“The problem is not that there are problems.
The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that
having problems is a problem.”
Psychiatrist and author Theodore Isaac Rubin, quoted in the Buffalo News
I ran across this quote and it really struck a chord with me. I was living in a week of problems. In manufacturing, there is always a problem. Why? Because in any complex system…
…where multiple people interact with multiple machines, tools/equipment
…and embrace imperfect systems (designed by imperfect people)
…in an effort to deliver to the customer a perfect part
…there will be a problem or two.
I recently had the privilege of a private tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center where my husband had worked. One of the things I saw was the original Mission Control where they flew all of the Apollo missions. During our discussion I was told they drill into everyone (Astronauts and Front Control Room Operators) the STAR thought process when presented with a problem: Stop Think Analyze React. That really resonated with me as I was in the middle of writing this post. (More on STAR in a future post.)
STAR in action
Knowing that every day you will have a problem or two is key to having a successful day. You will be either getting into a problem, are currently in a problem or coming out of a problem. For those of us in manufacturing we need to:
- Design flexibility into our systems.
- Understand the risks and have back-up plans already in play.
- Embrace problem solving with a vengeance. It is our best friend.
- Mitigate potential risks. Not every problem can be solved, however every problem can be assessed for risk.
- Figure out early if the battle wins the war, and if fighting the battle is worth the resources.
- Celebrate all wins. Bring humor to the effort. Recharge your teams batteries. Without engaged people, there is nothing.
Be the STAR of your operations environment.
The actual “red phone” as seen in a recent tour of NASA’s Mission Control Center where all of the Apollo missions were launched.
There is a movie out called “The Martian” which is full of examples of how necessity drove problem solving. During the whole movie I kept thinking, yeah, that’s possible. Oh wait, so is that, but what if and about five minutes later they answered my question. What struck me most was how the main character took stock of his resources. Instead of panicking he took stock of what he had. Not what he wished he had or thought he could get.
While it is true that the first step in problem solving is “defining the problem”, the second step is knowing what resources you have. And that is where the quote “necessity is the mother of invention” comes into play.
Solving a problem on paper is pointless. Understanding the proportions of each resource in relation to the problem at hand will ensure an executable solution. There is only so much time, people, and money. We have to utilize our resources with intent.
Problem solving is not figuring out the theoretical or perfect solution to only then be frustrated that you don’t have the time or can’t have the people or your project won’t get funded.
True problem solving is embracing your resources and finding a path forward with what you have.
Inventing and problem solving are closely related.
Processes and procedures are foundational for a manufacturing company to run efficiently. They make sure everything happens that is necessary to make a product safely with the desired quality level at the price point required for financial health. Processes and procedures ensure repeatability – and without repeatability, any effort at “continuous improvement” falters.
So when would processes and procedures cause a potential “hiccup” in your flow?
- Those times when you have to move at the speed of light, thus needing to by-pass the normal flow. Sometimes a project “falls out of the sky” and onto your desk and is so “hot” that if you followed the normal flow, by the time you filled out your paperwork, you would have missed the deadline. Now what?
- When you are working outside the normal workday time slot only to uncover a procedural step you didn’t even know to plan for… and everyone’s gone home for the day. (Or worse, at 3pm on Friday before a long holiday weekend and not only are they gone for the day, they are out of town.)
- When those embedded deep in the process flow (the folks who really know the details) leave the company – and the organization has forgotten to fill the “process hole” left behind. When least expected and when you least can afford it, you’ll find that hole. Trust me.
As leaders, we need to drive our teams to use tried and true processes and procedures. We must recognize they give us speed and consistency day in and day out. However, we must ensure that our teams are trained to think, to be flexible, and to have strong communication and understanding of the business. Otherwise, processes and procedures become handcuffs just when you feel “the need for speed” to reach your goal.
Ever since seeing the movie Jurassic Park, the theory of chaos has intrigued me. Chaos theory looks at how disruption changes events. I am sure you have heard something along the lines of, “A butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world causing a hurricane in another.” Wikipedia describes it as:
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.
Think about it, a SMALL change can result in a LARGE difference later. Normally, procedures and processes are designed to minimize disruption in order to drive sustainability. The processes account for the butterfly flapping. But what about when they don’t? What happens then? How do you right the ship and get through the storm?
Here are a few ideas you can use the next time that pesky butterfly flaps his wings halfway around the world and creates a storm for you:
Volunteer whenever you can
Sometimes the butterfly has flapped so hard it causes a really big storm. It is very tempting to provide a “not my job” answer when asked to help in an area outside of your normal responsibility. Here’s a radical idea, instead of waiting to be asked to help, why not offer your help? A pre-emptive “I can help” goes a long ways in fostering teamwork. If you can help – then help.
