It’s remarkable how quickly we can resolve issues when it counts—like finding a coronavirus vaccine. How come it can take so long, then, to resolve issues when the stakes aren’t quite as high? Let’s take a look at some of the causes and explore opportunities to do better.
We’ll start at the lowest, or quantum level of work—the humble task. A person is assigned a job from the system of record, be that system an operation from the ERP system, a task in a Gantt chart or a Kanban card. They find themselves blocked, for whatever reason, and cannot resolve the issue at their level of discretion. By some means, whether verbally, through email or raising a service request, the task manager communicates that work has come to a halt until someone in authority can solve the problem.
Too often, we squander time waiting for responses from the next level of management. In many cases, those managers either ignore queries until they can no longer tolerate the sound of the squeaking wheel, or they tell their subordinate they’re onto it and will ‘revert as soon as possible’. When the subordinate asks why the resolution of the issue has not yet been forthcoming, the manager’s obvious response is: ‘it hasn’t been possible’.
If you’re that manager, what’s stopping you? For a start, you don’t have the luxury of working in isolation from the demands others make on your time. Even the most ardent practitioners of Cal Newport’s Deep Work sometimes have to come up for air and collaborate with the world at large. In our industrial environments, it’s overwhelmingly the case that the higher up you go in the hierarchy—that is, the further you’re removed from that original quantum packet of work, the more likely you’ll have competing demands on your limited time.
“Too often, we squander time waiting for
responses from the next level of management”
Perhaps you’re in the engineering function. Your rhythms and routines include attendance at a variety of meetings which include operators, supervisors, superintendents and managers. In addition, you’re a member of the new ‘ways of working’ project and have been tasked with considering how your function will best be able to take advantage of the new enterprise software application. At any given time, besides managing the day-to-day operations you’re accountable for, you have several improvement and capital projects in flight.
It might not be so bad if you were only working within the constraints of your organisation. But you can’t escape the need to coordinate your efforts with your vendors. Will they deliver the materials and other inputs as promised? What of your contractors? Will they turn up when needed and perform according to their promised timeline? What if your timeline changes and they can’t accommodate your needs? After all, they have their portfolio of work to plan and execute. They, too, have multiple suppliers and a variety of customers. Each supplier is locked in the intricate dance of keeping balls in the air while trying to align the planets.
Just when you thought you’d have a day in which you could effortlessly execute your work, you’re stuck on the phone and in meetings trying to solve the left-field supply-side interruption. And then, with the mischief of Murphy, the customer changes their mind.
“Each supplier is locked in the intricate dance of keeping
balls in the air while trying to align the planets”
And, of course, we are all human. We prefer to work on the work we like to do rather than that which breaks into our day, demanding our attention like a recalcitrant two-year-old. The more senior the person in the hierarchy, the more likely they will feel they’ve earned the right to determine what work they choose to do on any given day and the order in which it’ll get done. Why he asks himself, should he bend to the will of a lowly draftsman begging for the completion of a design, when in a pile in front of him is a task altogether more fitting for the years spent on acquiring a doctorate in the specialised field of his role? What a victory for vanity and the exercise of ego to flex his power and make the bastards wait.
He catches himself in a moment of self-awareness and remembers some of the principles he learned in a recent leadership course. ‘How can I be a better servant of the system as a whole?’ was the question he was left musing on in the weeks since its completion. Then, as much as he would like to help, he realises he has a real dilemma.
He knows that what’s best for the project, of which our quantum piece of work is a part, is for him to drop everything else he is doing and remove that particular bottleneck. He knows that it is the right course of action, as by doing so, he will be increasing throughput by more than anything else he is currently working on. But then, he recalls the management meeting he was at just that morning, the one where the big boss upbraided him for his inability to show any progress on his department’s KPIs. His argument that the KPIs were misaligned between departments gained no traction since they were, in the words of the big boss, ‘mandated by Group’.
Besides, even if he could prove the case that it was in the interest of the business for him to drop everything else he was doing and pick up the quantum piece of work, it would take an age to do it. Besides anything else, his work was scattered across a plethora of different work management systems. A separate project file existed for every project he was working on if he was lucky.
Where he was a participant with a consulting role, he only got to know about it when someone sent him a calendar invite by email. Engineering used a different task management system from Maintenance, which was different to Finance and different again from Procurement. The document management system was a mess, and it was always a struggle for him to lay his hands on precisely what he was looking for without interrupting a colleague.
By now, you can get a feeling why it is that the squeaking wheel gets the oil. Working in a world of near-infinite distraction, compounded by the difficulty in finding timely, relevant, reliable data, by what other means would you order your day? How can anyone be reasonably expected to sort the wheat from the chaff?
We recommend a ‘two-hour rule’ for significant issues. What’s a significant issue? One which affects the system’s ability to meet the promises made to deliver on schedule.
The person who’s received such an escalation notice then has two choices:
1. Resolve the issue within two hours, or
2. Take accountability for any delay caused by the issue, in a written response to the person who raised it
In the latter case, the manager signs off on the full burden of the lost revenue, and/or the cost burnrate of the delay, until the issue is satisfactorily resolved.
If the manager takes neither of these two options, the person who raised the issue is obliged to bypass their immediate boss and submit the problem to the boss one level higher. There are occasions when a manager is legitimately not available to respond with one of the two choices above. The idea of bypassing one’s line manager in favour of the next one up in the chain of command should not, therefore, be seen as ‘dobbing in’ one’s boss.
A colleague has a pithy phrase for this context: ‘You can’t push rope’. You cannot expect the person at the bottom of the rope to exert pressure on those above. By mandating all levels of management to follow the two-hour rule, we remove the stigma of being a ‘dobber’. We maintain the tension in the rope with the pull of policy and behaviour set at the top.
One can, and always should, work on integrating sources of data to make sense- and decision-making as effortless as possible. The better the user experience of the integrated suite of software tools and document management systems, the more likely it is that people will have the wherewithal to make better business decisions.
There is no doubt that we always have work to do to provide better measurement frameworks that align all of the parts to make their contribution to what’s best for the whole. Unquestionably, adopting work management methods such as Drum-Buffer-Rope and Critical Chain will provide an underpinning operating philosophy to more productively plan the work, then work the plan. This approach to work management is especially beneficial in the most complex environments, which integrate the whole supply-make-demand value chain.
But, fixing software integration, aligning KPIs and adopting new ways of working is for the longer haul. Implementing the two-hour rule can be done incredibly quickly and effectively if the most senior manager accountable for safe, reliable production leads the way. Once everyone is on the hook for making a decision—within two hours—they will very quickly come to understand the consequence of not resolving issues rapidly. If they fix the problem at their level within the two hours of a subordinate raising it, then the decision bottleneck has been removed. If they cannot resolve it within the two hours, but choose to keep it at their level, then they are accountable for the consequence. And, if they feel it needs to go further up the chain of command, then the two-hour timer starts ticking at the higher level.
If the issue needs to ascend to the Group CEO, then so be it. If that is the case, one of two things must be true: either the decision is worthy of the CEO’s attention on its merit, or his or her accountability hierarchy isn’t working. Either way, the two-hour rule has succeeded in giving the issue associated with the humble quantum packet of work its proper weight. Or, as King Richard III might have put it: ‘A horse, A horse, my Kingdom for a horse.’
This article is part of our series: Five commandments for high-performance execution
Part 1: Maintain True Data
Part 2: Work Fully Kitted
Part 3: Control Work Release
Part 4: Resolve Issues Rapidly
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