Many managers come by their position based upon experience in a particular function. Accounting managers are people who have many years of experience in accounting. Engineering manager have many years of engineering experience, operations managers have experience in production, sales managers have experience in sales. But few new managers have experience in management and most new managers run their department based on examples and notions that they have about management. There are many managers that think that management is simple and needs no study. These managers will often fail to provide consistency and continuous improvement.
Management is not so different than any other function. There are skills and techniques that a manager should know in order to be a good manager. These skills and techniques are available from business courses at colleges and in management articles. Without a working knowledge in management skills and techniques, the new manager will run his function intuitively. Often this means that the manager will be the boss rather than the manager.
What's the difference?
A manager controls his operation using managerial skills while a boss controls his employees using people skills . A manager takes a broad focus and changes perspectives to meet the situation. A boss takes a command perspective to manage his employees.
The difficulty in becoming a skilled manager comes not from too little information but from too much information. A manager with 20 hours to focus on improving his skills will find a bewildering number of courses that dissect management skills in fine detail but he will be hard pressed to find a simple, straightforward set of guidelines and instructions. Then too, many courses focus on managing people which is just one of many perspectives that a manager should take.
One well known school offers management courses in 23 areas without emphasis. The manager who wants to hone his management skills can end up learning marketing, finance, accounting, human resources, information technology, project management, communication, etc. All these topics are slanted toward management skills but they do not cover the most basic management techniques (or if they do, I can't find them).
If it were up to me, I would refocus the courses around control and improvement and I would rank the subjects according to primary, secondary and optional. Primary courses would be the ones that every manager should know no matter what their functional responsibilities. These would be the courses which provide the best results for a sensible effort. They would be the everyday management skills. They would satisfy the 80-20 rule (roughly 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the effort.)
The primary courses should be:
Management Control - These techniques are designed to provide a manager and his organization with consistent results. One control topic would include feedback, analysis and modification. Feedback tells the manager what parts of his operation are running well and which parts need to be analyzed and changed. Continual analysis and change gradually brings the operation consistent results. Moreover, by seeking to match the best feedback every time period, the managers will optimize his results. Also under management control are topics about organization, standardization, customer satisfaction, corrective and preventive action, process audits and management review.
Improvement - Management needs to set objectives each year and make plans to hit those objectives that are different than the previous year's results. The improvement steps are setting objectives, selecting projects that will attain the objectives, planning the selected projects, implementing and validating results. Managers can hit pitfalls when setting objectives and choosing promising projects. A helpful curriculum should layout a practical process that avoids pitfalls.
Resource Management - Managers need to maximize the usefulness of their resources. Resources include people, equipment and facilities. Because people are a resource, all of the human resource issues need to be taught for this topic. This includes skills analysis, training plans, motivation, hiring and firing, personnel policies and career planning. Resource management also includes working conditions and space. Comfort, lighting, sound, air quality, order, work flow and stress are 7 issues that can contribute to working environment and the quality of work. Some of the resource issues will be uncovered and resolved under management control, but the effectiveness of resources is so important that it is given a separate topic.
These three topics are primary to a manager. Once a manager tackles and succeeds in these areas, he may pursue other management topics. But the point here is these are the 20 percent in the 80-20 rule. A manager that utilizes these techniques will effectively manage his operation. Any additional knowledge will either be in support of these issues or will be advanced topics. Secondary topics include organization, utilization rates, maximizing capacity, time management, managerial decision making, information management, functional management and management perspectives.
Optional topics include finance, accounting, IT, documentation, advanced analysis, process planning and topics relative to the manager's function.
I have purposely left out six sigma, lean manufacturing and ISO 9001 because proponents of those disciplines will insist that they are primary while I think they are secondary and some managers will consider them optional. I will let the reader decide where they belong.
I have written other articles in this series that cover Management Control, Management by Objective and Resource Management. These articles introduce primary topics in management.
With insightful guidance many companies can unlock profits, start new initiatives and release hidden potentials. Jay Jacobus is a consultant who advocates basic concepts, uncomplicated methods, clear explanations and confidence building results. Learn how to improve resources, controls, operations, results, sales or productivity. Jay has a background in management, ISO 9000, quality and consulting.
