When the Levee Breaks

Today I experienced the classic flood of cleanup. I decided to take a vacation day, split between two afternoons. And the pent-up Karmic Garbage of several months began to wash away.

One of the worst gumption traps I face is the dreaded product return. I have a universal remote control from Monster Cable. As a way to get out from under the dozen-remote-curse™, a universal remote is a true miracle. That is, until it stops working. Mine decided to stop working back in October 2007. A full four months later, I’ve finally mailed the thing back. And the sad part is, it only took about 10 real minutes worth of work. As a packrat, I had a cardboard box, packing peanuts, tape, and a marker – ready to go. I even had the original package and all the components laid out. What was it that kept me from just getting it done?

Looking back, having successfully overcome another troubling bit of Karmic Garbage, I realize is was the phone call. The customer service people at Monster Cable are among the best in the business. No questions asked. “Just mail everything back to this address, reference this return number, and we’ll send you a new one”. What? That’s it? No back and forth describing every possible symptom that somehow get’s twisted into something I did and not a faulty product? Not with Monster – they want the customer to have an amazing experience, start to finish.

Strangely enough, this is the second good phone service experience I’ve had in as many days. We’ve been in our new house for about 6 months, but haven’t bothered to set up the TV. So now that the writer’s strike is over, it’s time to get caught up with The Tube. Again, I’ve been living in dread. I knew the cable company was going to give me the hard sell, when all I wanted was a list of prices and a little time to compare them to satellite. No such thing. They just quoted me the prices, even spent a little time tearing down their own website – which was the reason I had to call in the first place. Based on the no-nonsense and fundamentally HUMAN treatment I received, I’ll be calling them back this afternoon.

Boxes, phone calls, paperwork – it’s amazing how many rocks can be removed from the dam of procrastination in just a few hours, freed up by a vacation day. I can’t wait for tomorrow afternoon.

Give Yourself No Choice

Here’s a little tidbit that recently bit me in the backside. I’m coordinating the 50th year reunion for a group with which I performed in college. So I had the alumni magazine publish my contact information, and invited “all comers”. Well, they’ve started calling.

The problem for me is that I’ve been putting off building the roster. Other things inevitably came up. Well, now I have no choice. The word is out, the hall is booked, and they’re banging on the door. Time to get up from the fire and start working!

Stash stuff in your environment

Driving in to work at the military academy this morning, I really needed some chapstik. Normally I carry a chapstik and a USB flash drive in my right front pocket. But last night I delivered a lecture in my flight suit, and the stick was still in one of the sleeve pockets. Those sleeve pockets are just perfect for such small objects that need to be close at hand. Unfotunately, I don’t wear a flight suit to work any more.

This brings up a tactic for smoothing out all the daily disappointments and lost opportunities brought about by a distracted mind (I’m not going to say forgetful.) I like to stash stuff in all my normal haunts. At first glance this may seem at odds with the goal of crafting a life free of karmic garbage. But sometimes having more lets you DO more. I keep a small first aid kit in my desk at work, in the pickup truck, and in the basement shop. When you need a bandaid, you need it NOW. You can’t afford to stand around wishing you had a band aid.

So think about stashing stuff around your environment. Your mind will feel less cluttered, trust me.

The wonders of TRAF

If you’re alive in today’s world (and believe me, with some people I really wonder), you just can’t get away from managing your in-box. Even if you don’t work in an office, you still have something known as a mailbox, a perpetual in-box if there ever was one. Stuff comes in, and it all needs to be addressed. How do you keep from getting buried under all the garbage?

That’s where TRAF comes in. I can’t remember where I first heard about this process, but it works.

Trash It
Ninety percent of the stuff that appears in your in-box can be trashed. Right away. Ads, promotions, those annoying credit card offers. I like to keep one bin for recyclable paper and a shredder right by the front door. When mail comes in, most of it goes right out again. Same goes for an in-box at work: recycled or shredded right away. The email in-box is even easier. Read, delete. Read, delete. Getting a little zealous with the delete button can be a liberating experience.

Refer It
Of the material that’s left, normally just 10% or less of the original mound, you can refer about ninety percent away. Refer it to someone else. Send those memos on to your subordinates. Hand the lingerie or motorcycle parts catalog to your spouse. Not your problem!

