Judy Dobles, General Management Consulting

YOUR TOUGHEST BUSINESS CHALLENGES SOLVED.

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  • Last week I had lunch with a wonderful work colleague that I had not seen in a while.  It is the type of relationship where you immediately start talking and it feels like only yesterday you were working together.  Sharon has always had a quick wit and as we were talking about an organizational situation she said, “They need more gas.”  Uncertain of what she meant, I asked.  Sharon said, “You know, goals, accountability and structure.  If organizations are not thriving and succeeding it means they need more G.A.S.”

    I loved the idea of G.A.S..  It is simple, easy to remember and gets right to the heart of leading an organization.  Goals are the starting point.  An organization needs to know where it is going and what it is aiming for.  The very best leaders set goals that are hard enough to be a challenge but not so hard that you feel defeated before you even start the journey.  Next the leader must make it very clear who is accountable for what.  Although teamwork is vital to the success of any organization, specific goals need to be assigned to specific individuals.  You cannot give individuals the opportunity to point at someone else and say, “It is their fault, not mine that the goal was not achieved.”  Lastly, but most importantly in my mind, you have to have structure to monitor progress and implement corrective action plans as needed.  The best structure is a periodic work session, at least monthly if not weekly, where the results are reviewed.  The work session must have a set agenda, an action item register and a dashboard that can be reviewed.   The meeting should be focused on areas that are failing to meet the goals.  Although people should be commended for meeting and exceeding goals – the real work must be focused on areas that are behind.

    If you have worked long enough, you will have experienced what it feels like to both exceed annual goals and fall short of annual goals.  The strength of a team is to rally together and help each other when needed.

    I had two key thoughts after my lunch with Sharon:

    1. When you find a team or organization not performing as expected, see if they need more G.A.S.
    2. Many times we look to the famous leadership gurus for the answers we are seeking; when in fact the people we work with daily have the wisdom and talent to solve the complex issues we face

    Note:  to learn more about Sharon Kruger visit her LinkedIn page;

    www.linkedin.com/pub/sharon-kruger/10/212/176

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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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  • A very dear colleague, David Pollock, gave me a wooden sign for my desk that said, “No Whining”. It became a great conversation starter for individuals that walked into my office. The purpose of the sign was to encourage folks to think about what and how they described issues they were facing before they began the discussion.

    It is very easy and sometimes cathartic to whine or whinge about problems or people. However, it is never productive. As a supervisor hearing people whine, it sends the message that you do not know how to solve a problem on your own. In essence you are dumping the problem into the lap of your supervisor.

    The key coaching points of my “no whining” philosophy are:
    [1] Be able to succinctly describe the situation or problem in one or two sentences.
    [2] Briefly describe the impact if not remedied. This helps prioritize the agreed upon next steps.
    [3] Talk about alternative approaches. At this stage you are not presenting a formal path forward or asking for a decision to be made, so keep it simple and at a high-level.
    [4] Describe what actions you personally need to take.
    [5] Describe what actions you want your supervisor or another individual to take.
    [6] Discuss other groups or individuals that should be informed about the situation.
    [7] Anticipate questions that your supervisor may have. Either have the answer or acknowledge that additional information may be required.
    [8] Jointly agree on a path forward.

    Overall the message is, “Be prepared and keep it simple”. I told people that roughly every 10th time a problem was brought to me, they were allowed to whine. However, the rule was, they needed to tell me before the discussion started. I would listen but we would not spend time on figuring out to do. This allows an individual to vent in a safe environment, since we all need that once in a while.

    As an individual, you have to understand that your supervisor has a bias for action. As a result, listening to whining can be dangerous, because your supervisor may take action relative to a problem that was not well thought out. No one wants to find themselves tilting at windmills, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It destroys your credibility and that of your supervisor.

    Supervisors want and need to hear about potential problems in the workplace.  Before bringing one forward, take a few minutes to gather your thoughts relative to points one through seven above.  Your supervisor will appreciate your organizational discipline and the problem will be addressed effectively.

