War Stories


Below are stories that demonstate when things go wrong. This includes unintended consequences along with actions that can downright erode motivation.

Tuition Reimbursement

The following story was provided by Ellen Raim.

I worked with a company that allowed their employees to pay tuition reimbursement to the employees. Several employees worked with their managers at the company to enroll in full masters or bachelor’s programs, rather than just a course or two. This was a wonderful perk until times got tight and budgets were being cut.

Someone suggested that an “easy thing to cut out” was the companywide reimbursement program. Loss of the program was demoralizing enough. But there was also no provision made to grandfather the individuals in the middle of getting degrees. So, the managers either had to cut something else out of their group operating budgets to honor their promises to the employees or tell them they would either have to put their degrees on hold or pay themselves.


The story starts four years earlier with intellectual property provided to this company. This company has a policy providing those who generate intellectual property for the company a monetary reward based upon the achieving of the patent at the conclusion of the process and the patent number assigned to the intellectual property. The employee signs a document (contract) turning over the intellectual property formally to the company in exchange for a specified remuneration should the intellectual property be deemed patent material.

Tlie patent process is slow. The remuneration policy in place at the time of ceding the intellectual property provided the individuals generating them with a bonus for this work. Four years later, the patent finally found its way through the process and has a number at the US Patent Office. Now comes the employee’s much anticipated reward. Is it based upon the compensation package at the signing? No. The compensation is not the agreed upon dollar amount at the ceding of the intellectual property—it is a fraction thereof.

Management made a unilateral decision to reduce this compensation, not only for future work, but for those that had already performed the work and were waiting for resolution at the patent office. When asked the logic behind this treatment, the human resources departmental response was “the company reserves the rights to change any policy at any time. This was a policy change that we are making retroactive.”

Even the U.S. Constitution forbids ex post facto laws. When the questioning of the policy continued, the human resource representative “take away” was the policy change had not been “communicated properly.” Generally, the company will have deeper pockets than the employee, so the courtroom is not an option.

What does this say to the employee? Are only some commitments to be honored? Why is it important for the employee to follow through on commitments and not the organization? What constitutes commitment if a signed document is not a commitment?

Deferred Gratification

A long-term employee approaches the manager of the department to discuss advancement in the company. This employee more has decades of experience as well as an advanced degree. The employee also has a track record of saving the company money, providing revenue generating products as well as cost effective systems design. The team member laments he has been with the company for nearly a decade, and there has been no discussion about how the employee can move from their present position in the organization’s hierarchy. The manager responds that this is the problem with your generation. You do not understand deferred (or delayed) gratification. This person had a proven track record of performance for the company, as well as undertaken the time and effort of an advanced degrees and applicable certifications. The team member reported he found this incredulous, and recounts sitting back in the chair, telling the manager that he thought the manager was wrong.

Overtime and Mandatory Meetings

A specific project is understaffed with the team members working many hours of overtime with a project that has a tight deadline. The company had mandatory meetings that were focused on developing the organization. This is an admirable objective to be sure, but when the team is already working many hours of overtime because of an understaffed project, this additional drain on the employees is not sustainable or a moral builder. The meeting either adds hours (hours that are uncompensated in salary or via time off) or taking hours away from the project is not productive for the team or the project. Working overtime, uncompensated, and time away from family and outside life is not motivating. Taking time away from an already challenging project reduces the probability of success, and neither of these are helpful nor motivating.

Employee Attitude Surveys (a Mixed Bag)

A company has a survey to gauge the employees’ attitude about the work and the company. The surveys are professionally done, with key questions categorized, for example, process questions as well as motivation category questions. At the end of the survey, the data is aggregated around these specific topic areas (departments, geolocation, and topic questions). The data is then statistically processed comparing last year’s. The issue is not in the approach up to this point. Understanding the team’s perspective (not just technical, but environmental as well) throughout the organization is helpful for improvement.

Tlie company then uses information from the various teams for continuous improvement, starting by reviewing the results within each group and department. The survey is “mandatory,” encouraging everybody to participate, and the departments track this performance. Some of the team members lament participating in the survey, as invariably the trouble areas that are pointed out have two categories for resolution, obfuscation, and misassignment.

Obfuscation happens when we use words to explain away or justify the results without sufficient information to make that conclusion. Essentially, we do not like the results so we interpret the results favorably. Getting this incorrect, in this instance, had an impact on the employees, leading some percentage of the employees to the conclusion that the company is not serious about solving problems - especially those with political implication.

Misassignment of the results happens when the survey items not to the organization’s liking are assigned for resolution at an inappropriate level. There was considerable complaints that the larger system level problems were pushed down to the employee or worker level when from the worker perspective, to resolve would require more broad understanding of the business along with political wherewithal to actually be able to resolve. The result being, the next time the employees would take the survey, they would select the most favorable rating (Likert scale). This artificially makes things look better than they were in subsequent surveys, as a response to pointing out the problem only brings you action items to fix that which you, by dint of position in the company, are unable to resolve.


Not all stories are bad war stories. There are some metaphorical wars wherein the struggle produces a positive result.

Easy Advanced degree

A company had a university in proximity and the business developed a partnership with the university. The employees of this company could go to this university, tuition deferred each semester. The course and the degree were up to the employee with discussions with the manager. The manager would need to agree to the degree or course work, and the employee would still have to keep their day activities up to par. That is, they must be able to perform while at work. The employee would go to these classes at night, or on the weekend, and if the grade they received for the course was a В or better, then the company would pay for that semester’s class. There was no limit to the number of classes the employee could undertake, only that their work would not suffer from this additional use of the time. It was about as easy as it could have been to pay for class; the university’s remuneration was deferred until after the class was over, and then the business would pay the university, if the employee received a B.

Of course, there were consequences, often considered golden handcuffs. The money the company provided for this education require an investment in time in the organization or the employee would be required to pay back the money.

Other companies do this, but very few (only one that we have ever experienced) set up a relationship between the company and the university that would defer the payment for the coursework as long as the grade expectations were met. Additionally, some companies have an annual limit, for example $5k per year. This company did not have such a limitation.

Team Gets Certified

An organization goes through restructuring, creating a separate verification and test group, starting with a manager and a few of those that have been performing verification and testing work within the organization from some other department. The testing ranges from hardware and environmental to software. The company has strong experience in the environmental and physical testing but are not so strong in software testing. Over time, the manager hires team members from within and outside the company, ultimately building a group of 13 engineers and technicians. The manager takes all of the team to obtain the American Software Testing Qualifications Board (ASTQB) Certification Foundation Level, in two batches. This training gave a common frame of reference (lexicon and process models) upon which the team could build. The certification built a common lexicon and a top- level flow of what is required to successfully test the product.

Machine Support

This story was provided by Steve Lauck.

A machine was being fabricated out of state. The specification required testing at the fabricator before shipping. It had been discussed that the Mechanical Lead and the Lead Designer of the machine would conduct the testing.

The call came that the machine was ready for testing. The fabricator said we were welcome anytime over the next few days; he would have his people available to support the test.

When I notified the Mechanical Lead, in person, it was time to go, he refused. He walked away from me stating emphatically “I am not going.” I followed. After a few tense moments he agreed to sit with me and discuss the trip.

The Mechanical Lead finally calmed down. He explained that he had dogs at home, and they could not be left alone when he travelled. I mentioned boarding the dogs. I have dogs and that is the plan when I travel. He said there was only one boarding kennel that he trusted with his dogs and it was a few hours’ drive away. I asked if he had time to take the dogs to the kennel could he be on a plane tomorrow morning. He agreed.

I told him to take the afternoon and get his dogs settled at the kennel. He said our management would never agree to time off. I said, “The project needs you to go test this equipment. You need to feel comfortable that your dogs are safe. Go! It is my decision and I will take any heat. Management has to understand there is no one to go in your place and we need to bend whatever rules to meet the schedule.”

He left. His dogs got settled at the kennel. The Mechanical Lead and Lead Designer were on the plane early the next morning.

Late in the afternoon on test day, the Mechanical Lead called on a conference call with the fabricator’s representative. The test went well and there were a few minor adjustments required to the machine. The Mechanical Lead said he had already secured agreement with the fabricator that their workers would stay late that day to make the adjustments and retest the machine before calling it a day.

