Being nice does not mean being a doormat

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I’m not aggressive and I have to get it done. I’m a nice guy, but while I tend to see the best in other people, I know I also get walked on by vendors, customers and sometimes even employees. How do I find the balance?

THOUGHTS OF THE DAY: Think about what makes you call yourself a “nice guy.” Hone skills that are synonymous with leadership. Make sure you’re clear about where you want to go with the company. Make asking for input a sign of strength, not weakness.

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Shifting Talent to Prepare for the Future

We’ve got a couple of employees we don’t want to lose who can’t grow where they are.

Thoughts of the Day: Figure out the talent you’ll need in the future. Look for keepers among your current employee pool. Keep employees for the right reasons. Figure out the fit through a variety of means. Re-onboard employees periodically.

Every business owner needs to carve out time to work on the business, planning how to meet the company’s future needs. What kind of work will the company be doing? What jobs will people need to fill? What skills go with those jobs? What jobs will go away?

Play out alternate scenarios:

  • Scenario A: If the economy expands vs. if the economy contracts, might call for stronger sales and marketing skills to know which way the wind is blowing and to sail ahead of it.
  • Scenario B: one product or service takes off, another one dies off: might mean more R&D tied to stronger production skills in a new area, fewer employees assigned to work on the services that are in decline.
  • Scenario C: expansion equates to investment in infrastructure at the same time cash flow dries up: probably calls for greater finance skills.
  • Scenario D: steady growth, more employees, more complex regulatory environment, shines the spotlight on increased legal and human resources ability.

Think about how your company will deal with an aging workforce, changing demographics and the need for workers to have a college level education. Brainstorming what your company is likely to need in the future gives you time to prepare.

Start with your current base of employees. Look for high achievers, steady producers, people you can count on for honesty, integrity, hard work and foresight. Talk with employees about the need to build talent for the future and challenge them to participate in that process.

Get people to engage in their personal development. Use mentors to show people what the future can look like, trainers to help build skills, and coaches to work through the challenges along the way. Regularly take time to talk with employees about both the here-and-now of the business, and what the future is likely to hold.

Find out why employees see themselves as connected to your company. Build on that as you consciously develop the company’s culture. Insure the values of growth and opportunity are part of the company’s mission.

Set KPIs that are good for the business and that reward people for making improvements: productivity, research and development, loss ratios, waste rates. Measure how much people are taking on ownership responsibilities. Look for increasing amounts of time off for the owner. Reward reasonable risk taking and ability to solve the right kinds of problems.

Be intentional with training. Talk about it at every review. Ask big picture questions:
• What do employees need to know down the road, and where can they go to get that education?
• What training resources are available inside the company and how do people gain access?
• How does the company support people who seek education out side the company: funding, reimbursement for results, time off to study, recognition for accomplishments, promotion ladders?

As employees grow, figure out how they get promoted. Not all promotions have to be vertical. Giving employees a chance to rotate through other areas of the business can be eye opening for the individual and the company.

As employees grow, it can be hard for peers to adjust. Have a formal promotion/re-introduction process, as if the employee were new to the company. Make a major announcement. Review responsibilities and benefits that go with the new assignment. Hold a networking session for the employee’s new peer class. Assign a mentor to oversee the transition.

Think about the money and effort that went into training an employee for a new position. If this was a new hire, the company would carefully introduce the employee to the company, insure the employee understood his/her responsibilities, and watch over integration with superiors, peers and subordinates. As an existing employee shifts into a new role and new responsibilities, be equally as formal: behave as if this were a brand new employee.

Looking for a good book? Developing Employees Who Love to Learn: Tools, Strategies, and Programs for Promoting Learning at Work, by Linda Honold.


Putting a Spotlight on Operations

My operations manager doesn’t want to cut anyone’s hours and get new people on board. She’s in a groove, and even though the people she relies on aren’t doing her any favors, she’s continuing to funnel work to them instead of fixing the problem by getting new people up to speed. What should I do?

