SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19: Part 7 “Shifting Aptitude to Sustain Focus”

Over the past two months, Eileen Brown, co-author of Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution, has been writing a blog series called “SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19.” This week, in her penultimate post, she looks at the final “shift” in the Shift-to-Execute framework that calls for focus, a shift that can help organizations to hone in on their highest priority tasks.

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The fourth and final "shift" in our Shift-to-Execute framework is called Shift 4: Shifting Aptitude to Sustain Focus. Similar to Shift 3 discussed in the previous blog, the Focus shift aims to eliminate distractions that may be impeding the ability to execute. The Focus shift is used to hone operational systems that are not yielding what they need to deliver. Perhaps they are running at the expense of employee burn-out or perhaps operations need to be put back on track when they have been disrupted by an unexpected change. The need to orchestrate the three levers of execution – structure, rhythm, and awareness – is consistent with the previous three shifts.

Focus

By Focus, we mean the ability to converge an organization’s attention to work on the highest priority activities, and prevent wastage or leakage of energy to the "black hole" of less important or unproductive distractions. It is not about working harder; it is about navigating better. Navigation, in any environment, is required to satisfy the needs of multiple stakeholders: customers, shareholders, employees, and regulatory agencies in business; students, parents, teachers, unions, and government in education; those in need, volunteers, benefactors and boards in charities; and players, fans, coaches, advertisers, and club owners in sports, to name a few. We can ground an organization’s energy to eliminate distractions by adjusting our thinking or aptitude towards better controls and behaviours to find the optimum path of action that best satisfies the myriad of stakeholder interests, in both the short and long term.

Structure: When attempting to improve focus, the structure elements to be leveraged are the controls that govern behaviour, such as policies, procedures, and technology solutions. These cannot be under-developed such that undue risk is incurred, or excessive such that they create undue burden. As the world tries to adapt to the changes driven by the COVID-19 virus, one example requiring a change in focus is the mismatch between the food supply and the consumption patterns currently being experienced most notably in the U.S.

The same amount of food is being produced for the same number of people, however people are unable to find staples such as milk and eggs in the usual quantities and places because the consumption pattern has changed. Business, school, restaurant, and bakery closures are resulting in fields of ripe produce being plowed under and perfectly good milk being dumped due to cancelled orders. Meanwhile, while people await their government stimulus payments, demand at the foodbanks is skyrocketing, and those who can buy groceries are finding empty shelves at the store. It takes time for grocery chains and foodbanks to recalibrate their orders for the changes in demand that they are experiencing. There have been delays in supply since institutional packaging does not translate well to individual needs or supermarket shelves for the end consumer - it isn’t feasible to send a tanker truck of milk to a supermarket! Packaging is also dependent on the ability of the upstream suppliers of containers to respond to the changes. Flour mills have cited a shortage of paper bags for packaging, though the supply of flour is plentiful.

In addition to order and packaging modifications, changes are also needed to the transportation structure such as fleet configurations and distribution networks to support the new consumption patterns. It has taken decades to develop the current structure and though it was functioning adequately for years, it now requires an immediate and significant overhaul to be effective today and over the coming months.

Rhythm: In response to the interruption in the rhythm of the food supply, individuals are working urgently to resolve the issue the only way they know how – becoming once again "hunters and gatherers" seeking out stores with stock on the shelves and standing in long lines to gain access to food. A comprehensive new set of priorities needs to be developed and communicated to precisely focus efforts on the right activities in order to successfully rebalance and synchronize the food supply chain.

Once the government assistance starts to flow, re-calibration will again be required as the reliance on food banks shifts to grocery store purchases. And for those contemplating the re-opening of the economy – all of this re-balancing will have to happen again in reverse to support the re-opening of businesses, institutions, and restaurants. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that processing plants and distribution channels are overburdened due to the infection rate impacting available resources, making it even more challenging to keep up with the rapidly changing demand patterns. Plans for various regions to re-open their economies on different schedules will pose yet another complexity. Priorities in the country-wide food supply chain will need to be reset for each change, in order to minimize wastage and interruptions to the continuity of supply.

Here in Canada we experienced the same phenomena to a lesser extent, but who can forget the empty shelves with no paper products or disinfectants, or the half-full meat coolers? The extent of the work required to modify supply chains should not be underestimated as their operational rhythm is reliant on tight integration. They operate as a pipeline, so like turning off a garden hose, it takes a while for the pipeline to empty and refill again in a different format.

Awareness: When the shelf is empty in the grocery store, who is responsible for filling it? Even if the grocery chains modify their forecasts as quickly as possible, they are at the mercy of what the distribution centre is able to fulfill and send on the delivery trucks. Insularity is one of the most common barriers encountered in the Focus shift. Those who are impacted do not have the "reach" to co-ordinate the breadth of effort required to make all parties aware and resolve the issue holistically. Everyone is working to their own agenda but no one is orchestrating the overall agenda. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this problem as well as shortfalls in planning since most government emergency plans only address disaster recovery in a particular area – like the aftermath of a tornado or a hurricane. This pandemic is impacting supply on a global basis. Were there any early warning bells on this problem? Who should have been watching for them? Who is accountable to fix the food supply problem?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped up to try and sort out this monumental issue in the U.S. Due to the unprecedented nature of the issue, there was a delay in fully understanding the extent of problem and creating a holistic agenda to assign ownership and pinpoint the priorities for action.

This example of the mismatch between food supply and consumption is an issue of massive scale. Certainly in our lives or in our work we will not have to face a problem of such scale very often, but many organizations do have untenable operations that drive employee burn-out or are hit by a game-changing event in their industry. The same principles and factors to ground energy are relevant for consideration: navigating using controls, setting priorities, and keeping an eye open beyond our normal boundaries, so we do not get blindsided by our own insulated agenda. These are the important factors in changing our aptitude for sharper focus to improve sustainable execution.

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Check in next week for the final part of the “SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19” blog series, where Eileen will be discussing the importance of leadership during a crisis like COVID-19.

Click here to find out more about Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution.