People and relationships

!cid_image003_png@01D0AE76Relax, don’t worry about the title: I will be limiting this post to ‘work relationships’…and I don’t mean ‘relationships at work’.

Peter Scholtes wrote that, to understand people, we need to understand relationships. In particular, leading people requires the establishment and nurturing of personal relationships on a daily basis and the encouragement of others to do the same.

He sets out some characteristics of what he calls a good, old-fashioned one-to-one, face-to-face, first name to first name personal relationship”:

  • You listen to each other. You are able to talk to each other;
  • Each respects the other and knows how to show this respect; and
  • Each knows the other well enough to know their vulnerabilities and cares enough to avoid them.

Now, relationships are hugely important between manager and employee. Unfortunately, these relationships in most organisations are patronising and paternalistic.

The psychiatrist Dr Eric Berne (1910 – 1970) set out three ‘ego states’ – postures that we assume in relation to each other. These are:

  • Parent: from nurturing and supportive through to judgmental and controlling;
  • Adult: from realistic, logical, rationale through to affectless; and
  • Child: from playful and creative through to rebellious and spiteful.

Command and Control management systems necessitate ‘management’ to assume a parent ego state, which often ends up causing the employee to adopt a child-like ego state in reaction. The words ‘boss’ and ‘subordinate’ (both of which I dislike) fit this parent – child relationship narrative.

In reality, we are all adults at work. It just happens that we are employed to play different roles – from helping customers through to running a business division.

It is each leader’s choice as to the ego state they adopt…and therefore the likely ego state that their employees will take in response.

As an example: I find it odd when a manager verbalises to ‘their’ employee that what they are about to say to them is a ‘coaching moment’ (i.e. “…so listen up and take note!”) – how much closer could you get to a parent – child presumption by the manager? It’s akin to what my youngest son refers to as “getting a lecture” from me.

To be clear, I am most certainly NOT saying that I can’t be coached (I clearly can)….but:

  • A coachee needs to a) have a personal goal and b) a desire to be coached towards it. You can’t ‘coach’ without these two requisites;
  • A leader can equally (and often) be coached by employees, but only if they have their mind opened to be so; and
  • Pointing out to someone that ‘this is a coaching moment’ is patronising and presumptuous and demonstrates an (often sub-conscious) intent to enforce a superior (‘alpha’)/ inferior relationship signal…and it generally breaks point 1, so it isn’t actually coaching.

Right, coaching rant over, back to it….

Leaders need to recognise that we are all people (organistic systems), with our own separate purposes (just like them). The need is to establish adult-adult relationships, in which no one sets themselves out as being ‘above’ or ‘better’ than anyone else. If an organisation’s leaders succeed in this then they will have created a hugely powerful environment.

So, moving on to trust:

Healthy relationships require trust. Here’s an interesting figure from Scholtes showing the two converging beliefs that need to coexist for one person to trust another:


I find this figure illuminating. It makes me see that (and understand why) I have had some managers that I have respected and some that I have had (professional) affection for…but trust is much rarer.

Scholtes writes that “When I believe you are competent and that you care about me, I will trust you. Competency alone or caring by itself will not engender trust. Both are necessary.”

A couple of comments on trust:

  • I doubt it can be over emphasised that trust is in the eye of the beholder! ‘You’ can say that you care about me and that you know what you are doing but only ‘I’ decide whether I believe this…and I will be looking closely (and constantly) at your actions, not taking your word for it;
  • Some command and control managers have the view that employees need to earn their trust…this is the wrong way round! If someone wants to lead, they have to earn the trust of those that they would like to follow them.

KITA management (aka the picture at the top):

Now, onto the idea of KITA management: the term ‘KITA’ was coined by the psychologist and Professor of management, Frederick Herzberg (1923 – 2000)*. It stands for Kick-in-the-(pants)…he was too polite to write what the A actually stood for.

