Judy Dobles, General Management Consulting

YOUR TOUGHEST BUSINESS CHALLENGES SOLVED.

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  • In its’ simplest form it is the monetary/mathematical representation of a series of discrete strategic and operational actions.  All of which are distilled/summarized into three financial statements: income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement.  That definition seems a bit dry and boring, doesn’t it?  Having spent years in finance and loving every minute of it, let me share some of my insights.

    The role of finance is to support the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of a company.  To me, excellence in finance depends upon truly understanding the underlying operational processes and strategic direction of whatever unit you support.  It can be as small as a department or encompass the entire company.  It also requires the ability to get into the numbers and let the “data speak”.  Then as you “listen”, in an unbiased way, you will hear the message.  You must be proactive and not reactive.  You must anticipate.

    To start be sure to formulate the right questions to ask.  Here are a few:

    How do you know the numbers are right?  How do you forecast future results?  When the outcome makes no sense, why?  If our company makes a major investment, what are the predicted results?  We lost 2 days of production due to a massive snow storm that shut the roads down, what will the financial impact be?  And of course, the list goes on.

    Let me illustrate with an example.  While supporting a $300M manufacturing operation, the general manager and I noticed a large chemical usage variance of $1M.  My job was to figure it out.  I started by first eliminating some easy items: were the formulas right in the system, were the proper prices in the system, were the meters working correctly, did our usage match what the supplier gave us?  In all cases, the answer was yes.  Now it was time to walk the operations and see what was happening on the floor.  So I spent a morning with the emulsion makers.  Watched their process, learned how chemical usage data was collected and tallied on a worksheet.  At the end of the shift, they needed to clean out the 10,000 gallon tank.  Bingo, we found the answer.  The amount of solvent used to clean the tank was not being recorded.  As a result, a new process step was instituted.  In the end, the $1M variance was a real cost of the operation.  However, the team could now look at ways to minimize the cost.

    Being thorough and methodical was crucial to solving the problem.  It was important to eliminate all potential root causes one by one.  Without an understanding of the operational process or the data it would have been impossible.

    It also illustrates one last critical point.  Finance owns the numbers.  Some people ask, “How can that be?”  My response is, “If you do not own the numbers, you are only a reporter.  If you own the numbers, you are then an equal partner with line management.”  By putting the operational outcomes and the numbers together, you have the whole picture.  You have earned a seat at the table and are in a position to provide valuable guidance to all leaders in the company.

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  • Quote:  “Man’s mind once stretched by a new idea, never regains its’ original dimension.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes

    Throughout my years of coaching and mentoring, a question I am asked frequently is, “How do I get employees to adopt something new, in a lasting way?”

    The secret is ask don’t tell.  If you tell people what to do, the impact is fleeting.  If you ask for an opinion and involve people in the solution you will get two things.  First – the best solution possible since it is based on the ideas of many people.  Second – buy-in to the final solution.

    If you are new to change leadership it is important to remember that not every decision is the result of a democratic vote.  The leader needs to make decisions based on experience and knowledge.  Everyone will not always agree with the outcome, but they will respect the fact that they were involved in the process.

    The more monumental the change, the more effort will be required to garner support for the new direction.  The current way of doing business is familiar and comfortable.  A new way of doing business is unknown and gets people out of their comfort zone.  Adopting the new means abandoning the old; which is very difficult.

    One experience I remember vividly, from the mid 1990’s, is when I assumed responsibility for the travel and expense accounting group.  The accounting system was old and the team was still using CRTs.  The team did not want to use PCs.  I said that the world had moved to PCs and they needed to also.  The team unhappily accepted the training and new PCs.  However, about 7 to 8 months later, one by one they stopped in to see me to say, “Thanks for helping us move to the new technology.  Now that we have been using it, we love it and cannot believe we did not do it sooner.”

    In that example, I did ask but in the end had to implement an idea the team was not keen on.  However, I understood their reluctance, supported them during the transition and in the end it was a win-win situation.