In the morning the Lead Designer called. The machine was complete and tested by late evening. The machine was being crated. They were able to get an early flight and preparing to head to the airport. I told him after landing just go on home and take the rest of the day off. I appreciated the effort and control they took at the fabricator to get this done.

Yes, I took heat from management but reminded them about the progress of the project. Ultimately, the client expressed appreciation for the ‘above and beyond’ steps the team took to hold the schedule. The client never knew about the dogs or any time off. All they knew was two team members worked a double shift to ensure their machine was tested and shipped on time.

Tlie lesson here is everyone has a personal life away from work - spouses, children, pets, and activities they enjoy. Most people work to live, not live to work. I never meddled in any of my employees’ lives but I did ask questions about how

I could help with any personal issues that impacted their performance at work. An employee’s behavior has implications for possible poor performance. But, to maintain or improve performance (equaling a happy worker), maybe something as simple as giving time off to take care of their dogs is all that is needed.

Database for Learning

An organization that specializes in developing a range of automotive products and systems built a database that was used during the development and postmanufacturing quality of the product. This database was searchable by subsystem (for example exhaust system) and components (for example turbo charger). During development, the results of experiments were recorded, for example, the turbocharger impeller blades were designed using a specific material, and development testing found that the material would not work for that application. This support did not stop at the manufacturing but was extended post-manufacturing as circumstances present. For example, parts that fail within the warranty period are sent back for technical analysis, to determine the nature of the failure. The results of this exploration, when it was deemed a design issue, would be recorded along with the changes to the product to eliminate or reduce this failure mode. This information is available for subsequent development effort, for review prior to starting this interation of the development work. An engineer would consult this database the next time a new turbo charger design was required. This provides a basic understanding of the historical record of the product, what has been tried in the past, and the result of that long line of development projects over the years and many production iterations of the product. The team then can look up specific parts for example, the turbocharger, bearings, exhaust routing, and many other elements, each of which may have historical information recorded that will aid in the development of future iterations of the product. This prevents the team from learning the same lessons from previous teams and effort.

Process and Organization Development

One of us worked at an automotive product development company. This company was a very larger globally distributed company with sites responsible for developing the product within that specific region. The group is made up of a variety of subgroups that work to develop and verify the new products under development.

■ Project Management

■ Systems Engineering

■ Electronics Engineering (embedded hardware and software)

■ CAD and mechanical parts of the design

■ Electrical Engineering

■ Verification and testing

The management decides that it is important to go through how the work is done, and how the workflows through the department. Given the large amount of work going through the department it is necessary to understand how the work goes through the department and equally to the point, the work product exchanges between each group. What does that look like? What are the attributes or what constitutes a good exchange upon which we can build?

Each department was interviewed how they do their work, and what the respective department needs from the interfacing departments. For example, the systems engineering group, for an existing system, will apportioned the function across the myriad of electronic control units on the vehicle. Then the systems group composes a systems document describing how the feature and functions will work. This includes fall back modes, those situations when some sub-portion of the system suffers a failure, for example a sensor failure. This should not cause a catastrophic failure for the vehicle.

Each path for the work was considered, including every exchange between the groups as well as what constitutes a good exchange. Each process step was thought through. The process documentation included:

■ Objective - why is this process performed. Knowing this makes it possible to adapt should some of the typical inputs not be available or not be to the expected quality - as in attributes.

■ Inputs - what is needed as a prerequisite for this part of the work, and where this work originates, for example, the inputs from the systems engineering group or project management. Sometimes the inputs were a collection of elements and each would be assigned or documented.

■ Responsibility - specific talent and expertise within that department that are required to perform the work.

■ Process - the steps to accomplish this work.

■ Output - the description of what a successful output looks like.

At the end of the work, each of the departments have discussed their work and how it fits into the overall chain of events for the work. The exchanges between each group has been reviewed and what the receiving entity would need from the input. Not only did the team members learn more about their portion of the work, but they learned about how their work impacts the other departments and how the work flows ideally through the department.

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