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Improve Effectiveness…

 …by letting your Staff ‘Push-back’

Observing, or experiencing, inept people is not uncommon. By this, I mean ineffective (not doing the right things), inefficient (not doing things right), or incompetent (unable to do things right). These pronouncements are not ‘judgment calls’. They are rather unavoidable manifestations of becoming more ‘functional’ yourself. Relying on people’s constructive contributions is key to business success. People are mostly not proactively inept by choice, at least that is my experience. So, without considering an elaborate intervention or training program (who has time for that), what can you do? I have an approach to share that I think is useful.

“If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” (Stephen Covey)

Some years back, whilst running an advertising agency, I noticed that staff members were always busy, no matter the size or how many projects were in our studio. I needed to know what was causing this seemingly plausible observation and whether I was misreading the situation. Over a period of a couple of weeks, I moved between staff members and asked questions such as, ‘What are you busy with?’, ‘Why are you doing it?’, ‘When will it be done?’, ‘Have you done this before?’ and many other task-related questions.

My findings not only surprised me but also prompted me to question my management and delegation approach. I discovered more than I had bargained for. Some of my take-aways were that the reason specific tasks were being done was not clear, the consequences of delivering the task late (or not doing the task) were vague, how long the task should (or would) take was ill-defined, and interestingly, it seemed that the time that tasks took to complete was more a function of the time available, than the time allocated. In other words, a 2-hour task took 4 hours, if there were 4 hours available. This explained, at least in part, why staff members were always seemingly busy. This was not good. Even more interesting was the fact that the staff were actually doing what they were ‘told’. The problem was our process or lack thereof. Management had to act. I had to act.

I adopted an  ‘input~output dependency’ approach and empowered the staff by shifting process control to them. We streamlined the workflow, redesigned the ‘job bag’ system to accommodate critical path information (manual at the time), and by way of a print-out for every workstation, issued a simple directive, namely; “Do not start a task and ‘push-back’ unless you have, or have been provided, answers to the following”.

  • What must be done?
  • Who must do it and why?
  • How do you know you must do it?
  • How long must it take?
  • By when must it be done?
  • Will it be done within that time?
  • Who must be informed if you are late?
  • How must it be done?
  • Will all input material be available when you need it?
  • Will you need assistance?
  • How will you know it is correct?
  • How will you know it is finished?
  • If you choose to do this, what tasks will not be done?
  • Who will do these tasks?
  • If there are deviations, how will your colleagues, the customer and the suppliers be informed about the consequences?
  • Clarify anything that is unclear or outstanding with the production manager.

Saying that the transition was smooth and quick would be an overstatement. We found that the more transparent any ‘push-back’ was handled, the greater the chances were of meaningful behavioural change and task ownership taking place.

Within one quarter, however, we did see a significant increase in productivity and within two quarters a marked decrease in the amount of re-work.

Happy Empowering!


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