Archive for March, 2013

Cooperation, or is it Coercion!

Posted on: March 30th, 2013 by admin No Comments

Consider a rather large project that like so many projects had some difficulties. The project team had a major component (subsystem) delivered from a supplier. The supplier has one set of processes and the customer organization another.

This supplier delivers multiple versions of this major subsystem. The customer integrates this subsystem into the larger system and performs integration testing on the product. In the course of this integration work, the customer finds numerous problems the supplier did not find before sending the product to the customer. These faults are then reported into the company sanctioned reporting system and assigned to the party responsible for the corrections.  After a review we find that the subsystem supplier did not find these failures prior to sending to the customer for a few reasons:

  1. The test group at the subsystem supplier did not have available the top-level product into which this sub-assembly went (lack of test objects)
  2. The supplier did not have system test cases that mapped to the functions of the entire system
  3. The supplier did not have test personnel or automation in place to the level the customer organization

Throughout the project we have seen large numbers of faults reported. We are late in the project and we continue to see a large volume of fault reports with a significant number of those failures having a high level of severity. Given the fast rate of defect arrival and the slow rate of defect closure, it is very difficult to predict success for the project by the required launch date. A launch date, by the way, that is very rigid due to a regulatory requirement.

The supplier sends over a vice president to discuss the defect reporting and closure method with the customer staff.  Specifically, the vice president wants to be able to close the failures reported quickly.  The customer organization process requires that the person that found and reported the problem perform the test case again on the material that is similar, or better still, the same system in which the failure was originally reported.  These stipulations attempt to ensure the variables that influence the failure are all accounted.  The vice president wants to be able to close the fault reports presented by the customer, he does not want to perform the specific test case nor be required to test on a similar system as that of the originating test failure. Moreover, he wants to be able to close the fault reports when the developers believe they have addressed the problem (no test evidence required).  To that end, the developers make the changes to address the system then artificially manipulate the system as verification of the correction.

The vice president secures a conference room and invites the responsible test personnel and managers from the customer organization. He then proceeds to tell them he wants to close the fault reports based upon:

  1. Engineering revision level of software (not a released software)
  2. Not conducting the specific test case (tested by those who did not find the problem the first time)
  3. Not using similar test subject

There are twenty or more test people from the customer organization in this conference room. He lays out his case for how he wants to handle the fault closures.  The test experts explain to him the reason the fault should be closed via the customer process.  It is also mentioned that the supplier did not find the problems in the first place. They do not have documented test cases, and neither do they have the test subjects. In the discussion, the vice president continues his demand that the supplier should be allowed to close the fault reports as supplier wishes, including confirming corrective action on development software in spite of the limitations.  The latter amounts to closing the fault report based upon the hope we really corrected the problem.

Ultimately the meeting terminates and not one customer test person agrees to his way of handling the testing results. The vice president then goes to the management hierarchy where the decision is made to handle the fault reports as the supplier wishes, all while using the word “cooperation.” In the end, there are many fault reports that are opened, closed, open, closed, and opened again. The test group begins to be analogous to Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up the steep hill to have it fall back at the end of the day only to start the process all over again the next day.

The customer’s verification staff had valid and sound reasons for not wanting to deviate from their processes.  The evidence to support this assertion is the fact that the customer’s processes found the problems while the supplier’s did not.  What message do we send to our employees about the processes when we coerce them to deviate from what appears to be a valid way of working?  After all, the verification group did find many major issues and save the company from certain disaster. We harp on the fact we want our teams to follow some rationale process then when they do, we coerce them to deviate from what they believe is simultaneously company process and demonstrably better way than the supplier’s method.

We have seen once-proud firms descend into this pit—leading to declines in market penetration and substantial cost in returned material and customer dissatisfaction. We know of a major cell phone vendor that has gone through this nightmare. In the case we are discussing, the result was quality cost in the millions of dollars.

We provide the definition of the words from below for your consideration:

Cooperation an act or instance of working together for a common purpose or benefit.

Coercion force or the power to use force for gaining compliance

Hiding the problem is never the way to resolution. The processes are in place to help the organization especially during times of stress. If the processes are not able to meet that demand; then those processes should be reworked so they will deliver the results we desire.  We must ask the questions:

1. Was the vice president’s domain knowledge more significant than the mass of domain specific employees?
2. What message do we send to our employees when we demand they dump the organizations process?
3. What impact did this “cooperation” have on the morale of the employees doing the work?

Developing employees

Posted on: March 29th, 2013 by admin No Comments

Failure to train employees is a failure to invest in our own companies. In one case, we saw an incredible decline in unplanned production line downtime when we started teaching the technicians how to do their jobs—what a concept!

If we are afraid our investment will move on to the next company after we have educated them, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we didn’t take care of them, recognize their achievement, or improve their compensation. Training a team member and then ignoring them is a speedy way to lose the value of our investment. If we think our investment has no increased monetary value, why did we approve the training in the first place?

We can also recognize employees for self-developmental activities like outside service to the community, public speaking, and writing. These are special skills in some cases and should be considered to be assets of the firm. We find it shortsighted to ignore these abilities. Employees generally leave a given employment over many issues, but some stand out:

  • “Topping out”
  • Poor treatment
  • Non-investment in the firm
  • Lack of recognition

Some celebration should be in order!

Let My People Go!

Posted on: March 28th, 2013 by admin No Comments

We have seen the word “layoff” used during a reduction in force. A reduction in force is a mass firing, often engendered by management ineptitude but sometimes driven by market forces. A layoff occurs when we temporarily dismiss an employee, but we provide preferential treatment for them when the market bounces back. Even with the preferential treatment, a layoff can be brutal. Unfortunately, it is not the correct synonym for a reduction in force, which is clearly a permanent or quasi-permanent discharge of individuals who “don’t make the cut.” In some cases, we have seen individuals who were disliked but otherwise competent fired for their attitude.

We have also heard other euphemistic terms such as “let them go” or “release them,” as if we providing some element of liberation. Sometimes, moving on will work for an employee, although the disaffiliation is not immediately perceived to be positive.

We recommend dropping the softer words and calling firing what is is:

  • Canning
  • Axing
  • Sacking
  • Disposing

Perhaps “dismissal” provides the best combination of softness and brutality.

Emergent Phenomena

Posted on: March 27th, 2013 by admin No Comments

Teams must grow; teams cannot be simply appointed and anointed. We may have a designated group that evolves into a team, but this emergent phenomenon takes time. It takes time to discover the strengths and weakness if each member of the group, understanding that ultimately transforms into trust, the backbone value/concept for any successful team. We don’t have to like each other, but if we understand how far we can rely on each other’s capability, then we have begun the trust process.

We know we are on a team when we begin to pull together almost without thinking. In one situation, of us was part of a 13 person group and six of us decided, for our own employment survival, to pull the other seven worthless members along with us. The six of us became a team, brought together by a common goal.

What attributes can portend success? Trust is number one. We would also like to see:

  • Courtesy
  • Genuine caring about members and the project
  • Flexibility
  • The ability to know when to put in that extra effort, if needed
  • A common goal.

Team can be a lot of fun and one of the most gratifying experiences we can have in the workplace.

Removing an Employee

Posted on: March 26th, 2013 by admin No Comments

Occasionally, we are put in the position of removing an employee; that is, we must fire them. In many cases, we will not have enough documentation to validate the ineptitude of such an employee. Furthermore, we may not have a standard algorithm (procedure) to follow when removing this individual.

Many companies add the impediment of requiring a growth plan for the employee. These documents supposedly provide an opportunity for the offending employee to change their patterns of behavior. In our experience, this approach presents a false hope and mostly delays the inevitable.

Inflated employee evaluations also make the process difficult. Weak managers may have given this problematic employee bloated assessments in order to avoid confrontation. As we approach the moment of truth, these overblown evaluation come back to haunt us, making it extremely difficult to explain how it is the employee is the problem and not our management incapability.

I fired six people over 15 years. I carefully considered the options and I certainly did not enjoy the event. In each case, the behavior was egregious, and in a couple of cases, the employee was lucky we didn’t follow up with legal action.

Employee Evaluation Systems

Posted on: March 25th, 2013 by admin No Comments

We have never seen a meaningful employee evaluation system. The abominations are generally designed as a tool to assess the performance of the employee with respect to corporate goals. When they present the illusion of quantification, the values are really qualitative and they will inflate over time as people are ‘soft’ about providing ‘real’ assessment. In essence, we can sit and watch a system corrupt itself.

What is the value of an evaluation system? If it is annual only, the value is minimal since employee corrections should be applied in real-time, not some months after the untoward event. Companies seem to believe that these systems somehow justify employee compensation increases. However, they really represent a lack of trust in both the employee and their managers, reflecting the belief that the managers will inflate the value of their employees—but this happens with every evaluation system anyhow.

Occasionally, we will see corrections applied with something resembling management by objective (MBO), which purports to make the targets obvious to the employee and which supposedly leads people to drive to corporate goals. The reality we have seen is that most of this folderol is impotent hand waving.

Although people may be driven by other concepts than money, we find it naïve to think the money and improvement recognition are not part of the equation. We should also be cognizant of the “good hair equals success” syndrome, wherein we see people promoted for superficial charms instead of meaningful contributions.

