I have been mulling over this post for a while – this statement is not “politically correct.” But I find the topic both interesting and amusing – something that could be a Dilbert comic (of which I am a big fan).
Background. Towards the end of my first rotation in Tengiz (back in July 2011) I developed a list of Improvement Opportunities for my group. I shared this information with my back-to-back (b2b, the person I share the DE Supervisor position with) and the Lead Engineers that report to us. Together with my b2b we obtained feedback from the Leads, prioritized the list and then used the list as a basis for areas or opportunities we wanted to improve on in 2012, mostly around getting work done (aka driving work to completion). As of this writing (2Q2013) some of these improvements have been completed, others are in progress, and still others we have not begun work on or we have decided to work on something else instead (that is we continue to work on improvement opportunities in 2013). Anyway, the point is we had a prioritized list of areas we wanted to improve. Our primary focus has been either to reduce the effort it takes to get some part of the work done (efficiency) or reduce the duration of the work (schedule reduction). We did not identify any high priority improvement opportunities around cost reduction as Tengiz is such a profitable operation that reducing engineering cost is not a driver – instead we were looking for ways to get more work done (of course to the same high quality standards).
To put this in context the type of areas we worked on were how to reduce the time to complete an engineering deliverable, or reduce the time to order and then receive engineered material, or become more efficient or standardize across the organization to complete a required engineering or regulatory review. When I would probe for why we did things a certain way, in my not so subtle way, the Lead Engineers would become mildly defensive. This would manifest itself by comments from the Leads such as – “well you should have seen it when I first got here, it was much worse.” or “if you think it takes us a long time to get this done, you should see how long it takes another group to get similar work completed.”
One day during an improvement discussion, after hearing a similar tangential explanation for the umpteenth time, I responded “so what you are telling me is we suck less?” After a short pause both the Lead and I had a good laugh – yeah, that is what we were saying – either it used to be worse or someone else does it worse today. These 3 words in a short and to-the-point statement recognizes that effort was being made but further improvement was possible for the specific opportunity. Saying it out loud made me realize that I was not giving enough recognition / credit to what had been done before, and also helped the Lead realize that further improvement was possible / needed. From that day on when I would observe our discussions veering off to these type of explanations I would say “I’m hearing we suck less again” and then guide the conversation back to what was needed to improve going forward.
For a period of time it became a bit of a running joke, and the Leads would sometimes preface a discussion by saying, “this is a we suck less topic.” It has fallen out of use over the last couple months partly because we have been making improvements and (hopefully) because I am giving more credit to the improvements that were previously implemented.
What I find interesting is the human nature of this type of explanation. It appears to me that when a person is being put on the defensive when exploring an improvement they invariably bring up that it was worse before or that someone else does it worse, potentially hoping that by comparison they do not look so bad? I say this is human nature as I have seen this behavior in my own family. I have three sons and not too long ago I was reprimanding my youngest who responded by pointing out that his two older brothers had screwed up more often and more severely. I responded by saying that I recognize that he “sucked less” than his brothers (at least at his current age) but he was still in trouble and needed to stop whatever we were talking about.
A related human nature is gaining some level of satisfaction watching others, either individuals or groups, struggle. The observer may be unable to ascertain if the struggle is due to the challenging nature of the work, or the competency of the worker, but it is usually fairly obvious that struggles are occurring (failure is visible) It appears irrelevant if the observer could do this work better or not (though familiarity may increase the satisfaction). The human nature I observe is by watching others struggle an individual or group realizes some level of job satisfaction. I call this “job satisfaction by comparison with no effort,” the best kind!
A complimentary benefit is when others struggle through situations the attention of management (or parents) is typically diverted to this situation. This allows those that are not involved to stay “below the radar” and by comparison look good. Sometimes I refer to this as the warm body comparison – just showing up and not struggling you may appear to be doing better than others. My middle son explained this succinctly by saying “I’m happy that I have an older brother because I just need to show up and I look good.” Of course I pointed out that he could do better (in school, in sports, in keeping his room clean) but for the most part it falls on deaf ears – he is very satisfied with the comparison of messing up less / doing better in school than his older brother with minimal effort.
So be honest, have you ever smiled internally when faced with a “We Suck Less” moment?