Interview

Why Do We Go to Great Lengths to Do Things Right Yet Make It Impossible to Achieve?

Most often, we approach our work in a way that's bounded by our limited perspective. When we bring multiple perspectives to the table, we see things we otherwise don't see and solve real, thorny problems.

Bill Fox
Dec 16, 2021
12 min read

Table of Contents

Hillel Glazer: CEO, Entinex, Inc. Author of High Performance Operations. Read our introduction and more from Hillel at The Remarkable Insight, Power, and Value of Having Many Perspectives.


At Forward Thinking Workplaces, we are discovering the people, insights, and strategies that lead to Forward Thinking minds, leaders, and workplaces of the future — today!


Question 1: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives & finds meaning, and change & innovation happen naturally?

1. It's not about making people feel good about what they do.

It's about giving them the conditions where they don't have to constantly fight the circumstances in which they're operating to do their jobs well.

It's been shown, demonstrated, written about, studied, and researched repeatedly around the importance of fulfilling work, self-direction, and controlling your career. On the surface, it sounds like psychology, but it's really a working environment. A conducive working environment is about leadership.

It's about management. Those conditions make it possible to get the most out of the employees because the employees want to give the most when they're completely satisfied and comfortable and eager to do the work.

2. It does come down to what many people find as a surprise.

It does come down to hard to physics. It comes down to time. Time is the domain of physics. Time leveraging, planning work, understanding how different parts of an operation fit together—in the dimension of time.

It's not all about comfortable couches, tea and biscuits, and collaborative spaces. It's about creating all the conditions that make it possible for people to excel, and all of those conditions are, not—they're not “touchy-feely.” They're actual things that leadership needs to think through, solve, and come up with ways of delivering at a much more complex level.

How do you avoid creating an environment that makes it hard to deliver the best parts? How do you not sign a contract? How do you get to a point where the contract delivers, and it's a win-win contract, not a lose-lose contract? Now, those are not touchy-feely. Those are real business things.

3. It results in ensuring you’re giving everyone everything they need to do the work.

That would include the knowledge, resources, freedom, flexibility, and accountability to be autonomous. There's a lot of talk about working smarter, not harder, and then companies fail to express what working smarter looks like. They don't give people what they need to work smarter, so they end up having to work harder. They don't allow them to say, "Oh, let's try this and fail, learn, and move on because then they're saying, "Oh, that was a mistake. You're not working smarter."

You don't learn without failing at least a little at least some time. Sometimes you fail hard, but not often. Still, you need to fail to learn from something that doesn't work and don't do that anymore. But then the smarter, not harder crowd calls the failures “not smart.”

4. One thing that makes innovation happen naturally is that discussion around time.

In his book, Drive back in 2011, Dan Pink got the part about accountability and empowerment, right, but he left out one thing that makes innovation happen naturally. It's that discussion around time.

We need to relieve people from working on too many things at once. In addition to the autonomy over how they work, we need to give people autonomy over how many things they're working on. That also includes how much time they're spending on each one of them.

Because it's unfair if they have everything they need, but we sabotage them by having them multi-task and task switching. Then we don't give them the slack to be human between the tasks we're asking them to do. We fill their schedules as though a schedule with holes in it makes them underutilized to the accountants. If you look at the holes in the schedules, that's meant for all the stuff in our work that we didn't plan for.

Question 2: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

5. Best performance is when people give us 100% utilization on value, not tasks.

There are an infinite number of things that people can do that are not tasks, but are entirely valuable. The confusing thing for many business leaders is that they have conflated best performance with 100 percent utilized on tasks. That's not when they're giving us their best performance. Their best performance is when they give us a hundred percent utilization on value. And sometimes they are going to be more valuable to us by having them learn the job better, learn the work better, learn more about the whole project, learn more about the product or the customers or the market, or learn and do adjacent tasks to theirs.

Value flows more easily when they have that slack. The time between tasks to do other value-accumulating activities. A silly but useful way to think of it is this way. If you're ordering food from a delivery company, say you're ordering a pizza to be delivered. When the pizza gets to you, you realize the value of the pizza you purchased. When there's less traffic on the road, you get the pizza faster. So less traffic is more slack. More slack means faster arrival times for the value. Faster travel time is equal to sooner pizza. And if you think of it in terms of the business, the more pizzas that can be delivered, the more trips the individual deliveries can make, the more value it is for the company. It's a silly but relatable analogy that when people are not giving us everything, it's probably because they're bogged down somewhere that needs to be replaced with something that will be more valuable.

