Posted by: G. Lane Cavalier | April 26, 2007

Life: White Board Sayings Explained – Number 4

“My job isn’t to think for them, it’s to light the pilot light in their brain.” – Dusty Baker, while managing the Chicago Cubs.

 This quote came up after a game in which the Cubs of course lost, but had a number of base-running mistakes that I wouldn’t expect from a 13 year old.

I found the quote to be very germane to a leader or manager in any business, much less baseball.  It’s to easy to manage by simply telling people what to do.  The true leaders get people to do what needs to be done by thinking about it and coming up with their own solutions. 

 I had a method for trying to get this thinking out of people I worked with.  I would use the white board to draw a flowchart, but the only boxes I would fill in were the first ( problem statement) and the last ( measurable outcome ).  Or in human speak, here is where we’re at and here is where I want us to be.

 I used to ask everyone to go away for a few hours and come back with their drawings with a step-by-step process and decision chain of how we would get there.   I would often sit in my office and do the same thing while they were out.

 We would later get together and compare notes.  A number of times, the process chain ended up exactly where I expected it to.  But most times, the decision chains were very separate and distinct in the approach.  I liked to make notes of people who also changed or added “problems” or “outcomes” to the boxes I had drawn because often individuals would find ways to either address multiple problems or concerns or would find ways to give us multiple valuable and valid outcomes.

 I’d also like to give an example of a time this had a great upside.  We had an ongoing issue with a error capture and reporting application for automated ticket approval process that was custom built for a client. Without getting into boring specifications it included two companies internal systems and an outdated communication protocol.  We “felt” and “believed” it needed to be re-architected, but we had an incredibly hard time justifying the expenditure of a re-write/re-architecture.

The a new problem/challenge came along, how do we get “confirmation numbers” to print on electronic itineraries.  New project, new vendor, complete “build it from scratch” type of implementation.  I simplyplayed my game, here is where the confirmation numbers get generated and here is where I need them to be (gross oversimplification).

One of the Architects/Analysts assigned to this task was also responsible for keeping the other mess running.  His solution chart included a method for using “web services” to handle each of the parts of the project in an Object Oriented approach.  He took the liberty of expanding the process change to show how those components could be “plugged-in” to the existing system thus solving an old ongoing problem while giving and elegant and supportable solution to the new challenge.  Viola!!

Three months later, we not only met our customers expectations with delivering the new process, but had components that equated to 60-70% of the effort to restructure the legacy outdated system.  At that point the cost benefit of finishing the re-architecture was easily sellable to the client involved and was approved and implemented in 6 weeks.

The downstream results were astonishing:  Reduced cost in maintenance and manual rework, increased prestige for the department from internal customers, increased external customer satisfaction, and most importantly the ability for one of the architects to feel and realize that they could make a difference, and that they would be heard.

So remember to challenge people to think on their own, you may be surprised by what they will come up with!

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