Herzberg wrote about positive KITA (carrots) and negative KITA (sticks)…and here’s why it isn’t motivation:

“If I kick my dog (from the front or the back), he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again…” (Herzberg)

The related problem with KITA thinking is that it locks manager and employee in a highly unhealthy parent-child relationship. Further, when rewards are competitive (which they usually are in some way) KITA thinking creates winners and losers and adversarial relationships among those who should be colleagues.

* Note: Herzberg wrote the classic 1968 article “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” This is one of the most requested HBR articles of all time and has sold well over 1 million copies.

…and finally:

I’d like to share with you some wise words written by Alfie Kohn under the self-explanatory title ‘Rewards rupture relationships’

“We need to understand what the process of rewarding does to the interaction between the giver and receiver:

If your parent or teacher or manager is sitting in judgement of what you do, and if that judgement will determine whether good things or bad things happen to you, this cannot help but warp your relationship with that person.

You will not be working collaboratively in order to learn or grow; you will be trying to get him or her to approve of what you are doing so that you can get the goodies.

A powerful inducement has been created [through the regular judgement and resulting outcomes] to conceal problems, to present yourself as infinitely competent, and to spend your energies trying to impress (or flatter) the person with power….

… people are less likely to ask for help when the person to whom they would normally turn wields carrots and sticks. Needless to say, if people do not ask for help when they need it, performance suffers on virtually any kind of task.”

…and, in so writing, Alfie eloquently uncovers the damage caused by rewards and the stunting effect they have on the ability of an organisation, and its people, to improve.

The positive bit: It would be great if all of us worked really hard to attain an adult-adult relationship footing…realised when this had been broken by our words and deeds …and, through humility and dialogue, worked even harder to bring it back again.

An apology: I have a rule that a post should only cover one thing…and this one doesn’t appear to! It’s a bit of a journey from relationships, through leadership, coaching, trust, motivation and ending at rewards, which brings it full circle back to what rewards do to relationships.

In fact the topics in this journey do all belong together, under the competency of ‘Understanding people and why they behave as they do’. My intent was to show how they are all so tied up together so I hope you don’t mind me bending my rules 🙂



Hello-My-Name-is-SlackerWhen I discuss my posts on performance appraisal and contingent rewards with people I get a lot of great understanding and support…but there’s always one question that pops up: “but then how will you deal with the slackers?”

Putting to one side whether our management instruments actually ‘deal with the slackers’ at the present, I find this an understandable response from within a command-and-control management system.

I usually find myself responding with:

“…and why do you think they are ‘slacking’*…do you think they want to perform an unfulfilling job all day long? Do you think this is how they started out when they got the job?”

(* if indeed they are ‘slacking’…our activity measures may present a different story than reality)

I then usually get: “yeah, but there will always be some people who take the p1ss!”

This uncovers a pretty hollow view of people. I’m not criticising people for thinking this …it’s more a recognition of the likely environments that people have had to endure through our working lives.

I would respond with a Deming quote to ponder:

“Anyone that enjoys his work is a pleasure to work with.”

  • You and I want to enjoy our work…and the environment that we work within will have a monumental influence on this;
  • I absolutely ‘get’ that there will almost always be a small % of people that sit outside the normal bell curve…but should we be designing our management system for the 5% or the 95%?
    • Do we tar everyone with the 5% brush?
    • Do we effectively yet compassionately deal with this 5% now?
    • Does it make sense that people ‘decay’ to being seen in this 5% bracket?

Regarding dead wood: “Why do we hire live wood and kill it?”

Kohn puts a deliberate order to his suggested actions (see the bottom of the ‘Exercise in Futility‘ post) and he most certainly doesn’t stop at removing contingent rewards and stopping performance appraisals…this is actually the point at which the real (and interesting) work can start to be done, with the process performers on collaboration, content and choice.

Okay, so you still think you’ve got a slacker:

If we are to consider the ‘slacker’ accusation, we also need to consider the other side of this coin, the supposed ‘talent’. Together, we can call these ‘outstanding performers’ where, as Scholtes explains:

We need to “use ‘outstanding’ in the statistical sense, not in the psychological sense.

