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How to Reflect in a Daily Journal

Journal and penFor the manager who wishes to become a Best Boss, there is no learning without reflection.

Yet I sometimes find clients or potential clients who are unwilling or unable to reflect or journal. This inability prevents coaching and learning from occurring.

They often say “there are no problems.” As Shingo said, “No problem is a big problem.”

There are always problems and opportunities.

If you are a boss and you’re not seeing problems and opportunities — or not discussing them — you’re failing in your role as a boss.

If you are a boss and your direct report says “there are no problems or opportunities” you cannot accept that answer and still be committed to that person’s growth.

If someone has no reflections, then they cannot report any

  • problems or opportunities,
  • surprises,
  • theories seeking validation, or
  • theories recently refuted.

Such a person is doing one of these things:

  1. Defining everything as “good” and becoming willfully blind to both problems and opportunities, or
  2. Being numbed by the inability to change anything, so there’s no point in looking for (or noticing) problems and opportunities, or
  3. Being defensive — afraid of being criticized or made uncomfortable. Such a person may:
    • (3A) be distrustful of others (or just of the boss) and won’t risk admitting anything could be improved or fixed, or
    • (3B) feel emotionally threatened by anything resembling criticism. This is emotional immaturity, an excessive “reflected sense of self” and is dangerous in a manager.

No person who is Becoming a Best Boss can afford to refuse to reflect. No manager working for you, whom you wish to grow, can be allowed to refuse to reflect.

(As a manager you must be certain that you are not creating scenario 3A above — you must be certain you’re not shutting down your direct’s reflections by making him fearful of being honest. Deming’s rule to “drive out fear” is a mandatory part of the Best Boss System’s Level 3, “Inspire Loyalty.”)

Reflection is Mandatory

Reflection is mandatory for learning.

Ignore mechanical learning (guitar playing, touch typing) and focus on Best Boss skills — how to deserve loyalty, how to demand excellence, how to spur growth, how to keep your people emotionally safe — and you’ll see that, as in any other Lean or continuous improvement system, reflection is everything.

Deming said there is no learning without theory. The Best Boss skills are learned faster and more deeply when you have a theory you’re testing.

“Reflection” is the surfacing of one’s inner Ladder of Inference. It’s the sharing (in a journal, the writing down) of one’s expectations — and usually of one’s surprise and disappointment, followed by rapid learning and better theory.

Ladder of Inference

The human mind makes sense of the world through a combination of:

  • filtering out unimportant information while filtering in important information, and
  • making sense of important information.

The two hidden behaviors are filtering and sense-making. Both are affected by our culture, the stories we tell ourselves, and our theories.

(Filtering example: Go buy a white jeep and drive it off the car lot. Immediately, everywhere you drive, you notice other white jeeps. The actual number has not changed at all. Previously you filtered them out. Once you own one, you filter them in. Changing your filter changes your experience of the world.)

Reflection, to be useful, should consist of some amount of sharing our filters and sharing our sense-making process and stories.

How to Reflect in a Daily Journal

Now that we’ve established the importance of learning how to reflect in a daily journal, next you should have a process by which to journal.

Follow this process unless you have a better one. It’s similar to Drucker’s “Feedback Analysis Journal” style.

  1. At the beginning of the day (or the night before), write your goals or plan for the day
  2. At the end of the day, write what actually occurred that day
  3. What went right — at least one thing that went as expected or better than expected
  4. What went wrong — at least one thing that went worse than expected
  5. What was the root cause of the most prominent Best and Worst of the day

This is a checklist of things to notice that you could usefully journal about. Pick one and try it out; experiment to find the questions and prompts that are most useful for you:

  • What good thing happened today? What is the story in your head that leads you to call it “good”?
  • Perform a Hot Wash (After Action Review) and write about what you learned
  • Plan your day, then notice how the day actually went; what caused the gaps? Can those causes be addressed?
  • What surprised you today, both good and bad? What were the root causes of these surprises?
  • Who complained today, and what are some root causes of those complaints? (Complaints are a goldmine of improvement ideas.)
  • What errors occurred today? What were their root causes? How might they be eliminated?
  • Which of the 8 Wastes of Lean did you observe today?
  • Who were you irritated by today, and what story were you holding in your head about them? How might you test that story?
  • What went well? What went badly? What could I do better next time?
  • How would a hero of mine have handled today differently than I did? How can I act like my hero next time?

Here’s a sample reflection entry in a daily journal:

Today’s sales meeting with Ted was one of my best. I was unattached to the outcome, or as much as I have ever been. I followed Sandler well, though I did not recap his need during the budget phase, and I did not adequately monetize the value of his change from old to new.

Notice that this person traces the cause of the good meeting to being unattached to the outcome, and has identified two tasks (reap need, monetize value of change) to improve.

If you were coaching this person, you could now usefully ask them, “Why are you convinced that non-attachment helped you? How did you achieve it? How can you do it more frequently and reliably in future? What can you do to help yourself always recap the need and monetize the value of change, in future sales meetings?”

Without such a reflection, what could you as a boss or coach offer this person to help them improve? Nothing.

Reflection vs Hansei

My definition of Reflection is different from the Japanese concept of “hansei” which is popular in Lean circles but I feel is not needed to be done in the Japanese manner. I’m suggesting a more cross-culturally accessible reflection method. My definition could be done with a sense of guilt or self-blame, as the Japanese are reported to do (e.g. by Jeffrey Liker), or it could be done from a relaxed and curious emotional space as a scientist and anthropologist, using neither guilt nor self-blame.

I repeat: reflections are a key element of Becoming a Best Boss.

The inability or unwillingness to reflect makes a leader uncoachable. Such a leader must find a coach to whom they can open up, or admit they don’t wish to grow.

The willingness to attempt to reflect via journaling is the hallmark of a growing leader.

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How to Eliminate People Problems

Most of us who manage people, will have people problems.

Yet most of the things we identify as “people problems” are not. They’re systems problems.

Here are the five systems problems you must address in order to eliminate people problems.

  1. Define Good Work
  2. Examples and Templates
  3. Metrics
  4. Method
  5. Tools and Inputs

Let’s look at each. (To request the worksheet, go here.)

1. Define Good Work

When I was a busboy at age 15, nobody told me what a good job was. I was a heads-down, unmotivated drone. I only became a heads-up, highly motivated teammate when I figured out my job was to support the waitresses (by keeping tables clean and available for new customers) and to support the cooks (by keeping the supply of clean dishes large enough to handle any rush). Later I learned to make the dishwasher happy by consolidating the bus bins and lending a hand when needed.

Good work has a worthy purpose.

My friend Jonathon Hensley instituted the brilliant practice of having his people rotate at staff meetings presenting their own vision of what “good work” means. This puts each person on the spot a bit and invites multiple perspectives over time, and builds a group definition. It also on-boards new hires naturally. It builds buy-in — once you’ve publicly said what “good” means to you, your self-respect won’t let you fall below it.

As a busboy I had a conflict with a fellow busboy who was doing the job “wrong” in my opinion. He was just as sure I was wrong. Rather than an expensive conflict-resolution intervention, we both just needed a shared definition of “good work” from our boss and we would have been fine. (That’s not something I was equipped to create on my own at age 15.)

Without a shared definition of “good” your people cannot deliver good work consistently. With it, they can.

Show Examples of Good Work

It helps to show examples of good work.

The legendary Lynette Xanders teaches creative agencies to maintain a “Wall of Fame” of the firm’s best work as well as of work they admire, and a “Wall of Shame” of external work they feel is awful. The Toyota Production System calls for each worker to see examples of perfect finished assemblies, illustrating what “good” looks like.

These examples are a vital part of knowing what “good” really is. Are you giving that to your people?

Remind and Connect Workers with their Purpose

Good work has a worthy purpose, and workers need your help to remember it. When managers at US Steel took steelworkers to the bicycle factory where their steel tubes were made into bikes, those managers were helping those steelworkers see and feel the purpose of their work.

What You Can Do to Define Good Work

Start by inviting your people to share their thoughts about what makes work good. Listen deeply and seriously. Take notes. Don’t share any opinion or take sides or offer your thoughts, not at first. Once the boss has an opinion, all creative exploration ceases. Instead, sit in innocence. Guide your people over time to develop their own working definition of “good.”  You can guide things plenty well enough with questions like “What do our customers think is good?” and “Who are the customers for this work? Whom do we serve in some way?” Sketch out the diagram of the various customers.

Also, involve your people in finding or creating the examples. Display them prominently near where the work is done.

2. Make it Easy to do Good Work

At one firm, workers were trained to make dozens of products using parts kept in a bank of 80 plastic drawers. It was very easy to pull out the almost-right part instead of the right part, leading to errors or re-work or both.

Finally one worker created a big cardboard shield that covered all 80 drawers, labeled it with a specific product name, and cut out openings for just the correct parts (for that product) to be visible. This “jig” made it easy to see and find the right parts and impossible to grab the wrong ones. Making one such jig for each product, the workers sped up assembly time while simultaneously cutting errors and rework.

A digital agency found that half their projects lost money. An analysis of those projects found avoidable delays caused by internal and client-facing communications errors on four specific topics. The consultant who uncovered the four topics provided an email template that covered all four, and an acronym (“TWIST“) to make remembering the four easy. Within months the agency was reporting record profits, and nearly all projects were profitable.

Do you provide “jigs” and Templates that make it easy to do good work and hard to do bad work?

3. Provide Good and Useful Measures

Salespeople behind quota routinely offer outsize discounts to lure business in early, or when they’re ahead of quota may delay orders, all to serve an arbitrarily imposed number instead of the customer. CEOs and CFOs nudge revenue numbers around to please Wall Street at the expense of long term competitiveness. Call center staff are tempted to transfer callers to keep their call-times close to the arbitrary target, regardless of what’s best for the caller. Are you using measurements to inform workers, or do your measures distract them from creating value for customers?

Here’s how to know if a measure is “good and useful” — when you are doing the work, does this measure help you adjust your behavior so you do the work better next time? To be good and useful, the measure must be as close to real-time as possible, and must report on things the worker can control or influence.

Examples of good and useful measures: How close to the pin you are after your last putt; the size of each of the last five tips you’ve received; whether the wood you just sanded feels smooth to your hand. Each of these is immediately available and closely tied to the work you just performed. Each measure can — at least in theory — support you to adjust and improve your work.

Other measures are less useful for giving feedback on work.  Consider the Trauma Score. Doctors and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) use various sorts of Trauma Score to assess quickly where a given trauma patient should go — moderate scores can be handled by rural hospitals, while severe scores merit a helicopter flight to a Level One trauma unit at a big hospital.

Trauma Scores, while invaluable at routing a patient to the right care, are terrible for performance management. Yet hospitals and other medical providers constantly attempt to rate and rank EMTs and doctors on the outcomes of patients, based in part on Trauma Scores.

As Dr. Nicole Vanderheyden and I illustrated (in the Trauma Scoring chapter of Current Therapy of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care), that rating and ranking generates confusion and wrong thinking. For instance, a head trauma and an arterial trauma might both get the same top score for trauma severity, and both go to the same trauma unit. A year later the arterial trauma patient may have recovered 100% of their pre-injury function, while the head trauma patient will likely be a vegetable no matter what doctors do — because artery trauma and head (brain) trauma have completely different prospects for recovery. It is nonsensical — yet common — to rate or rank one EMT or doctor as better than another at achieving good patient outcomes, because one treated the artery trauma and the other treated the head trauma.

Good Measures are Connected to Purpose

This means Trauma Score is a highly useful metric in doing work, and nearly useless in assessing healthcare outcomes. The exceptions are “did we assign the right Trauma Score?” and “did we route the patient to the right hospital?” Both questions will use the Trauma Score metric, and will be useful questions to assess work and guide improvement. These questions connect the Trauma Score number with its purpose — routing patients correctly.

4. Establish a Method for Doing Good Work

Dr. Deming repeatedly asked “by what method” is management expecting the worker to perform good work? It’s vital for management — you — to take the lead in developing the method, the series of repeatable steps, by which good work is achieved.

This can be simple. As my hero Michael Auzenne recounted, when he managed gate guards at a secure high tech facility, he was able to boil their work down to two critical behaviors — to smile at their “customers” (the other employees being let in and out) and to be extremely prompt — senior execs wanting to enter at 6 AM were very grumpy if made to wait until 6:05.

The wise manager looks to the best workers doing the best work, and designs a method that incorporates their wisdom.

Empower Workers to Improve the Method

Then you’ll want to empower every worker to modify the method (in a methodical way, using the scientific method) to continually tweak it for improvement. When Sam Carpenter created his first method, for receiving client payments, it had 52 steps. He handed it off (and enjoyed near-flawless performance in an area that had previously been plagued with errors) and empowered his people in exactly that way. A few years later he went back and was delighted to discover his 52 step process was now 23 steps.

This sort of empowerment is NOT abdication — you don’t tell your people to do whatever they want or make uncontrolled changes.

The vast majority of “worker empowerment” initiatives fail because they don’t actually give the worker discretion and control within clear boundaries. Countless software tools are sold promising to create “empowerment” but only management — you — can give workers control over their work method.

Make Sure the Method is Documented

Document the method — use video and pictures, not just text.

Make Sure the Worker is Trained on the Method

It should go without saying, each worker should be trained. I suggest a certification system, and you may get value from a worker training wall chart. That way workers know who knows what methods well, and it serves as a reminder to them to ask for more training and to seek certification.

Can a Normal Person Use the Method?

Be sure that a normal average person can use the method to deliver excellent results. If only a few exceptional people can make the method work, you may need a better method (and perhaps better tools and templates) or this may be a special case where you must select carefully for the exceptional characteristics needed. If so, document those characteristics and your selection method.

5. Ensure Tools and Supplies are of Good Enough Quality

Finally, make sure that the inputs to the process (parts and supplies), and the tools for following the process, are good enough quality to support excellent work. Workers can’t fix this, only management can. This includes upstream inputs from inside your organization.

For example, if front line call center workers mislabel trouble tickets, downstream technicians will struggle to deliver good service. Fix the upstream process.

There’s a reason why workers feel frustration, even rage, when they aren’t given what they need to succeed. People like to do good work. They want to do good work. Let them.

It’s your job as a leader to ensure each worker has the inputs required for success.

Systems Fixes Eliminate People Problems

By now you’ve likely eliminated 80-90% of your “people problems.”

If you’ve correctly addressed all five of the above and you still experience performance problems from a worker, then and only then are you entitled to look at their attitude and motivation.

Request the “Manager’s First Duty” worksheet and get five supporting emails:

Hat tip to John Seddon – much of the above is informed and inspired by his excellent book “Freedom from Command and Control: Rethinking Management for Lean Service.”

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Best Practices for Meetings – 5 Structural Elements

Most meetings suck.  Yours can suck way less.  Here are 5 structural elements that will make your meetings fast, fascinating, and effective.

  1. Purpose
  2. Desired Outcome
  3. Agenda – with Start Times not Durations
  4. Assigned Roles
  5. Written Minutes, using Language of Accountability

Here’s how to implement each one.


The Purpose is the easiest to do, and the most overlooked. As a meeting participant, start your (previously awful) meeting with the question, “What’s the purpose of this meeting?” As the organizer, ask and answer it before the meeting starts by stating the purpose at the top of the agenda, and in the meeting invitation. Some sample purposes:

  • “Decide on a vendor for the new CRM system”
  • “Find some possible solutions to the delays in our project, and pick one to work on”

Desired Outcome

Closely related to the Purpose, the Outcome is often some form of Decision, Agreement, Brainstorming, Problem Solving, or Status Sharing. Of these, the most boring is status sharing. You’re better off sharing status via email between meetings, and then touching on only the status exceptions during the meeting, while briefly celebrating the positive aspects. Some sample outcomes:

  • “Either disqualify this vendor or agree to advance to the next stage of the purchase”
  • “For the widget quality problem, agree on a course of action, an owner, and a due date”
  • “Either agree on how our two departments will divide the work, or declare ourselves deadlocked and escalate to our boss”

For people used to interminable meetings that accomplish nothing, the introduction of a Purpose and an Outcome can feel shocking and exhilarating.

Agenda – with Start Times not Durations

Create an Agenda – in advance or on the fly – that includes four elements for each agenda item:

  1. The start time (and by implication, the time allowed) for that item
  2. The topic or question
  3. The owner or presenter
  4. Desired outcome

Here’s a sample:

Start Time Agenda Item or Question Owner Desired Outcome
9:00 Greetings, Read Values, Share Good Things Facilitator Bonding
9:05 Decide on Vendor for CRM Jim Vendor chosen
9:50 Parking Lot Items Facilitator Closure
10:00 Adjourn Facilitator End on time

(For a Meeting Facilitator Cheat Sheet including a sample agenda, click here.)

Assign Roles

Your meeting will run better when there are clearly defined roles.

  • Timekeeper – ensures we are staying on time
  • Taskmaster – ensures we are discussing the issue we are supposed to be discussing
  • Notetaker – captures major points including minutes
  • Facilitator – runs the meeting – you might rotate who runs each meeting, so everyone gets a shot

Minutes using the Language of Accountability

The minutes must be taken during the meeting, as decisions are reached and action items are derived. They must be written very crisply, with concrete nouns, active verbs, and clear results. A bad action item is vague — the person who must do it won’t understand it, and neither will the rest of the team. Facilitators make meetings run smoothly. The note taker makes the meeting matter. Without written minutes to memorialize the decisions reached, people will walk out having slightly different understandings of what was decided. Within a week those will diverge to be completely different understandings. Only a written version of the decision can prevent that. Action items are if anything even more important to write down. Team members will come to mistrust each other if Joe does what he remembers promising to do, but Jane remembers the promise differently — Joe feels he did it perfectly, while in Jane’s eyes, Joe is a screw-up. Examples of bad action items:

  • “Talk to Vendor X”
  • “Resolve Jim’s issue”
  • “Research customer preferences about colors”

Better action items are:

  • “Get from Vendor X the pricing and availability of the selected widget and report back at next meeting”
  • “Work with Jim to resolve his 7/23 issue re. lock washer quality – have it fixed to Jim’s satisfaction by 9/13”
  • “Discover top 3 customer preferences for colors for the next generation widget, with input from both marketing and research depts, by 10/10”

The action items in the minutes should be written in “Standard Goal Language” i.e. a clear description of What is to be accomplished, Who owns it, and by When it will be done.  Best practice is to distribute the minutes within one business day of the end of the meeting. (For a template for meeting minutes, click here.  Hat tip to Gabe Fasolino.)

Note on Problem Solving

First, agree on what the problem is.  Do not attempt to solve any problem until there is an agreed, written problem statement.  This one step is the most often omitted and can save your organization countless hundreds of hours.  Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem.”

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Daily Self Improvement – Enhanced Journaling

Good habits get built slowly, strand by strand and thread by thread, into mightly cables. Good habits will lead you to ever greater success.

A good habit for self improvement is to journal at the end of each day. The way to make it an even better write-up, and for it to help you improve further faster, is to include:

1. Goals for that day (which you can write up as the day begins or the night before)
2. A summary of the day past (just like in a normal journal)
3. What went right — at least one thing that went as expected or better than expected
4. What went wrong — at least one thing that went worse than expected
5. What was the root cause of the most prominent Best and Worst of the day

That looks like more work. It’s really not much more, and is significantly more helpful.

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Three Strategy Insights for Business

Good strategy lets you outmaneuver your bigger competitors. Bad strategy can sink your business. Here are three insights you can use to harness strategic thinking and planning for your business:

chess pieces illustrate strategy
Strategy creates advantage
  1. Have a Strategy Kernel
  2. Build a complete strategy from what you have now
  3. Make your strategy executable

Here is how you can do each.

1. Have a Strategy “Kernel”

So, what is this thing we call “Strategy”? The word gets used a lot, so confusion is rampant. Mintzberg identified five different meanings — different ways the word “strategy” was actually employed — in business writing: plan, ploy, pattern, position, and perspective.

The version of the word “strategy” that will help you most is “plan” — and as Rumelt put it, a true Strategy always has a “kernel” of three elements: a Diagnosis, a Guiding Policy, and a plan of Coherent Action.

Here’s an example.

Suppose you own a construction firm, and you believe the real estate market is moving away from single family homes toward multi-family rental units for the next three years — and your think your firm can take advantage of this trend. The trend isn’t enough — you have to know how your firm’s Strengths and Limitations (from a good SLOT analysis) stack up against that market trend AND against your competitors.

Next, say you believe your firm has a Strength in general contracting. You are awesome at finding the best subcontractors, at sweating all the details, and at minimizing delays, mistakes, re-work, etc. You have lots of testimonials and reference clients.

Further, suppose your firm has Limitations including little working capital, not owning any property, and not having any multi-family work in your pipeline.

Once you have the right Diagnosis, the Prescription can become easier.

One Prescription might be that you need to either obtain those missing elements of capital and land yourself, perhaps by borrowing. Another might be to find a partner. If you can find a partner who really cares about minimizing delays, mistakes and re-work, that would play to your strengths.

Next, you have to commit to one Prescription, and kill off the others. If you try to pursue multiple approaches, especially if you’re a startup business, you’ll fail to focus on anything. So, you commit to finding a best-fit partner.

Your final element is to be relentlessly focused on executing the Prescription. You might turn down work that would distract you from the plan, even if it’s tempting to take it to pay the bills. You don’t spend time seeking bank loans. Instead, you make a list of every developer with capital and land, and rate them based on (a) not owning their own general contractor and (b) having a need for minimizing delays, mistakes, re-work, etc. You then pitch those firms on a partnership to develop multi-family rental units.

2. Build a Complete Strategy

Most businesses either have no strategy, or only have part of one. The most common is the firm with a Prescription.

That’s dangerous. Having a partial strategy leaves you vulnerable to being blindsided, and also makes it likely you won’t carry the strategy out well.

Blindsiding occurs when one of the parts of the Diagnosis changes, and you didn’t notice. If the market shifts away from multi-family rental units and you don’t notice, you could get tied up in failing, half-finished real estate projects, and go bankrupt. Hundreds of developers were heavily invested in single family homes during the “housing bubble” that popped in 2007, and went broke.

More common is not carrying out the strategy. If you lack a plan of Coherent Action, having the Prescription right won’t help, and having the Guiding Policy right won’t help.

