Sunday, November 19, 2006

Size Matters

Okay, I couldn’t help myself and I promise you’ll find the title is relevant if you read on.

Working with new programmers has challenges beyond those normally associated with a project. When I was a line programmer, just one member in a bigger team, I did not have to worry about these challenges so I did not fully appreciate this fact.

Sure, I knew that new programmers had a lot to learn before they would be useful. Until then, the boss kept them busy working the repetitive patches we need to apply to hundreds of individual programs that made up our applications. Along the way, the new guy usually figured out how we did things and could start doing some real development work.

When the company promoted me to team chief things changed. It turned out; having a new programmer apply patches to hundreds of old programs gives them little else than a basic familiarity with the poor programming habits of those who came before them after which, if they were a novice hack worth their salt, they could write a script that would apply the required changes. Unfortunately, when they jumped into new application development things quickly went south.

Before I go any further, let me step back and set some of the scenery for you. The year was 1990. We were maintaining COBOL programs that accessed data stored on an ISAM database. Both the database and the application were running on a Data General MV/8000 running AOS/VS. Our 200+ end users accessed the applications on dumb terminals. Finally, yes we used two digits to store the year.

Okay, I have to admit, when I look at it, the first thing that comes to my mind is Mr Spock making a statement about a zinc-plated, vacuum tube society with technology scarcely ahead of stone knives and bearskins. However, from a learning perspective, this environment had many benefits. The most important being the great clarity with which you could see the cause and effect of programming decisions in a multi-user environment; which brings me to my real point.

The problem we encountered was the habits new programmers developed in training before they joined our team.

The training environment was a single user environment. For instance, the typical assignment had one program, run by one user access an isolated set of data to produce a report. To enable each student to have their own applications, each student kept their code in their own working directory. To prevent data corruption, students had their own test dataset. To enable students to debug their work, applications ran without interacting with external processes.

Writing code in this limited environment is the definition of programming in the small. The real-world environment where end users ran our applications consisted of hundreds of end users running multiple instances of the same application accessing and updating data stored in a single dataset. Writing code in this interactive, non-linear environment is the definition of programming in the large.

Simply put, the new programmers thought that working in a multi-user environment was the same as working in a single-user environment. Until they accepted that programming in the large was much more complicated and required a different mindset than programming in the small, writ large, they offered limited value to the team.

Fortunately, the stone-knife environment we were working in enabled us to see the challenges of programming in the large and provided an opportunity for each of us to learn how to devise solutions to overcome them.

Additionally, my transition from team member to team manager forced me to take a similar look at the challenges of management and leadership. As with programming, I discovered that “In the Large” activities are much more complicated than “In the Small” activates writ large. In fact, while intimate knowledge of In the Small activities can provide great insight to In the Large issues, more often than not, In the Large activities are a different skill all together.

This is the fundamental problem of the E-Myth where well-versed technicians discover that running a business is much more than providing their value adding skills directly to paying customers rather than an intermediary employer.

If you’re encountering more difficulty achieving success as you transition from being a practitioner of the value-adding technical skills your organization offers to clients to the management and leadership of others who provide that skill, I’ll bet you a dollar that you are working in the small, writ large and it’s time you reevaluated your value proposition.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Remarkable Consistency

I have to admit, I don’t go to McDonalds that often. However, last week while driving through the Netherlands, I couldn’t help but notice the pervasiveness of McDonalds. I must also admit that I am a big fan of McDonalds French Fries.
Last week, the temptation was too great. I stopped, ordered a large French Fries and Coke. It was the same French Fires and Coke that I managed to get every time I succumb to the temptation. Korea or Japan; Texas or Oklahoma; Paris, Amsterdam or Rome it is always the same.

Of course, that is what we expect when we go to McDonalds. Product consistency is one of the hallmarks of the McDonalds experience. Along with national now international marketing, product consistency is what made McDonalds remarkable.

Unfortunately, what was once remarkable has become ordinary. McDonalds has been so successful at replicating their consistency that we have come to expect this level of consistency as the baseline of any product we buy from a national brand. The fact of the matter is, to succeed in any business whether fast food or technology consulting, if you are not delivering the same level of consistency that McDonalds has established as the benchmark, your organization is dead.

So, how has McDonalds manage to make the most remarkable consistency ever achieved by a hand produced product an ordinary expectation. I chatted with the manager at the McDonalds in the Netherlands and this is what she said.

The success of McDonalds relies upon consistent product delivery enabled by four overriding components:

  1. Crew members who show up when they are scheduled to work; who learn and perform the tasks they are required to perform; and who treat the customer right.
  2. The most consistent and efficient internal management development systems in the world.
  3. The most consistent and efficient restaurant systems in the world.
  4. The most consistent and efficient distribution systems in the world.