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  • I love to read books and always have two or three in progress. The last one, “Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success”, was filled to the brim with leadership lessons. It reminded me why coaching is the vital element of success for leaders. You cannot do the work alone. You need the hearts and minds of everyone on your team. Coaching becomes the method for providing continuous learning and growth for all staff.

    My favorite quote from the book is, “Never be satisfied. Work constantly to improve. Perfection is a goal that can never be reached, but it must be the objective. The uphill climb is slow, but the downhill road is fast” (Jamison, Wooden 53). It illustrates wonderfully the work of a coach.

    As leaders, we have the power to provide the best learning experiences for our staff each and every day. They are not classes and seminars, but rather the time that a supervisor or colleague takes to show you how to improve a task you have been working on. It is also the opportunity you take personally to ask for feedback. Constant learning, woven into the fabric of your daily work, makes it exciting. You are personally growing and can take on increasingly complex challenges.

    Doing an excellent job and being satisfied are two different things. My staff was highly capable and delivered exceptional work. We all know, however, that the business environment and competitive landscape are constantly changing. In order to adapt, every day must be seen as an opportunity to learn something new about our processes, outputs and our client expectations. This is the work of continual improvement. It means having confidence in the quality of your work but never being satisfied. It means knowing improvements can be made and constantly searching for them. The staff took advantage of all conversations to ask what would have made the output even better, the process easier or made it possible to further reduce defects.

    Improvement is a daily habit. It is the sum of paying attention to the details and little things discovered every day that point to improvement opportunities. The end result was a team that was enthusiastic and delivered outstanding performance. They enjoyed learning and expanding their horizons every day. They knew they would make a significant difference.

    If you are looking for an inspiring leadership book, pick this one up. I’d love to have you share your favorite leadership book.

    Works cited:
    Jamison, S., Wooden, J., Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success. San Francisco, California: McGraw-Hill., 2009. Print.

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  • Many times when teams work on solving challenges, ideas are put forward that can be polar opposites in many ways. As a result the team divides and cannot create a workable solution. As a leader, the way forward lies in finding a middle path between opposites.

    As a member of over 15 leadership teams during my career I have experienced times when teams were divided over certain issues and required actions. The differences can be summarized as follows: more control, less control; in-source, out-source; centralize, de-centralize; include more people, include fewer people; skill required, skill not required and more policies, less policies. Although there was validity to each side of the issue, you can see they were polar opposites. As a result the teams found themselves unable to move forward due to lack of agreement.

    At this point, let’s recall the story of Goldilocks. Goldilocks finds the all the items of Baby Bear – much too small, she finds all the items of the Papa Bear – much too big. Then looking at Mama Bear’s items – she finds they are just right. Use your imagination and consider the analogy to business. Goldilocks found a workable solution in the middle; one that was just right. In business, a leader can assist a team to find the right answer by blending and balancing two opposing points of view.

    Let me share an example. At one point, Travel and Expense Accounting reported to me. In my company there were 8,000 travelers, which resulted in many expense reports every year. The process was audited annually. During a visual inspection of perhaps 1,000 expense reports, one report with an inappropriate expense of $100 was found. As a result the audit department stated that it was mandatory that all expense reports be reviewed by the Travel and Expense Accounting group, of roughly 2 people. Our company had automated the entire expense report processing and required the supervisor’s signature prior to payment. Our supervisors did a pretty good job in “policing” the expenses. Expenses from the air carriers and AMEX pre-populated the expense report. Exception reporting software was also used. Although we knew errors would never be 100% eliminated, we knew they were minimal.

    The recommendation of the auditors would have required that we hire additional people. However, we knew that the cost of the salaries would exceed the savings of “inappropriate expenses”.

    Theoretically, the audit recommendation was correct. However, practically it made no sense. In the end, the middle ground agreed to was that bi-annually we would send out a gentle reminder note to all supervisors regarding their responsibilities relative to checking and approving expense reports. This made a lot of sense since you have new people joining the company and individual’s becoming supervisors during the year, who may not get the training needed.

