The Blue Hook Philosophy [3/10]

This post is part of an upcoming e-book which will be released in 2015.

“How honest is the dialogue between employees and managers on your team?”

– Question #3 from the Startup Quality Survey

In the prior chapter we introduced W. Edwards Deming, but here we have a chance to dig a bit deeper. As a statistician, Deming viewed the world in terms of systems, and he had a tremendous understanding of variation. He believed that these concepts could be applied not only to manufacturing processes, but to leadership and management as well. What does that have to do with an honest dialogue between employees and managers? Keep reading!

Whether you work at an investment bank, a local government, or a tech startup, your performance is probably reviewed on a regular basis. With a basic understanding of statistics, it is fairly easy to see that differences in performance are natural, but Deming divided these differences into “special” and “common” causes. Many of the problems that we typically attribute to employees are actually issues with the system or “common” causes, which individuals have no control over. See Deming’s Red Bead Experiment if the prior link piqued your interest.

Most managers make some attempt to break up this annual performance review into smaller increments. A generous leadership team might schedule a meeting with each employee every couple of months or use some kind of automated system to iterate more frequently. Would you ask your spouse or children to fill out a survey every week in order to facilitate an honest dialogue within your family? Of course not! Drive the fear out of your team by listening to them directly and using their feedback.

Avoid shooting for specific objectives and quantitative goals if you are aiming for an honest dialogue between employees and managers. Project management software can calculate “velocity”, displaying your rate of progress week after week, yet it doesn’t explain how or why the numbers have changed. Natural fluctuations are often interpreted as success or failure. Instead of trying to increase your velocity, talk with your employees regularly about the system and focus on improving your process.

While the following quote was written in 1986, it is still highly relevant to technical leadership today, and it will likely ring true for years to come:

“The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines do a better job.”

– W. Edwards Deming, ‘Out of the Crisis’