When writing about principles of management, most author include a chapter about control. Control is important to managers because strong control brings consistent results and poor control brings poor, inconsistent results. But for some reason, control is most often placed toward the back of some management texts. It's as if the authors do not understand what I think is obvious; control is the single most important skill that a manager can learn. A manager, who has control of his operation, will be a successful manager. He will be successful because he will deliver consistently good results.
Organizing, staffing, communicating, strategizing, analyzing, planning, coordinating and leading are abilities that some managers develop in themselves but not one of these abilities will lead to consistently good results by itself. They all have a value to a manager but the very first skill a manager should develop is control.
To a certain degree the importance of management abilities is a matter of perspective. From an academic perspective all management abilities and every word, chart, list and graph are necessary for the management student to master the management discipline. But from a practical - results oriented perspective some skills are more important than others.
My gripe is not with management authors' writings. It is with their perspective. Not all management skills are important to managers. What is important is a manager's ability to get his job done, bring in good results and show consistency. This is the essence of control.
Control comes from checking output against a given standard and making changes when the output is less than desired. It is managing results so that the results approach an optimal goal. It is measuring and correcting performance to arrive at the most desirable results.
The action that empowers control is change. Changes can be in personnel, equipment, instructions, training, processes, plans, organization, procedures, suppliers or timing. Change can be as simple as fine tuning instructions and as complex as economic stimulus. But the concept is simple: observe, analyze and change but change only when necessary.
Observation lets the manager know how well his function is working. Analysis tells him why a function is not working right and change makes the operation function more effectively.
In the language of managers, observation comes in the form of feedback. Feedback should tell the manager about his quality, his productivity and his timeliness. Feedback relative to quality can be rejects, customer complaints, returns, collections, negative audit reports and rework. A manager who puts controls on any or all of these outcomes will know if quality is within acceptable limits or not. If the feedback, shows that results are not acceptable, the manager will analyze the feedback, seek additional information and revise the part of the system that is not performing according to plan.
Feedback should always relate to output. It should relate to productivity, quality and/or timeliness. Some companies relate financial data to each function in the organization. They do this because financial profit it is the ultimate goal of ever profit making organization. This can cause problems for the production departments, administrative functions and sales. None of these functions have control of profit but, if they maximize the results that they do control, they will add what they can to the overall success of the organization.
For a department manager, feedback should be daily for at least the most important statistic and perhaps weekly for other statistics. Feedback should never be quarterly and it should never be more than a few days old. The idea in gathering feedback is to get early information about an operation so that corrective and preventive action can be done to quickly resolve problems. Month old data can be too old to do anything about. The department manager should get feedback that allows him to be proactive and also forewarned.
Some managers rely on accounting numbers. These managers (unless they finance managers) cannot be proactive and forewarned. They spend a lot of time explaining why their numbers look the way they do or they have a standard rationalization as to why the accounting numbers paint the wrong picture. Usable feedback should always be clear. While some additional investigation may be required to completely understand the operational feedback, the feedback should at least point the manager in the right direction. In many cases, accounting numbers don't do that.
While feedback must be timely, it may also be part of a trend. That means that latest feedback will fall into an increasing, decreasing or stable pattern. The manager uses the trend to make medium range changes in his operation. If an objective is to match previous results, then the manager only seeks a consistent feedback. If an objective requires improvement, then a manager must make special actions. If a manager is not taking special action, he should not expect to make his objective. Managers, who set increasing targets and then do nothing, are kidding themselves and their superiors.
Good luck and bad luck can have a significant impact on feedback. A company that is growing faster than expected can have a positive impact on the sales feedback and also the productivity feedback. On the other hand, quality and timeliness may worsen. The manager, who understands the dynamics of the feedback, can plan for action to take the good and resolve the bad. Results that simply move with the outside forces are not pro-active.
Sometimes objectives come with conditions.
Reduce inventory without effecting production is one objective (reduce inventory) with a condition (don't effect production). In this case the manager needs dual feedback: the amount inventory comes down plus the number of days production waits for stock. Idle production can use expenses faster than holding costs will save borrowing costs. Or in other words, reduced productivity should be weighed against reduced carrying costs. The materials manager should watch feedback from inventory accounting and from the production manager and resolve any unacceptable feedback.
