Spelling it Out

Spelling it Out
© David Burton 2007


     I ran across a memo that I had sent to my staff at a division of a small engineering company several years ago. The message seemed to be as relevant today as it was then. In a shortened and edited version, here it is.

     Weíve been part of this company for 2 years now and during this period of time our track record has been less than outstanding. We have consistently managed to lose money for our division and for the company. Effectively, weíve managed to get two strikes against ourselves doing business the way we have. The next strike will be ďitĒ for our division, if not for the company.

     I do not intend to take the third strike. I am going to work like hell to turn things around and Iím not going to let things run as they have in the past, because, as you each know, our old way of doing business has not worked. If you think it has, just check our profit and loss record! Iím going to work to turn things around by getting things done in the way that will work to the best advantage for all. You all have a choice to make:

  1. You can fight the progress I hope to make by trying to keep things as theyíve been.
  2. You can help me make the changes and make them work.
  3. You can tell me how to make better changes than the ones I intend to make.
     If anyone feels that he is not going to be able to improve on the way he does things and that he cannot adapt to a better way, then he had better face up to the fact that he doesnít belong here.


     We function as a group. If anyone falls down on the job, everyone suffers. There is no such thing as ďI did my job - Iím doneĒ until the total end product is finished.

     If anyone feels that the money heís being paid does not entitle the company to eight hard and honest hours of his work, then heíd better start looking for a job elsewhere. If you donít feel an obligation to yourself, the people with whom you work, the company from which you accept your pay, and the customer that pays for and receives the products you make, then go somewhere else - you donít belong here.

     Weíre too small a group to be able to carry dead wood. If you canít carry your share of the load, then go where the load isnít so great. We can argue up to the point that a decision is made. After that, I expect everyone to abide by the decision and to do his best to make the decision work. I will not stand for anyone ignoring a directive from the head of our division, from me, from a group leader, a team leader or a program manager. I donít want to hear: ďWe canít do it.Ē ďWe havenít done it that way before.Ē ďI donít have the time.Ē ďI havenít enough funding.Ē

     I want to concentrate on only one thing - ďHow are we going to get the job done on-time, within budget, and to specification.Ē


     As a bare minimum, I expect everyone on the payroll to work eight hours a day. That doesnít mean just being here eight hours. Too much of our day goes into bull sessions, watching someone else work, extended lunch hours - you name it.

     Iíve talked with each of you about the plans for growth in our division. Iíve told you that if and when that happens, you get first crack at moving up the ladder. BUT, that isnít going to be handed to you without your putting in the effort. If you think you can manage a group of people by just putting in an 8-hour day, youíre kidding yourself. The opportunities are going to be there for those who want to put in the extra effort and who are willing to learn to manage other people.

     From now on, Iím going to insist on several things:
  1. We will stop working by the seat of our pants.
  2. We will develop well-thought-out planning beforehand.
  3. We will develop plans and assembly procedures before we put ourselves in a hole. They donít have to be literary gems, but they do have to be thought out so that things get done efficiently.
  4. I will absolutely not accept missing schedules, particularly with respect to test plans, and documentation.
  1. Follow the rules.
  2. Meet schedules and deadlines.
  3. Maintain totally open communication.
  4. Do effective planning.
  5. Be more efficient.
     I expect every facet of our work to be contributed to by every member of the group. I expect everyone to look for and encourage inputs and suggestions from other members of the division. There just cannot be any more of this: ďIíll lock my door and give you a result in a month or two. Donít bother me till then.Ē I want to know that when we design, build, assemble and test something that itís a team effort the whole way.

     We canít afford to produce a design that costs 3 times as much to build as we budgeted. We will view all our product developments as design-to-cost developments. If we get into a design and find that building it is going to cost too much, then weíll take the time to design in the necessary cost savings. Right now we stand to price ourselves out of business. For obvious reasons, we canít afford to underbid on proposals. On the other hand, we canít competitively bid on work by just basing our costs on brute force approaches. Weíve got to be creative enough to find the low-cost way of doing a job, and that means a lot of thinking, planning, keeping up with or ahead of the state-of-the-art, and by hard-nosed scheduling. Itís easy to write a proposal and cover your ass by just inflating the costs. We canít win those proposals. It takes a lot of skill and effort to generate a proposal that minimizes the cost and the risk.

     A lot of the work we turn out requires expensive talent to assemble, align and maintain. That kills us because it means that weíre overpriced, but what may be even more important, it means that we have to commit scarce, highly talented manpower to jobs that less skilled and less costly people can be trained to do, if we give them the right documentation and if we take the time and effort to show them how to do it.

     That has to be a real goal for everyone. We canít be concerned about providing job security by seeing to it that no one else can do the job. You may guarantee that as long as the job exists, itís yours, but youíll eventually price the job out of existence and guarantee that you canít put your time and talent to more profitable use.

     Iíve talked a lot about planning and reporting. All too often thatís meant slapping something together to keep me and management off your back. Donít bother! Thatís worse than doing nothing because youíve wasted your time and our time. When you do something, do it right. If you canít, then face up to it. Tell me and weíll find a way to do it right.

     Weíre a small group. Each of us has certain strengths or specialties at which heís good. Each of us has areas at which heís not so good. If you try to do something all by yourself, youíre stuck with your weaknesses. If you involve other people who are strong in the areas in which youíre weak, then your weaknesses are unimportant.

     If you can design but canít write, we can get someone to write for you. If you put together designs, but canít visualize assembly problems, we can find someone to identify the assembly problems and suggest ways around them; but youíve got to be willing to let other people contribute.

     Some of us go into design reviews with the attitude that we need to defend the design. The idea is not to criticize a design but to suggest ways to make it better. Some of us go into a design review and we keep our mouths shut because we donít want to be criticizing a friendís design. Is it better to let him turn out a poor design than contribute to making it a good one?

Meetings, Reviews, etc.

     The function of meetings, reviews, etc is to provide information and solve problems. Problems are solved by people presenting completely divergent points of view and discussing (arguing) proís and conís. If everyone has the same point of view, there is no need for a meeting. There will be no decisions ďby committee.Ē The committee will present suggestions recommendations and alternatives, but the final decision will be made by whoever is in charge.

     We will run meetings efficiently - we will cut out the bull and the chitchat. Reports, plans, and estimates only serve a purpose if they help to get something done. Paperwork for paperworkís sake is less than useless. Historical data is useless unless it helps to accomplish something in the future. Everyone makes mistakes. Successful people make them once; the average guy makes them twice; the idiot makes them three times or more. We donít have room for idiots. When we make a mistake, I expect us to learn from it and not to repeat it.

     We need better documentation on everything we do - again, not for the sake of building up a mess of paper. Putting things down on paper means that other people can plan ahead. It forces you to think ahead and anticipate problems. It gives us historical data on which to base forecasts and to price and schedule jobs more accurately. It gives us a record to see if weíre improving or standing still.

     Because weíre a small group, just about everyone around here is a manager of one sort or another. Some of us are lousy managers and may never be good ones. Some of us just donít know how to manage well because thereís been no training; some of us have stumbled along until weíre not too bad. We are going to provide the training and guidance to help those who want to be managers to acquire the skills that can make them good managers.

     Itís unfortunate that success is perceived by whether or not one can move up to be a manager - and thatís plain stupid! Not everyone will be a good manager. If anyone finds out heís not a good manager, either because he just doesnít have like managing or because it requires a set of talents that he doesnít have - so what? Success doesnít require you to be a manager. It does, however, require you to be the best you can be at whatever you do.

Bringing in New People

     As we grow, there are going to be new people on board. We already have a few. We have the following choices:
  1. Keep out the good people because weíre afraid we might lose our jobs to them.
  2. Try to keep them under our thumb.
  3. Get the most use from them.
     If you are shortsighted enough to try to keep out talented people, I guarantee that it will cost you your job in the long run as well as possibly the jobs of everyone else in our division. Weíre too top heavy now in terms of salary and too limited in resources and capabilities. Weíre highly inefficient because of it. We have designers doing drafting; we have senior electronic technicians doing wiremensís jobs; Iím doing administratorsí jobs; etc.

     Up till now, weíve spent too much effort on trying to keep people happy. Well, Iím not happy and I know many of you arenít. The only way to create a satisfying environment for everyone is to start running our division in a businesslike fashion, to become and stay profitable, and to grow.

     This means the business comes first and personal preferences second. That is the way Iím going to do things. That is my responsibility and for what Iím paid. Iíll try to accommodate to individual situations whenever possible, but only when it doesnít adversely affect our groupĎs performance. From now on, I expect each of you be responsible for maintaining budgets and schedules. There will be no design innovations because they are nice or better unless Ďbetterí can be done within current budget. Always, it should be kept in mind that it is our intent to make money on each project. We are not a non-profit organization. I donít want to find out about overruns as they are occurring. Potential overruns will be identified before they occur and will be avoided. If you plan well enough and far enough in advance, then there will be very few overruns. If you canít do that, then the responsibility for controlling your work will be taken away from you and given to someone who can. If you want to be given the privilege of managing yourself and others, then you have to accept the responsibility to the company that goes with it - i.e., making a profit.

     If you manage a program, then you must manage the whole ball of wax - even if your discipline is in one area, you still must be responsible for everything associated with the program. That means keeping track of scheduled events, milestones, budgets, reports, design considerations, etc - the whole works. When you look at a task and try to reduce the costs, that canít be done just by saying, ďIíll do it in 80% less time.Ē Youíve got to think about it, plan it, and find a way that really results in less cost.

     By and large, we have a very competent group of people here with a lot of talent. But, to date, I donít think that weíve made the best use of this talent. From now on, I want to make the best use of the talent that we have. With more attention to the planning effort, with better control of where we spend our time, money and resources, by bringing in people to fill in the gaps in our competence, and by honestly and conscientiously trying to work as a team, we can be successful.

     I cannot do all of this by myself. If we succeed, itíll only be because each and every one of us puts in the extra effort to make it happen. All I can do is to try and help everyone here make the best use of his time and talent and Iím willing to put in whatever is needed to do this. Iíll work with you; Iíll get you help where I can; Iíll let you go as far as your ambition and your talent can carry you. To be fair to everyone here and to the company, though, we canít afford the luxury of keeping anyone who isnít carrying his share of the load and Iím going to be hard-nose about this.

     Iíve worked with all of you long enough to know that each and every one of you has the talent, albeit in very limited areas of specialty in some cases, to contribute to our success. Whether you want to put the effort into making our group successful is up to you. Donít worry about what you canít do or what you might not do well, just concentrate on those things that youíre really good at. Be honest with yourself, though, and accept advice and help in those areas in which you are not so good.

     Over the next few weeks, I will take time to sit down with each of you individually to answer any questions you have about what Iíve just said, about any suggestions you have and to talk about what I expect from you and what you want from me.

  10 December 2007 {Article 26; Undecided_06}    
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