Monday, September 28, 2015

Org Structures: Pyramids to Control Towers?

Organizational structures, both for-profit and not-for-profit, have often been likened to pyramids.  This was obviously driven by the number of people at the bottom versus the top.  Interestingly though, today’s organizations have begun resembling pyramids in other important features:
1.       They are designed to connect layer-by-layer – meaning there is no direct connection between the bottom and the apex.  You are compelled to get information only from the layer next to you.
2.       The focus is on the mass at the bottom – the apex serves almost like a “crown” on the body. 
3.       They are archaic
In contrast, what we want of our organization structures today are:
·         Ability to communicate direct across the length and breadth of the organization
·         Get value-added information from immediate next layer when needed, and directly from the sender otherwise.
·         A general ability to interact direct (communicate with or get status of) with any slice of the organization: vertical, horizontal, diagonal or pin-pointed.
 Unfortunately the “matrix” structure followed by many large organizations too does not fit the bill, as they are in fact tend to be a row of pyramids connected to each other at the apex.

Looking for a physical structure that could better describe our requirements, it occurred to me that an Air Traffic Control Tower might be a good one to pick.  Not that it is the ideal. But consider these factors:
1.       The “cab” at the top is where the “head” is, where the focus falls
2.       The body serves to support and “ground” the cab
3.       To the extent the body is populated and adds value, it is can be connected to the cab with a shaft-and-wings skeleton that has vents all along to allow information flow.
A different analogy could be the contrast between a pear-shaped body and an apple-shaped one.  The medical establishment is fairly agreed on which one is better for us.
How does build this shaft-and-wings skeleton?  What is it made of?
In my experience at, and consultations with, a wide swath of businesses from start-ups and SMEs to large corporates, I realized that certain very ordinary practices, institutions and tools play a big role in the making of the skeleton.  These are:
·         People (but, of course)
·         Policies
·         Procedures (aka processes)
·         Technology (mostly information technology).
Call them 3P-T for short.  I believe, these 4 elements of an organization are instrumental in shaping its culture and deserve the highest level of attention.  More so, if you seek an entrepreneurial culture in your organization!
More on 3P-T soon!...

... Sri Vadrevu 

Monday, September 30, 2013


Management lore is full of praise for team work.  Indeed, it is not only unpolitic, but absolutely unacceptable today to say I will go against team consensus.  Having benefited fully from conventional wisdom and “good Management education”, I confess being an aggressive team player; to the extent that I have always looked down upon the typical autocratic bosses, who “know all the answers”.   Yet, the same Management lore is also quite assertive that a true leader should assert himself and listen to his “gut” and be willing to go against the tide, where necessary. 

And therein lies the typical dilemma of the leader – the need to make a judgment call, the need to balance polar view points and struggle with the grey areas, with the help of his grey matter alone.
Three hiring decisions “we” made recently have forced me to sort out my thinking on these issues.   But before I dig specifics, a word about hiring itself.  As a guy, who soaked in a lot of “General Electric” values and training, Energy has been a big thing with me in hiring.  For those new to this, GE places a lot of emphasis on energy and the ability to energize in every hiring decision.  I often talk about this to my team and there have been cases where I have rejected otherwise qualified candidates on the ground that they lacked energy.

Now, we are ready to talk specifics:
Case-1: Low Energy
We needed a “general purpose” “I.T. guy”, to sort out level-one computer issues and handle some admin work on the side.  At that time, we lacked diversity in the team.  So, when this candidate came along with fairly good credentials on paper and from the minority group, I was sold.  Strangely, my team was not.   They felt he was too quiet, low on energy and possibly snooty.  I rationalized saying energy does not always have to manifest itself physically and that, just because he speaks less does not mean he is snooty. 
And so, despite some resistance from the team, I went ahead and hired him.  The guy turned out to be a disaster.  Low energy, low motivation and would almost routinely miss his deliverables.  Eventually had to let him go, in what turned out to be a fairly costly piece of learning for me.  Of course, like a “true leader” I also told my team they should have been more assertive and should have argued with me.