This dual feedback is required for many situations that a manager may encounter. He should be aware of cause and effect and prepare for dual feedback when appropriate.
But getting feedback is not enough. In fact, some managers see feedback as only a report card on their success or failure. They do not see feedback as valuable information that directs them toward positive change and better results.
Managers will often tell their workers to own up to mistakes. They want to know the information, good or bad, so that they can resolve problems. Workers, on the other, sometimes hide their mistakes because they know there will be consequences.
Feedback should not be used to assign blame. If it is used that way, managers will either hide the feedback, manipulate the numbers or make up excuses. This is the wrong use of feedback. In fact, the most useful feedback is the information the manager gets for his own use. It is information that leads a manager to better control and operational consistency.
Every function should be productive and there is feedback that will show how productive a function is. Managers should capture those numbers. Every function should meet deadlines. So, managers should capture numbers showing on time delivery. Every function should show quality work. Managers should capture numbers regarding quality.
Productivity numbers are products completed per day. Deadline numbers are shipments made on time vs. shipments made late. Quality numbers are number of approved parts vs. rejected parts.
For sales departments, productivity numbers are number of calls made, number of quotes sent out or $ of orders booked. Deadline numbers show the percent of the month's sales objective done each day. Quality can be expressed as the orders per inquiry (this shows how successful the department is in turning inquiries into orders).
Each manager must be creative in the feedback he chooses. In accounting, the feedback is different than in the engineering department which is different than in the marketing department. No matter what, the feedback must be meaningful and linked to the objectives of the department manager.
Once the feedback is selected and the numbers start coming in, the manager must analyze the results. Many times the feedback will fluctuate quite a bit. Fluctuations show that something is out of control. The manager should understand why some days are better than others. He should understand why the good days are good and the bad days are bad. He wants to eliminate the conditions that caused the bad days and he wants to repeat the conditions that caused a good day. To do that, he needs to understand cause and effect. Cause and effect is the analysis that provides the manager with the knowledge to improve consistency.
The manager, who can say "I know why I had a bad day" is in a position to fix the problem. Unfortunately, some managers simply write down the problem. They write it down so that they can explain why some of their numbers don't look so good at the end of the month. This is okay except that writing it down does not fix the problem, nor does it prevent the problem from reoccurring. Doing something is the reason for getting feedback. Taking constructive action will make the issue better or less disruptive or less likely to occur again.
Yet, it is very difficult to tell managers exactly what to do. Every issue is different and, therefore, every action should be different as well. I can say that many potential changes are included in the following: training, re-assignments, lengthen schedules, clarify labels, update equipment, increase production time, reduce downtime, add inspections, improve paperwork, improve processes, replace machinery, change vendors, repair / replace tooling, outsource processes, change plans / drawings, institute controls, add reviews, audit processes, standardize instructions, etc.
Many times a manager will focus on a worker to find reasons why a mistake was made. The manager must be sure that he understands the underlying cause of the mistake before acting rashly. Workers; who are under stress, working long hours, working in poor conditions, not properly trained or told to skip the rules for expediency; should not be held completely responsible. Sometimes conditions are such that mistakes are likely. The manager should take this into account.
Nevertheless, managers will live and learn. As they work with their control system, they will see that their results become stable, more predictable and more profitable.
If every manager in an organization has control over his function, the overall results of the organization will be consistent. Having said that, I know that an organization is subject to forces beyond its control. Economic downturns, heavy competition, changes in regulations, labor shortages, union problems, innovations and many other unforeseen occurrences can cause problems. The impact of these problems should show up in the feedback. Unexplainable feedback serves as a warning system of problems ahead.
Like the proactive manager, executives should analyze and change to anticipate outside pressures. So a system of control should exist at the top of the company as well.
There are executive initiatives that can be taken to improve the overall control of the organization. The number one initiative is to be sure that each function is under the control of a manager. While this sounds basic, every company has some functions that are under cruise control. This means that no manager is checking the function's results. This is easily corrected by assigning responsibility and emphasizing control. Once someone is watching, results should improve quickly.
In working toward effective control the process belongs to each individual manager and the techniques of feedback, analysis and change belong at every management level. This includes the overall organization as well as the individual functions.
However, at the organization level there a few additional issues and initiatives that can be taken. The executives should also get feedback on how the overall organization is working, not on a department by department basis and not on a daily basis, but at least regularly.
Management review meetings should be held to review statistics that provide feedback on how the organization is functioning overall. Feedback to the meeting should include operating statistics, customer satisfaction / dissatisfaction, vendor issues, improvement progress, preventive actions, resource management, training and communications.
The focus should be on the overall result of each element rather than individual issues. Each of the elements should be working to the benefit of the company. If they are, than no changes need to be made. If they are not, then some executive or manager should be charged with making recommendations for improvements.
One important questions that executives should ask is "Why are we looking at this problem? Why hasn't operations or administration handled this already?" These are appropriate questions and the answers may improve the company's ability to handle issues at the appropriate level.
Sometimes the management review committee will determine that they need to give their organization a better blueprint on how to handle a particular procedure. This is different than focusing on an individual problem. It is directed toward the way things are done in general. Perhaps, for example, a special project seems to be stalled. Rather than kicking butt, the executives should determine what is wrong with the way projects are handled in the organization.
It may be that assignments aren't clear or managers are not sure who is in charge. It may be that there is no project manager or the project manager is not very experienced. It may be that there is no schedule or task list. It may be that some of the people have been diverted to other work. It could be one of dozens of reasons.
The point is that executives should not solve individual problems, but should, instead, fix procedures. They will do this by assigning a person to carefully examine the procedure and suggest changes. Executive focus should be on lasting changes rather than a one-time fixes.
Another issue related to control is standardization. A company that standardizes its procedures and work instructions, chooses the best methods for doing each project and job. Standardization results in consistent workmanship and more productive ways of working. Standardization usually comes from written work instructions but may also be obtained through training and process audits.
Training teaches the proper techniques. Process audits check to make sure that the proper techniques are actually being followed. By itself a process audits can also be used to get additional feedback for a manager.
Process improvements are other initiatives which are similar to preventive action except they are chosen not because of problems, but because the manager wants to improve control. If a manager understands how a process works, he can often make it work better by examining the inputs, resources, instructions, equipment and material. Sometimes workers find new ways of processing. Companies that reward workers for cost saving ideas find that people on the line often have good insight into work improvements.
Validation can be important when instituting new procedures, software, machinery or employees. Validation is a test of the capabilities of a new item. The manager wants to be sure that the new item will fit in as designed and any limitations are resolved. Often the salesman for the new item will say that it is operationally ready when in fact it requires some modifications to fit each company. This may happen with new accounting software, a new quality system, new machinery and new employees. Before rushing to implementation, it is a good idea to test the new items off line. Some companies install new items and then spend three or more months trying to get it working as promised. Without validation many new changes will put the company out of control until a fix is uncovered and installed.
Before I end this series on control there is one more topic that I should cover and that is the control of projects. Projects are one-time initiatives that take a good deal of intellectual effort and implementation skills. A new accounting system is a project. Operating a previously installed accounting system is an operational process. Operating a previously installed accounting system requires standard instructions and normal controls.
On the other hand, designing and implementing a new accounting system requires special controls. To control a project requires detailed plans, instructions and checklists. The project manager will use the checklist to verify quality, timing and productivity. He will not get feedback numbers. Instead, he will get daily reports from the project team and support people. The daily reports will tell him what was accomplished, where the project is with regard to timing and what parts of the project have been reviewed for quality. The project manager uses his daily reports to tell himself to take corrective action when the project falters.
Project control is a lot less objective than the feedback numbers are in a production department. This is the nature of project management. In my experience, projects fail or fall behind schedule, not because the project team is not capable, but because the control plan and control execution are not effective.
To recap: control is the most important managerial function; control is obtained through feedback, analysis and modifications; an organizational chart should assign control to all functions; management review focuses on overall control of the organization; standardization helps consistency; process audits are used to check compliance and validation tests out new systems.
In advocating control I realize that many managers do a lot more than control. Organizing, analysis, coordination, planning and staffing are also important, yet effective control by itself will always bring stable and consistent results. And that is an excellent place for a manager to start.