I started off a letter to the editor (for the May 31 National Post story, Winner would lose at Ottawa soccer league) with the following: “I think there is a fundamental belief in some that better rules make better situations.”
(See full published letter here, or in the print edition of Wed. June 2.)
Those running this kids’ soccer league saw the downside of a blowout game and constructed a rule to penalize a team (with a loss) if their margin of victory was greater than 5 goals. The belief, presumably, is that winning by more than 5 goals is unsporstmanlike. I think I understand the motivation, but I question the “rules-based” approach to this. If the league had a culture of sportsmanlike conduct, the rule is redundant. If the league lacks sportsmanship, rules won’t change that (e.g. if humiliating the opposition is a motivation, there are ways to do it outside of running up the score).
In my consulting work, I get to see a lot of attempts to introduce rules that make for better working situations by, for example, instilling such values as “respect” or “teamwork.” How such values play out goes straight to the corporate culture. Does “respect” mean “don’t waste each others time,” or does it mean “don’t create any tension here”? Does “teamwork” mean “willingly involve others in what you are going” or does it mean “attend the summer company BBQ”?
Part of my consulting work is helping clients realize the culture they have, and envision the culture they want. Sometimes, we find the two are surprisingly close together. Other times, there is a considerable amount of revelation about the current state, and some clear decisions for leadership in forming the desired state (e.g. what do we mean by “respect”?).
Policies can play a part of the migration to a “better situation,” but they can also be extremely counterproductive:
“I know that meeting was a waste of time, but we agreed that one of our rules was ‘no interrupting in meeting,’ right?”
Policy has a clear place. I fundamentally question its use as the primary means of shaping cultural dimensions. You can’t regulate respect in the office, or sportsmanship on the field. If either are there, everyone knows it. If these are lacking, it is important to be clear about what you have, and be smart about how you make the shift.
As long as I have been active in the business world (and paying attention), “providing solutions” has been part of normal business language. This is not a measure that I endorse, but a Google search for “business solutions” garners 10 times more results than does a search for “business problems.” (For what it’s worth, bing.com turns up 270 million for the former, and 300 million for the latter. Is Microsoft onto something here?)
Tom Blackwell (National Post Health Care columnist) writes last month about the trends to bring Toyota-like efficiency into hospital and health-care environments. The successes are clear and are often demonstrated in reduced wait times and higher through put. Both of these offer defense to such criticisms as “you can’t treat people like automobiles” because you can treat processes like processes.
One of the perspectives that Mr. Blackwell introduces is that of consultant Tim Hill, who works in the implementation of such programs. His criticism is that, as the worm turns toward “everybody’s doing it,” clients may not be getting the value that they should (or, as Hill puts it, “A lot of health care facilities are getting ripped off.”). Needless to say, the eHealth initiative in Ontario has raised the level of scrutiny on consultants to the health-care industry, including perhaps myself and Mr. Hill.
Accountability for “providing solutions” has always been a tricky one for consultants and service providers. How many software executives would take payment from the efficiencies their product generates? Or how many advertising executives would link compensation to the sales impact of a campaign? With a larger understanding of shared interests, consultants can be encouraged to try to “solve the problem” rather than simply “provide the solution.” This may override the obvious tension of the pay-the-least vs. charge-the-most divide. Again, both sides need to be reasonable.
The bigger challenge is where “the problem” stretches beyond the area of the organization that hired the consultants. The natural temptation for any service provider is to give the client “what they want,” which may not be the solution they need. To use Mr. Hill’s example, the hospital may get the rigour of Lean processes (that they asked for!), but some important underlying issues remain unsolved.
Managing the tension of collaboration is possible when there is an understanding of the shared interests. This likely means that: (1) the customer is not always right; and (2) for consultants, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions… but we all knew that already.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MARCH NEWSLETTER OF THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL (www.supplychaincanada.org)
This month I was working with groups at the PMAC in-residence week. This event pulls together a large group of individuals with mixed backgrounds, geographies, industries and issues. The task was to fill a half day in developing useful skills and awareness about communicating, collaborating and negotiating better solutions. The challenge from my perspective is getting beyond very general concepts (e.g., consider the other parties’ interests), while maintaining relevance to the group: the common denominator of “manufacturing” is long gone from purchasing and supply chain.
Is There an 80-per-cent Rule?
