Sarah sighs loudly as she hangs up the phone. The CTO of a large company, her oldest client, called her directly to complain about several issues they are experiencing with their IT systems and poor customer service. His last words are still ringing in her ears:
This is unacceptable. I’ve been warning you for months, but I have not seen any serious commitment from you to help improve the situation. Please tell me you have a plan, or I’m afraid I will not be able to renew your contract this year. I’m sorry, Sarah, but my hands are tied. We’ve worked together for a while now, but you’ve got to understand: the board is pressuring me. I suggest you get a crisis team together and start working on this ASAP.
This is shaping up to be one of Sarah’s most embarrassing moments. She didn’t even have the strength to tell him that the main obstacle to progress is the fact that his own teams are not making time to work with her. What’s more, other clients have been calling with similar complaints – performance issues, long response times, and low quality of service. She lost one important customer last year, and losing another would have a huge impact on her firm’s stability and profitability. In an effort to make up for the decline in stable revenue and meet profitability targets, her company recently ramped up its marketing and business development activities. Hopefully, this way they can continue to satisfy shareholders for another year.
Sarah knows very well that her situation is not viable in the long run. This is why, two months ago, she decided to start working with a lean sensei. She has been interested in lean for a while now, has read several books on the topic, and even attended a lean conference. Despite all this preparation, she was still taken aback by what Karen told her when they first met: “The work we’ll do together consists of finding and destroying your false assumptions about your own business. Are you ready for this?” In desperate times, desperate measures, Sarah thought, before inhaling deeply and answering, “Yes.”
Now she is sitting quietly in her leather chair, watching the evening ferry take commuters back to Alameda, as a golden sunset lights up San Francisco Bay. She’s contemplating the last 10 years of her life: the day she founded InfraTech, a firm specializing in installing and monitoring the IT infrastructure of medium to large companies; the excitement of the first couple of years, when the company was growing at the speed of light; the pride of receiving a Tech and Innovation Award after only three years of existence; the celebration of InfraTech’s 100th employee... A sudden knock on the door breaks her out of her reverie.
“Come in!” she shouts, spinning around in her chair.
John, her Director of Support and Maintenance, walks in.
“Hi Sarah, you called me in?”
“Hey, John. Yes, I did. I just got a call from an angry Carl Madson.” “What now?” John groans.
“He’s threatening not to renew their contract this year if we don’t get our act together,” Sarah answers, ignoring his aggressive tone.
“Oh, that’s just great! I already told you yesterday, we’re on it. I have a third of my team already working just for Mr. Mad Dog. We’re doing everything we can with the people we have. You know that. It’s not our fault if the systems were poorly designed in the first place. I would appreciate, however, if you could just let us work. We can’t be interrupted every time some grouchy old man calls you.”
“We can’t afford to lose this client, as you well know. Listen, I’ve got this fundraiser I have to go to tonight, so let’s resume this conversation in the morning. I’m going to call a meeting with the executive committee tomorrow, so can you please be ready to present them with a concrete action plan to resolve this situation by 11 am?”
John nods, then stalks out shaking his head in frustration. He knows he needs to have yet another difficult conversation with his team. Everyone is tired, because they have been working long hours for several weeks. He takes out his phone and dials the team’s favorite pizza place, knowing they’re not going to be getting home for dinner.
John’s team of 14 engineers provides technical support and maintenance for some of the firm’s largest clients. Six months ago, they were 18. Half of the original team has already left, and he has a hard time recruiting replacements. He doesn’t have trouble understanding why. InfraTech likes to hire dynamic, creative engineers. But every day his team faces the same litany of obstacles: InfraTech’s project expert has vital knowledge, but is unavailable; the customer who complained doesn’t give timely feedback; the only manager who can authorize updates on the production server is unreachable; undocumented changes in the product interfere with the ticket resolution, and so on.
This is what a typical day at work looks like for John’s co-workers. Meanwhile, the backlog of customer requests and problems is growing exponentially, and clients are getting more and more dissatisfied. The team is stuck in a vicious cycle, and they can’t build momentum on interesting projects or relieving technical debt. John has tried to explain this to Sarah, but he feels like she just can’t see the elephant in the room.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, Sarah walks into InfraTech. She hasn’t heard back from John last night, and didn’t dare call him at midnight after the fundraiser ended. She’s eager to see his plan, and find out if the team has managed to make significant progress on their backlog. She stayed up late thinking about the best way to handle the situation with John, and decided to call her sensei Karen before going in. Karen didn’t have long to talk to her, but she had some good advice and her perspective helped get her in the right frame of mind.
Sarah and John have not been on the same page lately. He even hinted during one of their arguments that it might be time for him to move on. She can’t afford to lose him, not now. She won’t call him into her office this time. Karen has been helping her to realize that those interactions never have any lasting effect, because they tend to break mutual trust. Instead, she goes straight to the team’s open space, hoping to find John there. He and three ops are having an animated discussion in front of their screens. As she walks into the bustling area, all heads turn to look at her and the noise dies down. John raises his eyebrows, wondering what new crisis is about to hit him over the head.
Sarah is determined to understand the facts behind Carl Madson’s complaint before the 11 a.m. meeting. The best way to do this is to go to the place where the problem is likely to be originating, and see it with her own eyes.
“Good morning!” she says with a faint smile, trying to strike just the right tone between happy and brutal. “How are things?”
“Fine, we’re making some good progress. The whole team worked really late,” John responds icily. He stares at the screen in front of him, avoiding Sarah’s gaze.
“Thank you all for this,” Sarah responds. She then goes around the team, asking questions here and there, trying to get a clear picture of the situation. But after half an hour, she realizes that she still has no clue what is really going on or where the team stands. John blames everyone else for his misery: the clients are unresponsive and unreasonable, InfraTech’s project teams delivered buggy systems, Sarah and the board don’t support his team or provide needed resources. Sarah is starting to feel annoyed by John’s lack of good faith and accountability. Can’t he show more professionalism instead of complaining all the time?
She bites her tongue and decides not to show her frustration. There is too much at stake. After all, if John and his team are struggling, there must be a good reason—it is just buried under a lot of emotion and stress. It is her duty as CEO of InfraTech to find the reason, so that she can help them adequately. She decides to put her own emotions aside and try to see the problem through John’s eyes. Karen made a point this morning that we cannot force our own perspective on others and that the first step in resolving a problem is to agree on it. This can only be achieved once we fully understand the other person’s context: the assumptions they’re making, their unique point of view, the work environment where they’re experiencing the problem, etc.
As all these thoughts are going through her head, Sarah realizes that John has finished rambling and is now looking at her expectantly. Unsure how to continue the conversation, she looks for something intelligent and supportive to say:
“Well, how many more people do you need to absorb all customer requests?” “I’m not sure, but more than we have today,” John replies.
That is not a satisfactory answer—this conversation is going nowhere. Determined to get to the root of the problem, Sarah tries again.
“How many clients are currently waiting for their request to be taken care of?” she asks.
“Oh, I don’t know,” replies John, “A couple of hundred maybe? I’d have to look. It would take a bit of time for me to get the exact numbers.”
“OK. And how do you guys decide what needs to be worked on every day?”
“We’re pretty autonomous. Each person takes what he can or wants to work on from the Jira backlog, and assigns it to himself so that it’s visible in his pile. Then we work on the tickets one at a time. Urgent tickets always come first, always. Basically, whoever yells loudest gets taken care of quickly. But some clients are also used to working with one member of the team, and will contact that person directly. Then we also take care of them immediately.”
“So how long does it usually take to handle a ticket?”
“Well, it depends. Each ticket is unique, so you can’t always put a deadline on it. We often don’t know ahead of time what the problem is, so how can we predict how long it will take to resolve it?”
“Can we look at a request that one of you is currently working on?” she asks, suddenly remembering what Karen told her this morning.
“Oh... sure,” says John. He asks Tim to open a ticket.
“So what is the problem here?” Sarah asks Tim.
“The client is having trouble accessing the data on the server, but his email is too vague. I tried to call him but he’s not answering. So I responded to his email asking for more details,” Tim answers, shaking his head in resignation. “It’s pretty typical, really.”
“I see. When did this ticket arrive?”
“Yesterday morning. I responded right away, but no answer so far. I just changed its status to ‘pending’, and was in the process of picking another ticket.”