    Do you have an example you want to share?

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  • I believe in the infinite ability of people to learn and grow. I also believe that analogies and metaphors are powerful tools in helping people and organizations learn, grow and improve. That is why I like the Tale of 6 Blind Men and the Elephant and use it to help drive insight into process improvement. Take a moment to read the tale and look at the pictures on WIKI.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant
    Leaders with global and cross-functional responsibility oversee hugely complex processes. By their very nature processes are not flawless and issues arise. No doubt you have had individuals “complain” to you about something they see as wrong in a process or another department. From their perspective they are not wrong – however, they do not have the whole picture. This is where the tale of 6 Blind Men and the Elephant comes in.
    When an issue is large enough and the solution elusive, it is time to bring together a cross-functional team. I use the tale as an introduction. The end-to-end process is the elephant. Each person brings important insight, intelligence and thoughtfulness to the situation but may not see the whole picture. As a leader, spell out the situation and ask them to put their collective insight together to solve the problem. Over and over I have seen teams successfully solve problems because they stepped back to see the whole picture.
    The benefits are threefold: [1] A solution is found, [2] People appreciate each other and the end-to-end process better and [3] Individuals have enhanced their knowledge.
    Do you have a favorite metaphor or analogy that you like to use with teams?

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  • Over the years I have lead global organizations of significant size and they were lenses through which the rest of the company could be viewed. All of the organizations faced challenges, process issues and defects. Individuals brought problems to me and laid them at my doorstep. Although not in any job description, by definition a senior leader’s focus will be on what is not working well in the overall organization. The more senior you are the challenges are tougher and more numerous.
    Frequently people would ask, “ How do you do it, how do you survive, dealing with problems and challenges every day?” The answer lies in my approach. My consistent response was, “ Process issues and defects are gifts. They give you the opportunity to make improvements on the never-ending journey towards excellence. I appreciate it when individuals tell me that something is not working properly in the end-to-end business process.” The proper approach is required so that resolving issues will result in finding the solution more quickly, building individual capability and a culture of continuous improvement and strengthen your credibility. The benefit to you, the leader, is better use of your time.
    When an issue is brought to your attention often people will play the blame game and say either another department is not doing their job or a specific individual is not doing their job. This is the pivotal point at which you must move the conversation to another plane.
    Take two key actions regardless of the situation:
    [1] Include the individual bringing the issue forward in the work of problem solving
    [2] Peel the onion until you are satisfied the true root cause is known and, wherever possible, let the data speak.

