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Risky business can be a risk.

Every day we have risks. Just the other day I was sitting in the passenger seat while my husband was driving through the windy twisty backroads in the outskirts of Nashville. Around the corner comes a car and it’s on our side of the road, the driver oblivious to the fact they were on our side (thanks to a cell phone in their hand held to the ear.) Fortunately we avoided meeting that person.

Risks are all around us. Risks could be a “low probability” such as getting hit by lightning. Yes, it could happen but your actual odds are low. It could be a risk that is easily planned for such as wearing your seat belt to prevent injury in a car accident. Or maybe the risk could be eliminated all together with a few process changes, like looking both ways before you cross the street. Or as I found out while in the UK, to look the opposite direction I was used to.

In business, risk assessments help teams ensure that the right focus is being applied and sufficient actions taken to protect the business operations. First, the potential risks have to be identified. The simplest approach is to think of potential risks by functional area, like supply chain, IT, or facilities. Once the team has identified all the potential risks to that functional area, the next step is ranking them.

  • Probability of the risk happening
  • Severity if the risk happens (from potential loss of life to loss of business)
  • How easy is it to detect if the risk is actually happening

Using these ratings, a risk value can be calculated. Each business is different in how much risk can be tolerated. Low risk values require no further action. High risk values require actions to lower the risk. Medium risk values could go either way and should be assessed individually on whether any action is required.

Lowering risk in business ensures the health of the company. Customers are protected, Shareholders are protected, Employees are protected. Being pro-active in the management of risk ensures initiatives can be prioritized and adequately resourced.

Take the time to think through your risks. It will save you, your team, and the company future grief.

Be intentional

Keeping your “astronaut” alive

The folks who make human space flight a reality.

Have you ever known someone that was so right they were wrong? Or worse, have you ever been that person who when sharing their “right” you shared in such a way it caused a “wrong”?

Let’s face it, people like to win. We celebrate championships with ticker tape parades. At NASA they celebrate a little differently. They like to say they kept their astronaut alive. Their mission critical is different than for most of us in business. But we can and should learn from them.

In business, the fight must always be with the competition or externally, not with the team or internally. Driving for victory over your competition is a rallying cry that will pull your team together, align all efforts, and secure a promising future. Laying a foundation for team development, encouraging open and honest debate, and insisting on reconciliation creates a team that can claim victory over the competition.

But what is your rallying cry? Have you identified your mission critical?

There has been much written on the forming of a team and the four steps: Storming, Forming, Norming, and Performing. All of which are critical for a team to be victorious over the competition. While some steps are painful the team will never realize its full potential if you skip any of them.

Think back to when you were placed on a new team. You had to figure out who was who. The best ideas may not have been given by the best public speaker or maybe came from the most junior person in the room. There are lot of challenges a new team faces when coming together to solve an issue. Team members must have honest debate and challenge each other.

My husband was fortunate enough to experience working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Their culture encouraged “badgeless” meetings. It didn’t matter if you were the senior, junior, contractor or government employee – all of the storming was focussed around supporting the mission.

How often we forget in our storming phase to pinpoint the mission-focus or mission-critical we are trying to solve. For NASA, keeping their astronauts alive in space is the end all. What’s yours? Who wins? Who loses? Are you so right, you’re wrong?

EVA – the folks behind spacewalks

Once the team members understand each other, they better understand each other’s expectations. You have to allow the system flexibility in getting to a solution set. A system will always fight to reach its state of “equifinality“.

You learn when to push or when to “be still”. If you’ve all agreed on your mission-focus then the team’s working environment can be less about ‘winning’ against each other and more about solving the mission-focus.

The team comes to an agreement on roles and understands how best to work together. What at first seemed like a storm becomes the norm. You can begin navigating towards the mission-focus.

This may sound trite but it’s really not. The team can now make great strides because the sum of the efforts is greater than the sum of the individual contributions. The banking industry calls it the “magic of compound interest” – in the human capital realm we call it “good teamwork”. It’s about the mission-focus. What is yours?

Some people have to always win. I believe there are issues worth fighting for and there are things worth winning. There is a difference. It is good to make victory your outside focus and working together for that victory your inside focus. Remember to identify your mission-focus early on and use it to drive all of your team’s behaviors to achieving that. Keeping an astronaut alive taught me a valuable lesson.

Be intentional,

Support your internal problem solvers

Firemen are dedicated, fearless people. They understand their responsibility is to save lives and property. They train and practice to ensure they will be prepared to do everything possible to save lives and property. When they are not in the middle of a fire, they work with the community to reduce risks of fires. Their main job, though, is fighting the fire.

I would like to make a comparison of firemen to those people inside companies whose main contribution is solving issues. Every organization has a need for firemen – groups/teams that fix issues for the success of the team and the business. I have never heard of a fireman giving the owner of the burning house a lecture or complaining they had to come out at night to put out the fire. Firemen understand what their customer needs – someone to address the fire, NOW.

If you are the leader of firemen (or the fireman)…

  • Make sure your team brings water not gasoline.
  • They must come with an attitude of helping, not judging.
  • Make sure your team understands that the urgency needed to fix the issue should be done within schedule, within costs where possible.
  • Just like firemen working with the community to reduce fires, leaders of problem solving groups must engage AND help prevent the next one. Like Smokey said, “Only you can prevent a forest fire.”
  • Make sure your team understands being the problem solver is a noble responsibility and one the team must have. While over time fixing other people’s issue can be wearisome, it is needed. Fires happen – putting them out fast is what makes a company successful.
  • If you are the leader of the team whose “house is on fire”, appreciate those helping. Some fires are accidents, many can be prevented. Work to make sure your house is not always on fire.