Here’s how to build forward and backward to complete the strategy.

First, identify what parts of the Strategy Kernel you have. Most who have a partial strategy, have a policy. That could be something as simple as “be the low cost provider” or “focus on selling to small medical clinics.”

Next, work backward. If you have a set of policies, then ask, what strengths and limitations am I implicitly working from? Write down your SLOT analysis. What market assumptions am I making? Write down your market trend assumptions. Now you know what market factors to monitor, and how to see if your strategy really fits your strengths and limitations.

Finally, work forward. If you only have a Diagnosis, then pick a Guiding Policy and commit to it. Once the policy is written down, devise your plan of Coherent Action. This is where most strategy fails — policies are chosen but not committed to, and action is not coherent and focused. If you lack the discipline to truly commit to your strategy, you will at best half-implement it.  At worst you’ll hamstring yourself.

Failing to commit is bad. Just as taking half a dose of antibiotics can just breed resistant bacteria, implementing half a strategy can leave you worse off than doing nothing — you’ll have costs without benefits, and your people will lose faith in you.

3. Make your Strategy Executable

Now you must carry out your plan of Coherent Action. As Drucker put it, no decision means anything, until somebody has a work assignment.

To make your strategy truly executable, you need everyone in your firm who ought to be carrying out your plan of Coherent Action, actually doing so.

Here’s how to do that.

First, roll out the strategy to your people. That can be a half hour briefing, led by you, where you explain your Diagnosis, Guiding Policy, and plan of Coherent Action.

Second, tell your direct reports to devise, with their direct reports, a detailed plan for how their departments are going to carry out their portion of the plan of Coherent Action.

Third, have each of your direct reports co-present with you at their department meeting. You re-present the three parts of the overall strategy, briefly, and the department head then presents how the department will take responsibility for their part of the plan.

This will include milestones, deadlines, and so on.

Finally, I highly recommend using a Balanced Scorecard for tracking all the detailed commitments in a single place. Another good choice is the One Page Strategic Plan.


One senior consultant recalled spending two hours asking a CEO a series of simple questions about the business. How do you make money? Where’s the market going? How are customers changing? What are the competition doing? What pressures are your suppliers facing? At the end he was surprised when the CEO warmly thanked him for “the most valuable conversation I’ve had all year.”

Good strategy is like that. It pulls you out of the weeds. It makes you think deeply about the big things. It makes the complex simpler, and easier to handle.


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Bias Creates Opportunity to Win the War for Talent

The market for talent remains messy and inefficient. A new study highlights ways you can beat that market and win the War for Talent.

In an interview with HBR, Austrian researcher Doris Weichselbaumer, a professor at Johannes Kepler University Linz, described the latest in a long series of experiments proving systemic bias against job seekers.

The latest showed bias against female job seekers who wear Muslim headscarves.

As described in the discussion paper:

…job applications for three fictitious female characters with identical qualifications were sent out in response to job advertisements: one applicant had a German name, one a Turkish name, and one had a Turkish name and was wearing a headscarf in the photograph included in the application material. Germany was the ideal location for the experiment as job seekers typically attach their picture to their résumé. High levels of discrimination were found particularly against the migrant wearing a headscarf.

By carefully selecting online job posts for which this character was highly qualified, researchers could measure bias across their sample of 1,474 applications.

The impact was huge: “the candidate with the headscarf had to send 4.5 times as many applications […] to receive the same number of callbacks for interview.” When the applicant had a German-sounding name, 18.8% of German employers contacted the fictitious applicant to schedule an interview. But when the applicant (again, with identical qualifications) had a Turkish-sounding name on the otherwise identical resume, only 13.5% responded with interest. Add a headscarf, and only 4.2% did.

Similar experiments in the US and other Western countries find similar systemic bias effects against various ethnic minority candidates vs those in the ethnic majority, and against women vs men.

While most coverage of this topic stresses either the unfair burden on the applicants or the potential legal liability for the employer, there’s a more obvious point if you’re trying to win the War for Talent: the market for labor is demonstrably inefficient.

That means you as an employer can beat the market.

Beat it how?

In the German study, if you were one of 100 hiring managers, you’d have been competing with about 18 others for the services of “Sandra Bauer” but only against 3 others for the services of the identically qualified, headscarf wearing “Meryem Öztürk”.

Since both had identical qualifications, you’d have a much better shot at getting the latter to stay in the hiring funnel and ultimately to come work for you — and you’d be less likely to get into a bidding war.

What steps can you take, as an employer, to profit from this opportunity?

First, understand that bias is frequently unconscious — and can only be beaten with consciousness. Become rigorous and data-driven in your screening. Establish an objective standard for who qualifies for a role based on skills, abilities, and experience.

(I’m routinely appalled at how subjective, vague, and non-rigorous most recruiters are. Check for yourself: ask your recruiters about their processes, and about how they know someone is qualified.)

This step ensures that you’re one of the 4 hiring managers who considers all qualified applicants, rather than one of the 15 who lost qualified applicants for the wrong reasons.

Second, inform each person who will be interviewing candidates that bias, even unconscious, harms the firm by depriving it of qualified candidates, and equip those interviewers with structured interview questions and training on how to interview.

(Always use structured interviewing – it’s up to twice as effective at predicting actual job performance, it’s easier to scale up, it’s fairer, and holds up in court four or more times better. Use a repeatable process and tools that help you generate job-relevant structured interview questions. Contact me for details.)

The benefits of being methodical and data-driven during hiring are tremendous.

