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Leadership Management strategic planning

Thinking about your thinking

Last week, we discussed single points of failure, noting that eliminating them from critical systems is a management responsibility. How managers think about critical systems (and everything else) directly impacts outcomes. It isn’t about being more sophisticated or smarter than others. It’s often as simple as asking a question that no one else has the nerve to ask, like “What (else) can go wrong?“. The TV station issue discussed last week re: the NCAA broadcast might have been avoided if someone had asked “What happens if our primary internet connection goes down during a critical broadcast?

The problem isn’t the problem. The problem is how you’re thinking about the problem.” – Dan Sullivan

Thinking “What can go wrong?”

It’s impossible to eliminate every threat to your infrastructure, systems, processes, supply chain, people, facilities, etc. It’s obvious to think about infrastructure (water, power, internet, health care, food, transportation). Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes will quickly divert your thoughts to infrastructure.

What if we can’t ship our products for three weeks?” or “What if we can’t get (normally JIT-shipped) raw material for two weeks?” seem like ridiculous questions until mudslides or avalanches wipe out your shipper’s critical rail route, or spring floods destroy critical roads / bridges near you.

Ask “What else can go wrong?” & “What can go wrong with things out of our control?” Prioritize these risks & start toward eliminating or minimizing the most important / likely ones. What workaround processes will you need if mitigation plans missed something? Should you should document these plans? (Yes) Should you rehearse the workarounds?

How has the business changed?

Asking how things have changed can alter your thinking.

20 years ago, a Fortune 500 company might’ve had 20, 200, or 2000 locations. Today, they might have 20-50% fewer locations. Those locations might be larger, smaller, in more/fewer countries. Management at those companies are used to those changes. What’s different from 30 years ago (much less 10) is the potential added complexity of having thousands of remote workers across the globe. For that population, connectivity and power are still critical, and the risk is better distributed. Damage to a single facility shouldn’t sideline thousands of remote workers as it once would have.

Our customers, products, services, facilities, and people change all the time. While the pace and nature of this change varies, it happens to all of us. Our mindset and our history is a big part of it. When it comes to thinking about how our company has changed, our mindset and worldview about our past is a huge influence.

The best advice I’ve ever gotten about this is: “Look at your (and your company’s) past, decide what you want to take into the future, and forget the rest.” That doesn’t mean you forget the lessons or the history. It simply means you don’t let them come along as baggage that weighs down your thinking.

What are we assuming?

When doing a review of a “disaster” (whatever that means for you), it’s pretty easy to see the mistakes that cascaded into disaster. Imagine the value of seeing these mistakes in advance. By default, we make assumptions. Lots of them.

When driving from Billings to Cheyenne in the winter, we know to top off in Sheridan or Casper (or both) because we can’t assume that the drive will be uneventful. Running out of fuel because you had to sit still with the car running for four hours at -10F can be a life-threatening oversight. An assumption like “We have enough fuel” could be your last if things don’t go smoothly.

What conditions, supplies, staffing do we assume will be in place? If your top three salespeople get an ugly case of stomach flu the night before the biggest trade show of the year, what’s tomorrow look like? While unlikely, you need a plan.

If boxes of materials don’t show up at the show, you usually find out the day before the show. Even if the show staff finds them, it might take a couple days. By then, the show will be over. What’s your plan? Do your people have the info / means to find substitutes on a Sunday afternoon in a city they aren’t familiar with?

What did we ignore / forget?

Is maintenance up to date? Is the condition of equipment, people, vehicles, etc what we think? Dashboards and checklists save us from simple oversights / mistakes that can cascade into something you’d rather avoid.