Judy Dobles, General Management Consulting

YOUR TOUGHEST BUSINESS CHALLENGES SOLVED.

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  • I just finished reading, “Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right”, by Atul Gawande.  Atul is a MacArthur Fellow and a general surgeon at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The book captures medicine in all of its complex and chaotic glory and at the same time shows how simple checklists can greatly improve the outcome of complex processes and procedures.

    http://gawande.com/the-checklist-manifesto

    In today’s high tech world checklists can seem simplistic and mundane.  However, they can be a powerful tool in situations where a process is not codified in an IT system.

    To illustrate the benefit of a checklist in the business world I would like to share an example from my work in finance.  Most of my career has been in finance and one of the key responsibilities is to provide a CFRR (cash flow rate of return) or NPV (net present value) financial analysis for outlays of significant capital.  It was always interesting to me that these analyses had to be re-done multiple times due to forgotten critical elements.  To solve this problem, I created a business case checklist for the entire finance department (500 people), provided a short training seminar and received support from the controller who reviewed all business cases.  As a result, business cases never had to be re-done due to omission of a key element.

    The finance department supported a very large manufacturing plant.  The financial analysts used the checklist to ensure all elements were considered.  That did not mean that every analysis included all items on the checklist.  It meant that the financial analyst did their due diligence to know if it should be included or not.  The use of a checklist meant that there was now a standard approach to every analysis which would be followed by every analyst.

    Here are some of the elements on the checklist.

    • Capital outlay, including the timing of cash-flows
    • Tax impact
    • Direct Labor
    • Indirect Labor
    • Supplies
    • Maintenance
    • Health, Safety and Environment
    • Changes in working capital:  inventory levels, accounts payable and accounts receivable for example
    • Shipping and Transportation
    • Changes in support organizations such as finance, HR, supply chain and IT
    • Impact on machine utilization
    • Impact on product quality
    • Impact on other manufacturing plants around the world
    • Impact on customers
    • Import duties, export fees

    Looking at this list you can see that we ensured the impact, on all financial statements, was considered.   The checklist included an individual to contact for each area since no one can be an expert in everything.  Knowing who to contact in an organization of over 50,000 people is extremely helpful.

    Would a checklist help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your processes and procedures?

    For a complimentary discussion on how to improve your end-to-end business process or how to increase your profitability, please give me a call.  Judy:  585.329.3754

    Note: By the way, the book was excellent.  I recommend it if you are looking for your next book to read.

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  • During my career I have had the honor to supervise a great number of wonderful individuals.  They have hailed from around the globe: Europe, Oceania, The Americas, Asia and Africa.  They made the job of supervision easy.  Let me share the things I was thankful for as a supervisor.

    I greatly appreciated that the staff were:

    • Dedicated to learning and continuous improvement
    • Put aside differences and focused on the task at hand
    • Rolled up their sleeves and did whatever needed to be done even though it was not in their job description
    • Readily shared what was on their mind even though it might conflict with something I or another team member said
    • Brought solutions forward instead of whining about things they did not like
    • Understood that change is a natural part of the world and workplace and therefore worked to ensure the success of any given change
    • Trusted each other to do what they said they would do
    • Kept current regarding the latest technology changes in their respective fields
    • Had a well-established network with individuals in other functions and external companies
    • Had a good sense of humor and always had fun at work

    The reason I enjoyed my supervisory positions were the wonderful individuals that comprised each team.  I feel extremely lucky and thankful to have had the opportunity to work with a lot of talented and dedicated people.  No doubt during your career you have worked with “dream teams”.   Tell me a little bit about what made the teams great.

     

    *** For readers outside of the USA and Canada: Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday celebrated primarily in the United States and Canada, with several other places around the world observing similar celebrations. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United Stated and on the second Monday of October in Canada.  Thanksgiving has its historical roots in religious traditions, but today is celebrated in a more secular manner, typically with family.

    In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly traced to a 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest.

