Don’t Spin Your Tires

My project is stuck. My team is under performing. We are falling behind the competition. We are missing our earnings projection. Why? What is the problem? Where do I start?

There are five discovery factors an effective leader must assess before launching any countermeasures to get a project/team/business back on track.

Before I proceed, please understand that I strongly support using one of the powerful problem-solving methodologies developed and rigorously field-tested over the past several decades; including the Lean Plan-Do-Check-Act or the Six Sigma Design-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control. Those methods define a series of effective process steps for continuous improvement. However, they do not tell you where to start. While the discovery nature of those methodologies and related tool sets would eventually discover the root cause of your team’s poor performance, the urgency of the business situation typically allows for few, if any, false starts.

Even the best processes perform more efficiently (i.e., quickly uncover the root cause) when we seed or start the process by first assessing the most likely problem areas. If you discover oil in your car’s radiator (as we did recently in our household), it is a waste of time investigating the car’s electrical system. Instead, you will focus attention on the automobile fluids and look for sources of cross-contamination.

Where do I start when my project/team/business is under performing? Two fundamental principles undergird the elements and sequence of the five discovery factors I have developed and used over the years; one, people want to do a good job; and two, the selection of your team heavily influences the fate of your team/organization/business.

So, what are those five elements? Where should we begin an evaluation to identify the root cause of under performance?

  1. Talent. Do we have the right players on the team? Even the most well-intentioned person will fail in certain circumstances. I watched the movie “Lone Survivor” with my son last night and was again struck by the realization that there is no way I could become a Navy Seal. Their combination of mental and physical determination makes them a breed apart.
  2. Target. This is a combination of strategy and priorities. In short, are we working on the right stuff? If a particular baseball game requires the team to play “small ball,” but my batters are all trying to hit a home run, that’s a problem. If I am spending my team’s resources on improving the distribution system when we have a problem of product quality, we are focusing on the wrong target. The more typical problem is that everything is a priority, which means nothing is a priority.
  3. Tactics. Evaluate our processes. Do individuals or teams use their own work methods? Are performance standards widely deployed and rigorously tracked? Do we have documented processes for performing repetitive functions, including how to solve problems? Do we have documented processes that we frequently ignore?
  4. Training. Do we explicitly know the skills (as distinct from talents) necessary for high-performance in a particular project or organization? Do we know how team members’ skills align with those success factors? Have we provided appropriate training to fill in the gaps or cross-training to build sufficient depth and enhance flexibility.
  5. Time. Is the team investing enough time? More bluntly, are they working hard enough? This factor is intentionally last, because the answer to a business problem is rarely work harder. However, there are circumstances where solution requires working faster and longer. So, don’t ignore it.

The next time you find your team stuck, pull out this list and use it to start your own assessment of why the team is spinning its tires.