Act on It
Now that you’ve whittled your way to the 1% that’s left, you’re probably going to have to do something with it. Act on it. Don’t wait. You’ve done the lion’s share of the work, so now close it out. Pay the bill, sign the memo, make that follow up call. Just get it done.

File It
You may discover something that you can’t trash, can’t refer, and can’t act on right now. It just sits there looking at you stubbornly saying “I’m here to mess up your Karma”! The last and best thing to do with such annoying material is file it. Put it away where it can’t do any harm, until such time as you must act on it.

Building an amazing filing system is a topic for another day. In the meantime, you can use the ever-powerful TRAF filing system to help unclutter your in-box.


Resources
An Article about TRAF from Stephanie Winston’s Book, The Organized Executive
– Here’s a word document that discusses the technique.

Avoiding the word BUT

Certain words are like signposts, warning of an impending emotional and negative exchange.

Effective Communication is a pivotal skill. When we as leaders consider requests, there are often times when we must communicate “no.”

Many entry-level manager classes include this tidbit: non-verbal cues make up at least 55% of verbal communications.  The actual words themselves may convey as little as 7% of the message, with tone making up the rest. Part of the tone includes the grouping of words. Certain groups carry a positive tone (“Happy Birthday!”), and others are more negative (“This is the IRS.”)

More skillful communicators have grown sensitive to the nature of this tone. There are many times I’ve presented an idea, been flatly turned down, and have still gone away with a smile on my face. This was not because of the negative words themselves, but rather the skill of the other person in avoiding a negative emotional tone.

As receivers we have also grown sensitive to tone, often on a subconscious level. Certain words are like signposts, warning of an impending emotional and negative exchange. One such word is BUT. It is a qualifier that can shut people down immediately. Perhaps this sounds familiar:

“Your idea has merit for several reasons, BUT those reasons are not sufficient for me to accept your request.”

Which part do you focus on? Is it the praise for taking a risk (the first part), or rejection of the idea (the second part)? That tiny little word BUT changes the tenor of the statement in a very tangible way. It shuts down further dialog and hampers constructive development. Now consider this response:

“Your idea has merit for several reasons. Those reasons are not sufficient for me to accept your request.”

The second phrasing allows the communicator to continue the conversation, perhaps:

“If you present better evidence, I’m open to reconsider.” Now the receiver is likely to go away and actually do more work for you! Avoiding BUT keeps the options open. By using BUT, an emotionally charged word, you shut them up tight.

As a challenge to my fellow communicators, try avoiding the word BUT for one week. Can you do it? Can you adjust your habitual speech and writing patterns to steer clear of the emotionally charged BUT? If you make the effort, you will discover many other words and phrases that impact the tone of conversations. The real challenge is bending that tone to reinforce elements of your message, team cohesion, and political effectiveness.

Sometimes an emotionally charged word or phrase is necessary, even desirable. But adding them to conversation should be a conscious choice.

Please share your experience with my communications challenge in the comments. Besides BUT, what other words did you find with emotional impact, positive or negative?

What is your “Training Base Load?”

Lineman

You wake up in the middle of the night, flip the light switch, and – miracle of miracles – the light comes on. The power company maintains a “base load” on the grid for just such occasions, and it is indeed a miracle. As the day begins a huge coordinated team starts bringing more electrical generation capacity on the line to brush your teeth, brew your coffee, and perhaps power your ride to work. But for the quiet overnight hours there is still a small power plant humming away, ready to take the load.

If your company has the luxury of a dedicated training department, they are your human capital power plant. They probably host a variety of courses throughout the year. They put a fine polish on technical or soft skills, help save minutes during the holiday rush, and develop people for the challenges of tomorrow. They also probably maintain the “training base load,” those compliance courses that absolutely must be taught if the company wants to stay in business.

As a training manager, it is helpful to know exactly how much of your time and budget must be dedicated to the base load. Across your catalog, where do you draw the line? Certainly, compliance training is on the list. What about on-boarding? Harder to know, especially if your hiring cycle is unpredictable. Technical training may make the cut, especially if there is a cyclic requirement, such as annual proficiency training. Finally, those “fun” courses, like conflict mitigation, communications, strategic planning, and meeting management, which can probably be cut (in the short term) without much fanfare.