I hate the office sign that says “poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine”. In a healthy organization, if you are part of the team and a problem solver – urgency is your responsibility. Work to reduce last minute issues – but don’t let your house burn down in the process.

Be intentional

Is the glass really half empty?

half_fullStudent 1: The glass is half empty
Student 2: The glass is half full
Teacher: Maybe you’re just using the wrong sized glass

According to my husband, it’s an annoying trait but I happen to be someone who believes that every problem has a solution. There may not be an immediate fix, nor may the solution deliver the “forecasted extreme pay off”.
However, I do believe that problems have solutions.

When you find yourself giving up, stalling on a way forward, or just feeling defeated – here are a few actions I take that I have found to re-energize my quest for a solution set:

Ask Yourself a Hard Question
Nobody likes admitting they aren’t perfect. If I find myself with the situation where the answers seem elusive, I’ll “stop, drop, and ask” myself if I’m really trying to solve the problem or trying to change a symptom. Addressing the real problem can go a long way to fixing a lot of symptoms. Ensuring you are working the problem not the symptom is crucial.

Re-look at everything with fresh mindset
I’m a fan of murder mysteries. Columbo was my hero. When a case would stump him, he would take a step back and re-look at the entire data set but with a fresh perspective. Similarly, some problems require multiple solution sets. It could take more than one action, or changing more than one thing, for a solution to solve the problem. Meaning, you may need to take a step back and revisit the entire “spiderweb” again in order to detect the pattern and find the right “thread” to pull on.

Change the game
My dad taught me how to play checkers. We played and played until one day I started beating him. Then one day he showed up at the dining room table with a chessboard. All new rules. All new strategy. In fact, a whole new game. In our work life, sometimes the problem is that the game changes and I find myself still playing checkers when I should be playing chess. When this occurs, I have to put away one board (set of rules) and align myself to the new board (learn a new set of rules) and keep playing.

So the next time you find that your moves or tactics aren’t working to solve the problem – it may be time to ask yourself the hard questions, revisit your assumptions and change the game.

Be intentional

Communication depends on Identification

Question: What makes a problem hard?
(Answer at the bottom)

Having been involved in the manufacturing floor for over 30 years I think one of, if not the most challenging thing we face on the floor is the ability to clearly articulate the problem at hand. Because if we can’t clearly say it, how then will we fix it? It seems so “simple”, and most times it is – except for when everything goes wonky (or kerpluey).

When you see what appears to be a team working at cross purposes, there is a high probability that they each are working from their own framework (point of view) for the problem they are trying to address. If you see this happening, check and make sure they are working to the same problem statement.

Contrary to some, Six Sigma isn’t the root of all evil. We, on the manufacturing floor use the 5-whys tool for root causing production floor issues. Have you ever thought about what a valuable tool it would be to use for “knowledge worker processes”. Getting to know the real issue ensures a strong problem statement that the team can then address. Think about it. Everyone on your team sees the knowledge flow from a different perspective.

Once you’ve identified the root cause, realize it may uncover other problems that have to be addressed in order to get to the bigger issue at hand. I think it was Machiavelli who once said, “A small problem is hard to see but easy to fix whereas a big problem is easy to see but almost impossible to fix.”

Whichever end of the spectrum you find yourself on, taking the time to better understand the problem and clearly articulating the problem statement will put you and your team on the right course to solving your issue.

Here’s the answer to my opening question:
Knowing something is wrong, but not clearly defining it so you can communicate it

Be intentional,

This STAR has only four points


The dedicated men and women of NASA’s Mission Control as seen on my recent private tour.

I doubt anyone would argue with the fact that NASA takes training seriously. Whether it is for the astronaut in space, those running Mission Control, or those who are support staff, a high level of training is necessary.

Recently, I learned that it is not only hard skills but also soft skills that are trained. NASA realized early on that just knowing the technical answers wasn’t enough. Managing stress, interacting with a team, and collaboration all add up to either making or breaking a mission. When something goes wrong in space – failure really isn’t an option.

Last week I mentioned STAR (Stop Think Analyze React) in my post. It’s drilled into the Mission Control team. It’s not “maybe I’m sure” it’s more like “Let me think and give you a definitive answer”. In the business world, more specifically the manufacturing world, we all could use some STAR in our day.

Stop You can’t keep doing the same things the same way and expecting new results. Maybe there is need to panic given your situation but maybe there isn’t. Maybe you need to stop before making your next decision. Think of it as hitting the “pause” button ever so briefly.

Think If you are working on auto-pilot and rushing through the day – your own activity will prevent quality problem solving. What are the things that are amiss? Who needs to be part of the solution? Think about the problem. What are all of the touch points for the decision in front of you? Draw it out on a whiteboard if you have to – sometimes just seeing the “big picture” on a wall can help you find a hole in your logic.

Analyze If you’ve read my blog before you know I’m a proponent of Six Sigma because it works. Using tried and true problem solving tools can uncover paths forward. You also know I’m not a proponent of jumping to conclusions. Do you have the proverbial “80%” solution? Does it make sense for your team, your floor or your business unit? Then what are you going to do with this information?

React There is no such thing as a perfect solution. I would hypothesize that waiting for a perfect solution can waste valuable resources and in manufacturing – time is a valuable resource. Sometimes being 80% sure is enough to move forward to successfully meet the goal. Sometimes it is not. You have to make the hard call each and every time. I wish it was easier but this is the world those of us in manufacturing have chosen to live in.

Like space where mistakes can have fatal outcomes, the manufacturing world can be as brutal to a business unit. Please take a moment and think through your own STAR. Together with your team you can make better decisions.

Be intentional