Statistically*, ‘outstanding’ refers to something occurring outside the current capabilities of the system.”and therefore it makes it worth investigating as to what is happening and why.

* Note: There is variety in everything. We should not be tampering when there is nothing special about this variety. So ‘John’ achieved more than ‘Bob’ this week…big deal, we would expect differences…but is it significant, and is it consistently so?

Scholtes provides the following guidelines for our response to outstanding performance:

First: Determine for certain if they are truly outstanding:

  • Does (quality) data (properly) substantiate this ‘outstanding’ performance?
  • Does this data cover a sufficient timescale to indicate consistent performance at this lower or higher level?
  • Is there consensus among the outstanding performers’ peers (from observation, not gut reaction or rumours)

If the answer is ‘No’, it’s not actually outstanding!

If the answers to the above are all ‘Yes’ then:

Second: Investigate to discover what is behind this occurrence (using data!):

If the person is ‘positive’ outstanding, do they (for example):

  • use better methods which can be taught to others?
  • put in more hours?
  • have a wider range of skills?
  • have more experience?
  • have more native talent?

If the person is ‘negative’ outstanding, do they (for example):

  • need to learn a better method?
  • need to pick up speed?
  • need coaching or mentoring for a while?
  • lack the basic requisites for the job?
  • are they going through a difficult period?

And, depending on the explanation:

Third: Formulate an appropriate response:

For ‘positive’ outstanding:

  • teach methods to others;
  • provide higher pay* to recognise their change in market value (* but NOT contingent!)
  • provide more latitude in job definition

For ‘negative’ outstanding:

  • coaching, mentoring, training
  • provide greater structure for a while
  • get counselling and support
  • find a more appropriate position
  • Finally, sensitive and fair dismissal

If you take the last response, you still have a systems problem – you need to deal with how you ended up with this scenario.

Seddon deals with the issue of an individual’s supposed poor performance (and it being considered a ‘people problem’) in a similar vein to Scholtes. Put simply, there’s a whole host of questions that need to be asked about the system in which the individual operates before you can fairly arrive at the conclusion that the problem is with the individual.

The categories of questions, in order, are:

  • Is it an information problem? (do they know purpose, capability, flow?)
  • Is it a method problem? (waste? system conditions such as structures, policies, measurement, IT?)
  • Are extrinsic motivators the problem? (i.e. distractions from intrinsic motivation)
  • Is it a knowledge problem? (necessary knowledge to do the job?)
  • Is it a selection problem? (necessary attributes to do the job?)

All of the above are the responsibility of management to resolve.

  • Finally, is it a willingness problem?

Then, and only then can you conclude that you probably have the wrong person for the job.

“95% of the reasons for failure to meet customer expectations are related to deficiencies in the system…rather than the employee…

…the role of management is to change the system rather than badgering individuals to do better.” (Deming)

It’s very easy for a manager to blame a person. It’s a lot harder for them to work out what the systemic cause is. One of these approaches can improve the system, the other cannot.

A final Deming quote to ponder:

Question from ‘Management’: [what you are saying] “implies the abolition of the annual merit rating system [performance appraisals] and of management by [cascaded] objectives….but what will we do instead?”

Deming’s response: “Try leadership.”

A Service Revolution!

RevolutionService is different to manufacturing…and this difference is gob-smackingly important for a service organisation to understand if it is to truly move towards its (stated) customer purpose.

I was recently passed a link to a Malcolm Gladwell TED talk by a colleague and whilst watching it I thought…

“Nice! This is a simple tie-in to the incredibly important concept of variety in customer demand.”