My economics professor from an undergrad class at McGill told us students an anecdote, from which I will share the first 80 per cent:
After a shipwreck in the North Atlantic, three survivors wash up on a rocky island. They are a chemist, a physicist and an economist. From their vessel, they recover a crate filled with canned tuna. This appears to be the only food they will have until they are rescued. Anticipating hunger, all three set about to address the challenge of extricating tuna from the cans.
The chemist immediately starts tasting the water to gauge the salinity, and then begins calculations to determine how long the cans would have to soak before corrosion weakened the can to the point it could be opened with bare hands.
The physicist begins to look for the highest point on the shore, and starts gathering loose rocks of different sizes. This will determine the optimum “height of drop” and “weight of rock” necessary to open the can without spilling its contents.
The economist begins arranging rocks to resemble three chairs and an eating surface. The others shout, “Hey, we need to open the cans first, friend,” to which the economist replies: “Oh yes, but my assumptions are (1) negligible inflation and (2) that we have a can opener.”
My professor went on, in the next 20 per cent of this discussion, to lecture on the necessity of assumptions in simplifying issues. His conclusion: including all the complexities from the real world will limit valuable economic analysis.
I have used the first 80 per cent of the above anecdote as an illustration for many clients. My conclusions vary based on the situation. Sometimes I stress the importance of teamwork, the value of shared objectives, or the danger of assumptions. (I enjoy the irony of the latter given my professor’s original version.)
Many of the approaches that come from business research and experience (in soft skills, as well as in process improvement and strategy) take clients 80 per cent of the way. That could be only 80 per cent or a full 80 per cent, depending on your individual lens. There is a balance between the desire to reinvent the wheel (e.g., to tailor-make solutions) and to apply an “off-the-rack” approach. The responsibility for finding this balance is shared.
People like me, who consult to industry, have to be ready to bring the tools of “good thinking” the rest of the way for clients. Eighty per cent won’t cut it. I will admit that this is difficult in large groups, but it is an area of continual focus in my client work.
The supply chain is a perfect example of where those actually wrestling with complex problems can absorb the value from successes in other areas and functions.
- A services supply chain is different from a hard-goods supply chain, but there will be some relevance from one to the other.
- There are similarities between the not-for-profit and for-profit worlds.
- The Maritimes and the GTA are not completely different.
In the collision of business ideas and human beings, enabled through multiple communication touchpoints, there is a lot that can be termed “common sense” and “generic.” As a friend of mine likes to say, “until common sense becomes common practice there will be a lot of work for consultants.” I would like to add, “as long as they deliver on that 20 per cent!”This originally appeared in the May 2009 newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (supplychaincanada.org)
I have written before about my involvement with the facilitation practice of Management Advisory Services, a volunteer consulting organization. (Visit the link for more information. To my paying clients: Let’s just say, you don’t qualify for these services, OK?) Similar to my other consulting work, in this volunteer role I help groups to either distill ideas or to effectively share their ideas… and sometimes both. The question at the heart of all of it is: Where is the value? Who sees it? Who needs help seeing what is there?
Over the past couple of weeks, I worked with a client who, not surprisingly, operates in a multiple stakeholder environment, where value comes from tapping into people’s time and energy, as much as, from funding and donations. To this agency’s credit, they were able to gather an impressive cross-section of perspectives to share and discuss ideas. (Homemade food was likely part of their recipe for success!) Ideas flew back and forth, and at least one occasion each of the two evenings, one of the “tougher” stakeholders occupied the floor momentarily.
The rosy collaborative vibe took a temporary back seat, and I know that at least a few people realized the importance of the critical/challenging insight. Those who were really listening could see the road map of the challenges in dealing with that particular constituency. Nobody likes a pothole, but it is certainly nicer to be able to see them clearly! The real danger in these situations is succumbing (like any human could) to “turning off” people who have turned you off.
To once again beat the drum on the power of effective conflict, last week I had a great conversation with a colleague who has similar passions to mine, though different orientations and approaches. Despite what our fellow patrons in the adjacent booth (@ The Abbott on Yonge Street) may have thought, we were not fighting! As tempting as it is to counter and explain yourself, good stuff comes from taking in the critique of others, which I think I was able to do. From my side, I left the conversation enriched (Again, the Ploughman’s Lunch may have had something to do with that!) and better prepared to move my ideas forward.
I would also assert that strong working relationships increase the chances of producing that value; they provide a foundation that won’t get shaky as easily. And, if you ask me, those relationships are going to need at least some face-time to materialize.
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