ISE Magazine Volume : 50 Number: 12
By Terry G. Read
The ‘not mine’ problem, around for millennia, still bedevils project management
The biblical name “Lo-ammi” is translated to mean “not mine.”
In my 29 years as an industrial engineer, I have found Lo-ammis to be a big problem.
When I was in school, a professor taught me that to get anything done, “You have to put the monkey on someone’s back.” If no one has the responsibility to get a task, program or project done, it does not get done. You immediately have a Lo-ammi because the project does not belong to anyone. When the boss assigns someone to ensure that work gets done, that person is referred to as the “action officer,” “primary point of contact,” “subject matter expert,” “project officer,” “program manager,” “officer with primary responsibility” or simply “belly button.”
The problem is that naming an action officer also creates Lo-ammis. A project or program cannot be done by one person. Many people have a role in completing the work. One person can be the expert for that project or program. One person can tell other people what they need to do or possibly how to do it. One person can generate reports that give the status and show what is done and what is not. But one person cannot do all of the work.
Because one person is named as the action officer, other people see the project or program as belonging to this action officer. This creates a “not mine” mindset. Workers do not see that project or program as being “my problem,” even though they have a role in getting the work done. They think whatever they do to help get this done is being done as a “favor” to help the action officer with his or her work. Getting it done is “their problem.”
It also is possible this action officer does not have authority over the other people who have a part in the process. Workers will put this work at the bottom of their pile and “get to it when I get to it.”
In order for any process to work, everyone who has a role in that process needs to take ownership of their part of the process. So we have a dilemma. If no one is named as the action officer, we have a Lo-ammi situation with everyone. When we name an action officer, we have a Lo-ammi situation with everyone but the action officer. So what are we to do?
Here are some tips that bosses and managers can follow to avoid these pitfalls:
- Decide what your priorities are. Is this project or program you are giving to the action officer important to you? Is it as important as other work that needs to be done? Are you going to take time to review reports given to you by the action officer?
- Stop beating up on the action officer. Understand what the role of the action officer is: To facilitate the process. Beating up on the action officer does not put any pressure on other people to do their part. It actually just reinforces the perception that this project or program belongs to the action officer and not anyone else.
- Stop sending mixed messages. When people are taking time to work on the project or program assigned an action officer, are you going to interrupt that work with something else that is “hot?” Are you going to cancel or not show up for meetings regarding that project or program? Are you telegraphing that what the action officer is overseeing is really not all that important? There will always be a “fire of the day.” If something is urgent enough to sideline that project or program, ask yourself this: Would I sideline some other project or program for this issue that has come up?
- Communicate that you care about the program. Again, review the reports provided by the action officer. Bring up the progress or lack of progress in staff meetings. Let immediate supervisors of all of the employees who have a role know that this is important and that this project or program belongs to everyone. Take it upon yourself to be the “bad guy.” You are the one with the authority. Everyone should be calling their part of the project or program “ammi” — mine.