So here’s the link to the very watchable talk (18 mins): Choice, happiness and spaghetti

Here’s the key points from the talk:

  • that Howard Moskowitz (a psychophysicist) had his ‘aha moment’ that “they had been looking for the perfect pickle…but they should have been looking for the perfect pickles“;  
  • the false assumption that the way to find out about what people want is to ask them….leading to years of fruitless and misleading focus groups. The truth is that:
    • people commonly don’t actually know, or cannot (and even will not) express, what they want; and
    • they will be constrained by what they currently know. No customer asked for an automobile. We have horses: what could be better.” (Deming)  
  • the importance of horizontal rather than hierarchical thinking about customer demand: we thought that customer demand was hierarchical (from cheap up to expensive products or services). Instead, there are only different kinds of products and services that suit different kinds of people;
  • that, instead of looking for one way to treat all of us, we now understand the importance of variability;
  • when we pursue universal truths [one standardised product/ service/ way of doing things], we aren’t just making an error, we are actually doing our customers a massive disservice;
  • We need to embrace the diversity of human beings

Hang on a minute….

So, I started off this post by saying that service is different to manufacturing but Gladwell uses lots of examples of physical products in his TED talk to make his point about the importance of customer variety (cola, pickle, spaghetti sauce, coffee,)…“make your mind up Steve!”

Well, this is a nice segue to explain about two types of variation, and how incredibly important this understanding should be to a service organisation (or the service part of any value stream).

These two types of variety are:

  • Customer-introduced (i.e. within their demand); and
  • Internally created within the process (regarding flow)

To go back to Gladwell’s spaghetti sauce: Different consumers like different sauces (this is variety in demand) but, once they have determined which variety of sauce they like, they then expect each jar they buy to be the same week in, week out (i.e. minimal variation in the process that creates that sauce).

So, whilst we definitely want to reduce and remove variation in the quality of the process, we should not remove the ability of the process to provide a suitably varied experience and outcome. Rather, it is the opposite – we should be trying to cater for this variety.

In fact, variety in service is MUCH bigger than Gladwell’s product examples:

One of my earlier posts set out five categories of variety in customer demand, as identified by Professor Frances Frei (see The Spice of Life).

Now, whilst it might be useful to categorise service variation (purely to help you ‘see’), the bigger point is that the customer sets the nominal value – the specific value of a service to them.

“The customer comes in customer shaped

…there is virtually infinite variety in people….and that variety can change for a given person depending on, say, time of day/ external influences/ mood….

Standardisation is NOT the answer…in fact, it is often the problem:

There are legions of service organisations that have hired manufacturing improvement experts (or people who have read books about them) to ‘standardise, specialise, centralise and automate’ because they say “this is the solution”.

Examples at attempts to standardise the customer include:

  • using IVRs to standardise customers into categories (“press 1, then press 3…”);
  • using call scripts to standardise the content of customer conversations;
  • using average handling times to standardise the length of a conversation;
  • using ‘box ticking’ forms to standardise customer information collection;
  • using ‘black and white’ rules above common sense, when dealing with a customer’s needs;
  • forcing customers down one path (e.g. you can only pay by direct debit, you can only interact online, you can only use these suppliers, …….and on and on).
  • …..

Interestingly, if you read the list above with your ‘I am a customer’ hat on, you will likely recall many instances where you have tried interacting with a service organisation and one or many of the above attempts at standardising you and your demand has seriously frustrated you!

This leads to much failure demand, waste (and cost) but with little value delivered (as written about in an earlier post).

Clarification: this isn’t to say that technology cannot assist or that there is no place for any standards. It’s making the point that the starting point should be that:

“….in service organisations, the problem is how to design the system to absorb variety” [and not frustrate it]. (Seddon)

Our starting point always seems to be ‘efficiency’ and a focus on activity cost. Perverse as it may seem, a focus on activity cost often has the unintended consequence of increasing total cost (though this is not visible to a silo’d organisation and is nigh on impossible for them to measure).

If we standardise, say, a site visit (the activity) such that it can’t absorb the variety in the customer’s demand…then don’t be surprised that:

  • there is failure demand from the customer when they complain and/or disagree with the outcome of the visit;
  • there is much ‘expert’ time spent reviewing this complaint;
  • there are yet more site visits required to resolve the problems;
  • there is lots more paperwork/ computer inputting/ workflow management required;
  • there is much confusion created by all this extra work (who did what when, who authorised what change from the standard, who is explaining all this jumble to the customer?); and
  • trust has been lost with the customer who now questions everything we do

The most important point to note is that “cost is in flow, not in activity”

So why the title of this post?