    The origin of the first Canadian Thanksgiving is often traced back to 1578 and the explorer Martin Frobisher.  Frobisher, who had been trying to find a northern-passage to the Pacific Ocean, held his Thanksgiving celebration not for harvest but in thanks for surviving the long journey from England through the perils of storms and icebergs. Sometimes, the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving are traced to the French settlers who came to New France with explorer Samuel de Champlain in the early 17th century, who celebrated their successful harvests. (Source:  Wikipedia)

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  • I live in the town of Penfield, New York.  Our local school district sends out a monthly newsletter and the cover story for November was common core standards for English, History, Social Studies, Science/Technology and Mathematics.  Having spent most of my career in finance I was struck with the similarity between the core learning standards for mathematics and expectations/skills needed in the workplace.  In fact, I thought it was fabulous to see such a strong linkage.

    I would like to share them with you verbatim and hope that it may rekindle an interest in the mathematical and analytic skills required for a company to be successful in the marketplace and an individual to be successful in their career.

    [1] Making Sense of Problems and Persevering in Solving Them:  Each of us encounter problems every day.  Some are simple and some extremely complex.  We add value to the companies we work for when we know how to approach and solve problems effectively.

    [2] Reasoning Abstractly and Quantitatively:  This is all about getting to know the data and metrics for your work and organization.  After working in an area for a while you get a feel for the numbers.  Even before you put pencil to paper [or now fingers to the keyboard] you know the numbers are wrong.  As a result you can fix a mistake and ensure sound output.

    [3] Constructing Viable Arguments and Critiquing the Reasoning of Others:  In my experience, the problems that most need solving are complex.  It requires hard work to determine the potential (viable) causes.  You also need a team of knowledgeable individuals to have discussions.  In these sessions you will challenge and critique all the ideas to ensure they are valid.  In these lively discussions it is not about right and wrong; it is about exploring all possible options so that you get the best possible solution.

    [4] Modeling with Mathematics:  The bigger the impact of a decision the more important modeling becomes.  Modeling allows you to see the impact of all the variables for a given decision.  This critical information helps you know where to focus your efforts.  For example, if the value of a variable can triple without impacting the outcome and it is highly unlikely that the change will happen then that variable can be ignored.  On the other hand, if the normal variation of a variable is plus or minus 5% and 1% change significantly changes the decision, then this variable is critical to understand and model.

    [5] Using Appropriate Tools Strategically:  The example that comes to mind immediately for me is Lean/Six Sigma.  There are many tools available to assist in eliminating process defects.  An individual needs to learn the tools and then know when to use them.  Using the wrong tool for a given situation will not solve the problem.

    [6]Attending to Precision:  Attention to detail applies to both communication with others and the actual work you do.  When communicating ideas with others you need to be crisp and concise.  Have you ever received a “stream of consciousness” e-mail?   Another word for it is “rambling prose”.  You read it several times and the point still is not clear.  That is certainly a waste of your time.  It also applies to the actual work.  In the world of accounting for example, if you are doing an account reconciliation, you cannot say, “It sort of balances.”  Either it does or it doesn’t.  And if it does not, you need to figure out why and take the appropriate action.

    [7] Looking for and Making Use of Structure:  When you have worked in a field long enough patterns start to emerge.  One that is interesting to me is how at the end of the year, departments increase their capital spending because they have underspent their budgets.   They say, “I do not want to lose my money.”  However, spending money with no purpose but to use up a budget most likely means the money is being wasted.  Your ability to see patterns helps to anticipate problems so that you can take corrective action earlier.

    [8] Looking for and Expressing Regularity in Repeated Reasoning:    When you are familiar enough with your work you should expect certain results. If you do not get them, you should then figure out what went wrong.  There is also an expectation of consistency.  The terminology in lean/six sigma is standard work.  Common and repeatable approaches allow the work to get done effectively and efficiently.  If the work methods change day to day you are injecting variability into a process.  A great example of this is as follows:  an individual in the accounting department had finished their monthly closing activities for that particular day early.  They decided to get a head start of the work for the next day.  Unfortunately, that work had to be done after the SAP system closed for the month which was going to happen at midnight.  Although the individual had good intentions, they did not follow the published closing schedule and as a result caused a lot of extra work for many people, including the IT department.