    In summary, my role was to work with the internal auditors, Travel and Expense Accounting and Controllers to come up with a workable solution that everyone could agree to. When you recognize the validity of everyone’s point of view, you can help the team find a solution that is “just right”.

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  • As a leader, I believe it is imperative that you ask people to bring the data. I am sure that you have experienced a situation where something has “gone wrong” and everyone has an opinion. Everyone knows who or what to blame. And certainly, everyone thinks their opinion is correct.

    In situations such as these, I ask people to state crisply and clearly what they believe the situation is. They also know that I expect to have data that supports the issue or the cause for concern. Without that, there will be no discussion. I will gently turn them out of my office until they get the data.

    Why do I feel so strongly about being data-based? From my quality training, one statement is etched in my brain: “A point does not a trend make”. It is human nature to take one event, and draw conclusions. Those conclusions invariably are wrong. The result is time and effort wasted. Let me illustrate with an example.

    I was helping an organization with their call center operations. Initially, I received a few phone calls from corporate stating “no one is answering the phones”. This conjures up an image of 15 – 20 people sitting around with their feet on their desks doing nothing, while all around you hear the cacophony of phones but no one answering. Sitting on the floor with the team, I can assure you that never happened. I asked how they knew no one was answering calls. Did they have data? Oh, no data, a customer just called and told me.

    The beauty of the situation was the company had great telephony that captured the incoming calls, call times, wait times and dropped calls. They also had a daily staffing chart. The call center manager and I defined the situation as follows: in some cases a customer calls and cannot get through to customer service. Definitely, it is an issue that must be solved. However, it cannot be solved by just “telling people” – be sure to answer the phone. We needed to understand what was happening; we needed to see the data.

    A group of us huddled together, and determined to create the following:
    • Histogram of calls, in 15 minute increments for the last 4 weeks.
    • Chart of people working in 15 minute increments for an entire week. [This did not change by week.]
    • Chart of the number of dropped calls in 15 minute increments.
    • Histogram of the length of calls, and the average length of a call.
    • List of all one-off actions during this time, such as the launch of a new product or the mailing of a brochure.

    Once the data was assembled, we reviewed the data. The graphs made the issues easy to see visually. We found both daily and weekly patterns in the timing of the incoming calls. Not surprisingly, call volume was not a straight-line. There were peaks and valleys. However, in general, staffing was a straight-line. It was also apparent that when a significant communication touched the customers, call volume also increased.

    So, with the help of the staff, we created a weekly staffing document that more closely matched the call volume. We continued to monitor dropped calls, and found that they significantly decreased. The team agreed to chart the data on an on-going basis to ensure the customers were getting the service they deserved.

    The benefit of listening to the data to it is twofold:
    [1] It builds trust between teams and individuals. It takes the emotion out of conversations when something goes wrong. No longer are two teams pointing fingers at each other. Rather, they are working together to figure out what is going on and fix it.
    [2] It allows the team to see what is happening in the process. It pin-points the real issue and allows them to develop a workable solution.

    Without the data, the team would never have figured out what was going on. They could never have developed a solution. The lesson of the story is: find the data, it will always help you discover the root cause and develop a lasting solution.

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  • “The only thing constant in life is change.” François de la Rochefoucauld (1613 – 1680)

    In reading the multitude of media sources, which bombard us daily, we know the rate of change is ever increasing. Even with this knowledge many people still are surprised and angered when they need to start over and re-invent themselves. It hits the over 40 crowd and the under 40 crowd, no one is immune. Any time you start to feel comfortable you are at risk. To me, being comfortable means you are on the flat part of the learning curve and no longer growing.

    When you are faced with the need to re-start your career or start-over what should you do?