Well, the above is quite different thinking to where ‘command and control’ service organisations have been going. A revolution if you will.

Put simply, if we understand the variety in our customer demand and try to design our system to absorb (rather than frustrate) it we will go a long way towards our customer purpose…with the likely side effect of doing so for less cost.

“Managing value [for the customer] drives out cost….Focussing on cost paradoxically adds cost and harms value.” (Seddon)


FunnelAny of you reading this who have been on my Systems Thinking course will have had the fun of being involved in Dr Deming’s famous red bead experiment.

This post is about Dr Deming’s other (not quite so famous but equally important) Funnel experiment. The experiment teaches about the harm caused by ‘Management by Results’ (MBR) …where this occurs through tampering.

Here’s the experiment set up:

Funnel experiment set upWe have a flat horizontal surface (let’s say a table) with a piece of paper placed on top of it. We also have a kitchen funnel (like we would use to decant a liquid from one bottle to another), and a marble that we will drop through the funnel towards the paper below.

Let’s assume that the funnel is held upright in some sort of stand, say 50cm above the piece of paper.

Now we mark a cross in the middle of the piece of paper.

Goal: to hit the cross with the marble by dropping it through the funnel.

Round 1: We position the funnel over the cross and then drop the marble through the funnel 50 times. For each marble drop, we mark the spot on the paper where it hits.

We are likely to see something like this on the paper (looking from above):


Remember, we simply dropped 50 marbles without attempting to make any changes in-between drops and the paper shows the system to be stable. However, note that there is variation as to where the marble landed. It continually landed near the cross (with probably a few direct hits) but there was variation.

Round 2: So this time, we think that by adjusting the position of the funnel between each marble drop, we can ensure that the marble hits the cross on the next drop!

So we drop the 1st marble, note where it lands as compared to the cross and then move the funnel to compensate for this error. i.e.

  • if the marble landed 1 cm to the left (west) of the cross, we move the funnel 1cm to the right (east) of its current position….because this ‘fine tuning’ will make the next drop hit the cross, right?;
  • if this 2nd marble lands 2cm below (south of) its new position, then we move the funnel 2cm north from where it is currently positioned;
  • ….and so on, iteratively moving the funnel

So, what happens after we use this approach with our 50 marbles, iteratively adjusting the funnel’s position after each drop?

Well, it’s somewhat disappointing!


Our attempts at compensation have made the variation increase drastically (experiments show by approx. 40%). We’ve made things much worse.

Clearly our ’round 2′ method of compensating didn’t work as we wished. Is there another way of compensating and therefore getting better at hitting the cross?

Round 3: The new idea is to do the opposite of the last idea! This time, we will move the funnel directly over where the last marble landed and keep doing this for the 50 drops.

Oh dear, the marble is moving away from the cross and will eventually move off the table and (as Deming put it) all the way “off to the Milky Way”.


Perhaps using the last marble drop as a guide isn’t a good idea!

Conclusions: So which method was best?

  • Round 1 was clearly the best.
  • Round’s 2 and 3 are examples of tampering (though in different ways). They show the effects of tweaking a process based on the ongoing results of that process…it will simply increase the variation and the chances of failures.

So, what should we do? To actually improve a process requires an understanding of the sources of the variation…and then the performance of controlled experiments to identify process improvements.

For our Funnel system we could experiment with:

  • lowering the funnel;
  • decreasing the size of the funnel hole;
  • strengthening the stand holding the funnel to make it more stable;
  • …performing the process in a vacuum 🙂

All of these proposed improvements involve changing the system rather than merely tampering with it based on previous results.

So what?

