In one of my past posts, I asserted that the Product Owner Steers The Ship and that as a coach, we don’t want to make assumptions about the anti-patterns our Product Owners may have inherited from their previous roles. After a few conversations I had with people, I decided to expand a bit on the topic of anti-patterns. There are multiple areas in Agile that need their own list of anti-patterns and context. But isn’t that true in life? I think so. So for this post, I’m going to dive into anti-patterns as a behaviors and a mind-set and treat you with a story. Enjoy!
“An anti-pattern is a common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being counterproductive”
Figure It Out, Larry!
Samantha is a District Manager for a manufacturing company and she’s dealing with a new employee, Larry, who isn’t quite performing up to par with the rest of her team. For the third week in a row, Larry has submitted “sub-par work.” The numbers and calculations in his reports are way off from the previous ones she’s used to seeing. It’s obvious to Samantha that Larry isn’t following the templates and checklists correctly. But, she can’t figure out how to get through to him. She doesn’t want to start micro-managing his assignments, but she and her team have been so backlogged that she expected him to follow all the documented procedures and figure it out. He seemed so bright on paper. Maybe she was wrong about her newly hired employee?
After reviewing his first report, she made a passing comment, some thing along the lines of, “you really must have grinded this out at the last minute, Larry?” It was meant as a half-serious joke. She doesn’t really know Larry that well, being that he’s new to the team, but she’s known for being sarcastic in the office and most of the team dish it right back at her. His first day on the job the team had a particularly rowdy meeting. He knew what was up and that no one took the jabs seriously. She has a healthy working relationship with her team, despite what it looks like on the outside. She has full confidence in her staff and she chooses to be hands off with them. Everyone is brilliant. Except maybe one?
The second report came in and she was a bit agitated. She decided to remind everyone at the next staff meeting about using the correct template and the expectation of “quality work from each individual — everyone is busy with their own projects and programs and is expected to pull their weight.” She made eye contact with Larry, letting him know that the message was meant for him. Larry didn’t hold her gaze for long. It was clear he got the message.
After week three, Samantha lost it when she got Larry’s report. Not only was the report turned in late, but Larry was no where to be found. Who was Samantha going to yell at? Samantha immediately navigated to the HR SharePoint page and downloaded the Word document titled “formal written reprimands for employees.” It was time to send a message to Larry, “it’s time to shape up or ship out” she thought to herself. Three weeks and he still hasn’t figured it out.
Samantha went through the report closely and began documenting discrepancies like formatting and the fact that the report wasn’t turned in first thing in the morning — she noted each item on the reprimand document. She combed through it more closely than she had in the past few weeks and saw that Larry added a section titled, Raw Material Rework & Waste. “What is this?” Samantha asked herself. She went on to read the report, “each plant has had a remarkable spike in waste due to poor raw materials after switching to the new South American supplier, Corpo Corp resulting in 18% of all finished products requiring rework and 2% of finished products un-shippable and designated as waste.” If this was true, Samantha had a serious problem on her hands. This was a multi-million dollar problem. It could end the career of the plant manager.
Samantha saw that Daniel Ramon, one of her plant managers and a close friend, was listed as a reference on this part of the report. She quickly pulled out her phone and called his personal number.
“Samantha, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Daniel’s booming voice broke through the noise of the factory in the background.
“Hey, Daniel. I’m just reading Larry’s report here and I had a few…” Samantha was abruptly interrupted by Daniel.
“Larry saved our butts, Sam! I tell you, you got an eye for talent! He’s here with that intern from upstairs helping us out! I tell ya’, since we switched to that new vendor, Corpo Corp or whatever they’re called, the materials we’ve been getting in have been shit, Sam! I can’t believe this! Larry is just finishing up over here, do you need him?”
“Finishing up with what?” Samantha’s heart was beating hard.
“He helped us re-organize the plant lay out so we can do re-work without missing our ship dates! Ain’t you know what your boy is up to out here?” Daniel laughed.
“You don’t say… uhm.. No, I’ve been so behind… I was just checking in… honestly, no I haven’t looked carefully at his reports until just now,” Samantha admitted and felt a weight on her chest and she was suddenly felt with grief. She was getting ready to write Larry up, to begin his journey to termination, and he was busy saving her ass. Saving Daniel’s ass.
“That’s okay, Sam. Larry didn’t say much about what’s been going on between you two but I heard through the grapevine. Anyways, I scheduled a meeting with some of the big wigs in two weeks. I want you and Larry to present his results to those penny pinchers up-stairs, you got more pull upstairs than anyone and it’s a good way to introduce Larry to the new CEO. You let them know that switching over to this cheaper vendor is actually costing us money in OT, re-work, and useless product,” Daniel exclaimed.
