Imagine you are a manager of a department, and you just fired someone who was speaking out against the process they were asked to follow.  I’m sure it was justified as they just didn’t seem like a cultural fit to your image of the department. Instead of being a good corporate citizen and following the process, they were questioning it and perhaps even refusing to follow some part of it as they didn’t think it added value. Seems reasonable and you as a manager are truly above average and doing a good job.  Pat on the back for all.

Just when you’re basking in your glory someone points out “you just fired your most responsible employee!”

On Monday Chris Chapman and I participated in the Gatineau Ottawa Agile Tour (GOAT’14). We brought Deming’s Red Bead Experiment as the core of a session focused on showing participants real transformation starts with management. The experiment itself is a beautiful demonstration of how to run a team …. in all the wrong ways!

The experiment is focused around the White Bead Corporation who produces pristine white beads untouched by human hands. Willing workers must come up to a bucket with red & white beads, and using a paddle we provide draw 50 white beads at a time. Red beads are defects. We use all types of management tools to try and get our willing workers to produce 50 white beads at a time (which is almost statistically impossible). We try all types of ways to motive them from posters, to co-ercing, to financial incentives, and more.

The most profound spot of the session on Monday happened when one of the willing workers approached the bucket of beads, paused, then turned around and said “this is a waste of my time”. She went on to tell us how the process makes it nearly impossible to succeed, and we were wasting her time when it came to producing white beads with a sufficient level of quality. Chris and I looked at each other with a look of “COOL!”, although we’ve never seen such a response in the past this was the ideal situation.

Chris who played the role of supervisor, did the only thing reasonable at that point … he fired her! After all she wasn’t following our process without question, and obviously wasn’t a fit with the culture of the White Bead Corporation. Seems reasonable doesn’t it?

Christopher Avery’s observation during the debrief was spot on … We fired our most responsible employee!

Let’s turn to the real world for a moment to see if I can think of similar situations:

  • A manager demands mega overtime to get an already desperately troubled project completed on time. The response from a developer is he cannot continue to give up his life. The manager reminds the developer he knows where the door is. So the developer uses the door and quits on the spot.
  • A tester sees the imposed processes do nothing to improve the outcomes they are after. After questioning the processes over a period of time she is labelled as a trouble maker and does not advance in her career. She stays but stops speaking up and does what she feels is right without making it visible to the team
  • A project manager has management support to start working with new approaches such as Lean and Agile. Despite early successes once it becomes apparent the department needed to challenge “the way it’s always been”, the project manager is shuffled aside and is no longer allowed to work on anything of significance. Eventually the Project Manager gets demoralized and bored and resigns

For me culture is how groups of people deliver value. A culture that never changes and is never challenged becomes stale and will eventually go moldy. It seems to me there too many cases where those who resist the culture, or continually suggest changes to the culture are considered trouble makers. Much like Chris did in the Red Bead Experiment the most responsible people seem to be eventually shuffled out of too many companies one way or the other.

In my studies within The Leadership Gift ProgramTM I have learned there are different levels to a problem:

Problem

Issue

Concern

Consideration

The closer you are to the bottom of the list the easier something is to address. The longer you leave something stewing the further up this scale you will find yourself. Problems are always the most difficult to solve.

So take the case of employees who are speaking up about a sacred cow … er, I mean process. They are choosing to act in a responsible manner by voicing a consideration. With time if they are not heard or continually told to just do it the consideration will become a concern. You can see where this is heading in that it will transition to an issue and eventually peak at being a problem. Now the managers job is much tougher and it seems easy to find examples where getting rid of the employee is a common solution.

Tip:

When a team member voices a concern about your culture, processes, overtime, or whatever … they are likely acting from a position of responsibility. Before you respond consider the position you will approach them from.  If someone is voicing something about your processes will you:

Tell them there’s no choice given it’s imposed by another department? (blame)

Write off their comments as the person is new to the department? (Justify)

Explain the process is necessary given poor results in the past? (Shame)

Do you find yourself saying there is no choice just do it? (Obligation)

What if you operated from a position of responsibility? What would that look like? You might explore where their comments are coming from. You might explore why they think a problem exists. You might find a way to improve the culture of your department!

You might even end up working with the best people in the best department ever!

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