Case-2: High Energy
We needed a Customer Service Representative and were finding it hard to find Mr.
Right.  And then my Head of Ops called to say they had found Mr. Right.  So an interview was scheduled for me the following day.  I found the guy talking non-stop.  For each question he’d ramble for – what seemed like – an hour!  Thrilled with his energy levels and the fact that he could speak so well, my Head of Ops was and had practically told him he’d be hired.  However, I was concerned how a guy who liked his own voice so much, hear the customer?  But this time around, I thought I should hold my own opinion in check and go by the Team’s opinion.  I reckoned, it was proven last time that I am not always right!

So, we made the offer and he was on board.  Within two days, we started getting customer complaints and even the immediate Supervisor protested he could not deal with the guy.  Besides, we also discovered he had lied about his qualifications – and was stupid enough to unwittingly give away the secret on the second day itself!  Luckily, that came in handy and we were able to recover without much loss of time or money!

Case-3: Big Company Halo
This time it was about filling a leadership position.  I had few candidates to start with and needed someone on board pretty quickly.  That was bad enough!  So, when I found a candidate with the right academic qualifications (an IT undergrad + an MBA), I was delighted!  To cap that, she came from several years in a huge multinational I had a lot of respect for!  How could I go wrong?  In fact I argued, she should be able to get us some best practices from this reputed company as well.  This time round, my team was with me as well!  So, we overlooked the fact that her English was off the mark and she seemed rather “old world” in her style of supervision, preferring tighter discipline and focusing on inputs such as time on seat.  This was in contrast to our usual focus on deliverables, while treating things like punctuality more casually.
This one failed too!  I caught myself wincing over her emails going to clients – the few language errors we had noticed earlier were despite the exercise of extreme care during the interview process.  In routine correspondence, the language was completely unacceptable, if not incomprehensible!  The “old world style” also translated to just instructing under performers to ‘buck up’ and giving them a tight target, rather than making an effort to find the cause and working with them to address the underlying causes – whether it was training, competence, or even some other technical obstacle.

So, what are the learnings?  While we had several successes in-between as well, I struggled to reconcile myself to these obvious failures -- afraid they were symptomatic of a hidden weakness in the way we hired or the way I consulted with my team.
All I could come up with are the following.  If you, as an unbiased reader, can suggest better clues, your help will be appreciated!
·        One of a Leader’s top jobs is to cultivate the habit of push back in the team.  Even if the Leader presents his ideas as carved in stone, the team needs to have the comfort with the Leader to present their case / their perception of the situation in an exploratory, non-threatening manner.  This comes naturally to a few – especially those like today’s Gen-Y, who have worked in teams from childhood.  For others, this is one of the most difficult skills to learn.
·        One cannot argue with the need for the Leader to go by his own gut feel / conviction on occasion.  The trick is to ensure these are not only few, but also to practice explaining his conviction to the team (and himself) in as rational terms as possible.  Also, before taking the ‘forbidden bite’ he should practice fully hearing out all the objections.  Hearing them will at least enhance the chance of their sinking through the wall of his conviction.  To claim, “I don’t want to hear any objections” is perhaps the gravest of all mistakes.
·        Going by what you read about the culture in celebrity companies and assuming everyone in such companies carry the same values, can only be at your own peril.  Even the most celebrated companies have large pockets – especially those that are far removed from the cultural center – where practice could be the exact opposite.  Surprisingly, after having realized this, I have come across several companies where the culture that is talked about in the press is practiced only ‘among engineers’ or on the ‘shop floor’ or some particular part of the company while the culture in the rest of the company is spread pretty evenly all over the map!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Integrity Policies: Intent & Practice

A recent conversation about Integrity Policies of large corporations had me fuming!  Big companies love strict policies that prohibit their managers from taking that sixty dollar pen from a client on Christmas.  Unfortunately, in many cases, that is about the biggest impact the policy makes on the company’s societal behavior.
The policies one sees commonly often have only one objective: to ensure the company keeps its hands clean when things go wrong… "we told you not to do it!"