    I hope that in reading these 8 core standards for mathematics you have seen a similarity with the analytical expectations you have set for your organization.  For me, reading something new refreshes my thoughts on any given subject.   I hope this post has sparked some ideas to help you more clearly articulate the need for strong mathematical and analytical skills in the workplace.

    Please call me for a complimentary discussion of how to improve the written expectations for your organization.  585-329-3754.

    Note:   to read the actual wording for the standards go to the link below (page 6).

    http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_Math%20Standards.pdf

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  • It seems that you can find many lists of what it takes to be a good leader.   While surfing the web I discovered a self-assessment that you can take on the KORN/FERRY INTERNATIONAL website.  http://insight.lominger.com/insight/

    These are my 5 favorites out of the 21 mentioned:

    [1] Able to make complex decisions.  Simple decisions are easy to make.  Decisions with multiple variables and external considerations are orders of magnitude more difficult.  The key is intellectual curiosity and honesty to seek out and understand all the quantitative and qualitative variables that will impact a decision.

    [2] Organizationally Savvy.  Many folks say they do not like politics.  Leadership is all about understanding and navigating the organization structure and matrix because that is how you get things done.  Knowing how decisions may impact various people and organizations allows you to work with them to gain their full support.  It is about creating win-win situations.

    [3] Face Trouble Head-on.  A staff member once told me that she would not take my job even if she was paid $1 million dollars.  First, I said that was good, since I was paid well below that amount.  Her comment, however, was really one about the fact that all day long people brought problems to my desk that they could not figure out how to solve.  She could not see how that would be enjoyable.  The fact is, the more senior your leadership position is, the more complex the issues are that cross your desk.  You have no control about what it will be or when they show up.  You have to love solving complex problems and embracing issues that others avoid.  I find it fun and rewarding.

    [4] Focus on the bottom line.  When running a business you must focus on the bottom line.  Every action you take must be understood relative to the impact on the bottom line.  This does not mean that you will not support employee recognition events, your local community or not-for-profit organizations.  It does mean you know what level of spending you can afford.  You know your bottom-line.

    [5] Manage Diverse Stakeholders.  As a leader you need to use your personal power rather than your positional power.  There are many internal and external stakeholders in an organization and each have their own set of unique goals.  Some of the stakeholders are: customers, investors, lenders, employees, suppliers, government regulators, the media and local communities.  To be successful you need to understand their point of view and know when to seek their involvement in various business challenges and decisions.

    These characteristics can be learned and refined.  Please feel free to call me for a complimentary discussion of how you and your team can take these skills to the next level.  Look forward to talking with you.  585.329.3754

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  • I recently joined a Board of Directors which got me thinking a lot about leadership and teamwork.  A refresher was in order so I decided to read, “The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork”, by John Maxwell.    Here are my 6 favorites from the book.

    [1] The Law of the Catalyst:  Winning Teams Have Players Who Make Things Happen.   Any successful team that I have been a part of has a couple people that get things done.  They are willing to do new things and reach across functional boundaries to engage all the right people.  They are individuals who can get extra effort from people who already have too much on their plate.  They can do this by prioritizing the work, helping others and breaking barriers.

    [2] The Law of the Niche: All Players Have a Place Where They Add the Most Value.  Supervisors spend a lot of time working with staff to improve “weaknesses”.  I think it is far better to focus on an individual’s strengths and create world-class talents.   Know what your team needs to accomplish and then get the players on your team with those skills.  Everyone wins.

    [3] The Law of the Chain: The Strength of the Team Is Impacted by Its Weakest Link.  The challenges facing teams change over time.  As a leader, your responsibility is to look at your team and determine if you have the right players for the challenge facing you at this point in time.  If not, work quickly to make the changes that are necessary.  Stronger members of a team eventually come to resent the weak member and question the leader’s ability when the leader does not take action.

    [4] The Law of Significance: One Is Too Small a Number to Achieve Greatness.  Complex challenges cannot be solved by one individual.  For leaders this means understanding that solutions will be found only with the engagement of the entire team.  The people closest to the work will know what is not working and what the best solutions are.

