you are in the 70 percentile, you will do everything to stay there. You are not at all interested in improving any process or system, because that might give others a chance to reach your level as well. And since you are respected (high percentile), you can stop or hinder many improvement projects.

So this system leads to the breakup of any team spirit and creates a loose group of individual fighters. Their own goal is important, not the higher goal of the company. There is no sharing, no mutual support, backstabbing, lying, etc. And any changes or improvements are sabotaged, leading to stagnation.

Can you lead differently? Sure, read some of my other answers.

Look how he/she responds after an employee made a mistake. I know what I will be looking for. Do you?

Do not forget that (middle) managers often have no true power. They just execute the rules set at the top. The true aim of the performance review is not to assist employees in getting better at their work.

If that had been the goal, they would have used the Dr. W. Edwards Deming (which was adopted by Toyota) philosophy where you create a psychologically safe environment and coach the employees.

The performance review was developed to rank employees in order to hand out bonuses to high performers and fire the low performers.

Your boss probably has a guideline to rank his/her employees on a bell curve (see forced ranking). That means that he/she will look for reasons to rank you at a “desired” level, which might have nothing to do with your actual performance.

Sorry to bring you the bad news, but performance review often has little to do with helping you.

The sandwich technique is used to dampen the effect of negative feedback. However, when you use the Dr. W. Edwards Deming philosophy (Respect for people, managers are there to actually help and support people, there is no blaming, employee “problems” are almost always system problems and THUS the responsibility of the MANAGER to make sure the SYSTEM stops getting in the way of willing employees), then you don’t need a sandwich method.

The conversation will probably go like this:

John, I noticed that your performance is lagging behind those of your team. I know that you are doing your best, and I want to make sure that you can do your work at the same level. Together with you, I want to look at what we can do to ensure that everything is properly adjusted to your needs and that there is nothing that holds you back. It might also be that there are tricks that your colleagues are using that you are not aware of. Let’s see what we can do to help you get to the same, or even better level.

This is said with the true intention to help an employee by seeing how the company can help the employee to reach a higher performance level by making the work they do smarter, not work harder.

You can only hold them accountable if they have the opportunity to improve their job and even then would it be a shared responsibility (YOU and your employee).

In most organisations, the employees are told what to do and how to do it. How can you hold someone accountable if they have no way to make their job easier, better and faster?

Kaizen events are a subset of the larger drive for continuous improvement. Many have already written about the advantages, I will write about some of the disadvantages.

Kaizen events are often organised by “LEAN Specialists”. This is a result of the way that LEAN (which initially didn’t look at the organisational culture, psychologically safety) was implemented in many Western companies. These companies had a top-down structure and “expert” led Kaizen events fitted perfectly in their top-down business model.

The disadvantage of these events is that as soon as the expert leaves to run Kaizen events elsewhere, all further improvements stop.

In my world the employees need to learn how to do continuous improvement themselves and not be dependent of those specialists who determine the best way to work, who update the standard work descriptions and train the employees on the improved procedures. The top-down method creates learned helplessness.

I realise that asking employees to perform continuous improvement is much more difficult than sending an expert to improve the procedures for them, but once the employees take control over their own standard work, use the PDSA cycle (A3), then you truly get continuous improvement, as it is no longer dependent on the availability of the “expert” to run a multi-day long event.

Once the employees have updated their own Standard Work (because it helps THEM to produce higher quality products, reduce risks, etc.), their Compliance will be far higher than when the process changes were determined by an outside “Expert”.

It’s not, by sitting in your corner office and coming up with a new incentive!

It’s by being genuinely interested in the well-being of your employees.

How do you do that?
By spending time with them, observing (with the intention to support them) how they work. You then start to ask questions around issues that hold them back, waste time, or are unnecessary complex. Or you ask why it is that they have to work overtime to keep up. Once they trust you, you can even ask why they weren’t able to finish their work on time.

With this, you try not to find reasons to blame them, but to see what things in the process/workflow could be improved. Please don’t try to come up with the improvements yourself. If you develop the improvements, it will be about you and the company and the willingness to follow these procedures will be low.

If on the other hand, you give them the respect and trust that they can come up with an improved procedure that will help them to overcome their problems (and thus help them), their commitment to use these procedures will be much much higher. Your task is to help them find a better (not perfect) solution. With that you need to use the PDSA method and keep an eye on the effect on the larger system to avoid point improvements that might lead to a degradation of the total system.

This sounds easy on paper, but it will be extremely difficult in most companies since the company culture prevents the above mentioned steps.

Why? Because many cultures are based on blaming those who make a mistake, the employees and middle management are not pulling on the same side of the string, but on opposite sides. The employees are fearful of coming up with new ideas, because it could fail. And if it would work, it would probably mean that some employees are going to be laid off since we can now do more with less people.

So if you want this to work, you need to create a fear free, just and fair culture, where the employees are not afraid to lose their jobs or be blamed for mistakes. As you can’t change a culture on a dime, you need time… and that is probably the most difficult thing to convince your management of as they probably need to report “better” numbers for the next quarter.

I’ve done this in the past (New York) and am doing this again now. Now six months later people already come to me saying “Robert, I made a mistake” instead of hiding their mistakes and problems. Having the mistakes and problems exposed might be very uncomfortable for some managers, but I am glad, because it allows me to coach my people to come up with improvements.

