A friend of mine works at an auto plant in South America, overseeing manufacturing for a new line of lightweight utility trucks the company is marketing around the world. On a worldwide conference call a few weeks before the first truck was to roll off the assembly line, a colleague asked to speak. "I hate to bring it up," he said, "but the front door handle isn't quite right. It doesn't look or feel quite right, and it isn't where you expect it to be when you reach for it. I strongly suggest we postpone production to evaluate the merits of shifting it four to six millimeters, probably in the direction of the hinge."
Argh! Although you couldn't hope for a more meticulous or conscientious manager, it would have cost the company $1 million every day the assembly line was idle. Since the new truck was more about economy and utility than elegance, and the door handle not only worked fine but sat within six millimeters of perfection, my friend made an executive decision: the assembly line would roll on schedule, and the truck would be released to the world as originally designed.
My friend did the right thing. He responded to the conflict directly and supplied the leadership for which he's paid. Having detected a misgiving in the group, many lesser managers would have opted for the "safe" route. A lot of bad business decisions are made in the name of playing it safe and shifting accountability. A lot of consultants take undeserved hits for problems that really stem from their clients' mismanagement. And a lot of software is labeled a failure when what has really failed is leadership. Leadership isn't something that software can supply.
My friend's Brazilian auto plant has all the best software and systems in the world, including manufacturing automation software, design software, analysis software, PLM, and ERP. But as his story illustrates, humans can vastly complicate matters, and it paradoxically takes humans to untangle them. When things go wrong, you can't just go ahead and blame the software or the consultant who implemented it.
So my rant is simply this: Before you shift blame onto software—or consultants, or salespeople—make sure your own house is in order. Software has been scapegoated to such a degree that my resellers cite customers' "fear of making a purchasing decision" as one of their biggest obstacles in making a sale. Make sure the problem isn't management, communication, business processes, or all of the above. To this end:
Communicate, communicate, communicate—A project can "fail" simply because it
doesn't meet unrealistic expectations that weren't addressed and wrestled to
the ground early on in the process. Conflicts weren't resolved, questions
weren't answered. Expectations weren't properly set.
Ask for help—Managers are too reluctant to ask for help out of fear they'll
lose stature. It usually turns out the opposite. Employees closest to the root
causes of problems are the ones in the best position to fix them. And if
managers display the courage to ask for help, they get it.
Tell the truth—Too many managers let problems fester by skirting critical issues instead of daring to "place the moose head on the table" (the figure of speech one of my mentors used for candor in distasteful matters). Tell the truth and lay out the consequences.
While software often deserves the black eye it gets, it doesn't deserve the blame for every business problem—at least, not until we invent software with a leadership feature.
Reach Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.