Finally, we should value those Cassandras who warn us of impending misfortune. Yes, some of them may see a catastrophe around every corner; however, in many cases we are listening to an employee who cares deeply about their company.

The Human Resources Dilemma

Posted on: March 24th, 2013 by admin No Comments

Ideally, the human resources function or department represents the employee to management and management to the employee. Sadly, in our experience, most human resources people are inclined to support the individuals who sign their paycheck and the employees are left swinging in the breeze. It is no wonder that employees will gravitate towards collective bargaining when they are presented with infantilization of their behavior by corporate regimes.

We realize that the human resources position is difficult, but we have never seen a situation where the human resources function was not a strategic function. In most cases, companies really are their people and in those companies driven by technology, we would expect substantial resilience even after the brick and mortar burns down.

We have seen companies permit a variety of abuses because they thought they could get away with it in a “right to work” state:

  • Female left to walk alone in a passport situation
  • Reductions in force (mass firings) to apply fiduciary correction after a management blooper
  • Failure to train people how to perform their jobs
  • Screaming, yelling, and other degrading behaviors

In all of these events, human resources people are situated precisely in the middle. That is their job and it is not an easy one.

Saving Money the Always Way

Posted on: March 23rd, 2013 by admin 1 Comment

Many raindrops make an ocean. We have seen a divisional vice-president sneer at a small cost reduction and tell us it was not Six Sigma material. We didn’t care, because permitting small cost reductions makes the practice part of the culture while still adding benefits to the firm. We have already shown in another blog how quickly relatively small savings add up.

We would also note that popular personal finance advisors also recommend the “small but growing” approach to savings. The first step is always to get into the habit of saving money. We want that spare cash so we can continue to send our sales and marketing people out to drive business even when the market is terrible. This approach allows us to steal some marches on our competitors, sometimes leaping over them.

We think kaizen savings is the way to create a culture of intelligent spending. Of course, sometimes we will have to intervene in situations where people are being “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” We have seen this situation in an automotive wiring facility where the staff was cutting wire with poorly constructed hand wire cutters. A simple $4,000-$5,000 investment in an automatic cutter would ultimately save time and provide some level of repeatability. However, if we have been saving elsewhere, we will easily be able to afford this equipment.

The 10,000 Things and Education

Posted on: March 22nd, 2013 by admin No Comments

People in education often like to implement “programs.” In fact, we call this syndrome “program-itis” because it leads to inflammation of the budget. As with many corporation, we see people who want to improve a situation decide to follow “best practices” without verifying that these are, in fact, best practices. They can only be best practices if we have demonstrated that a specific item is indeed a best practice, either through testing or some other statistical analysis.

We may also end up with competing programs. We have seen this occur with Six Sigma and Lean, even though these approaches are not mutually exclusive, and have, in fact, led to something called Lean Six Sigma.

We continue to come back to the 10,000 thing (kaizen) approach for education, corporation, and organization because this approach nearly always works  so long as management can stay focused on the goal rather than believing the blandishments of flim-flam men mounted on white horses.

Be wary of programs that promise to increase “awareness.” How do we measure “awareness” in any meaningful way?  What we really want is modifications to behavior that move us toward our goals. This applies to the education business as much as it applies to any other. Let us not lose focus flitting after one program or another. Somehow it makes more sense to execute the fundamentals before we jump to the hot topic of the day.

Your Software Sucks!

Posted on: March 21st, 2013 by admin No Comments

Creating a separate software test group has pluses and minuses. At a minimum, we may have more to manage.

Some of the minuses are a product of human nature. When we know our work will be inspected, we will often assume the inspector will catch issues and we pay less attention to the issue ourselves. We may also see some contention between the software development group and the test group, invoking competition rather than cooperation (test-driven development being part of the cure for that). Often, project schedules will try to compress the software product testing, leading to burnout and frustration on the part of the test team.

The primary plus is that we have a quasi-independent method for verifying the quality of our software. The test group must be under separate management than the development group (in fact, separate management as high as practical). The goal of the test group is elicitation of software defects through intense testing.

If the testing is sufficiently intense, the software will begin to show defects that the development people think are specious; for example, “ This will never happen in the field.” Such comments miss the point. The point is that we have revealed a flaw in the software, regardless of the eliciting cause. In our experience, letting these defects remain in the code means we have just allowed a time bomb to remain in our product—a time bomb whose explosion date is often unknown. As test people, we must have the fortitude to say: “Your software sucks!” Of course, we follow our rude statement with an explanation of why we think the product is defective.

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