“I see that the ticket arrived at 9:16 am and you responded at 11:37 am. I’m not trying to blame you but can you tell me what prevented you from answering right away?”
“Well, I responded within the official SLA, which is three hours.”
“Oh right! That is what we negotiated with the customer! Then again, I’m not so sure it is reasonable to ask the requester to sit at his desk for three hours waiting for an answer, right?”
“I know one thing: I can’t stop whatever I’m doing to answer a request as soon as it arrives, otherwise I would be doing this all day long and never get anything done!”
“I agree with you. But there’s got to be a better way of dealing with this...”
Sarah looks at her watch: it’s 9:30 am, time for her one-on-one with the accountant before the executive meeting. As important as going over the accounting metrics is, she decides that what she’s doing now with the Support team is even more important. Customers cannot wait. Plus, she doesn’t feel right about leaving the team to deal with this mess alone, now that she is starting to see part of the problem. She decides to call her assistant and asks her to postpone the meeting to this afternoon. Then she takes a minute to think about what she just saw, and carries on with another question:
“How many pending tickets do you have in your backlog at the moment, Tim?” “I’ll have to count. Let’s see...1, 2, 3... that’d be 18.”
“And are all these tickets waiting for clarification from the customer?”
“No. With some of them, I’m not stuck, but it does take time to come up with a good diagnostic or figure out a solution. Sometimes I’m waiting for help from the InfraTech product expert. And there are a few tickets that I assigned to myself but haven’t had a chance to work on yet, because of urgent requests that popped up.”
“Can I see the last urgent request you handled?”
At this point, John cuts in and answers for Tim: “Well, it was just this morning as a matter of fact. This client couldn’t deploy a new app because his user profile wasn’t permissioned to delete cache files on the server. We had to change the deploy script to account for this possibility, and request special authorization from their management. It took us a good part of the day to finalize. But the client is OK now, right Tim?”
“Oh, I see.” Sarah answers. She thinks for a second, while John and Tim look at her uncomfortably. “I’m not blaming anybody, but I’m just curious: what makes a good deploy script?” she asks.
“It’s one that does not fail, I guess!” Tim laughs. “I didn’t anticipate that kind of error when I first wrote the script. We can’t account for all possible scenarios from the beginning. Now that we’ve changed the script, we shouldn’t run into the same issue with that client.”
“Is it possible that you or one of your colleagues might run into a similar problem on another client server?”
“I doubt it. This client has pretty strict right access to their servers. But we’ll know what to do if that ever happens, right?”
“I see what you’re getting at,” John cuts in, glaring at Sarah, “but we can’t spend time on preventing issues that might not even happen in the future, when we have so many real urgencies now.”
“I hear what you’re saying. You’re right. But there is another reality: we are not keeping our ‘hassle-free ops’ promise with our customers. And this is my responsibility. I’m going to cancel the executive meeting this morning. Instead, I propose we continue this digging work with you and your team. Are you with me on this?”
“Sure, OK.” Sarah is not sure, but it seems like John’s tone of voice is now calmer than when she first arrived.
That afternoon, Sarah leaves the team with a slightly better idea of what is going on. She was sorely tempted on several occasions to ask John to stop whining, or to just tell him what to do. But each time she stopped herself, hearing her sensei’s voice ringing in her ears: Don’t debate endlessly, look at specific tickets; don’t impose your view, ask questions; don’t look for culprits, look for knowledge gaps; don’t be too proud, admit it if you’re wrong. She knows that a top- down approach will do nothing to help John and his team gain control of the situation. If anything, it will probably make them want to hide the truth to protect themselves, and grow even more frustrated with her. Plus, does she even have the right answers for the team? Probably not, as she’s far removed from their real work. She is not going to resolve the problems of customer satisfaction and team attrition by imposing generic solutions. She can’t tell them how they should resolve their problems, but it is her duty to provide the help and guidance they needed to solve those problems on their own.
1: What type of problem is Sarah experiencing and how is it impacting her business?
2: How is Sarah’s management behavior contributing to the problem?
3: How is Sarah’s lean sensei trying to help her address the problem?
4: What aspect of Toyota’s management system is illustrated in this story?
5: How does this story relate to your own personal experience? We'd love to hear about it.