Now all of the above looks like good fun…I’m already thinking about borrowing a funnel…but it seems an awful long way from our working lives. So let’s explain why in fact it’s not…

Taking the production/ selling of something, let’s say a sandwich shop as an example:

  • you sold 10 sandwiches on Monday, so you make 10 for Tuesday..
  • you only sold 2 sandwiches on Tuesday, so you throw 8 in the bin (not fresh anymore) and you only make 2 sandwiches for Wednesday….
  • you have 6 customers on Wednesday, so you sell the 2 sandwiches you made, have 4 disappointed would-be-customers but make 6 sandwiches for Thursday…
  • …and so on. You can expect to have major stock problems and a lot of unhappy customers!
  • it would be much better to make a set number of sandwiches each day, collect information about demand variation over a sensible period of time and then adjust your system accordingly.

The sandwiches are a very simple example of any process. What about taking a call centre as an example:

  • There will be a great deal of natural variation in customer calls throughout a day (with a number of causes, categorised and explained in this earlier ‘Spice of Life’ post)…so the number of ‘calls waiting’ will constantly fluctuate, though likely between predictable bounds. No surprises there.
  • …let’s assume that Bob’s job is to constantly monitor the current ‘calls waiting’…
  • …it gets to a point where Bob thinks the number of calls waiting is high…so he sends out an urgent request for everyone to drop what else they are doing and get on the phones…and they all rush to do so…
  • ….so the number of ‘calls waiting’ now drops really low and even disappears…excellent. Now Bob sends out a screen pop-up message along the lines of “panic over, people who missed out on their breaks can go now”
  • ….so the number of ‘calls waiting’ now jumps up again…and the up-and-down cycle continues.
  • Bob has a really stressful job looking at the numbers and continually tampering (using the ’round 2′ method) in a hopeless attempt to exactly match supply to demand.
  • A better way would be to increase our understanding of the system by studying demand (its types and frequencies) and amending its design based on what we learned. There might be:
    • loads of failure demand in there (which is a waste of capacity); and
    • frequency patterns within the different types of value demand

Clarification: Many of you working in contact centres may say “but Steve, of course we analyse incoming calls and look for patterns!” I would note that:

  • whilst you can, and should, look for predictable patterns in the data, I doubt that you can tell me how many calls you will get in the next 15 minutes and how long they will take. There will be variation and this is outside your control….does this make you tamper?
  • Nearly all contact centres simply see incoming calls as ‘work to do’ with an ‘average handling time’. Hardly any will analyse this demand. Can you tell me what types of value and failure demand you get, and their frequencies…and what conclusions you draw from this?

I’m not picking on contact centres – I simply use it as an example that we should all be able to understand. Tampering happens all over the place.

In general, managers often look at the results of the last hour/ day/ week/ month* and attempt to make adjustments accordingly, whether by congratulating or berating staff, moving people between queues, changing work quotas, knee-jerk reacting to defects and so on.

(* where the unit of time will depend on the nature of the transactional service being provided)

In fact, praising someone one week for a perceived outstanding result (likely against the lottery of a target that they had very little control over meeting) and then giving them a ‘talking to’ the next because their result was considered poor is tampering.

The point is to understand the system and the reasons for variation. Then (and only then) you can make meaningful changes instead of merely tampering.

Note: The ‘Round 3’ type of tampering is not as common as the ‘Round 2’ type…but it does happen. Consider the following cases of using the last example to inform the next:

  • Using the last board cut as a pattern for the next; or
  • Train the trainer: Mary trains John who trains Bob who trains Jess.

Both of these examples show that any variation from purpose will be retained and amplified as it is passed on, like a chain of whispers.

Credit: I’ve seen the funnel experiment performed a few times now but, rather than taking the laborious time to recreate it, I have borrowed the 3 marble drop pattern pictures used above from this website.

Note: For those aficionados amongst you, this post represents a slightly simplified version of Deming’s full funnel experiment. There is yet another tampering rule (which I have left out for the sake of brevity) …but, just so you know, it also doesn’t work. You can read all about the funnel experiment in Chapter 9 of Deming’s book ‘The New Economics’.