Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Not getting the Contract

As I headed down the motorway, I noticed the over head signs: 'Congestion J7-J12 - Long Delays'. Not good, since I was heading for an important meeting with some new contacts, and although I had allowed an hour's buffer, when the motorway gets indigestion it can take two, three or four hours to clear up.

Turning off the motorway a couple of junctions ahead of the trouble, I immediately run into slow moving traffic - of course, everyone is trying to work around the blockage - which eventually resolves after passing a set of traffic lights timed to serve traffic on and off the motorway rather than running parallel to it. After about ten swift miles, the pattern repeats, and again, and again. I pull off the road and ring ahead, to say I cannot make it on time. They say their schedule today has been disrupted by the motorway blockage too, and ask me to just turn up when I can. Eventually I turn into the car park, half an hour behind schedule, and hurry inside. Losing my hour's buffer has also prevented me from reading The Book ahead of the meeting. The Book is crucial, because it is the manifesto of The Man who owns the organisation, and reading The Book is what led me to this meeting. After a few minutes to lower my stress levels, I am shown into the presence of The Man's staff - acolytes, maybe.

I might have guessed from The Man's background (academic, maverick, big success in business through unconventional methods), but I am walking into a room pervaded with self-satisfaction. Dress code is jeans and lumberjack shirts. Furnishing is soft sofas with heavy fabric. Style is 18th century townhouse, knocked into farmhouse-size rooms, with carefully preserved uneven floors, and homely bookcases and tables instead of filing cabinets and chairs. My linen silk jacket, which normally serves me well as 'not a suit but not casual' and the silk tie against my made to measure shirt mark me out. Even the layout is contrived and spooky, I am placed with two women 45% on my left, and a man 60% on my right. Maintaining eye contact I would have to do tennis-style head swivelling.

A voice (middle woman) cuts through: 'To be fair to you this is just so we can get to know you a little, and you us. We get a lot of interest, and every now and again we bring several people in for one these meetings, at the moment we are not in a position to take anything further forward, in fact the last session was very productive so we don't have any needs in the short term.'

OK, fine, if you are wasting my time, you are also wasting your own which I think is unlikely, but anyway I'm here, so let's get to it.

'Tell us about yourself'

This is a question I hate. Of course I can talk about myself all day, but the question is, what to include, what is going to be of interest, what will help me pass the test this meeting obviously is, and get closer to the point where money changes hands ? I talk about myself, my drives and motivations, and the things I know and have done that are relevant to The Man's work, and how The Book speaks to me.

'What is it you think we do ?' From right-hand man, who I had not been making eye-contact with.

Another challenging question. The Book has 250 pages setting out what The Man's organisation does - or at least as much of it as The Man cares to make public as a teaser and sales aid. I wish I had had my spare hour to park up and re-skim The Book. I wish I had re-read the book in the previous couple of days. I wish I had realised that 'a chat to get to know a little about one another' meant 'the Oxford interview from hell'. I talk about a few key issues in the Book, and how they relate to things I have learned from elsewhere and have worked out and put into practice for myself.

'What is the important thing we do ?' Right-hand man again.

Is this an idiotic question ? - every organisation believes everything it does is important, or it wouldn't do it. Or is it a clever one ? - some things are more difficult to do than others, and that is where you have to focus more of your attention, but now you're asking me to guess at how your internal capability - which you have said nothing about - matches against the work in front of you. Or maybe it's just a shibboleth ? - we have many good offers brought to us, and in being selective there's no need to use rational methods, irrational ones will cut them down to the number we need just as effectively. I talk about what I think is important.

' We like to work with people who can very quickly understand how we operate. Actually X is the key to what we do, and Y and Z that you mentioned are subordinate matters which follow on from X. Our work is focused on X. Is there anything else you'd like to say ?'

Ouch. I have just failed. Time to stand up, shake hands, and head off back along the now freely-flowing motorway, telling myself that the self-satisfied complacency I have just observed - and to be frank, have reinforced - would not be comfortable to deal with on an ongoing basis. All true but an inner voice insists that it would be very nice to be wrapped in that thick comfortable blanket of Smug.

© Steve Roberts 2008

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Heroes of our time - Eli Goldratt

Eli Goldratt is best known for his book The Goal which described in a compelling way the struggle of a plant manager to improve his plant's performance to the point where the parent company would keep it open rather than close it.

You may think this is a bit of a niche book, because manufacturing industry involves relatively few people these days, and even when a story is built using corporate politics, family stress, and personal stubbornness, few people are likely to get excited about handling the technical constraints in production organisation. However, within its niche, the book has been outstandingly successful since its first publication in 1984.

Goldratt had previously written regular textbooks about the new ways of managing business which he had invented - or perhaps discovered. None of the books had been very successful, and 'The Goal' was a departure: instead of explaining his thinking, he illustrated it by revealing the causes and the effects, never actually spelling out the details of what he called 'Theory of Constraints' or TOC.

TOC is set of managerial techniques built on two foundations, the 'Five Focusing Steps', and the 'Cloud'.

The Five Focusing Steps

The Five Focusing steps is a method for improving any system which produces a flow of output. It has four key ideas:

1. Any system which is about flow - flow of parts through a manufacturing plant, or flow of tasks through a service business - must be subject to at least one constraint.

2. In almost all practical situations one of these constraints is dominant over all the others.

3. In order to improve the flow of the system we must focus on that dominant constraint.

4. Work on anything other than the dominant constraint cannot improve the system.

These key ideas may seem blindingly obvious (except 2, which is clearly an assumption), but what for me is special about Goldratt is his determination to follow the logic wherever it leads, whether to the seemingly obvious or the seemingly far-fetched. From these simple foundaations he builds a simple universal system for continuing improvement, which when applied to any practical environment, gives rise to thinking and actions which are far from obvious.

The Cloud

The Cloud is a method of analysing and creatively resolving conflicts. Its basic template is that one party proposes to take an action, and the other party proposes to take an action which is in conflict. The Cloud is based on these key ideas:

1. Although many conflicts a can be dealt with effectively by walking away, or by agreeing a trade-off compromise, or by a unilaterally imposed result, there are many conflicts where none of those approaches will lead to a good solution, and we need to apply a more creative result.

2. When parties to a conflict are bound by an overriding common objective, there is always a good solution to be found, in terms of that common objective.

3. The visible conflict between the incompatible proposed actions is driven by an invisible conflict. Each party has chosen its proposed action for a reason, because in some way it supports the common objective. The visible conflict arises when the two sides embrace different reasons or different values, which are themselves in (invisible) conflict.

4. Creative and lasting solutions are to be found by putting the conflicting proposals and the values which drive them 'on the table', and seeking creative reconciliation among the values and the overriding common objectives, rather than by trading off the conflicting proposals.

These ideas are not quite obvious, but they do fit in with a common insight, that in some conflicts both parties are actually right, and attempts to resolve them by a compromise or an imposed solution very often prove short-lived.

The Five Focusing Steps and the Cloud together

When we attempt to improve a situation, we will propose to change some aspect of the status quo. Usually, the status quo exists for a reason - good, bad or forgotten. When we propose a change we are therefore likely to initiate a conflict. usually, then, in order to apply the Five Focusing Steps we have to apply the Cloud as well. Individually these tools are powerful, together they enable a methodical process of improving almost anything.

©Steve Roberts 2008