Independent of what you do, you will always have a company culture. Most cultures are formed without a clear objective, they are just a reflection of the leadership style of the top management.

The question is “how important is it to have a just and fair company culture?”.

When the company culture is formed around fear and internal competition, you will get a totally different behaviour compared to having a culture that is based on fear free support, leading to continuous improvement.

When people are judged and rated, the normal reaction is to make sure that you can’t be blamed for anything and that your performance (in terms of your KPI’s) is higher than that of your colleagues. The result is that people start hiding mistakes and stop sharing knowledge, as knowledge is power. Superficially it looks like a smooth operation as there are no visible mistakes and problems, underneath, there is chaos and everyone tries to hide it in order to keep up the appearance (and thus the rating).

In a fear free culture, people dare to expose their mistakes because they know that together we will investigate how (not who) this mistake was able to happen and how we can improve the processes to avoid this in the future. As a result, there are much more visible mistakes, but far less structural problems and corrections later on in the process.

This sounds a lot like the top managers have heard something without truly understanding it and the culture that is required.

They are probably referring to the BHAG, introduced by Jim Collins. A BHAG is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. The idea behind the BHAG is that you set stretch goals that can’t be achieved by just working harder. You set these BHAG’s to make sure that the employees start thinking differently about the challenge.

I’ll give an example of many decades ago. I led a team who spent 40 hours each week to do certain IT work. I wanted that to change from 40 hours each week to 30 minutes each week. That is 80 times faster. Something you can’t achieve by working faster. You need to completely rethink the real objectives of the task and the processes to get there.

In our situation, we reduced those 40 hours each week to less than 10 minutes each week. This with 100% quality, something the old process couldn’t do (not even close). Once this could be done in less than 10 minutes and with superb quality, the demand immediately increased. Quickly we did about 6 runs each day. This allowed us to be much more flexible and increase the revenue, which led to even more demand. So instead of working 40 hours each week to perform one boring procedure, the employees did many structured and automated runs each day. They constantly tried to improve this process. The rest of the time was used to improve other processes, which resulted in better service and higher revenue again. So instead of letting go of people, I created more work for everyone. Something which we could have never done with the old process.

Even if the employees would only achieve a 20% reduction, you would still celebrate it. Celebrating is encouraging!

This is where I think these managers have no clue about the effects of a psychological unsafe environment. How can the setting of BHAG’s work if people are afraid (afraid to get blamed for not reaching the BHAG, afraid to lose their jobs, afraid to try new methods because new methods automatically means taking risks and potentially fail). Without the right culture these BHAG’s are no longer exciting challenges that make you think outside the box, but impossible goals that only discourage and frustrate the employees.

First of all, I tend to separate behaviour/attitude from performance.

On performance:
I try to focus on the process and what is done, not on the person. I will spend time to see what this person does EXACTLY versus what I THINK this person does. We will compare this with the way higher performing employees work. I then work on the process first and on the gaps (knowledge/skills) later. If there is a need for additional knowledge/skills, then I first want to see if I can address that through the process (updating the “Standard Work Document”) by making the process easier and if possible fool proof.

This assumes that each employee is trying to do their best to achieve the expected outcome. If that turns out not to be the case, then there is a behaviour/attitude issue.

On behaviour:
Behavioural issues, unlike performance issues, are dealt with through critical positive feedback. Depending on the severity, it can range from:

Michael, when you raise your voice to make your point, you make me feel uncomfortable. Instead of listening to your points, I am trying to deal with your energy. I can imagine that others around you have a similar reaction. Raising your voice is not very respectful and I ask you to lower your voice and anxiety, so that we all feel more at ease and can start focusing on your message instead of your energy. When you feel that your concerns are not heard, please say so in a normal voice. We apparently didn’t do a good job making you feel heard and will do my best to address this in the future.”

to e.g.:

Ron, I just received a complaint about your behaviour. This is something I have to, and I want to address. I do this to protect you and the other employees.

When you promise other people to have your work finished at a certain date and time and you fail to inform them about any delays, and on top of that, you do not respond to their messages asking for clarification, you are not showing any respect towards your colleagues.

This unacceptable behaviour is leading to a snowball effect as your colleagues now have to reschedule their work and they still need to work on your project once you finished your portion. I need you to be honest and open about any reasons why you are not able to keep your end of the agreement. Can I get an acknowledgement from you about this important point?

I judge you as someone who is trying to do his best to meet the agreed timelines, but who probably gets overwhelmed with other things that are also important. I want to help you by better understanding your work and the demands that are put on you. My aim is to help you to deliver the absolutely best work possible with the least amount of effort. For that, we need to look at distractions, non-value adding steps, time wasters, unexpected demands, waiting, searching, etc. I want to coach you to make your work easier and faster with (acceptable and) predictable delivery times. I need you to do the bulk of the investigation into better ways to work. Can I count on you to accept this challenge?

I first address the unacceptable behaviour AND I immediately jump to the probable cause in the WAY that the work is done and priorities are set. In most companies, this second step is almost NEVER done. Most reprimands discuss the unwanted behaviour, not the potential causes.

There are of course other behaviours that need a far stronger response like fighting, stealing, intimidation, harassment, sabotage, lying, blaming others for their own failures or hiding errors. Those last reasons two should not appear in a fear free and just culture. If they do, it means that there is still a remnant of fear, which should be addressed.