In short, McDonalds relies upon a world-class distribution system, terminating with a well defined operational system run by internally developed managers who provide oversight of dependable people.

Which brings me to the point I’m trying to make; McDonalds-style consistency may have become an ordinary expectation in the big-business world of fast food but can the same be said for most small to medium sized business and organizations.

Is your organization the termination point of a world class distribution system? Does your organization have a well defined production system? Do you have a consistent process for developing managers who have experience working your production systems? Could you succeed with front-line employees possessing little more than basic work skills and the potential to grow?

If you answer “No” to any of these questions, your problem is not a lack of leadership development at all levels of your organization. Adding more leadership will not get you to the “Yes” answers.

Rather, your problem is execution: supply chain management; operational systems definition; and management development.

The “Yes” answers are found by Knowing the Machine: understanding your value proposition and how your organization delivers that value to the customer not by buying the Conventional Leadership Wisdom the Leadership-Industrial Complex pushes as the answer to every operational problem.

Would your organization benefit from McDonalds-style consistency? I’ll bet you the dollar you’re going to spend on your next leadership book that it would.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

New at Squidoo

This past week, I've been spending a little bit of time at Squidoo. I really like this site that Seth Godin has put together. While there are a few too many empty Lenses, over all, the site has a good mix of information and personalities.

I particularly like the following Lenses; actually they are Squidoo Groups.

1. Seth Godins Group, The Best Business Books Know to Mankind is a collection of book reviews written by Squidoo Lensmasters. Check it out. I'm sure you will find something worth reading.
Here are three of my reviews that are in the list:
- The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt
- Great Ideas of Operations Research by Jagjit Singh
- Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

2. My Group, Now That's Leadership is my attempt to provide a starting point for individuals to investigate a balanced set of ideas regarding leadership.

Jump on over to Squidoo and check out these and all the other new groups and lenses.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Developing Field Sense

Lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve had to explain myself or at least my thinking on leadership a lot more than I used to. I think it is because I’ve been having a real problem with the word.

The problem is, the Leadership-Industrial Complex has stolen a useful word and ruined it. Leadership has become a product, a thing rather than a set of qualities.

As much as I hate them, this might make more sense if I use a sports analogy, say soccer.

In soccer, a player with field sense has the ability to read the game as it is being played, to adjust their actions to their team’s and their opponents strengths and weaknesses. If great players are the ones with great field sense, does that mean great players practice field sense? If yes, what does that mean?

Is a player practicing field sense if she studies the rules of the game, the lay out of the field, or memorizes the play book? Is she practicing field sense when she builds endurance by running; does weights with the team, or re-learns her throw-in? Is a player practicing field sense when she does 200 passes from the left, followed by 100 runs through a three-man screen?

Are the great players, the ones that practice the best field sense?

Practicing field sense? What are you talking about? There’s no such thing as practicing field sense!

Exactly! You don’t practice field sense, you practice soccer. This may mean studying the rules to learn the basics, going to camp to improve your form and practicing with the team to learn the plays. But you’re not practicing field sense; you’re developing skills your filling your tool box.

Field sense on the other hand develops over time, on the field, against real opponents. Field sense comes from the game, not the practice.

Here in lies the rub; leadership is the field sense of the business and organizational world. So, if you don’t practice field sense, then how do you practice leadership?

Exactly! You don’t.

You develop it over time. You begin by learning the rules; you train with both formal and informal education; and you practice by working as a leader. Often times you fail and some times you succeed. Eventually, you develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t; then you repeat.

As you practice being a leader and your leadership qualities improve you may move to positions of greater responsibility and span of control, i.e. bigger leagues. As you move up, you constantly adjust your play, you study the game, you train and you practice; then you repeat. As with most things in life, being a leader is a journey not destination

Unfortunately, the Leadership-Industrial Complex has been extremely successful selling the conventional wisdom that leadership is something you do, something that everyone must do, that leaders are those that do leadership.

This belief that doing leadership makes a leader is perhaps the most infectious agent in this Leadership Epidemic that states that leadership is the be-all and end-all answer to an organization’s problems.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Redemption of Ken Blanchard - A 100 Word Essay

“Hate the sin, but love the sinner”, they say. I do. Perhaps, admiration is a better word.

I wrote Ken Blanchard. No, not recently, 23 years ago, a real paper letter, before e-mail. “How do I become like you?”

Ken Blanchard wrote back, a real letter, on paper. He wrote, “Learn a little, live a little and tell a story. Learn something every day or you’ll have nothing worth saying. Live life fully, or you’ll have nothing worth hearing. Tell a great story, or no one will listen.”

He wrote a real letter, on paper!

Dr Blanchard, all is forgiven.

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