    [5] The Law of the Compass: Vision Gives Team Members Direction and Confidence.  The visual picture that sticks with me is one from a class I took years ago.  Imagine bowling.  Picture a black cloth that covers the pins at the end of the alley.  When the bowling ball reaches the end of the lane after you have thrown it you do not know how you did.  That is what it is like to work on a team that does not have a vision and mission.  You are doing work but do not know if what you are doing is important or if you are achieving the goals you set.  As a leader, be sure your team fully understands the mission and vision.

    [6] The Law of the Bench: Great Teams Have Great Depth.  Everyone on a team should want to grow their skill and talent.   There will always be some people leaving the team periodically, so it is vitally important to recruit talented new staff to the team.  Foster an environment of learning and growth for everyone on the team.  This way the team improves continually, year over year.

    If you are a member of a team, I highly recommend this insightful book.  [Maxwell, J., The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.  Print]

    Please call me for a confidential and complimentary discussion on how to improve the effectiveness of your team.  585-329-3754.

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  • When a team or company grows, at some point they find themselves asking the following questions:  Why are we not making as much forward progress as we think we are capable of?  Why is performance stalling?  Why are we operating in silos?  Why are we not moving in the same direction?  At the heart of these questions is the notion of values.

    As leaders, we are just one of many people in a company.  We certainly cannot be part of every discussion or decision, nor should we ever want to be.  Rather we need to cultivate a culture to nurture and foster the behavior that is needed for personal and company growth and success.

    Developing a set of common values provides both a common vocabulary and understanding of the expectations for each and every employee.   Values provide individuals with a framework for approaching day-to-day responsibilities and decisions.  Eventually, it becomes the way in which individuals respond to any challenge.

    So how do you get started?

    [1] Do a little research to understand how other companies use their values to enhance success. Before you engage in the effort of developing values for your organization, you need to really believe they will be beneficial.  Many company’s values are easily accessible on-line.  Here are some of my favorites.  Check them out and see if they resonate with you.

    YAHOO!:  http://docs.yahoo.com/info/values/

    Gemma Power Systems:  http://www.gemmapower.com/index.php?id=26#/

    Zappos:  http://about.zappos.com/our-unique-culture/zappos-core-values/

    Google:  http://www.google.com/about/company/philosophy/

    [2] Pull together a group of employees to create the values.  Creating a set of values for an organization cannot be done by one person.  Let the entire organization know that you are launching the effort.  Be inclusive and allow feedback.  The more you involve others, the more support will be given by all employees.

    [3] Once developed communicate the values constantly.  In order for the values to become part of an organization’s daily culture, they must be discussed continually.  This can be achieved by leaders explaining actions in context of the values.  This makes the values come to life.

    [4]  Do not accept behavior that is in conflict with the values.  In order for a culture to truly develop you must praise desired behavior but most importantly you must confront behavior that is not consistent with the values.  To respect an individual’s dignity, this may be done in private.  Leaders lose their effectiveness if they do not address behavior that is at odds with expectations.

    [5] Periodically seek feedback on the values.  Feedback allows leaders to make course corrections as necessary.  Ask a diverse group of people for input.  It can be very instructive to ask customers or vendors what they perceive.

    The biggest benefit of a common set of organizational values is to build a culture that allows employees to approach issues and decisions with a common set of ground rules.

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  • In today’s business world, almost every organization is a matrix.  This structure provides both benefits and frustrations to staff.  The benefit to an individual is that they get to participate more broadly in a business. This makes work much more interesting and creates a learning environment.  The frustration comes when, as an individual, you are responsible for getting a piece of work done that requires input and participation of others from different organizations.  Many times it feels like your work is not very high on someone else’s to-do list, even though you are being held accountable for the result by your boss.

    Here are 4 tips that have worked well for me and my teams.

    [1] Give something to get something.  With deadline pressures constantly looming, it is hard to think about carving out time to help others.  Whenever you ask someone for their input or participation always follow up with this question: Is there anything I can do to help you?   By asking you acknowledge that their time is valuable.  You show them that if they need help you are there for them.

