Ed Hill

Synchronous Solutions

Things go wrong in any business.  This is particularly true in a custom manufacturing business.  The key point is to drill down to the true core cause of the issue and deal with correcting it and taking the necessary actions to prevent its reoccurrence.  Do not seek first just to find someone to blame.  Seek the systemic cause of the issue first.  

Good managers seek to “catch  people doing things right.”Most employees want to do a good job. They like being told so, too.  Good managers seek to “catch people doing things right.” This is a great opportunity to reinforce good behavior and teach valuable lessons.  I assure you that when an employee is recognized by the boss for doing something well, he/she will want to do that again.  Always praise good behavior in public. Not only does that boost the spirit of that employee, it encourages others to do the same thing so that they, too, with get your praise. A word of caution: doing something well, make sure you praise others for doing the same thing.  

But, things do go wrong. Murphy lives in every business. Mistakes happen. When things go wrong, strive to make it a learning experience for all. That would include the employee at the operation where the mistake was made as well as the entire management staff.  We all need to learn from mistakes. Your approach should be to gain from the experience and make the employee a better one.  

The key point is that you should drill down to the true core cause of the issue. That is not easy to do. It does take some effort. Most importantly, make sure that you do not seek to find out who to blame. That is usually easy to do, but it is a classic failure of management.  

When you seek “someone to blame” for an error of any kind, you send the message to all your employees that their primary objective should be to CYA. Moreover, they will attempt to deflect the blame to someone else when they do make a mistake.  

The best managers are those who accept the reality that no one is perfect and we can learn from our mistakes. Make sure that you have those difficult discussions in private. Never reprimand an employee in public. Moreover, take advantage of those opportunities to teach a lesson.  That is best done by asking questions. Ask the employee what happened to create the identified error.  Then, ask again for further clarification.  Drill down to the true core cause of the issue.  It is almost never the first indication.  Usually, the true core cause of an issue is much more than the obvious.  

Most issues, in fact, are systemic in nature.  In other words, issues occur because the system in which the employees are working is flawed or incomplete in some way.  Quality problems often occur because the employees do not clearly understand what is expected of them.

Every business needs a logical, planned, coordinated and enforced system.  The “seat of the pants” plan may have worked in the past, but once you grow into a real company, you will need a valid system in which to manage a profitable business.  

Therein is the rub. A system can be defined as:  

  • A set of principles or pro- cedures according to which something is done.

  • A regularly interacting or interdependent group of activities forming a unified whole.

  • An organized set of doc- trines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrange- ment or working of a systematic whole.

Note that a system infers activities around a whole; meaning that your business is one system which includes a series of dependent events that work together to accomplish the objectives of the business.  You are not a group of independent events (sales, templating, programming, cutting, routing, finishing or installation). Instead, your business system is one entity that must be synchronized around all those separate functions that make up the whole. 

A system includes a set of principles that are always followed by the management team. A system means that all employees know what to do and they know that they will consistently be held accountable in following the principles of it.  

Discipline refers more to the behavior of management than it does to the action of punishment for employee errors. Management must be disciplined to follow the principles of the system you have designed for your business. Most importantly, employees must know that management will hold them accountable to follow the established and well-communicated principles of performance.  

The best managers are those who accept the reality that no one is perfect and  we can learn from our mistakes.Follow a defined plan when mistakes are made:

First, seek to correct the error. Customers expect (and deserve) quick action on any errors that affect their purchase. Assign one person to take ownership of every issue to resolution. This should be the “go to” person for that job order. Make that assignment clear to everyone.

Next, (simultaneously) identify the true core cause of the issue (error).  This is the hard part, but also the most important step in the resolution process.  

Take corrective actions to prevent reoccurrence of this issue. Another word of caution, work on corrective actions for the chronic core causes. If an error occurs once in a month, it is probably an anomaly and does not deserve a major system change. Work on only those issues that are caused by repeated causes.

If, after all these steps are taken, you conclude that the behavior of a person is the cause of the problem, clearly explain (in private) the situation that has occurred. Ask the person you deem responsible to explain the circumstance from their perspective. Talk it out. Your objective should be to learn from the exercise and make the employee a better one from the experience.

When Termination is the Best Solution

Sometimes it becomes necessary to discharge an employee for continued poor performance or some other unacceptable behavior. Do that right, too.  

Firing is the ultimate corrective action. But, don’t use that word. Say something like:  “We have decided to terminate your employment with our company.” State the reason in as few words as possible. You do not need to engage in a lengthy explanation. The employee should know what this is about. In fact, if the employee is surprised, you have failed as a manager. Explain the actions to follow such as the final check, any severance pay that you choose to apply, etc. The termination discussion should be short and to the point, probably no more than five minutes start to finish. Thank the employee for his/her service and wish them luck. Done deal.  

More on this sensitive subject is provided by a friend and fellow consultant, Dave Oakley, who is an expert in business leadership principles.

A common cycle that allows the same problems to keep coming back can go something like this:

  • Problem rises to the attention of the manager and it seems like no one was raising a flag or fixing it fast enough.

  • Manager jumps in, wrestles the problem to the ground and leaves the scene of the crime frustrated that “no one has the same sense of urgency that I do! Why aren’t people solving problems when they see them?”

  • Employees see the situation differently, feeling, “He only comes around when the stuff is hitting the fan, rides in barking orders, and doesn’t listen when we say things are messed up.” 

Even with good problem-solving tools, these dynamics prevent good companies from becoming their best. Problems seem to be slow to surface and come and go on their own. Everyone seems to operate at a level lower than their title and feels frustrated.

Breaking this cycle requires leaders to take a different approach in a few key areas. The good news is that none of these changes require superhero powers, they’re actually very simple but take hard work and patience. These include:

Get the right people in the right roles — when people are put in roles they are made for they can operate at the right level and you don’t have to micromanage at all.

Conduct autopsies without blame – when we really focus on what is behind our problems and face the real issues, we get to the root cause more often and build trust in the process.

Lead with questions, not answers – with the right people in the right roles, they will come up with better solutions that will last.

Doing each of these builds the most important quality into our businesses, trust. When trust is high, people will raise issues faster without fear, they will offer and initiate fixes without being asked. 

To learn more about all these ideas, we will write a follow-up article about how to apply the best leadership lessons from “Good to Great.” These will go beyond the book to practical application to your business.

For more information on this or other Synchronous Solutions topics, visit www.SynchronousSolutions.com or call Ed Hill at 704-560-1536.  You may contact Dave Oakley at www.linkedin.com/in/dave-oakley-2b77b87/ or call 760-889-7858.