The problem is not with the idea of an integrity policy.  It is with the Management that wants the policy, but not its full impact.  They still want that business in that "third world" country, and that contract from the company which demands something more than the price.  It does not have to be procurement alone that is involved.  In fact it may not be a purchase or sale at all.  It could be the rights to build an office or dam, carry on business in a place the locals (or the local government) do not want, or even access to a market protected by local mafia.
Most companies I know have difficulty letting that business go away to competition (always on the presumption that competition does not have any issue with such deals).  They want the job.  Most smart managers in these companies -- steeped in its culture --  know exactly what to do.  They may, at best, bring it up while having a drink with the boss.  Most savvy managers would not do even that.  They know the boss knows.  They just 'fix' the problem. 
The best known solution is to outsource the entire function to a local entity that knows its way around.  The cost of the transaction and the demands of all related parties are taken care of via a ‘transparent’ procurement policy.  A clean invoice is produced for valid, legitimate services and nobody could be wiser.
Lesser managers take undue risks.  They arrange pay offs within their powers, disguising them with legitimate descriptions, and take credit for "achieving the impossible".  These ‘practical’ managers are often celebrated -- as long as things are going fine.  A hall mark of such managers is that they tend to be kept in the same position for a long time.  Designations may change, but they are kept responsible for that job, so the company gets to benefit from their excellent relations with locals.
I hope these managers realize they are risking their careers for the sake of some temporary gains, and, importantly, that they subsidize the jobs of their bosses.  The bosses who protect these managers are real evil.  They are the ones who enjoy the upside of the transaction, while remaining the “guardians of integrity” in their company and put the careers of naïve managers at risk, often knowingly.
For the company, these bosses are the critical, “must have” people who make Integrity Policies work while facilitating operations.
My problem with such integrity policies is the mockery it makes of the concept and the way it is used to trap naïve lower level management, whose loyalty to the company (or fear of losing the job) overshadows both personal and corporate values.   Indeed, many of those responsible for making such policies are not unaware of the ways in which it can be bent where required, and often ‘facilitate’ practical exceptions through appropriate use of language and governance mechanisms.   
This is in fact a different policy in the guise of integrity.  It’s called, "Don't ask, don't tell".
The sad part is that it works – at least in the short term.  The seniors are protected; the masses – both inside and outside the company -- are ’inspired’ by the policy; the naïve loyals, who are few and carefully chosen, are rewarded for their loyalty.  The company grows without hindrance.
In fact, even when things go wrong, it can be handled discreetly, by “letting go” the misguided employee and reiterating the integrity policy to the press, as well as internally.
The only thing that does not work is integrity.

-- Sri

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Changing the CTQ (Critical To Quality)

Wonder if you've heard or read about CTQ.  It is a critical part of six sigma jargon and you are unlikely to find anyone who is familiar with six sigma and is not aware of this term.  It's short for Critical To Quality.  However, few people outside the esoteric world of six sigma have heard about this term.  And that's a pity.

For, any executive who is serious about operational excellence, is handicapped if s/he is not using this concept in some shape or form.  CTQs are the internal critical quality parameters that relate to the requirements of the customer. CTQ is the quality, for which customer pays. It links internal processes to the requirements or needs of the customer. They are not the same as CTCs (Critical to Customer), though the two are often confused.  CTCs are what is important to the customer; CTQs are what’s important to the quality of the process or service to ensure the things that are important to the customer are delivered without fail.  For instance, the sound made by closing a car door might be a CTC, while the dimensional tolerances and cushioning needed to produce those conditions are CTQs for the auto maker.  (  In Six Sigma, a quality function deployment (QFD) or CTQ tree is used to map the CTQs to the CTCs.

  Of course, this post is not intended to be a primer for CTQ.  You will find plenty of that on various six sigma websites.  Rather, the idea is highlight and open up for discussion the power of the CTQ in our search for Operations Excellence.  As I said above, CTQ is often used to identify the changes that need to be made in a process to meet customer requirements better, faster, cheaper.  It is typically treated as relatively static -- unless of course customer requirements themselves change.  That's plain vanilla.

I believe, however, the power of the concept is released -- and better realized -- when it is treated dynamically.  What I mean is that Operations Executives need to take the C more literally.  In a dynamic / fast moving environment, whether on the factory floor or in an office, operations tend to lag and lead on different factors resulting in higher variability in output.  For example, after an attack of employee attrition, when the floor is manned by newbies, certain types of errors may be seen more often.  Alternatively, when a different brand of input / raw material is used in a process, it may have an unintended impact on the output.  Such factors are then required to be managed more closely and, possibly, other changes made in the process, other inputs or even in customer expectations to restore normalcy, or stabilize the process.