    [2] Let managers participate in prioritizing the work.  The best example of this is the time when the finance team I supervised supported a large manufacturing organization.  The organization had 10 departments, one superintendent and one assistant superintendent.  All day long people would walk into our finance office and ask for information and analysis.  The deadlines  would always be tomorrow.  None of it was superfluous.  However, it absolutely overwhelmed the finance team and the manufacturing organization felt finance was not supporting them properly.  So, the finance team and I made a wall chart that listed all the items on the to-do list and their deadlines.  Then we asked the superintendent and assistant superintendent for help prioritizing.  By having a visible list, everyone finally saw the entire picture.  The manufacturing leaders helped us set priorities.  As a result, the client got the information and analyzes they wanted and finance had a balanced workload.

    [3] Communicate realistic deadlines and provide as much lead-time as possible.   There is a cartoon periodically circulated that goes:  Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.  Way too often, an individual waits to the last minute to ask someone for the information or participation required.  You owe it to anyone that is helping you to give them as much notice as possible.  That allows them to work it into their schedule easily.

    [4] Know when to play the help card.   Every so often, you know will need your supervisor’s assistance.  For example, asking finance for help right in the middle of quarter close will not result in finance dropping everything to help you.  In this case, more senior leadership needs to be involved to either get the help that is needed now or re-set the timeline to a later date.

    In a matrix environment, I think the benefits outweigh the frustrations.  A few simple guidelines make  it  possible to be efficient and effective.  What has helped you personally to manage in a matrix environment?

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  • During our respective careers, each of us has developed methods for approaching our work that allow us to be effective.  Most likely we adopted these methods because they worked really well for us in the past. One day however, you feel like you are in a rut.  All your methods and beliefs about how to manage/lead an organization are not working.

    I personally came to this same realization when I moved to Europe and took on the role of CFO of the European region for a large multinational company.   At the same time, I happened to be reading, “Management of the Absurd”, by Richard Farson.  His words made all the difference in helping me grow and adapt my leadership skills. I had to throw out some deeply held beliefs based on what had worked for me in the past and develop a new approach.  By doing so, my leadership skills grew significantly.

    Here are my 3 favorite concepts from the book.

    [1] “The Better Things Are, the Worse They Feel” [Farson 92]

    This concept addresses the theory of rising expectations.  When conditions improve and individuals have increased their knowledge, they now observe bigger issues that need to be solved.  Therefore, as a leader seeking feedback about how things are going, you will initially be surprised that people seem more discontent.  In the world of continuous improvement, the more you improve, the more you find that needs to be improved.  The lesson for leaders is to acknowledge what has improved and embrace the fact that staff are now more in-tune with the business processes and feel empowered to bring issues to you.  This is success.

    [2]” Listening Is More Difficult Than Talking” [Farson 61]

    As a leader, it is important to realize that you will never have the answer or solution to a problem.  The problems or situations that land on your desk are highly complex.  Earlier in your career, no doubt you were a technical expert and did have the answer.  Now, your skill in facilitating the solution comes from knowing who should be invited to the table to create and implement the solution.  It also means listening to people and really understanding their perspective and the issue. True listening means that you may have to give up a long held belief.

    [3] “The Opposite of a Profound Truth is Also True” [Farson 21]

    In your very first job, things did appear black or white.  As a financial analyst, the accounts balanced or they did not.  The customers paid on time or were late.   You met the cut-off for posting journal entries or you were late.  Now fast forward to the present and you are the leader of a significant organization.   As you work on your strategy, for example, there is no right answer, just a series of outcomes based on a variety of assumptions.  Some assumptions may be unknowable from a quantitative perspective.  At the senior level, you are now in the world of ambiguity, contradictions and opposites.  As a leader, do not search for the black and white answer.  Rather, accept the ambiguities, contradictions and opposites and cultivate the knowledge and experience of your team to determine the best course of action.

    In summary, what worked for you in the past may not work in the future.  Address each situation with a “clean piece of paper” and determine the proper path forward with the team.