Thoughts of the Day: Make sure you and your operations manager are on the same page. Set goals to define what improvement means to both of you. Agree to a list of action steps and dates so that you both can measure progress. Make sure to get training for the new people so they have a better chance of doing a good job when they get called on to perform their increasing duties.

Start by checking the facts. Make time to meet and find out, specifically, what you and your operations manager do and don’t agree on.

• What is really concerning you about the department? Does your operations manager see it the same way?

• How much loyalty does the operations manager feel toward the employees who have been around a longer period of time?

• Does your operations manager have any motivation to mix things up, or is change perceived as more work, more disruptions and more opportunities for things to go wrong?

• How comfortable is your operations manager at training new employees? Is there enough time in the day to train new people?

• What does the manager see as consequences if new people get more work and the people who’ve been around longer get less work?

Explain your case, why you see it as essential to get new people into the mix. Explain your concerns about how the department performs at present. Don’t sugarcoat things. Lay out the issues – as you see them – and then hear what your operations manager has to say.

Make it clear that you expect change. Ask your operations manager to set goals for how the department will improve over the coming year. Then talk through how those improvements require additional personnel and changes in performance from the existing team.

Ask the operations manager to create structure within the department that will support quality and training initiatives. Ask the operations manager to assign responsibility for quality and training to leaders among the current employees. Get train-the-trainer help, if needed, for both the operations manager and the people assigned to be responsible for quality and training.

Decide together on specific improvements you’d like to see. Estimate a time frame for accomplishing those improvements. If you’re still committed to seeing new people get more work, make it clear how much you want them to get and by when. Put a number on the kind of cost savings or reduction you’d like to see resulting from changes such as improved throughput and eliminating errors and redos.

Agree on measures to track that will help employees understand problems and see improvements. Ask the operations manager to post graphs of those measures within the department and to hold regular meetings with all employees to discuss progress and obstacles.

Set up a training program to get new people up to speed. Assess current employees as potential trainers. Think through concerns you have about performance by experienced personnel. You don’t want bad habits to be trained into the new team. Pick your best people to pass on their good habits.

Break out tasks that need training into smaller units. Pick people in the organization who are excellent at performing specific tasks. Ask them to train others on how to do what they do well. Develop a training manual that can be used to codify best practices.

Wrap up by discussing how improving performance in operations will make your manager’s life better. Recognize that there is always more than one way to make changes. Allow your operations manager freedom to make his or her own decisions within boundaries that are defined by the goals you’ve agreed to.

Looking for a good book? Try “Developing a Lean Workforce: A Guide for Human Resources, Plant Managers, and Lean Coordinators” by Chris Harris, Rick Harris.


Changing Behavior

In order to get better as a company, we have to change how we’re doing some things. But I’m finding it difficult to break old habits – for myself and the people who report to me. How can I help everyone here get better at building new habits? The alternative is to get rid of everyone and start fresh – just kidding! That’s not an option at all. What should I do?

Thoughts of the Day: Habits are powerful and can be hard to change. The good news is human beings are wired to learn. It is usually less expensive to work on changing behaviors than it is to fire otherwise good people and train their replacements. Learn how to make the process of changing habits rewarding.

What people do during most of the day is a combination of conscious thought and unconscious activity. The newer the activity, the more conscious people need to be. The more repetitive tasks are done almost unconsciously. Those are the habits.

Our brains get wired through the process of repetition. Repetition leads to well-worn pathways in the brain. The more practiced the habit, the more worn the pathway, the harder it is to change behaviors.

To make changes it’s necessary to carve out new neural pathways in the brain. And to get the brain to stop using the old paths – that’s the challenging part. One interesting statistic I’ve heard is that to build a new habit it takes 21 days of practicing or repeating the new behavior. That’s related to what it takes to carve a new neural pathway in the brain.

Because humans are wired to acquire, process, and use new knowledge, the door is open for us to build new habits, replacing the older, less successful ones. It’s all in figuring out how to go about doing that.

