Over the coming weeks, we'll be featuring a new blog series called "SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19" from Eileen Brown, co-author of Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution. Released in Fall 2019, the book aims to help leaders "shift" into more sustainable and dynamic execution practices.
This week in part 2, Eileen discusses the concept of executional “rhythm," and why organizations that lack rhythm do not have the ability to be proactive or pivot seamlessly to deal with unexpected demands during the coronavirus pandemic.
We continue to watch the COVID-19 pandemic unfold around the world, and the unsettling media coverage on hot spots like New York City gives new meaning to the name, “The City That Never Sleeps”. In the first installment of this blog I covered the criticality of structure in the ability to execute. The second key lever in our sustainable execution model described in Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution, is the concept of executional “rhythm”: the inherent hum of efficient, responsive, and productive operations.
It is painful to watch an operation that lacks rhythm. It is costly, in both dollars and human lives these days, to see irregular patterns and unpredictability. Organizations that lack rhythm do not have the ability to be proactive or pivot seamlessly to deal with unexpected demands. The exceptions and heroic efforts that are needed to rectify gaps in efficiency take their toll by creating distractions and voids in other parts of the organization. When we look at the exponential growth rate inherent in the COVID-19 pandemic, the apex will be like a “pig through a python”. An organization could never cost-justify what it would take to “hum” through the peak infection period – on a sustained basis that would be a costly and wasteful design point. However, during such an explosive event as a pandemic, the barriers to creating rhythm and the obstacles that impede successful execution become visible to all. We can learn and apply lessons from what we witness, as many companies routinely face spikes or seasonal demands where rhythm plays a role in building capability that enables success.
A healthy tension helps to optimize decisions. Typically the competing needs of divisions within a company help to productively and wisely allocate limited funds or supplies, and focus efforts where the need is greatest. As we watch the federal governments co-ordinate with provincial/state governments, it is apparent that the tension in some cases is not always healthy. The example of the supplier with critical supplies ready to ship but with conflicting information on where to ship them during this time of shortage, is an example of unmanaged tension. As a parent, many of us are familiar with the need to arbitrate and can readily make the definitive call in order to resolve a barrier to execution at home - “X gets the car keys as he is late for work; Y can take the transit to the movies”. Why is it more difficult to make those decisions in the work environment? It is useful to recognize and address the barriers that make us reticent to decisively make the trade-offs driven by tension in the system: sometimes it is as simple as our own fear of making the wrong decision in the face of uncertainty.
Rhythm is dependent on a level of consistency to drive behaviour. Even something as simple as terminology can result in inconsistent behaviour. We have witnessed citizens struggle with the nuances between “quarantine”, “isolation”, “go home and stay at home”, and “social distancing”. Can we take a walk? Can two people go to the grocery store, or only one, or none at all? Consistent behaviour takes time to build. As citizens do their best to comply, I suspect that the healthcare professionals working in the ICUs are more advanced on ensuring consistent behaviour as their lives depends on it. I am sure they demonstrate a high level of consistency for donning their PPE, and deploy fail-safe measures with the support of colleagues to prevent any inconsistencies in the protocol. I hazard a guess that while the rest of us are swirling around less than efficiently in the current environment, the ICUs have already established their own rhythm which helps them be productive and pivot to handle unexpected challenges.
Once the tension and consistency gaps are filled to establish a rhythm in operations, you also need to acknowledge differentiation when it becomes a distraction that impacts sustainable execution. In the context of the pandemic we see that happening as the various states try to differentiate their individual needs. Unfortunately the virus does not respect borders, and frankly 50 states is a lot of differentiation for one union to handle! Certainly rural states have different issues than the more populated states, but they also do not have the breadth and depth of medical facilities located in urban areas to handle a breakout. The desire to differentiate economies by state is understandable, but perhaps not wise in the bigger picture. In organizations, differentiation in performance at both personal and organizational levels is important for continual improvement. However sometimes we also see tolerance for a less-efficient individual, factory or distribution centre – you just have to ensure it is for the right reason and everyone understands that reason, so it does not cause a distraction that interrupts the rhythm of execution.
Setting and communicating the priorities is paramount to eliminating distractions in operational rhythm. The need for concurrent priorities is always going to exist. Which is more important? What do we work on first – masks or face shields? How does one sort out the priorities to ensure a productive hum from procuring materials to the logistics of manufacturing and delivery to hospitals? Defining the priorities is critically dependent on the unfettered flow of information both upstream and downstream. Decisions are only as sound as the information. Common metrics help level the playing field for better priority setting – for example, how many “days of supply” does each hospital have? This is not a time for the squeaky wheel to get the supply. Unified metrics and quantification (all people looking at the same, single source of data) help to focus all efforts on the same goal without the need for lengthy debate – the item with the lowest “days of supply” gets the priority, with everyone pulling in the same direction without delay.
A fast-moving and destabilizing pandemic is not conducive to establishing rhythm, but to the extent it can be achieved, it will enable more to be accomplished. In the event of another such challenging global event, we would be able to achieve a higher level of rhythm and execute better based on the very sobering lessons of 2020. This situation also allows all organizations to watch, learn and highlight their own areas of opportunity for improvement in the new world ahead.
Now that I have covered structure and rhythm, the next installment will address the role that “awareness” plays in rounding out the equation on sustainable execution levers.