  • Your firm will be more fair, and your staff will appreciate working in an environment of fairness (and you’ll face fewer lawsuits and win most of them)
  • You’ll get better access to more candidates with less competition, filling roles faster
  • Your hiring process will better predict hiring success — you’ll have fewer poor hires
  • Your hiring process will be less wasteful, more reliable, and more capable of scaling up in speed and volume without sacrificing quality
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TORC or Threat of Reference Check in Hiring

A brilliant technique to deploy at the beginning of any hiring process is TORC, or Threat of Reference Check. Tell every candidate at the earliest stage, “We require every finalist to arrange reference check calls with their prior managers.”

That’s it. (And follow through on it.)

Once a person is a finalist, they have a ton of incentive to do this. It’s not that hard. And the candidates who know their former bosses won’t give good references? They drop out early rather than waste your time or theirs — a win-win.

Without TORC, most of us do a terrible job checking references, which allows weak players to slip in. Don’t do that. Reference checks alone are not enough when hiring (use other technologies like General Mental Ability tests, Integrity tests, and Structured Interviews).


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Books for Managing and Resolving Conflict at Work

A friend asks, “Hi Tom. What are your top favorite books or articles on conflict resolution at work?”

As a leader, it’s your job to ensure conflict at work is constructive, not destructive.

Conflict at work is good, when it’s conflict about the work. When ideas clash, they improve.

Conflict at work is bad, when it’s conflict between people in the drama triangle. When people clash in the drama triangle, work does not improve and relationships get harmed — making it harder to work together well.

From most tactical to most strategic, I recommend these books (each with its own key lesson):

  1. Runde, Craig E., and Tim A. Flanagan. Developing Your Conflict Competence: A Hands-on Guide for Leaders, Managers, Facilitators, and Teams. Vol. 152. John Wiley & Sons, 2010. (Provides a model of destructive vs constructive conflict, and a vital shared language for discussing conflicts.)
  2. Patterson, Kerry. Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. Tata McGraw-Hill Education, 2002. (Provides step-by-step guidance for how to face and have tough conversations while maintaining relationships.)
  3. Friedes, Peter E. The 2R Manager: When to Relate, When to Require, and How to Do Both Effectively. Jossey-Bass, 2002. (Coaching on the mindset needed to both maintain Relationships while still Requiring excellence from subordinates.)
  4. McLaren, Karla. The language of emotions: what your feelings are trying to tell you. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2010. (Helps you understand all your emotions and gives you tools to manage them well and effectively.)
  5. Schnarch, David. Intimacy and desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship. Scribe Publications, 2010. (Gives you tools and a framework for managing conflict in a peer or intimate relationship; much of this generalizes to work.)
  6. Peck, Morgan Scott. The road less travelled. Random House, 2012. (Gives both a model and a rationale for how to find the internal strength to face conflict well, with a spirit of love of self and others.)
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Leading and Managing

We lead change, and manage complexity. Leading and managing, then, are complementary activities.

Change involves fear. Leaders help us deal with fear.

The table with ID 2 not exists.

<i><span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Adapted from the work of John Kotter</span></i>

A Best Boss will both lead and manage, as each moment requires.

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What Should you Optimize? Define Good Work

One of the most common, and tragic, causes of poor work performance is that everybody assumes the definition of Good Work is obvious, so nobody ever seeks explicit agreement on what it is.

When the boss doesn’t define Good Work, things can get bad.

I live in Oregon, where you are not permitted to pump your own gas. You have to stand around and wait while an attendant pumps it for you.

While standing around, I recently started watching gas station attendants, and over a few weeks I noticed three in particular who stood out.

The first attendant was always smiling, always took an extra moment to say hello to each customer, and seemed focused on making sure that every customer who came through felt noticed and appreciated. I called him Mr. Happy.

The second attendant was always scanning the station for where the next empty pump was, and looking to see which pump had just finished filling, or was about to. If a line formed, he dashed over to direct waiting customers to the next empty pump. He was clearly making sure that wait times were minimized, and the station’s throughput was maximized. I called him Mr. Flow.

The third attendant seemed to be focused on taking the fewest physical steps possible. Instead of walking over to you with your receipt, he would stand at the pump and hold the receipt out, expecting you to walk over to him. If you didn’t, he would take the fewest steps he could, to lean over your car toward you and make you reach for it. He seemed focused on preserving his physical energy. I called him Mr. Turtle.

So, which of those three was doing Good Work?

It’s a trick question. We have no idea. We don’t know what their boss needs from them — we don’t know what the limiting factor is on station profitability or what customers experience as value.

If customers in this area care more about a pleasant interaction (Scenario 1), the first one is doing the best job.

If all customers around here care about is wait time, and drive off at the first hint of a line (Scenario 2), then the second one is doing the best job.

And if the owner’s biggest problem is attendants burning out and chronic labor shortages making it hard to serve customers (Scenario 3), then the third one is doing the best job.

This means Good Work is undefined. This creates several problems.

  1. Confusion
  2. Lost Profit
  3. Conflict


For the new worker, this situation is confusing. Which experienced worker should the new worker emulate — Mr. Happy, Mr. Flow, or Mr. Turtle? Confused workers lack certainty. They may try different things, seeking one that will be praised or that will work. Ultimately they may just decide to pick the approach that “feels best” to them — all the while secretly worried they picked the wrong approach. Their morale can never be high because they can never be sure they’re doing Good Work.

Lost Profit

For the owner, profit is lost. When 2/3 of workers are pursuing a sub-optimal strategy, they are not doing Good Work.




Workers care about Good Work. When they see another worker dong the work “wrong” it annoys them, and when the boss doesn’t clarify or comment it annoys them even more.

When Good Work is undefined, each worker has to guess what Good Work is. If he’s confident that he has guessed right, he will dislike or despise other workers who are “doing it wrong.” He may cast aspersions at them, criticize their mental powers or work ethic, or try to cajole or coerce them into doing it “right” as he sees it.