Follow through no matter how mundane the detail
Stay engaged until the last “T” is crossed and “I” is dotted. It’s the little things that can be easily over looked but not forgotten in the chaos. Forgetting to sign the paperwork or missing a part count can cause the next team to grind to a halt until the T gets crossed. This just adds to the storm.
Create a timeline or at least a checklist (task list)
Identifying timelines allows you to prioritize by week, day or hour depending on your delivery schedule. Leaving it up “to someone else” can cause continued disruption in your organization.
Over-Communicate with your immediate and extended team
Keep everyone informed on progress, risks, and completion. Use the best means to communicate with the team which could be by phone, in-person, instant messaging, or video conference. It’s important to include those teams that are outside your normal communication loop as they may be working in-parallel with your project.
Learn from the storm
The best learning happens in the chaos. When things run smoothly, the process and procedures do the heavy lifting. It is in the storm you can learn how to
- Manage your time
- Manage resources – your team and others
- Prioritize schedules and tasks
- Ask better questions
- Solve problems – yours and others
- Communicate – with your team
- Balance risk and manage its fallout
Remember what happened in the movie. They thought everything was under control until it wasn’t. Take a moment and think about how you can help “calm the storm” in your organization.
Your team is connected by a string of decisions. Sometimes, you can see how the decisions connect – like the passing of a baton. Other times, decisions are separated like a cat batting a ball of yarn around the room. But that does not mean they are any less connected.
I recently saw the movie, Everest and before I got from my theatre seat to my car seat I had at least 10 business analogies. (Ok, so I just can’t “hep” myself.) Everest was a perfect storm example of how “yarn ball” decisions can lead to the failure of the team. In the movie, it was loss of life. In a typical manufacturing day it could be a failure of safety, quality, shipments, or cost performance.
We all make decisions;
- Some small (Do I eat healthy at lunch?),
- Some big (Do I want to get out of bed today?),
- Some with ramifications (Eating healthy) and,
- Some without (Maybe they won’t notice I’m not at work today? ;-)
Foundational to our decisions is trust that everyone does what they said they would. Our assumptions guides our decisions and our communication propels our decisions.
The movie got me thinking about some key points to remember as you make decisions…
If your decision takes you outside of your normal processes, you must step up the communication of that decision. You cannot “over communicate”. Many times those are the decisions we tend to down play, not wanting to bring attention to the fact we had to work outside the normal paths. However, that is exactly when you must communicate so that everyone else’s decisions can support.
Always keep the overall goal in sight. Small decisions (made in the immediate), over time, can take you further and further away from the optimum goal. Keep coming back to the goal. Base line your decisions to the big picture – not to what you decided yesterday.
The Sub-Optimal Yarn Path
We are not perfect. I know, shocking, right? That is why there are processes and procedures. That is why you
have a team. Let’s say you made a decision that did not work out perfectly. Assess and redirect course. It is never the first mistake that defeats the goal, it is multiple bad decisions or what I call the “Yarn path”.
I have learned that for some decisions, a 100% success rate isn’t going to happen. Yet, you may have made the best decision based on the facts at the time. We do not have “crystal yarn balls” to read the future. Just cause things did not work out perfectly does not mean you made a bad decision. Instead – figure out what the next right decision is, make it and drive forward.
Do the next best right thing. Align yourself to your overall goal. Be intentional.
I am a strong believer of perseverance. It is something I embraced early in life and have seen the fruits from over time. Some would call me tenacious, some would call me stubborn, my husband calls me annoying (at times). I think I just am persevering.
Negative words regarding perseverance always surprise me. We celebrate musicians (Yo-Yo Ma), sport superstars (Michael Jordan), and novelists (J.K. Rowling) – all of whom persevered to get to their respective top.
Hours of MJ’s Practice, J.K’s failures, with a single-minded focus of playing, winning and writing. We are in awe of the rich and famous but have you ever asked yourself how they got there? Everyone loves a winner, or winning themselves. Maybe because successful people make it look easy. Maybe, because we only see the fruits of our heroes and never their labor, we do not realize the amount of energy and perseverance there is in the success they have achieved. My dad used to say, “It’s only hard because you don’t know how to do it, yet.”
In business, to be successful it is critical to persevere. Nothing stays the same, challenges come, people change, and solutions vary. In the business world the old cliché rings true; “The only constant is change.” It is only when companies persevere, tenaciously drive to an answer, and stubbornly refuse to fail, will a company truly become best in class.
As we know, businesses are just groups of like-minded people working toward a common goal. So, I think the word(s) used in business today to describe “perseverance” should really be “engaged employees”.
I am in awe of and indebted to those that passionately work to the greater good, that keep getting back up day after day, and put in the labor needed for the team to be successful – these are the real unsung heroes of our day; “Engaged employees.”
Are you in? I am.