Last week we audited your various rule books. This week, take some time to analyze your course catalog and define the impact.

  • Base load courses: compliance and any other training mandated by law. How many times do you convene each year? How many staff hours are spent preparing and delivering for each convening? What other materials must be purchased and prepared for each class? Calculate what percentage of your annual budget goes to maintain the “base load.”
  • Refresher and proficiency courses: same drill as above – who teaches what, when, and how much does it cost in time and materials. The resources spent here directly offset lost work and potential injury. It is good to know this number when the executives come calling.
  • New-hire training (both on boarding and technical skill): this can be the thorniest variable depending on your workforce. Some industries with high turnover spend a lot of time with this category.
  • Company-specific “mandatory” training: who teaches, what, and when – do the calcs. (Can some be eliminated? Outsourced? Streamlined? Converted to less expensive or distributed delivery?)
  • Elective training: all those nice-to-have courses. If you are “fat” in this are, can you justify the continued expense? If you are “lean”, can you justify additional support, balanced against the rest of your categories?

With your new course audit in hand, it will be easy to answer questions when the budget folks come looking for cuts. Solid numbers can make training look like a good bet. Perhaps more important, knowing which percentage of your catalog is non-negotiable can help keep those light on all year long.

Copyright © 2016 Expeditionaire and Edward K. Beale
Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lineman_changing_transformer.jpg

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)

Training Minutes Really Do Matter

Finish Line

You work hard to keep the learning and development (L&D) wheel spinning. You know careful spending on L&D is a good bet.

And so here we are. You made the bet, took the plunge, and sent your people to training. You spent money on the program, had them off the job for a day or a week, and now with fingers crossed you honestly hope it was all worth it. Like you, I have made that bet many times. Here are some ideas that can help justify L&D for your team.

First, there are benefits for each employee. The links between L&D and employee loyalty, retention, engagement, and satisfaction are well researched. (Wranx has a good article based on various studies.) So, investing in L&D can make your people 12% more effective? Or save you one $50,000 hiring event in a year? Those may be reasons enough to justify a training budget.

Second, ask the employees themselves to estimate the impact.

“With what you learned, how many minutes will you save each day?”

Depending on the topic, each learner will probably save at least 5 minutes per day. If you sent 20 people to training, each making $25 per hour, those collective minutes just added over $10,000 in value for the team this year.* There are many ways to quantify productivity pre- and post-instruction. Pick something that works with your process. Saving 25-30 minutes per person each week is a real win any way you look at it.

Finally, some structured time away from “the grind” can focus everyone on a timely topic and yield real benefits. For example, “the holiday rush” is a good excuse to jumpstart the seasonal effort around a shared experience. A learning event gets everyone “on the same page” using common language and procedures. Standardized terminology and process alignment are both easy shortcuts to performance. Ask yourself,

“What is the cost of one mishandled order in December?”

If an hour spent in training can save a dozen mishandled orders, that hour was probably worth it. (Now, run the numbers and check!)

One last thought: it is better to move past “awareness” and towards L&D that is “hands on.” Real practice with real problems means better performance. Get those hands dirty, but in a controlled and safe environment. Your people will come back with better confidence and skill to tackle the real work. And at the end of the day, that’s really the goal.

As always, I would love to hear your “minutes matter” stories.

* (5 min x 20 people x 5 days) / 60 = 8.33 hours/week x 50 weeks = 417 hours x $25 = $10,425)

Copyright © 2016 Expeditionaire and Edward K. Beale
Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Horse_Race_Finish_Line_(11888565543).jpg

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)

 

Follow The Rules At Work

Do Not Touch

This is how we do things around here.
Sincerely, Workplace Culture

Behavior at work is driven by the law, market forces, the local environment, and preferences of the workers. Each driver comes with a rule book. Some rules you can’t avoid. Other rules you can control, absolutely. And of course there are rules for everything in between.