In order to change habits, set up reminders, plan out activities, and include rewards. Take an active approach to change. Consciously pursue new activities. Practice new skills and behaviors repetitively. Build up new pathways in the brain – the new habits. Stay off the old pathways long enough for them to fade away due to lack of use.
Here are some steps that can help:

  • Figure out what it is you’re trying to do differently, and what you hope to accomplish by doing that.
  • Define the new behavior or habit, clearly, in writing, so you can be conscious about it
  • Set up a time and place to practice the new behavior regularly

In other words, make the experience of change meaningful. Practice. Allow time for change to occur. Focus on the wins.

It takes conscious intervention and practice to change habits and create new neural pathways. Build new routines to go with the habits you’re looking to change. Eventually you’ll free up the conscious brain by consciously practicing new activities so much that they turn into unconscious activities. See yourself as successfully practicing until new behaviors become new habits.

Keep a record of your progress. Be aware of the changes that are happening. Look for gradual changes over time, rather than rapidly attempting big changes. Give up trying to be perfect. Accept that you may miss an activity, catch yourself and get back to practicing the new habit as quickly as possible.

Do use visualization to strengthen and deepen the habits you’re trying to build. See yourself performing successfully. Imagine in your mind’s eye the steps you go through to accomplish the new behavior. Focus on change as bringing pleasure rather focusing on than pain that may accompany of struggling to change.

Looking for a good book? Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long by David Rock


Want to print this article? Changing Behavior


Build a Procedure Manual to Get Things Done Right

We are getting ready to hire another key person to help with our growing operation. I can see that it would help to build a manual – for someone else to come on board – the instructions – but how do I build one?

Thoughts of the Day: Procedures manuals create real value for a company. Document as you train. Store documents on a shared drive, and ask everyone to contribute. Expect to go through 3 – 4 revisions to get it near-perfect. Look to your industry trade groups, support vendors and peers for examples.

When someone looks to buy a company, one of the things they look for is a set of procedures that tell them how to do things. If the company’s procedures documented, a buyer will see the company as more valuable. You might as well create value on a day-to-day basis by building procedures as you go.

Writing down how to do things has a number of advantages. First, there is a document that can be referred to for training new employees. Second, as people contribute to procedures, there becomes one standard way which everyone follows. Third, as procedures get perfected they become a record of best practices.

One of the easiest ways to create procedures is to build them one step at a time. As new employees come on board, assign a trainer. Ask the trainer to make notes on the general topics they will be covering. Then ask new employees to keep detailed records, logging all of the things they are learning, step by step.

Have the trainer and new employee review the log book each day. This is a great way to assess how the employee is doing, looking at what’s been learned, what errors need to be corrected, etc. Each day, have the trainer and trainee make edits in the log book, to correct any misunderstandings. As owner / supervisor, periodically ask to take a look at the training log book, to be sure it’s being used, and to see how things are progressing.

Once an employee is fully trained on a task, ask him or her to type up detailed notes from the log book. Review one last time, for any final edits. File the notes on a shared drive, where others can access them. Send out a notice that a procedure has been written up, and ask others to take a look and provide feedback.

When the next employees come on board, give them the draft procedure and ask them to try to perform the task from the procedure. Ask them to make notes on where they get stuck – as that’s a place in the procedure that needs clarification. Add updates to the procedure, hand it to the next person being trained, and so on, until the procedure is complete. It usually is near-perfect after 3 or 4 people have used the procedure to learn how to perform the task.

Many industry trade groups have examples of industry specific procedures. Human resources vendors should have valuable documents to share on employee benefits and policies. Vendors may have best practices to share, especially if they do a lot of work in your industry.

Think about building a supply chain manual, linking together best practices from one vendor to the next. Start with ordering supplies, followed by recording how orders come in the door, get turned into products or services, and flow out to customers.

Practically everything in the company will benefit from someone taking the time to write up a procedure.  It saves time on interruptions and delays if people can go to look up a document rather than looking for a person to explain things. It also cuts out misunderstandings, as people look critically at how they describe the work they do.

Finally, procedures can speed up training. Generally, people remember only 15% of what they hear. They remember 50% of what they write down, and up to 85% of what they hear, write down and play back through the procedure process.

Looking for a good book? Best Practices in Policies and Procedures, by Stephen Page.

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