Learn from Failures While Avoiding Disaster

Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, often spoke of his many failures.  When giving a talk to sixth-grade students, I paraphrased Edison’s message as, “For every success in the laboratory, I had ninety-nine failures.”  Then I asked, “What is the significance of that remark?”

One youngster promptly replied, “It shows what he might have been able to do if he hadn’t been so dumb.”   He had already learned that failure was a bad thing.

Yet, most great successes were preceded by many failures.  Henry Ford (The Ford Motor Company) was broke five times.  R. H. Macy (Macy’s Department Store) failed seven times.

Michael Jordan, the basketball icon, who was once cut from his high-school team said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  That’s why I succeed.”

Successful leaders do avoid annihilation such as experienced by Sears, Eastman Kodak, Studebaker and so on.

Author, Sam Walker, believes veteran leaders rarely fail dramatically simply because they have failed before.  They have learned to avoid the fatal error.

The challenge is to find the sweet spot between failures that lead to growth and those that take you out of the game.  When taking on a perilous assignment, for which you have little experience, seek counsel from those who have been there.



Good Teams Respect Members’ Unique Ways

After returning from a lean manufacturing workshop, Alfredo decided to standardize the office layout and work flow of his ten direct reports.

Alfredo said, “I designed a plan for each office including such things as location of the computer and mouse, chairs, working papers, storage of manual files and the like.”

Alfredo did the same for the conference room; he even laid down markers for the computer and laptop placements.

An employee said, “Yes, he did that and more.  Alfredo developed an inspection sheet and periodically checked to see if we were in compliance.  That’s not all.  In meetings, Alfredo projected a spreadsheet onto the screen with our names and scores.”

“I thought this would make us more efficient,” Alfredo said.

One employee said, “I’ didn’t mind it.  I always kept a clean desk and had a space for everything.”

Another differed, “I felt fenced in.   My work space may look like an anthropology dig but I know where everything is.  A rigidly, ordered work space distracts me.”

As you might guess, Alfredo’s utopian fantasy produced resistance and frustration.  Even worse, efficiency and teamwork plummeted.

The take-away:  whenever possible, allow individuals freedom in how they work.



Why You Should Write Down Team Objectives

Great leaders reach their annual goals, meet or surpass quarterly objectives and insist on hitting weekly metrics.

Teams that show up and work hard will achieve a lot.  Teams that strive for specific objectives (outcomes) achieve more.

Yet, when I ask managers and employees to list the top three objectives for their teams, surprises bubble up.  I combine the individual lists and the result looks like a hundred-car pile-up.  Items fight with each other, general (often meaningless) statements emerge from the deep, and important outcomes disappear into the mist.  Literally no one agrees on the priorities.

Confusion abounds in spite of the fact that companies have systems for identifying, communicating and tracking objectives.

If you want to send a bat signal to your team, write down three objectives you want the team to achieve by quarter end.  List three measurable targets for each objective.  Communicate this list to your boss and employees.  Monthly, attach a symbol (green, yellow, red) to each objective to signal how the team is doing.  Discuss progress, or lack of, briefly in regular meetings.

To galvanize a team, members most know what defines success and they must receive timely feedback (scores) on how well, or poorly, they are doing.

Is It Important to Measure It?

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

“The important stuff can’t be measured.”

These two opposing dogmas seep into management thinking.  I often ask workshop participants, “Are you working on things you cannot measure?”  Twenty percent of participants answer, “Yes.”

I ask for examples and get responses like “customer service,” “improvement projects,” and “employee morale.”  I counter that we have measures for all of those.  Take customer service.    How about customer retention?  Referrals?  Surveys? Average purchases?

For improvement projects, after a project is implemented, try comparing costs, completion time, error rate and the like to the period prior to the improvement.  We have long used absentee rates, turnover, and surveys as indicators of employee morale.

Participants sometimes say, “The measurement is subjective.”

I say, “So what?  It is still a measure.”

I side with, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  The numbers become your score card.  If the numbers spike downward, everyone knows they have to do something differently.  Upward trends yell out, “Keep doing what you are doing.”

Should an employee say, “You are just interested in hitting your numbers.”  My response would be, “That’s right.  Now we understand each other.”  Look, if we can measure Olympic figure skating to four decimal places, we can measure anything.

Short-Term Versus Long-Term Goals?

A manager said, “I take the long view.  We drive toward goals three to five years in the future.  Annually, we adjust and revise as needed.”

Another manager responded, “I have a general idea of a long-term vision, but I try to avoid getting ahead of my skis.  I pick the three to five most important things we need to accomplish next quarter.”

Personally, I side with the short-term view.  I understand that top-level leaders may dream of exotic future visions.  I’m also aware that most of these visions do not materialize.  And many dramatic developments (internet) were neither predicted nor planned for.

I say apply the effort toward reaching three-month goals such as:  shipping on time, ensuring supplies arrive, improving customer service, controlling costs, and the like.  Each department should have no more than three to five targets.

It is important to track daily, weekly and monthly progress with easy-to-understand metrics.  If the needle falls south of a metric target, the team can quickly adjust.

At the end of the quarter, all members know the score.  Leaders should also have clear insights about which goals to continue, add or drop.



The Power of One-On-One’s

Some managers view regular (weekly, biweekly or monthly) one-on-one meetings with the same lens as they see quarterly income tax filings.  But one-one-one’s have a powerful impact on employee productivity and morale.

A manager who effectively practiced one-on-ones said, “My purpose was to listen, learn and coach.  I’d schedule about twenty minutes every two weeks with each of my eight reports.”

“Did you have an agenda?” I asked.

“Not an agenda but my meetings did have a routine.  I’d start with, ‘Update me on what you are working on or struggling with,’ and I listened more than I talked.”

The manager further explained, “I asked employees for key metrics on what had been completed and the status of ongoing efforts.  I almost always found something that I could appreciate.”

“I used our departmental objectives to prioritize employees’ efforts.  If I thought an employee was spending too much time on a low priority, I explained how changing the focus could better serve our mission.  My team wanted to succeed and I wanted to help.”

An employee who had experience with one-on-one’s reported, “They were great.  I looked forward to them.  I always knew what was expected and I believed my manager was there to help many any way he could.”

How to Get Employees to Come to Work

“How do you get employees to come to work?” a manager asked.

“Do you have an attendance policy?” I asked.

“Yes, but it’s pretty lax.  There is a lot of discretion.”

“Do you talk to employees who are late or miss work?”

“Yes, but they don’t seem to care too much.  It is pretty easy for them to get another job.”

When asked by a large company to help with attendance, I visited the management team and requested attendance records by department.  As I expected, there was quite a bit of variation among departments.  So I approached the manager who had the best record and asked him what he did.  Here is what I found.

One, the manager pleasantly greeted each employee arriving at work.  At the end of the shift, the manager said to employees as they were leaving such things as, “Good afternoon.” ”See you tomorrow.” “Enjoy your youngster’s soccer game.” “I think you hit a good lick today.”

Two, each week, the manager posted a chart showing the company and the department attendance record.  During meetings, he frequently expressed his appreciation for their commitment.

Three, if an employee missed or came in late; the manager asked, “Is everything OK?  We were concerned about you.”