There’s no amount of conflict resolution skill that fixes this — yet it’s easily fixed with a clear policy by the boss stating what Good Work is for this job.

Moral – Defining Good Work

Ask your workers in each role what constitutes Good Work. Ask them to write their answers silently before comparing. Then share your own thinking, and allow them to persuade you if it’s appropriate. Create a shared definition of Good Work, and then notice it and appreciate it.

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How can I Be a Better Boss?

To be an exceptional boss, you have to create a target condition for your subordinates.

  1. Keep ’em Safe
  2. Make ’em Grow

Keep ’em Safe

When people feel emotionally safe while reporting to you as their boss, they will:

  • Admit mistakes easily and early (vs. hiding mistakes)
  • Ask for help (vs. pretending they know)
  • Raise concerns (vs. going along with the group)

All of which helps the team.

Techniques for creating safety include Listening and Caring.

Make ’em Grow

When you get to know each of your direct reports well, you can and must gently and firmly push them out of their comfort zone into growth. (To do this you have to know their strengths, weaknesses, skills, and goals, and how they relate to the team’s goals.)

When you succeed in pushing people into growth, it looks like:

  • Giving people increased responsibility
  • Giving people stretch assignments
  • Expecting excellence from them (while being excellent yourself)
  • Providing the support they need to succeed (training, tools, encouragement)

Once you see these two elements as, jointly, the target condition that you need to create, you’ll see how all the other answers that people give to this question fit in.

Things like Honesty, Integrity, Empathy, etc. all serve to create safety.

Things like Direct Feedback, Setting an Example, etc. all serve to push growth.

As a boss you can be an introvert or extrovert, loud or quiet, calm or emotive, visionary or servant — as long as you Keep ’em Safe and Make ’em Grow, you’ll see phenomenal success and be an outstanding boss.

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7 Steps to Getting Management Metrics Right

As a manager, you must make your numbers — and manage to them.

Measuring in the field.
Measuring in the field.

Pick the right metrics and you can really drive performance. What gets measured, gets done. Yet picking good metrics is hard — and risky. As Seth Godin points out, managing to the wrong metric is harmful.

According to Lean experts from W. Edwards Deming to John Seddon, most of the numbers that most managers manage to, are the wrong numbers.

How do you pick the right management metrics? Follow these seven steps:

  1. Start with your Purpose
  2. Look at the Customer
  3. Look at Flow
  4. Never Blame Workers (for the System)
  5. Scan the Metrics Grid
  6. Pick a Good Ratio
  7. Just Get Started

Start with your Purpose

What’s the purpose of your Management Metrics — and what’s the purpose of the process you’re measuring? The vast majority of horror stories that come from mismanaging metrics, occur when managers have completely lost track of the bigger picture.

When the New York City police first started using CompStat, they used its daily metrics to allocate police resources. CompStat (along with other factors) is credited with reducting crime rates across the city by 60%. Citizens were delighted.

As the law of diminishing returns kicked in, leadership should have started looking for new metrics. Instead, they doubled down on the same countable activities – such as issuing tickets and making arrests – in areas where crime was already low, or where arresting and ticketing no longer showed any connection to improvements in perceived public safety.

Citizens became increasingly irritated by police ticketing and arresting, increasingly without good cause. The beat cop (front-line worker) was caught between management that insisted on chasing a number — setting up illegal quotas for numbers of arrests — and a citizenry (customers) for whom the old tactics no longer worked to produce valuable results. When one cop, Adrian Schoolcraft, exposed the NYPD’s illegal arrest quotas, management initially tried to have him declared insane.

Always put your purpose ahead of any particular metric, and be prepared to change metrics.

Look at the Customer

While your purpose is your own, Quality is defined by one and only one person: the customer. Your metrics should support you to increase the quality of the customer experience.

It’s extremely common for management and workers both to have strong opinions about what the customer wants and needs. Such opinions pale, like a candle held up to the noon day sun, in comparison to the opinions of paying customers.

When it’s time to select between two metrics, always pick the one that better predicts or describes Quality, as defined by the customer.

Look at Flow

The best systems are the ones where work flows smoothly. Are your systems working to provide smooth flow? Does each piece of the work flow smoothly from the moment the customer orders, until the moment the customer is satisfied? Does information flow smoothly? Are complaints, errors, and Things Gone Wrong (TGWs) all handled as precious commodities, flowing smoothly from the point of discovery to the point of systems improvement?

As you look at metrics, consider at least one that tells you whether your systems are flowing smoothly. Candidates for such a metric include the total time elapsed between customer order and customer satisfaction, and the number of TGWs collected and processed.

Creating a simple Value Stream Map is hugely useful at this stage, before you settle on specific metrics. The Value Stream Map looks from customer order to customer satisfaction and lays out the major 3 to 8 process steps. Look for areas where the system seems to snag, where work piles up, or where problems seem to routinely occur.

Never Blame Workers (for the System)

One kind of metric is particularly toxic: the one that blames the worker for the results of the system. These take many forms, and are always disguised as perfectly reasonable. These include measures such as Average Call Duration at a call center, or Mean Time to Resolution for a help desk.

You would be wise to mistrust Averages and Means generally. If you measure averages, you are hiding vast amounts of important data. If you decide that the average is relevant, you are implicitly saying that variability is not meaningful. This is usually false.

For example, at a help desk two workers were compared on their Mean Time to Resolution, with one ranking at the top, and the other coming in last place. The manager admitted that their cases were not assigned to them by the system, but rather were selected by each of them from a common pool.

