Who's on First ... Today? by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine November 2001
Each time I fill out my production team schedule for the coming week, I am almost eerily reminded of the times when I would perform a similar activity for the youth soccer teams I coached. When I was serving in that capacity, I always had to make a conscious choice between playing to win and playing for fairness. In other words, I had to decide whom I would put in key positions and how often I would substitute for those key players, if at all. I also had to determine how much time each of my weaker players would get to be on the field. Making a youth soccer lineup was never an easy task – creating a daily lineup for each of the skill positions on my production team is not much easier.
In business, the norm is to hire people for a given type of work and let them work in that position as long as they perform up to expectations. A key difference between work and sports is that we usually hire for a specific position at work, with there being little expectation of that person playing another position. If we hire you to pitch, that is what you will do. If we hire you to manage our Human Resources or Maintenance departments, it is possible that will be all that you will do.
While this approach helps ensure that all key positions are filled, it also leaves us with two primary liabilities. First, we may or may not have picked the right person for that role. Second, if you are not around, who fills in for you? In organizations, where resumes and short interviews serve as our tryouts, it is often very likely that we end up with people in positions that they are really not that qualified to play. We also find ourselves in a bind at times because we failed to prepare for the absence of a key player.
Cross training is the answer for the second concern, but we do not seem to have the time (or feel empowered to spend the money) for such proactive efforts. Culturally, the first concern is answered for us by the strong assumptions that we usually make about people in key positions (especially those that we helped put there). If that is the role they have played in their career to-date, then they must be one of the best people for the job. We often put too much stock in a person's stated credentials, and not enough emphasis on their level of desire, heart, and focus.
Over the past ten years in particular, I have been struck by the reoccurrence of issues that were the result of the Peter Principle (people being promoted beyond their level of competence). While some of actions of this type are needed to help people develop into new roles, they should not be practiced as a matter of course in a given organization. I have also been consistently reminded of situations where it seemed that certain people were filling roles in a company that others might be more qualified for, even if they had no formal schooling in the topic. How do you decide where in the lineup to play your best performers?
Each time I make a work schedule, I have the choice of playing each team member wherever I might want to, as long as I am willing to suffer the consequences. In my small work world, the cause and effect of such experimentation is relatively easy to see. In larger groups, such experimentation is avoided, if not discouraged, for being too risky. Unfortunately, the long term, less noticeable effects of leaving an outfielder in a pitcher's role are discounted as the shorter term risks are evaluated.
I would like to see organizational teams, both large and small, adopt a simple philosophy. Let's hire people for their variety of skills, their leadership and communication abilities, and their desire to help make us more effective. We can worry about the actual position (or positions) you will fill after you have worked for us a little while and we have a better picture of those areas where you can really help us out the most. We would also install more effective performance feedback systems, which would help us make position changes or substitutions if such changes were warranted.
While idealistic in the short term, this approach would result in a very multi-skilled staff over the course of time. By letting people play new positions, new skills would be learned and stability during times of absence would be better maintained. Most importantly, thee organization would not suffer the long-term erosion in creativity, morale, and motivation that usually accompanies the extended use of the current practice of placing people in a role and keeping them there.
How often do we leave a person in a role that others who might be ‘sitting on the bench' could better fill? How often do we leave the starting pitcher in the game even though they are way over their pitch count and they are walking too many people? How often do we ourselves insist on being the shortstop, the quarterback, or the right wing, even though we know that our skills are not best suited for such roles?
When we decide who should attend a meeting, participate in a training event, or be part of the leadership team, we are also filling out a lineup card. Good coaches change the lineup if they are not getting the results they want. Sometimes that person is benched, but often they are simply placed into a role that better fits with their skill set. In business, we fail to change the lineup card enough, just as we fail to effectively assess the true skills and energy that each team member in our organization brings to the game each day.
Do you have any linemen that are trying to play quarterback on your team? Is it possible that you are leaving one of your best pitchers in the bullpen because you feel that they just are not ready yet? Is your team lineup optimized for high performance on a daily, consistent basis? Who really should be playing first base?
To make my team the best it can be, I am experimenting with lineup changes. I am also working to develop the skills of all of my team members, so that if a key player is not there, someone else can step in and be up to challenge. Most importantly, I am really making a conscious effort to keep an open mind about what skills someone might have that I am not yet aware of. Don't let any pucks go through the five hole, and keep improving!
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates