Sunday, December 8, 2013

Allowing your staff to do their best

I was perusing my November 2013 copy of ASQ’s Quality Progress magazine and the article “Words to Work By” caught my eye.  Not so much an article, it was a collection of Quality quotes submitted by other readers.  Some were predictable (“Quality is never an accident…”) and some were pretty iffy (“There is more than one way to skin a cat … but it matters to the cat”).  

But there was one that caught my eye.  It was ascribed to Deming, and maybe that is true: ”It’s not enough to do your best.  You must first know what to do, and then do your best”.  

First off let me say that in a quick peruse of the internet, many ascribe the words to Deming, so I guess I will have to believe it.  But I also will say it is pretty inconsistent with his own 14 points, specifically the one about “eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce” and the other about “remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship”.  Somehow I have my doubts.  What Deming probably said was something more like “if your worker’s best doesn’t measure up to what you expected or wanted, perhaps it is because you didn’t tell them what you wanted.”  Don’t blame the worker, look more closely at yourself.  

All my career I have seen folks write job descriptions which gets read, signed off, and then put in a file where is sits forever, provided that it doesn’t get lost.  The job changes over and over, but the document remains written in stone which progressively becomes as immutable as granite.  As new tasks come on stream, there may be efforts to train workers, but in many situations the process of learning is one of self-discovery.  

It seems to me that if our organizations wants people to know what they are supposed to be doing, so that they can then “do their best”, what we have to do is start seeing their job descriptions as living documents that documents each change that gets implemented.  

There are many advantages in ensuring that job descriptions remain current.  First, the description becomes the foundation for ensuring that appropriate training and confirmation and follow-up competency assessment occur.   Second, it becomes a foundation for task ownership.  Third it becomes the foundation for management to know what exactly they are expecting their staff to be responsible for.  Fourth it provides a foundation for ensuring that when the job becomes vacant, the next person in can be made aware of all the tasks they will be expected to address.   
Let me focus on one of the above foundation statements, specifically management awareness.  

Has this happened at your place?  It certainly has in mine.  Over time, the number of tasks required incrementally increases, commonly at a rate that is faster than revenue generation.  We can always hire more people, so we tack the new tasks on to existing personnel.  Research and development, or provision of new programs sometimes requires what seems to be just a few more hours per week to get a new service or program established; at least that is what you estimate.  But the task becomes a little bigger than you anticipated or takes longer than you thought.  Now your staff are incrementally busier than before.  Then another “small change” gets added in, and then another.  Nobody says anything, but after a while the signs of stress and distraction start to show up.  Mistakes start happening.  People seem angry, or worse, burned out.  All of a sudden, a key person quits.  Now you and your program are in trouble.  Unchecked persistent incremental change all too often leads to precipitous crisis.  

The problem wasn’t that people stopped doing their best; the problem was that you let the operation get out of control.  Management dropped the ball by not keeping an eye on what you were expecting of your staff.  

So here is the solution.  May sure that the job description is kept as a living document which is checked regularly and often.  If you know what you are asking people to be responsible for, and you monitor that list to ensure that it is feasible, then and only then can you count on your staff meeting expectations.
You hired your staff because you saw their strengths and merits.  Good management provides the opportunities that allow them prove your judgement and assessment was right. 

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