“Of course, Dan. If you don’t mind me asking? When did Larry first start helping you out at the plant?”
“About three weeks ago, I ‘reckon! That boy came down here on his own for a tour of the plant. Don’t you usually bring the newbies down here? Oh, right. Too busy. Anyways, after about twenty minutes of my showing him the place, he had the audacity to tell me that ‘there’s too much waste.’ Can you believe that, Sam? Lecturing me! ME! ABOUT WASTE! I’m the Six Sigma trainer over here and have been the plant manager for going on eight years! I reckon..” Daniel was known for swearing like a sailor and long winded rants. Samantha quickly interrupted before he could take another breath and continue.
“So he tried to tell you how to do your job?” Samantha interjected with a question.
“Nah, not really… Maybe I was bein’ too defensive with the young gun. I had a busy morning fighting fires and I could tell he didn’t mean anything by it when he started blushing and pulled out his binder and reports from purchasing, payroll and sales. He showed me the data and pointed down to the plant where we had bottlenecks and piles of work building up. He showed me there’d been no increase in sales or large volumes of material from purchasing, but our payroll has gone way up in over-time. I wouldn’t have caught it for another two weeks from now because we’ve been practicing lean and Six Sigma for so long that I usually only need a monthly report anymore,” Daniel lowered his voice and took on a serious tone.
“I dropped the ball on this one, Sam. I didn’t have the feedback loops in place to catch this. We would have been screwed royally this quarter if it weren’t for your boy Larry. We still have to deal with the re-work until we can get our old vendor back, but we’ll have minimal overtime and we should be able to meet all our ship dates with Larry’s re-design. I told sales not to run any discounts so we don’t have any large swings in production just to be on the safe side. We’ll break even this quarter but we need our old vendor back,” Daniel finished.
“Of course, I’ll get with Larry and we’ll make sure HQ knows what’s going on, Dan” Samantha assured her long time friend.
“Thanks, Sam! And hold on to Larry, he’s a rockstar! I’m taking him and that intern out for a few drinks tonight after we wrap-up over here. Meet us at AppleBee’s around quittin’ time if you ain’t got any plans for tonight,” Daniel finished and hung up the phone.
“I’ll be there,” Samantha said quietly to herself. She owed someone an apology.
That evening, Samantha walked into AppleBees. She spotted the two at one of the tall tables in the bar area, but she knew where to look because she could hear Daniel’s loud and booming voice over the chatter that filled the crowded restaurant. She ordered a martini and two more drinks for Larry and Daniel before making her way to the table to join them.
“Sam, I’m glad you made it! I was just telling Larry here about the company barbecue and the finer points potato sack racing!” Daniel boasted with a hearty laugh.
“Dan, are you trying to recruit poor Larry here so you can reclaim that trophy? You know My hubby and I won’t be giving it up this year,” Samantha smiled over at Larry who was looking down at his feet.
Daniel looked over at Larry and then at Samantha who was looking ashamed. He excused himself for a much needed restroom break so the two could have a moment together.
“Larry, I owe you an apology. I’m so sorry for the way I’ve been treating you. You saved us from a disaster,” Samantha met Larry’s gaze as he looked up with an embarrassed smile.
“It’s okay, water under the bridge,” Larry said lightly.
“No, it’s not okay. Just like how Daniel didn’t have the appropriate feedback loops in place to catch the re-work issues, I don’t have the appropriate feedback loops in place to see that there’s something wrong with the way my team is running,” Samantha said with sincerity. “Help me out, please?”
“Okay, then can I give you some honest feedback about some of the anti-patterns I’ve seen?” Larry asked tentatively.
Samantha hadn’t heard that term in a while. Anti-patterns was something she remembered during her Lean training last year but could never think of an instance that it applied to her so she forgot about it. He paused and then went on when Samantha nodded her head and smiled; signaling for him to continue.
“Well, I sense there’s little room for outsiders in your group. When I first joined your team, I felt like I an outsider looking in. The first meeting I was in, there was a lot of inappropriate joking and the team engaged in put downs. I don’t know if I can fit in with a culture like that. I believe it’s important to treat each of my team mates with respect and to act professionally,” Larry went on.
“We all respect each other, Larry. There’s so much trust in our group that we can do that and there’s no hard feelings,” Samantha countered.
“Right, I know that. I don’t mean to imply that the group isn’t tight. It’s obvious you are — but, there’s a consequence when those types of behaviors occur. New people feel like outsiders and communication is effected,” Larry said firmly.
Samantha thought on this and saw his point. “Okay, what else?” Samantha asked.