    To embrace change you have to let go of the old comfortable patterns. To do that you must grieve before you can move on. Change involves loss at some level. During my college years I had to read the book “On Death and Dying”, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Initially this was focused on the medical community and the death of a loved one. She later expanded this concept to apply to any form of catastrophic personal loss or tragic news. The loss of a job is tragic news for the person impacted. As an individual you need to “grieve” for your job and the circumstances you find yourself in. Although it is important to recognize the emotions you are experiencing you cannot wallow in self-pity. The process may not be linear, but you need to go through all the steps.

    To adapt to change you need to understand the 5 phases of grief, acknowledge your own personal emotions and then move on. I clearly remember the time when I realized that my dream job was not going to last forever. The Fortune 500 company I worked for would stop growing and employment levels would decline. Since 1980, the decline has been drastic; 120,000 to 17,000, an 85% reduction. However, I knew that if I did not take charge of my emotions and career, no one else would. It was important to see change as an opportunity not a set-back. I personally allowed myself 24 hours to grieve. That is a bit short, but again, you cannot dwell on the negative. It does not move you forward.

    Listed below are the 5 stages of grief, developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

    1. Denial: “This can’t be happening, not to me.”
    2. Anger: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”
    3. Bargaining: “I’ll do anything, can’t you stretch it out a year?”
    4. Depression: “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”
    5. Acceptance: “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”

    Additional background can be found on this site, as well as many other websites.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model

    How can you use this information to help with the initial question?
    As an individual, recognize that change is part of life. Take charge of managing your career. Pay attention to what is going on in the economy overall. Learn how to grieve, let go and move on.
    If you are a supervisor understand that employees need to take time to internalize change. Acknowledge and accept that they will experience a variety of emotions. Help them with their journey.
    The future will come, whether we plan for it or not.

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  • On the surface it seems to be such a simple thing: set annual goals for work you do day in and day out. However, in my experience, many times staff struggle a bit with developing goals, especially when faced with a blank sheet of paper. Goals are a reflection of how individuals add value and make contributions to the overall success of their department and company. I believe strongly in letting staff take the first go at setting their annual goals. This gains their support during the year.

    With the help of my team, we developed 6 overarching categories to assist in the annual goal setting process. Every goal should fit into one of the categories.

    The categories that have worked well for me and my team are:
    (1) Cash-flow, cash-flow, cash-flow. Any action we can take directly or any action we can influence that results in an improved cash-flow position is critically important. (Examples: reduce bad debt expense, increase revenue, or implement an idea that results in lower costs.)

     (2) Process and quality improvements. Eliminating defects and reducing cycle time in business processes improves customer satisfaction and the bottom line. The relentless pursuit of improved quality is a highly sought after skill and allows any individual to make significant contributions to their organization.

    (3) Putting the customer 1st. Every individual has daily interactions with either external or internal customers. Treating customers well, solving their problems and creating a simple and efficient interface are all elements of enhancing customer satisfaction. This creates value. A satisfied customer is one that returns again and again.

     (4) Developing employees. Employees are the engines that drive all internal processes. They are a company’s most important resource. In order for any organization to grow, employees must grow also. Demonstrating the ability to help individuals grow and learn is a major contribution.

     (5) Implementing a major new initiative. Periodically a department or company will implement a major change. It could be a new ERP system such as SAP. It could be a new payroll system. It could be the implementation of a global shared services organization. Any of these initiatives require dedicated resources to implement.

     (6) Enhance internal controls. Internal controls are the mechanism by which a company safeguards its assets. Finding ways to improve internal controls in a cost-effective manner benefits any company. Not only can it prevent a future monetary loss, it can also result in improved information for management.

    When talking to individuals and teams it was important to note that for a given year you may not have a goal in every category; perhaps only 3 or 4. However, the categories allow staff to know what is important overall. We would share our individual goals in a team meeting so that everyone could see how collectively the goals allowed us to make significant contributions to the company. These 6 categories allowed teams to effectively set goals on an annual basis.

