Pump up the jazz…because orchestral business won’t survive

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Is a craving for predictability killing your business? Only those able to improvise have a long-term future, writes Chris Oestereich.

As an old project management hack, I tend to think of operations work in terms of Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development. Known for its stages of forming, storming, norming and performing, stated roughly, it says that any time you bring together a new working group, or change an existing one, you have to go through predictable stages to reach a high level of performance.

With a bit of twisting, we can apply this idea to operations. Any change, be it procedural, equipment, product, material, timing, regulations or personnel-related, which impact the rhythms of your workplace, tends to harm efficiency.

EFFICIENCY

Leadership teams desire efficiency – one hits the Pepto when the numbers come in as expected. Efficiency provides those expected numbers. It predictable. It hums. And it keeps Wall Street happy – well, it does until it doesn’t.

Worse yet, such goals eventually push the boundaries of the possible, often pitting employees against one another, or fostering dangerous circumstances. Frank Pasquale writes of issues at UPS whose workers are “under constant scrutiny, many are risking injury, or others’ safety, to shave seconds off their delivery times”.

ICE HOCKEY

These forces lead to predictable outcomes. Operations leaders learn to act like professional ice hockey goalies working to keep changes out.

A cross-functional group skates across the ice with an energy efficiency project. As they pick up speed, the project champion passes the puck to the new kid from Receiving. The play is going right to plan as the new kid skates past the shift leader, cuts across the ice, and fires a rocket at the corner of the net. The ops leader reacts with superhuman speed, snagging the puck with his glove hand. He skates off, puts the puck in a safe with all the others he’s stopped, kicks off his skates, and gets back to the business of aiming for flawless execution.

RATIONALITY

I have to remind myself that operations managers are not being obstinate. They are behaving rationally given the circumstances. If your bonus, your pay increases, and your employment were predicated on maximising throughput, and minimising errors, you’d likely want to minimise change. It’s a thoroughly rational response.

Leadership either directly sets these circumstances by creating specific targets, or indirectly by putting a laser-sharp focus on efficiency and throughput. This would be fine in a static market, but given today’s pace of change, a relentless focus on perfecting current operations is a recipe for good results in the short run, as well as eventual obsolescence.

WHY IS THAT?

Efficiency is great when it’s a prominent ingredient in the management recipe, but when it’s the only thing that goes in the pot, a recipe for disaster.You need to sprinkle in a few other things if you want to cook up the sort of complex organisation that has a chance of success today – and in the future.

Henry Mintzberg gets to the heart of the problem: “Because costs are usually easier to measure than benefits, efficiency often reduces to economy.” The ‘squishiness’ of subjective measures leads to their being pushed aside in favour of the reliability of objective ones like input costs (think labour).

Predictable outcomes are a temporary phenomenon, but we lock things down in the belief (or hope?) that we can stop the ravages of time. In maximising today’s return we destroy tomorrow’s. Fortunately, the only thing standing in the way of change is our outlook. It’s time to do something about that.

UNEXPECTED CIRCUMSTANCES

Some of us are well attuned to work which features few surprises. Others enjoy reacting to unexpected circumstances.

An unforeseen problem crops up and the responder goes to work trying to understand the need and thinking of possible solutions. They may have to react quickly to repair a sinking ship. Other times, they may be able to run tests while looking for an optimal solution. They may be able to adapt a known solution, or may have to craft one from the ground up.

A MUSICAL CONTINUUM

I think of these scenarios in terms of a musical continuum, from orchestral to jazz. Some of us want to perform the work of the grand masters, and aim to do so flawlessly.

Others want to rise to occasions of ever-increasing, unexpected complexity. When the sax player changes direction, right before handing the lead to us, we run with it.

I tend toward the jazz end of things, but being significantly introverted, there are plenty of circumstances where I’m far less excited about working without a net.

TOWARDS JAZZ

The industrial era had a strong preference for orchestral work.

Practice. Tune. Hone the craft. Play the perfect note at the perfect pitch at the perfect moment. I think it’s fair to say that approach had a good run. Some say the average industrial era worker lived better than kings and queens of recent centuries. But time marches on and circumstances change.

When that which once worked no longer proves fruit it’s time to change. Those that don’t adapt may scrape by or they might take their places in the dustbin of history.

But what about the jazz artists? I think of them as evolutionary creatures by nature. They might not always hit the curve, but they’re always on their toes looking for it. In the business environment, they’re ever looking for ways to make things work better.

Sure, the world is probably not ready for orchestral jazz, but I bet your business is ready for the operational equivalent. If you’re running orchestra- oriented operations, and it’s kicking out ideas like they’re going out of style, by all means carry on. I’ve yet to come across a firm that’s managed to pull off that trick. For the rest of us, it’s time to work a little improvisation into the mix.

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In his day job Chris crafts and implements zero waste solutions that redirect waste to productive uses. He is also a regular contributor to multiple business publications, and maintains the Linear to Circular blog about sustainability. Chris and his wife enjoy raising their two rambunctious boys in Boise, Idaho, where he revels in his daily bicycle commute.

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