In such situations, it is highly recommended that the CTQs be revisited.  Yes, the CTC has not changed.  But the change in inputs or their sources has impacted output and unless the focus of operations is shifs, it is not possible to bring the process back on track.  It is in such circumstances that one needs to consider a change in CTQs -- even though the customers or their CTCs have not changed. 

Another opportunity to change your CTQ occurs when you want to move from customer satisfaction to customer delight.  Assume you have already accomplished customer satisfaction and are now looking to delight your customers with new features or a richer experience (which, the customer may not have specifically required).  It would be best to revisit your CTQs at this stage; this time, along with identifying the new feature as a CTC.

I believe this is what justifies using the term "critical". The specific dictionary meaning I would pick for this term in this context would be "of or forming a crisis; crucial; decisive: a critical operation" and "urgently needed: critical medical supplies".  The point is that changed circumstances have made something else critical today.  To bring the same process focus on to the impact of such change, it is important to identify its impact on the output, customer satisfaction and identify different CTQs to focus on. 

Of course, the job does not end with identifying the new CTQ.  What it does is to focus organizational energy on the new CTQ, which gets measured, highlighted and worked upon.  Going back to the example of newbies on the floor, changing the CTQ to, say, "compliance with internal guidelines", will enable a sharper focus on measuring variance vis-a-vis compliance guidelines and enable introduction of re-training, poka-yokes, huddles and the like to ensure the process reverts to normalcy.

To sum up, CTQs work best when they are revisited occasionally -- especially when there are other changes in inputs or suppliers, or when Management decides on adding higher value to the output.

-- Sri

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Leaders vs. Successful People

Did you notice how all successful people seem to qualify as “Leaders”?  
Leadership seminars often invite personally successful people, even though they may not have led more than their housemaid.  We see many presentations on leadership carrying quotable quotes from “successful leaders” that include the likes of Pele, Albert Einstein and Shah Rukh Khan (Bollywood actor).
 Don’t get me wrong.  I respect all these people.  They have achieved huge success in whatever they attempted and are great role models for generations.  But, the question is, can we really call them “Leaders”.  Can we take their views on how to lead, as a guide in our own quest for leadership? 
There is indeed no doubt that one cannot achieve success without focus, determination, hard work, sacrifice, etc.  It may also be difficult to argue (against) the case that such qualities shape good leaders.  However, to equate all success with leadership would be to confuse issues and blur the concept of leadership.  

This takes us to the logical question, does leadership necessarily mean leading others?  Is someone who exhibits great personal leadership and achieves world-wide recognition and success in her chosen field a Leader?  Just to make sure, I did some Googling on the term “Leader”.  See the box alongside for my findings.  the images above are part of what came up on Google images for "Leaders".  They seem to confirm my 'limiting' view of Leadership... you really need to lead someone else to be called one.  
My concern is that one could end up learning the wrong lessons if one followed the views of such “successful non-leaders”!   For, very often, such successful people are great executors, thinkers, creators, etc -- traits which do not necessarily sit well with leadership. For example, we all know that a key function and quality of leadership is the ability to delegate, motivate, control results, etc.  All of these qualities would seem alien to someone who led only himself.

Similarly, we also know of leaders who have been thrust into leadership positions due to totally accidental circumstances -- and without necessarily having to exercise the noble qualities of personal success that we described above.  Examples that quickly come to mind are political... Sonia Gandhi in India and Kim Jong Un in North Korea. 
The point is, though successful people seem a lot like good leaders and should definitely be celebrated and feted equally, they are very different.  The qualities and experiences they bring to the table are only partially relevant to good leadership.  In fact they cannot even be treated as a subset of “Leadership”, for some of their qualities may not be very helpful in the making of a good leader.  One might even question whether their experiences belong in the literature on Management and Leadership.  I would rather represent Successful People and Leaders by the Venn diagram shown here.
-- Sri