Management by the Minimum — Why we aren’t getting their best

In the past I had a valued colleague (let’s call them Aaron) that no matter what I did, Aaron was always just marginally short of where I would have liked him to operate. Aaron was always one day late or just a little shy on detail or didn’t go that extra mile to close that action out. It was infuriating to me, a damn personal thorn in my side Aaron was — Not for how he was working, but for the fact that the more I attempted to improve the quality of work direction I was providing to him, the further away it seemed that improving his performance actually was. I knew Aaron was capable of more and really making a difference but I was drawing a blank as to why I couldn’t unlock this untapped potential. I tried increased verbal communication; I tried descriptive bullet point emails, tried white boarding and drawings process flows, none of it worked. I had almost resolved myself to accepting that I must not have that spark that could draw it out of him, Aaron was the continual reminder of my limitations. I couldn’t understand why the more information I told Aaron didn’t correlate with improved delivery.

The next day Aaron and I were in the field together and we were discussing with individuals the leading causes of hand injuries and how these can be prevented. We were executing a hand injury improvement strategy which focused on communicating and reiterating common controls such as identification of pinch points, increased and aligned communication between team lifts as per our risk assessments etc. I was sick of telling people about the improvement plan and our reason for being there and asked the service truck driver how he keeps his hands safe and what’s the task he most has to concentrate on involving his hands? The service truck driver’s eyes lit up and he took us over to his vehicle and showed us a tool he created to allow himself to extend the nozzle of a lubrication hose. This allowed his hands to be outside of the cramped locations in recessed locations where lubrication points tend to be located.

I asked him what caused him to come up with the idea for that tool as I was very impressed with the design and the way it was used. He said he came up with the concept on his lunch breaks and bought the parts in Perth on his R&R’s and refined the tool through 3 iterations before he came upon his favored design. I asked “So no one directed you to do this?” he replied with “Naaa of course not, I did I for s**ts and giggles”. Not really sure why, I asked him if he thought our hand safety improvement strategy would lead to any other tools being developed, his response “You seem pretty keen on telling everyone how to save our fingers but I haven’t heard much more than talking about it, I guess if you’re carrying a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

My jaw hit the ground, the penny dropped and the light came on.

We were telling people what they already knew and were getting the result it deserved, cool indifference and compliance that hovered around the minimum.

I looked at Aaron and thought, is this how you think of me when I request you complete tasks?

Armed with the dropped penny the next day when I asked Aaron to complete a task, I didn’t explicitly state how it should be done or the steps involved, just an outline of the outcome I wanted. I asked him to give me his best work. Low and behold the guy came to the party earlier than I expected and found a way to complete the task which never occurred to me. I gave him positive reinforcement for the job well done and asked how he knew that his solution and action was going to be enough to get it over the line. He told me “I didn’t, but you asked for my best work and I sure as hell wasn’t going to put in a half a***d effort.”

Now armed with two dropped penny’s I resolved that day to try to always give competent people who complete knowledge work the chance to chase down a stretch target. To fight and refute the small voice in my head which screams you need to provide more info, more instruction, and better detail which stem from being in one too many incident investigations where the supervisor didn’t provide sufficient work direction, which led to an uncontrolled event. To allow people to develop nonstandard solutions to issues which don’t require a specific process or manner in which they have to be solved. To encourage and enroll people to go searching and complete work they can be proud of and to not list out the minimum requirements for the task.

Setting a minimum standard destroys best practice, novel solutions and work that you can be proud of. It allows the danger of anchoring our performance to occur. Anchoring is a common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions as to what we should do. No wonder when I set out a descriptive minimum performance amount I only ever got performance near or around that standard. In the cool light of hindsight I remarked to myself a few choice swear words and engaged in some negative self-talk about why I hadn’t worked this out earlier.

It was a good lesson to learn and was reminded to me some days ago after some colleagues and I looked at our behavior when interacting with colleagues in the workplace who work for the same company, Subcontractors or client organisations.

We identified a direct correlation for the tendency of individuals to rely upon minimum standards when an organisation boundary is in place (ie between Contractor and Subcontractor) or when experience and competence level is similar between individuals (ie Manager to Superintendent).

However if the individuals who were interacting were in the same organisation or there was a distinct difference in experience or competence then there was less tendency to ask for the minimum requirements but rather seek their best work and try to then coach them to improve their delivery. The ability to generate a different outcome (get more than “just enough”) from what we were getting was in our hands, we just had to put the stick / contract down and ask for best practice, not the minimum.

To engage and draw out an individual’s best and most creative work, whilst it seems logical and wise to scope out the task in sufficient detail, it’s actually hurting and not allowing our people to complete meaningful work. We rarely see construction projects brought in under time, to a higher quality and for a cheaper price because that’s not how our contracts are set up. The system encourages the lowest priced bidder who is taking on the most risk to complete the work and we wonder why projects are late, quality has corners cut and they run over budget!

Let’s not manage by the minimum when we need an innovative or creative solution. Let’s leave scopes, legislation and contracts for the areas they were intended and let’s ask people to deliver their best work which they would be proud to show a future employer or client.

Hat Tip to the gent who opened my eyes to our predisposition to tell and not ask, the NRW service truck operator.

I look forward to hearing below what happened when you have sat back, encouraged & appreciated the talent you have lying dormant within your teams and what you collectively achieved which you may have never thought possible. If you have any practical tips to put the above in place that would be great as well for those who don’t have an “Aaron” in their team!

Originally published at