Lesson 4: Fessing Up

Fessing UpYou have done all the analysis and drawn up some beautiful charts.  They highlight the key areas for improvement.  Now you need to talk about it.  But it needs to be more than just a chat and some observation; it needs to drive some action.  It is one thing realising what your inadequacies are.  It is another thing altogether doing something about them.

The Americans have a beautiful verb, to “fess up”, or admit what the issue is and take responsibility for it.  All the data and analysis in the world is worthless unless you “fess up” to it.

Are you ready to do that?  What does it feel like “fessing up” to your boss?

Learning to Run

Running is easy, you put one foot in front of the other, increase the pace, and off you go.  It is so easy that my 2-year-old daughter can do it, she does it everywhere.

Running a long way is not so easy.  The first time you do it your heart starts to pound.  You get hot and your lungs feel like they are going to invert.  Then your brain screams at you to stop.  It is not a nice experience.  But there are people who can run marathons, plenty of them.  How do they do it?

When I started to run I picked a route and started running.  After about ½ a mile I got all the symptoms, and I stopped.  I stopped by a post box.  Two days later I ran again.  I ran all the way to the post box and then I ran a couple of hundred yards further until I came to the ring road.  Then I “had” to stop to cross the road, and as I had “had” to stop I had a bit of a walk, it seemed wasteful not to.  The next time I went that bit further.  I knew what the furthest point I had reached was, and I just ran that bit further.

Now I would be lying if I said I was a world-class runner but I can complete a half marathon without any problems.  Why?  Because I held myself to account and pushed myself just that little further each day.  I “fessed up”.  It would have been easy to have a beer instead, to watch the TV, to read a book.  But I didn’t.

The morale of the story?  Unless you “fess up” to yourself and those around you, you will never get any better.

The Scientific Method

There is an improvement concept called the “Deming Cycle”.  The terminally dull call it PDCA (plan, do, check, act).  It is the process that scientists use when they are working.

  • First they plan.  They write what they want to test.  They think through how they could prove it and then they develop an experiment.
  • Second they do.  They run the experiment
  • Next they check.  They measure the results, do the analysis, and work out what happened.  Did they prove or disprove their theory?  What did they learn?
  • The last stage is to act.  They build on the experiment or they throw it away and start again.
  • Finally they go back to stage one and start planning again.

There is nothing new under the sun.  Francis Bacon first wrote down the method in 1620.  The process is not revolutionary, it is just sophisticated “fessing up”.  But it is powerful and, I would argue, the only way to drive improvement.   It forces people to face into their performance and do something about it.

It is all about iteration.  Trying things out gives you get feedback.  Feedback increases your knowledge.  Knowledge improves your performance.  The alternative is to go into “analysis paralysis” trying to get it perfect the first time.  But you never will.  The most important point is that this isn’t a one-off.  It is a routine.  Try, learn, improve, try, learn, improve, try, learn …

If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got ~ Anon
There is no failure, only feedback ~ Robert Allen

Bored?  Hold a Meeting

Most of what we do is a team sport.  We don’t work in isolation.  So if you are serious about “fessing up”, you need to have somebody to “fess up” with.  The people you work with  who will help you improve.  There is a down side; you need to hold a meeting.  Unfortunately there is no other alternative.  But it shouldn’t be that bad, if you are clear about:

  • What you are trying to do
  • How you are going to do it
  • Who needs to be there
  • How often it should be

A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours ~ Milton Berle

What are you trying to do?

A review meeting is not a forum to preach good news.  It is somewhere to discuss issues, not hide them in the long grass.  Reviews should be open and honest, not cloaked in a fog of denial.

How are you going to do it?

The agenda is all important, sorry if that is teaching you to suck eggs.

  • Check recent performance (look at the numbers).  What is the goal?  How are you doing? What are the trends?
  • Discuss the reasons for that performance.  What is the cause?  Why is that the case?  What has changed?
  • Talk through activity that has been completed to improve performance.  Did it work?  If not, why not?  What did you lean?
  • Talk through last month’s actions.  Did you do what you said you were going to do?

Who needs to be there?

The answer to that is simple; the smallest number of people necessary to get to a decision.  No more and no less.  If people don’t have a clear role to play, don’t invite them to the session.  The more people you have, the longer it will take.  People feel the need to give their opinion, to “pile on”.  Don’t invite people out of courtesy.  Invite people because they need to be there.

How often should it be?

That depends on the rate of change.  There is little point discussing the change of direction of a super tanker every 30 seconds.  If you don’t expect change since the last discussion don’t give yourself meeting angst.  Likewise, there is no point discussing the next motorway junction after you have driven past it.  Reviewing operational performance every minute is too frequent, once a year isn’t frequent enough. Where the happy medium is dependent on your operation.

But once you have decided, be consistent.  If the meeting is sporadic it won’t be taken seriously.  Actions won’t get completed.  Progress won’t happen.

Why is this so hard?


Performance is dependent upon people.  Holding yourself accountable is one thing.  It is only down to you.  But being open and honest in front of others is another story.  If you don’t trust those around you it is easy to spin a line and disappear into the long grass.  If you lambast people for poor performance, they will hide the truth.  People are scared stiff of being shown up.  Even by straight forward objective measures.  They will resist being under the spot light.

The solution is to discuss issues in a non threatening way.  This is not an easy tight rope to walk and is totally dependent on trust.  Without trust you are wasting your time.

Reviewing has one advantage over suicide: in suicide you take it out on yourself; in reviewing you take it out on other people
~ George Bernard Shaw


Improve your management reviews.

  1. Pick an area of your performance  that you would like to improve, it could be cost, quality or service
  2. Critique the current review meetings that you use. Do they focus on the right things in a constructive way?  Are they timely and repeated, focussing on the same issues?  Are they open and honest?  Do they lead to systematic improvements?
  3. If they are not where you would like them to be then pick the area that you want to improve.  It might be customer complaints, speed of service delivery, cost performance.  Choose the top-level measure for that area.
  4. Draw two charts:
    • A trend over time.
    • A Pareto chart (80:20 chart) that shows what the key areas of discussion should be.
  5. Schedule a meeting to discuss performance against those key areas.  Review the project activity that will improve performance.
  6. Repeat the session the following month.  Follow up on the actions from the previous session.
  7. Make sure the environment is open, honest and blame free.

It is a little hard work and formulaic, but it works.

In the next lesson we will discuss operational cost and how to reduce it.

Thank you for reading.


Post Script

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