Rank-ordered from “jail time” to “nobody cares”, I group these rule books like this:

  • Regulation: required by law. Failure to comply means you will be deprived of money, liberty, or status by an outside force (typically government and the law).
  • Policy: required by the parent organization. Failure to comply means you will be deprived of employment, company-specific benefits, or status by an organizational force; applies to the entire company.
  • Procedure: required by the nature of the work and the work environment. Failure to comply means you face injury or loss to your person or your team; may not apply to the overall company.
  • Norm: not required, but everyone does it this way. Failure to comply may impact those performing the work, and result in ridicule or loss of status. Work unit preference.
  • Technique: not required, but individuals do it this way. Often more efficient. Must be supported by norms, procedures, policies, and regulations. Personal preference.

How do these drivers impact your work every day? A Federal regulation that directs your TPS reports? A company policy that controls billable hours? A procedure for signing out equipment? An office norm allowing casual attire on Friday? A technique for setting up your desk every day?

Each level is important for success. But rules can get miscategorized, too.

Has your office norm (“best practice”) become so useful, it should really be a procedure? Does that tedious company policy really apply to your team, or is it just a collection of antiquated procedures? What techniques can you discover from your local experts that could be codified in procedure or even policy?

Sometimes a rule is not really a rule! Take a look at what you do every day, and reassess the rules of the game. Every rule book is shaping your corporate culture. Take some time to make them right.

—–

Copyright © 2016 Expeditionaire and Edward K. Beale
Image from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PLEaSE_DO_NOT_TOUCH_(4366639799).jpg

(You may have different names for these rule book categories, so let me know what you call them in the comments.)

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)

Make Training Look Like a Good Bet

Poker Chips

Make Training Look Like a Good Bet

My last post discussed why learning and development (L&D) should be a budget priority: it is easier to nudge a spinning wheel than to start from zero. In the end, headquarters agreed but still wanted cuts. So to match the 10% workforce reduction, I took a 10% reduction in student load, and absorbed the cuts across my various learning programs.

Still, I kept 90% of my annual budget under threat of deeper cuts. My argument started like this. For an organization with an annual budget of $10 billion US, my L&D team had a budget of $5 million US (with roughly $4 million of that sunk salary cost and $1 million operating cost).

“Would you be willing to bet that spending half of a tenth of one percent in developing the workforce will return at least that amount in productivity over the course of a year?”

Headquarters reluctantly agreed: it was probably a good bet. Looked at another way, my $5 million budget supported a 50,000-person workforce. I said,

“Do you think betting $100 per person on their L&D will return at least $100 as productivity (or just good will) per person?”

Of course – that’s less than nine dollars per month, or 30 cents per day!

When defending your L&D budget, I suggest a similar approach. Get the best numbers you can about organizational budget, the amount directed at L&D, and the size of your workforce. Then do the math, and if possible frame the results as a good bet.

And now, let me know what the answer looks like for your organization!

Image from: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gambling_chips.jpg

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)

 

New Leaders Should Follow the STARS

Starry Night

This is an older HBR article by Michael D. Watkins, but it does not seem dated. When a leader is hired to replace someone at the Director level or above, Watkins asks the new leader to do a short analysis and adjust their strategy up front.

From the article:

“STARS” is an acronym for the five common situations leaders may find themselves moving into: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success.

I was once handed a new supervisor who viewed every new role as a chance to “make his mark.” He had approached every job – almost a dozen – in this way for over 20 years. He was hard-wired to treat each new job as a turnaround. And my goodness, was he hard to work for. The work did NOT need to be turned around, decidedly not. The place was highly successful, and sustaining that success (or as I like to say “keeping the trains running on time”) should have been the main focus.

Instead, this new leader decided to “shake things up a bit” for almost a year. Half my time was spent convincing the new leader that his focus on rebranding, opening unfunded business lines, seeking growth in obscure markets; “doing more with less,” were not answers to any existing problems. The work suffered, the staff suffered, and in the end, the customers suffered so much that criticism rang out loudly in the surveys.

In 20 years as a tactician, this leader had never developed strategic skills, and floundered when those skills were needed most. If you are a leader new-to-a-role, or are working under someone who “just doesn’t get it,” this article may help.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_sky#/media/File:Starry_Night_at_La_Silla.jpg

(My book West By Sea is 20% off in August with discount code. Enjoy!)