At my last company, our team was behind in our work (we had been since I first arrived there). What was left was overwhelming and would require an enormous effort, sacrifice, and possibly working ourselves to the point of exhaustion to get it completed (people were already getting sick or leaving the team).
I told one of the managers we needed to reduce our scope. The reply was the scope had always been what it was and would not change. When I protested, I was told quite flatly– “We promised our customer this and we honor our commitments here.”
This stung. It made me feel like if we didn’t follow through, we would be dishonored by breaking a promise and lose the trust of our customer.
But wait one damn moment.
“Hold on,” I said. “I didn’t promise this and neither did the team, our executives did. Our team was not consulted on if they would be able to do deliver all of this in the time allocated.”
I was told if I didn’t like it I could talk to the execs about it.
For the rest of my time at the company, I’d hear off and on about execs making promises or commitments to our customer and then hear about those expected to deliver being unable to make good on the promise. The execs couldn’t understand why we were always behind or why the quality was poor. “We’re going to lose our contract!” they would say.
So they came down on us. We were told to work harder and were often made to feel like pussies if we couldn’t keep up. I remember one exec prowling the room, looking intimidating, and criticizing us for having the audacity to laugh during a critical time. Fingers were quick to point. Overtime became common (though we remained behind). Burnout, frustration, and people quitting often followed.
One project manager told me this was just our lot in life. The execs promise and we have to figure out how to produce. Really? Does this really have to be the way it works?
This happens not just with our own companies but also our partners and suppliers. I recently had our director tell me that because one of our suppliers is unable to keep up with our demand like they had promised, we would go with a different supplier. I asked how we would know if this new supplier would keep up with the demand? He said they would if we gave them the proper incentive. I replied, didn’t we offer the same incentive to the current supplier? How do we know we won’t just get the same result or perhaps something worse?
So why are we making promises we can’t keep? I can think of a variety of reasons. Some will make all kinds of promises if offered enough money or incentives (is this a form of prostitution?). Also, its part of our mythos–Americans simply don’t back down from a challenge. We just roll up our sleeves and get to work no matter how big the obstacle. Perhaps the decision makers are just ignorant or overconfident in what their organization is possible of producing. Its also possible the folks making the promise have the skill, knowledge, and wherewithal to do it themselves, but forget they are surrounded by mere mortals or forget they haven’t given their people the resources or skills or knowledge to complete the task. Much of it could be fear related–we don’t want to look like pussies in front of our superiors or peers or we are afraid of losing business or losing our jobs by saying no. Perhaps its a combination of all or any of the above. Regardless, this greed, arrogance, bravado, ignorance, fear, and lack of candor is destroying our trust with both our employees and our customers. Something must be done.
Two things–data and character.
We must be keenly aware of our capabilities. What does the data say? Have we done something like this before? How did we do? What does our current quality look like? What are our lead times? What rate of quantity can we produce? What is our defect total? Is it reducing? Are we making every effort to reduce variation? Are we committed to improvement and do we make good on that promise? What does the team who will be performing the work think? Have they been given the opportunity to speak candidly on their ability to produce? We have to ask this of ourselves but also of our partners and suppliers as well.
Once we know this, we can better evaluate our customer’s needs and rely on our character to give a solid yes or no. Only the wise and honest will know when to say yes. It will also require courage when its time to say no.
If we currently don’t have any influence at the management level for these types of decisions, we can at least practice our own ability to say no within our sphere of influence. If you haven’t the capability to make good on a promise, have the courage to say, “NO.” Perhaps you will start a new trend in your organization and begin a much needed revolution.