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  • As leaders and supervisors you have seen average work output and you have seen absolutely excellent work output. Why is there such a difference? I believe it has to do with how a supervisor sets expectations. Many times a person may know what the end point is but they do not always know how to accomplish it. For example – a business case. An individual may know the basics but has not heard clear overarching expectations that would result in excellence. I call these behavioral or operational expectations. They address how to go about doing the work.

    I developed these expectations as guiding principles for my staff. We talked as a group about what they meant and, in turn, they appreciated the fact that I made my expectations crystal clear. This conjures up the mental picture of bowling. Imagine a piece of black cloth suspended just in front of the pins. As you bowl, you do not know what the target is and you do not know how well you did.

    Whether you are a supervisor or individual contributor, my hope is several of these expectations will resonate with you and you can incorporate them into your daily work.
    Behavioral Expectations for Excellence
    (1) Does the question pass the logic test? Sometimes urgent questions or issues come up but they have not really been thought out. If it is the wrong question to be asking and investigating, stop the work quickly. Use judgment to decide if your supervisor should know about the work. In some cases, no matter how close the economics are, the decision may still rest with the manager of the organization.

    (2) Passes the logic test so on to the next step. Determine what you do not know. What other departments might be interested in the topic or have information that could be useful? Detailed information outside of your department or expertise may be required in order to make a decision or gain approval for an action. (Some examples of departments: insurance, compensation, internal audit, external audit, corporate communications, legal, tax, corporate financial reporting, business unit or manufacturing unit.)

    (3) Calculate the numbers. Go “crazy” on the analytics. Be data driven. Everything should be looked at with cash flow in mind. An economic analysis must include the impact on all financial statements – balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statement.

    (4) Assess against the “red face” test. This is all about considering the unexpected and preventing unintended consequences. What could happen that would make this a bad decision? In what other way could people interpret the decision or action? How will we answer their questions? Three years from now will I still be proud of this work?

    (5) Volunteer for leadership. When you hear an issue come up that you want to take responsibility for, just say so. I am looking for people that step up to the plate even when it seems that their plate is full.

    (6) When you get a project or topic area to be in charge of you get the whole thing. You will have to coordinate the work of all groups and individuals that interface with the given topic. Personal power and networks are a must. I cannot stress enough the importance of continually thinking about all things that should be considered so that all contingencies are covered. The bigger the project the bigger the impact if something does not go as planned.

    (7) Exhibit calmness – be a duck. Above the surface of the water a duck always looks serene and in control. Underneath the water the duck is paddling intensely. People around you need to see you are confident and in control of the situation even though inside you may be thinking intensely about many things.

    (8) Written, oral and visual communication skills are essential. The ability to quickly use Excel, PowerPoint and Word, in a crisp, concise and artistic way, will make your job easier. Help each other out. Have someone else look at the work. Listen to their suggestions. Many times we only get one chance with our audiences. We want to spend it explaining content rather than format.

    (9) Figure out what issues are facing the department and company. Your ability to anticipate and be proactive will help you do this. Solving these issues and problems accomplishes two things: improves internal processes and makes your boss look good. Both will help you in achieving your career goals.

    (10) The quicker the better. Go talk to your supervisor early on with concepts and ideas. It is much better to have shorter and more frequent meetings. Avoid waiting for perfection. If you wait too long you may find yourself starting over. Exhibit high energy and urgency.

    (11) Pretend you are the CEO or CFO. What else would you want to know? Get the answer to that question.

    (12) It is better to actively decide not to do something than it is to never consider it in the first place. A passive decision is a lost opportunity.

    (13) Strive to reduce cycle time and eliminate defects in everything you do. Set ambitious goals. Learn from the past and apply it to the future. You can always improve.

    (14) A supervisor needs great breadth in their position. Therefore, approach your projects with great depth. If a supervisor feels they have to get into the details, then you need to improve. Ask for feedback.

    In today’s business environment we must strive for excellence. What was great a year ago is average today. Discussing these behavioral expectations with your team will allow you to achieve superlative results.

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