Question 3: What do people really lack and long for at work?

6. What people long and work for is meaning.

I'd say its meaning. I remember in several of my own jobs just sitting around. One of the first good pieces of advice I took from somebody was to journal my workday. The number of SSDD (same shit, different day) entries in my journal was just atrocious.

Because there was nothing to do, I wasn't contributing. The way to summarize that is what people long and work for is meaning. They want the work to matter. They want to get paid, but they want to earn what they got paid for. They don't want to get paid because they fill a box in the organizational chart. That's demoralizing. When they're done with that work, they want to feel accomplished.

Sometimes they have a job that's just a cog in a machine, and it just goes round and round and round. You never really see the bigger picture, and it never seems to end. You don't see the results. You never know what your work was contributing to or whether it was important to someone in some way. That's soul-sucking when you never get that satisfaction of being allowed to understand why you're there and what you're doing.

Question 4: What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

7. What do you need to do the work?

I see a leader's job as one that includes giving the employees all the conditions that they need to get their jobs done and to be fulfilled. So I think the most important question leaders should ask is, what do you need to do the work? Do you have everything you need? Is there anything more you'd like to know? Do you need tools, equipment, resources? Do you need training? Would you like to spend some time talking to someone about the work or time thinking about the work before anything is delivered? What are you most concerned about regarding this work? Do you feel you have the space to learn? Do you have the opportunity to make and learn from your mistakes? Will you even have enough time to do the work we've asked you to do?

Every one of those questions is management or leadership's responsibility to give the employee. By asking them, you're hopefully creating the space where the employee feels safe to ask for stuff they need and not just feel stupid that they don't think they don't know what they need to do the job. One of the worst feelings in the world is to think that you don't get something and it's your fault, especially when it's not your fault when you look around the room and feel like “I must be the dumb one here.” Most of the time, you're not the dumb one. You just haven't been given everything you need to do the job.

Question 5: What's the most question employees should ask leaders?

8. What happens if I screw up?

That's a tough question because if you have the self-confidence to ask these questions, then great. But too many people don't have the self-confidence to ask—especially if they’re new on the job, but maybe they've been there a while, and then they will have the self-confidence.

In a few years, let's say my son graduates from the university, gets his first job, and asks me, what should I ask my first boss? I'd say you should ask these questions during the interview, but ask what happens if I screw up?

Who can I speak with if I'm concerned about not having the right answer or not doing the work correctly? Who do I talk to if I'm concerned about that before I've delivered it? What can I do?

And what happens if my initial thinking about this work changes? Or what if I need to rethink what I'm doing and take another direction to make it successful. What happens if I see a problem with what I'm doing or with what someone else is doing with anyone in the happening in the company, but we're really deep into this work? What happens then? Can I say something? Am I allowed to? Is that is it too late? If I didn't find out about this until now, do I speak up now or just let the project potentially fail because it's not coming?

9. Are we allowed to learn from our mistakes?

A critical telling symptom of a healthy workplace is whether we are allowed to learn from our mistakes? If that's just a bridge too far, going out on a limb like that, especially for a new employee, then maybe another way to take it is what happens if I see a problem?

A more comfortable way to ask those questions without having to ask those questions is to say, what keeps you up at night, and how can I help you sleep better? If you say that to your supervisor or manager, that will blow their mind. And you'll then be potentially able to tease out that they're worried about us and doing our work and mistakes that they're going to be held accountable for. Then you'd be able to feel a little more open to asking the other questions.

Once you hear what's keeping your boss up at night, or what’s on their leaders’ minds, you might be able to say, well, you know, we don't have perfect knowledge. We don't have a crystal ball. What happens if I screw up? Can we learn from our mistakes? How do we work through our work to make mistakes, learn from them and still be on time and budget?

If employees do not feel comfortable asking any of these questions, even the one about asking your leadership, what keeps them up at night? If they're uncomfortable with those questions, there are bigger issues in the organization. If getting answers to these questions are helpful to you and you can't ask them, then this might not be the long-term organization you'd hoped it might have been for you.

Question 6: What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?

10. Are we giving everybody, ourselves included, the space to learn without fear?

People that are serious about their work tend to be pretty hard on themselves. Sometimes, it ends up turning into being hard on others too. And it's not because we're hard-headed, it’s because we're serious about it. We care about it a lot. And when we are very passionate about it, I think it sometimes erases our opportunities to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Because in most situations in most cultures people want to do well. And if they're not, it's typically not their fault. And so we should ask ourselves, are we giving ourselves and each other and those around us the benefit of the doubt?