The manager was preparing to have a disciplinary conversation with the last-place worker. But on what basis? This last-place worker wasn’t below some agreed standard of acceptable behavior — there was no standard. He was merely in last place on a specific metric.

If you insist on ranking people against each other (instead of against a standard), you’ll always have someone in last place. Why is that bad or wrong? It’s mathematically inevitable. You could rank the top five sprinters in the world and one of them would come in last place compared to the others — and still be a world class performer.

Worse, there’s no evidence that the last-place worker isn’t attracted to very tough problems. He may even be excellent at them. The first-place worker might be a slacker who cherry-picks only the most trivially easy cases. Maybe he should receive the disciplinary conversation. With existing data, we can’t tell who’s doing well overall, or who’s creating more value for customers, or who’s helping or hurting the team’s performance.

Never manage people (including yourself) to a standardless metric, especially not an average, that’s divorced from both context and customer value.

Scan the Metrics Grid

There are three sorts of metrics that relate to your Value Stream — your creation of value for a customer. They are:

  1. Inputs
  2. Activities and Outputs
  3. Outcomes

These have been treated at length elsewhere. (Some treat Activities as separate from Outputs; I find it more convenient to combine them for purposes of metrics.) Here are some simple, useful definitions for use in devising metrics:

Inputs are things you allocate — money, staff-hours, conference rooms, assets. When you allocate an input to one thing, it becomes unavailable for others. Allocating the input is a planning and budgeting activity. The police department budgets dollars and staff hours; so do the auto factory and the restaurant.

Outputs are the direct results of the inputs as they get used up. When staff hours are expended, you get meetings, reports, research, widgets, phone calls made, clients visited, and so on. A police department allocates officer labor hours to patrol, with the output of “patrol hours” — if a given officer instead is allocated to a community meeting, she cannot also be on patrol. Outputs are good to measure — police departments need to know how many patrol hours actually occur, and where; auto factories need to know how many car doors got assembled and how many quarter panels painted; the restaurant needs to know how many dishes were ordered.

Outcomes are valuable results — things that customers value. These are crimes prevented, high quality cars built, food eaten with enjoyment, etc.

We can now start to build the Metrics Grid with these three columns, showing the time flow from left to right — Inputs, Outputs, Outcomes.

Next, consider the three flavors of metric — quality, quantity, and time. Make these rows on the grid:

The table with ID 3 not exists.

Brainstorm some metrics you can put in each cell. Don’t limit yourself to one, and don’t edit — just come up with as many ideas as you can. You’ll select some in the next step.

Here’s a brainstorm of potential measures for the Metrics Grid for the role of busboy in a restaurant:

The table with ID 4 not exists.

Pick a Good Ratio

Some of the best guidance I’ve found on picking good metrics comes from Coonradt in The Game of Work: How to Enjoy Work as Much as Play. He suggests creating a ratio of either Outputs or Outcomes (Results), per unit of Input (or Resources) — he calls it the Results to Resources Ratio, the RRR.

Examples of RRRs: Miles per Gallon; Views and Shares per Post; Correctly Closed Tickets per Staff Hour.

You’ll still need to pick specific metrics to put into your ratio.

The ratio itself brings lovely advantages:

  • Insulation from outside variables (like inflation)
  • Single number that captures efficiency
  • Traces back to known inputs
  • Workers can usually keep score themselves

People love to play games, and the best games use clear scoring that the players can keep themselves. A good RRR will guide the worker toward focus on the right outcomes, to focus on economizing the most precious inputs, and will leave lots of open playing space for workers to innovate new strategies to increase their scores.

For our busboy above, we might try three: “Smiles per Hour,” Number of Open Tables at Rush Times, and Number of Tables Cleaned per Person-Hour.

Of these, which involve flow? Number of Open Tables at Rush Times. If the busboy can’t keep tables open for new patrons to sit, he becomes a bottleneck to the entire restaurant.

Just Get Started

My friend the legendary business consultant Jim Grew gave me the best advice on setting up work measures: just get started.

Jim said, you’ll never get the metrics perfect up front, so don’t try. Instead, focus on the discipline of keeping some sort of score, and let yourself learn and adjust the measures for a while.


  • What does my initial set of metrics not track?
  • If I were to focus on these numbers, what would I be neglecting?
  • If I were to focus on these numbers, what would I be overemphasizing?

Then once a week (for daily metrics), or once a month (for weekly or monthly metrics), give yourself permission to tweak the numbers. For your self-scoring, that’s enough. For a scoring system for people reporting to you, include some of them in the revision.

Your top performers will insist on good metrics. If the busboys complain that they’re being pushed to move too fast to clean tables thoroughly, and they feel they aren’t creating a quality dining experience, it hurts their pride of workmanship. Figure out a way to simply and easily measure quality. (For example, ask the hostess to judge cleanliness, and monitor customer feedback. Go out and look yourself as well. Create a five-point scorecard for cleanliness.)

Once you get to a stable set of good-enough metrics, stop tweaking. Nothing undermines the fun of a good game more than changing the rules in the middle. Let your people know when you’ve stopped adjusting the metrics. Give everyone a chance to innovate under a steady scoring system.

In Conclusion

When you find people tracking their own scores, taking pleasure from it, and delivering superb customer value in the process, you know you’ve got good metrics.

One of the greatest payoffs of a system of good metrics is, it creates a sense of emotional safety. When each worker knows clearly the rules, the boundaries, and the scoring, they’re free to innovate. When they’re confused and unclear, they hunker down and try to avoid mistakes.

Create clarity through good measures, and set your people free.

Further Reading

For more on what’s a metric vs. a measure vs. a number vs. a KPI (Key Performance Indicator), read this article.

For my prior article How to Pick Good Metrics, read here.

For more on the role of good measures in eliminating people problems, read here.