“Well, I observed that everyone on the team is really wrapped up in their own work. People don’t pair up on work or double check things for each other,”
“That’s only because everyone is so swamped with work. Even I put in late nights and weekends just to stay ahead,” Samantha said matter of factly.
“Right, but taking the time to double check each other’s work ensures quality and protects us from mistakes. Pairing up on projects and special tasks ensures the highest quality of work is produced. It’s just like in the factory. We can churn out product quickly, but if we’re doing rework constantly, then we’re really not as productive as we would like to think. It’s no different in the office.” Larry explained.
“True, but that’s why we have established processes and procedures,” Samantha answered.
“Yea… when’s the last time those were updated or even audited?”
Samantha closed her eyes and thought to herself. She couldn’t recall. She opened her eyes and saw Larry starring at her with a look that said he already knew the answer. “I guess it’s been a while.”
“Right, why do you think I made those changes to that report? It was dated and wasn’t fitting our needs anymore. Always be ready to adopt sensible alternatives to fit your needs; otherwise, you’ll be too busy doing work that isn’t adding value. Or worse, people stop thinking and blindly follow a process,” Larry said softly to soften the feedback.
“But, we spent weeks creating that process,” Samantha recalled working on it when she first took over as the District Manager.
“Simplicity. Focus on the most simple and direct solutions possible. I know it can be hard to kill a process that you worked hard on. But if it’s complex and hasn’t been updated in a while, it probably isn’t really being followed anymore or needs to be removed.”
Samantha started to feel the weight on her chest again. She knew deep down that everything Larry was saying was right. It was all so painfully obvious but she had failed to see it. Even after starring it in the face for so long. She must have been deep in thought because she didn’t notice the server take her empty glass away and return with another drink.
Daniel’s hearty laugh finally snapped her out of her haze and she looked up and saw him returning to their table. She looked back to Larry and smiled. “Larry, I’m glad I hired you. I guess I need to make some changes.”
Larry smiled back, “one step at a time; we’ll figure it out.”
Anti-Patterns Are Hard To Spot… Even When You’ve Been Starring Them In The Face For A Long Time
It’s hard to spot anti-patterns. Mainly because we, as humans, are a collection of past behaviors, our genetics, and the environment which acts upon us. Of course, we’re not just behaving creatures, we feel and think as well. Many times, we are unaware of the secondary effects of our behaviors. We start with a certain intention and behave in ways that are similar to our past; however, there can be unintentional consequences that impede the results we initially wanted. This is an anti-pattern.
Just as Larry explained above, Samantha never intended to foster a team culture that made outsiders feel unwelcome. In fact, she felt her team culture was one of trust. But her new employee was unwilling to speak up for himself. Team members were unwilling to pull themselves away from their work to help out a new team mate. It was clear that everyone on that team, even Samantha, was using the same anti-pattern.
Larry also went on to explain that there is too much work on everyone’s plate. So much so that old processes have not been updated and that the quality of work being produced by Samantha’s team was probably questionable. Did you know that putting more paper in the printer doesn’t make it print any faster? There’s only so much we can do in a given work day, and we should ensure quality is a part of our ever day work routines.
Producing quickly should not be the goal of a team. It’s not efficiency either. It’s stability and effectiveness. How long do you think Samantha was receiving that report without really questioning the quality? Without questioning how effective it was anymore? It wasn’t until Larry came along and started doing things effectively that Samantha even noticed.
Putting more paper in the printer doesn’t make it print any faster. Producing quickly should not be the goal of a team. It’s not efficiency either. It’s stability and effectiveness.
One quality of an effective leader is the ability to prioritize work. Not everything is “priority 1.” That sort of defeats the purpose of the word ‘priorities’ and if that’s your management style… Well, your employee turn over rate is probably high and employee satisfaction is likely low. Just saying. Figure out what’s important and let your team know. Only change the priorities after a business need exists. Command and control the priorities, not the people. People can’t produce quality work if they’re constantly being pulled in multiple directions by several priority 1 projects.
One quality of an effective leader is the ability to prioritize work. Command and control the priorities, not the people.
Anti-patterns are not unique to Agile. Or business. They exist in every day life. They can have an impact on our relationships, finances, diet, and our health. That’s why it’s important to constantly seek feedback. Challenge yourself to get perspectives from the highest level and all the way down in the weeds. Challenge your own perspective and poke holes in your logic. Why do you think so many successful leaders read books? Why do you think they take time to meditate? Or take classes or take up new hobbies? It’s because these kinds of activities shape perspective. They help us learn new behaviors and ways of thinking about the world. They help us spot those anti-patterns. They make us better leaders and people.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on anti-patterns or the ones you’ve recently spotted. If you’d like to have a discussion, leave a comment below or contact me. Feel free to connect with me on social media as well!
Photo Credit: Pixabay
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