    Works cited:

    Farson, R., Management of the Absurd. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster., 1996. Print.

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  • My last post outlined 6 steps for developing a strategy. To have meaningful discussion and develop a robust direction, data is required.  Data helps you get the full picture. If developing a strategy is a relatively new undertaking for you and the team; start with what you know. A word of caution at this point, do not fall into the trap of trying to get every single last piece of relevant data.  You will find it a never-ending quest which distracts you from the real purpose and value of a strategy.

    Advance preparation essential.  Assign data categories to various individuals and have them bring the data to the meeting, or better yet, provide it in advance.  Identify an individual to take ownership for planning and leading the strategy work.

    Listed below are the 7 data inputs to strategy that have worked well for the organizations I led and supported. [Note: sample questions are provided but by no means consider it a holistic list.]

    [1] External Realities: What is going on in the economy?  What are the trends for our specific industry?  How do governmental regulations impact our business?

    [2] The Competitive Landscape: Who are our competitors?  How is the market segmented?  What are our strengths and weaknesses and those of our competitors? What are our core competencies?

    [3] Our Customers:  What are their wants and expectations?  How well are we meeting them?  What is the customer experience when interacting with us, for example, customer service, sales, website, and other forms of communication?  Are we “user friendly”?

    [4] Our Products and Services:  What is the range of products/services we offer?  What is the geographic scope of our offering?

    [5] Human Capital and Organization Structure: Does our culture support our vision? Do we have the right people in the right jobs? Are there impending retirements of key resources? Do we have an excellent employee development process? Are we relentless in the pursuit of putting the customer 1st and driving operational excellence?

    [6] Internal Operational Excellence:  How are our internal functions performing?  Are they supporting our end-to-end business process effectively? Who are our suppliers?  Do we have too many or too few?  Are there any risks associated with them?  Are we successfully eliminating defects and reducing cycle time in our operations?

    [7] Success Factors and Business Results: How do we measure success?  What are the financial outcomes of our business?  What is our market share?  What are our customer satisfaction scores? Are we measuring the right things?

    In summary, to launch a strategy planning effort, collect the data you already have, and follow the 6 steps listed in my prior post.  You and your team will find the strategy picture crystalizing in a way that allows you to create a clear path forward.  Along the way, you will discover additional data you want and will need to make minor course corrections during the year.  Your strategy should be a living process that provides overarching guidance to real time decisions.

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  • Have you found yourself wanting to work on the strategy for your department, organization or company but not knowing where to start?  It is a common dilemma and easy to procrastinate when you do not know where to begin.  Here is an approach that I have used to help myself and the team set off on the strategy journey when we were initially unsure of how to do it.

    Before starting there is one critical paradigm you must buy in to.  Strategy work is not linear. That means that periodically you may have to circle back and revise an assumption or two.  You and your team know your business better than anyone else.  Be confident to make changes and adjustments through-out the process.  Aim to be roughly right; not at perfection. Striving for perfection only slows down the process.

    6 Simple steps for developing a strategy:

    [1] Define the challenges facing your organization. You and your team are in the best position to know what these are.

    [2] Clarify the current state.  The prime rule here is you must be intellectually and brutally honest with yourselves.  If not, you will not uncover  the elements that can lead you on the path to excellence. [Note: It is important to have data regarding the business.  My next post will discuss the data that is relevant.]

    [3] Envision the future.  Articulate and picture the future state. Develop the metrics to understand your progress going forward.

    [4] Face the obstacles getting in the way of your vision.  Describe the obstacles but be ready to course correct, if proven otherwise.  Listen to the data.

    [5] Determine the path forward. Create an action plan and set future meetings to ensure you are on track.  This is where many plans falter.  The devil is in the detail and the follow-up.

    [6] Monitor your progress. Dedicate the time to periodically review your progress and make course corrections as needed.

    There are many excellent books on strategy. You may want to consider reading one or two books prior to starting.  This allows you and the team to have a basis for commonality, instead of starting totally from scratch.

    By following these 6 steps you will off to a great start on the creation of a strategy for your business.

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