    Including the individual, who surfaced the issue, in the problem-solving builds their individual capability. It is a teaching opportunity that should not be lost. In the future you want employees to solve the issue without involving you, which keeps the monkey off your back. When you jump into the immediacy of “fighting a fire” your time is diluted and diverted from other value-adding work.
    Peeling the onion to determine root cause is also important. We make the assumption that the person raising the issue is telling the truth. And indeed they are from their perspective. However, there are other parts of the story that need to be uncovered. Here are a series of questions that will assist in peeling the onion:
    • Can you clearly state what the issue is? In my experience about 50% of the time the real underlying issue is not the same as the initially stated issue.
    • What are the upstream process steps? Does a process map exist? If not, can you draw a process map?
    • Are there mathematical systems steps that occur in the upstream processes and has the math been verified?
    • Working backwards against the flow answer the question: How many upstream departments touch the process and what do they do?
    • How should the process have worked? What outcome was expected?
    Usually by now, you have a good picture of what actually caused the issue or defect. Now focus on developing and recommending a solution. Each issue will have a unique solution but typical solutions involve driving standard policy, procedures and work steps.
    The following example illustrates the problem-solving steps. [Note: this example is a simplified amalgamation of real life situations that I have encountered.]
    Situation: Buyers feel that Accounts Payable [AP] staff are slow in getting to their work and therefore the buyers go into the system to see which vendor payments have not been processed by day 15 after the invoices have been approved. The buyers then send e-mails to AP asking them to please process vendor payments since the payments are late. The AP department thinks that the buyers cannot add or subtract, although they go ahead and process the payments when asked. Company policy states that vendor payments will be processed on day 20 after the invoices have been approved. The bottom line is that buyers think AP staff do not know how to do their jobs and AP staff think that the buyers cannot add or subtract.
    Action: Asked one buyer and one AP staff to review the overall process to determine what was truly behind the thoughts of each group.
    Discovery: In the buyer’s training manual and desk reference, it states that vendor payments will be processed on day 15 after the invoices have been approved. It is also verified that in the company policies on vendor payments, vendor payments will be processed on day 20 after the invoices have been approved. Essentially both the buyers and the AP staff were going about their work consistent with the documentation that they had each been given.
    Action and Solution: The differences were clearly and concisely summarized and given to the CFO and COO. The pros and cons of 15 and 20 days were outlined. The CFO and COO were asked to confirm what the appropriate timing to use for releasing vendor payments. They chose 20 days, therefore, the buyers revised their documentation. Lastly, but most importantly, the results were communicated with all buyers and AP staff. Complete sharing and communication of the solution is essential to ensure successful implementation.
    Famous last words: One of the buyers said,” Wow, we have been blaming each other for a long time when in point of fact we were each using different operating assumptions.”
    I must say it was fantastic when the buyer had the “aha” moment and just blurted out the comment. It embodies everything that lean/six sigma teaches. It is very easy to point a finger at an individual or department. It definitely takes more work, and sometimes hard work, to find out what actually is going on. In the long run, however, taking the time to focus on the process and determine the root cause builds both mutual respect/trust and individual capability. And best of all it eliminates issues permanently.
    In summary, view problems and challenges as opportunities to make lasting process improvements. Focus on the process. Be sure to involve a cross-functional team in discovering and developing the solution. As a result the teams will be energized and proactively develop solutions to issues and challenges that face them.

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  • This is one of the hardest leadership lessons to learn. It is also a source of huge frustration for individuals. The solution is found in two places. The first: understand change management. To accept a new thought an individual must first “give up” on their current understanding. A leader has to provide a compelling way for individuals to do that while saving face. The rule of thumb for adopting a new idea – you have to hear it 7 times, 7 different ways before it starts to resonate with you. Or consider the Formula for Change, found at

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formula_for_Change

    The formula is a recognition that change cannot happen without a dis-satisfaction with the current state, a desired clear vision of what is possible and practical steps that can be taken now.
    The second: acknowledge that no one can be right 100% of the time. That means you must seek and value other’s input. It means that the individuals closest to the situation have the best insight to offer.
    In the end, focus on the other person. Share the data in a clear, crisp way. Describe it in terms of the business. Keep opinions out of the discussion. Know that it may take some time to digest a new thought or approach so be tenacious.

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  • Read an article in the local newspaper about college orientation at Pittsburgh. The message to the students was, you are all smart, but, here you will have to study and work hard to do well. Reminded me a lot of work.
    In the workplace there are also a lot of smart people; with many great ideas. Almost always their ideas are absolutely spot-on. However, they get lost in the delivery. Work is a team sport. To move new ideas ahead you have to engage both the hearts and minds of everyone on the team. The absolute worst thing you can do is push an idea through positional power. You must sell it using your personal power and credibility. Regardless of your position and “rightness” of the concept or idea you must sell it.
    Here are the steps to take.
    [1] State the current situation and why it is not working
    [2] Get feedback; ask for input on what others think
    [3] Ask how it can be improved within reasonable boundaries (example – cannot spend $50K on a $1K problem)
    [4] Suggest several options and your recommendation
    [5] Ask if people agree with your recommendation and leave an opening for further discussion if not.

    The benefits of this approach are three-fold:
    [a] The current situation is clarified
    [b] Your initial idea/solution is always improved
    [c] You get buy-in
    There is no “I” in team. By involving others you end up with the best solution.

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