Are we giving everybody, ourselves included, the space to learn without fear? Are we generous with our time but still self-caring and protective of our own time and then respectful of others' time? We can waste a lot of it if we don't give people the benefit of the doubt because then we become accusatory instead of inquisitive. So I think it can be easily resolved by just constantly putting ourselves in the frame of mind of giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

Question 7: In an earlier conversation, we got into an interesting discussion about leveraging time. What is leveraging time and how do we leverage our time better?

11. When we leverage time, we get more output than we put into it.

The distinction I was drawing is between managing time and leveraging time. We talked a little bit earlier about managing time, where we put overlapping tasks, overlapping schedules, and putting too many things on the schedule. And that's time management.

Not doing those things is the first step in leveraging time. So when you leverage something, if you look it up, one of the definitions is to get it to give you more output than you put into it. And so, when it comes to time, what it means is you get more over time than you would otherwise. Therefore leveraging time is to not look at time as a constant linear thing that you work with. A better way to look at leveraging time is to look at time as the denominator in the constant of everything. In other words, how much of something over time typically looks like “how fast” or “how much” of something over time?

12. People are happier when we don't violate the laws of physics.

If we look at things as a function of time instead of simply consuming time, then how long does this task take is just consuming time. How many of these things we can make in a month is a function of time. That's the simple difference between managing time and leveraging it. When we look at things as a function of time, we can better leverage the time value of work because we can't beat time. We can't stop it. We can't control it, but we can leverage how much we get done in a certain period of time.

Otherwise, we're just allowing things to overlap or violate physics. This is where I was really coming from when I talked earlier about creating the conditions necessary to succeed. It's not about the emotional and psychological. It’s about the physical. It's about physics.

It just so happens that when we don't violate the laws of physics, people are happier. When we don't ask people to be in two places at one time, they're happier. When we don't try to have more than one thing happening simultaneously, they're happier because that doesn't violate the laws of physics. After all, we are programmed in our DNA to be allergic to things that violate physics. Like when we fall off a bridge and splat at the bottom, our bodies respond to physics, not to emotion.

13. Everything traces back to a single idea, reducing the time between an event and our ability to respond to that event effectively.

Our industry has long forgotten that the catalyst that started the entire body of work on lean and everything that grew out of it, TQM, Six Sigma, and agile. You name it. They all trace their roots back to a single idea, which was to reduce the time between an event and our ability to respond to that event effectively. That's it, that one idea. When this system breaks, alert the worker. That one idea spawned everything else.

To facilitate doing whatever it takes to reduce the time between when an event happens and our ability to respond effectively, you can't have people who don't know what the work is. You can't have people afraid to speak up when something doesn't work. You can't have people distracted by things that aren't about the work. You can't have those conditions that now we think of in terms of TQM or lean. The Six Sigma of a process is the statistical validation of a stable, controlled process. But when that idea came to the West, we tried to force our current processes, which were ineffective or and definitely not Lean, to look like Six Sigma statistics. So instead of being a representation of a controlled process, we started bolting on all this extra stuff to make the math look right. Instead, what if we'd pursued what it takes to respond to anything - good things or bad things — but quickly? This non-copyrightable term I call the speed of response. How fast can we respond to an event?

All those things that came from that one pursuit will cause the company or an organization to organize itself around those things. Better information, better communication, more automation, more accountability where the people are doing the work, and they don't have to get approval for everything they want to do.

The ability for people to speak up, the ability to catch quality problems before they go into the field, the ability to self-organize. Then those things drive things like: don't work on tasks that are so large you don't have feedback on the completion until it's too late. Then that drives: don't work on too many things because by working on too many things at once, you'll miss something or create mistakes. Or you'll lose time going from one machine to the other in a factory setting.

Whereas if you just focused on the work that you're currently doing and not on five other projects, you could get that work done, and all five projects get done on time as opposed to pretending that you can do five things at one time, which then violates physics, which then makes people unhappy.

Quality, innovation, and delivering value are facilitated by how fast can we respond to events effectively, which means we've had to think about our response in advance. We have to know when this happens, we have this response. Instead of when something happens we have to figure out what the response is. That's what I mean by leveraging time.

The moment you walk into a problem space with a box of tools and techniques, the problem presents you with something your toolbox can’t fix. Tools and techniques alone aren’t enough to deal with the real world.
— Hillel Glazer, Entinex, Inc.

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