Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Moving About and Trust

(US Air Force photo, by Michael Dukes, 2012 - photo labeled for reuse)

Terry Little, a project manager with the U.S. Air Force, describes in the following story how he implemented 'moving about' to prevent problems before they happened, or more aptly put, "to detect the smoke and thus eliminate the need to fight the fire.” 

I visited one of the contractors’ suppliers and asked him, “What is the prime contractor making you do, or causing you to do, that you think is worthless or not value-added enough to offset the cost?” A representative from the prime contractor was present, and so there was a little bit of nervousness on the part of the supplier. I told the representative to go get a cup of coffee. I ended up with about three pages full of stuff that the supplier said was causing him headaches. As I was writing all this down, he asked, “What are you going to do with that?” And I said, “Not to worry.”

How did I gain his trust? Well, for one thing, I was there. A government program manager does not normally go to visit the suppliers of a prime contractor. The fact that I was there and willing to spend a whole day looking at his facility, meeting his people, and talking to them about the program and how important their contributions were—that was a big deal to him….

Typically, the government says, “Our contract is with the prime, and we don’t have a contract with these suppliers.” Maybe that’s true, theoretically, but…a large part of the success of the program depends on what the suppliers to my contractor are doing. Am I just going to close my eyes to that?… I believe it’s important to communicate with everybody that’s involved in the outcome of a program.

I gave the three pages to the prime without any explanation other than, “This is what he told me.” A week later, this guy from the prime came back to me and explained how they’d addressed everything on the list except for one thing, and he gave me a detailed and satisfactory explanation as to why the one thing was still important to do.1 

Terry took pains to gain the trust of his suppliers because merely “moving about” does not guarantee that the information collected will be reliable. Indeed, when subordinates or suppliers perceive managers as “corporate policemen,” they develop tactics to conceal or distort information. To ensure that moving about results in essential learning rather than destructive micro-management, it must be accompanied by mutual trust. And that trust is gained by truly listening to people and helping them meet their needs.

Moving about helps foster the project manager’s image as one who is not detached from the actual work and workers, but who is instead invested in the project and well informed, both with respect to the big picture and to the small details. This image, coupled with the respect and credibility gained, may help the project manager influence not only the work (by quickly solving specific problems) but the workers themselves.


1.     Laufer, A., Post, T., and Hoffman, E.J. Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. 2005, Washington DC: The NASA History Series: p. 112-3.