DuPont defines operational discipline (OD) as “the deeply rooted dedication and commitment by every member of an organization to carry out each task the right way every time.”

I define OD differently. OD exists when every member of an organization knows exactly what the “right way” looks like, agrees that it is the “right way,” and does it that way every time.

Don’t get me wrong: dedication and commitment are important. But no leader can hope to create OD with only the desire to do things right. At the beginning of every day and shift, everyone walks through the door, gates, or other job-site threshold intending to do things right.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In my more than 30 years of developing and studying OD, I have learned that disagreement about what the “right way” looks like is the biggest threat to making OD happen. But very few organizations invest the time to clearly define what the right way looks like, and the handful that do forget to make sure everyone actually agrees that the definition reached is accurate.

This breakdown shouldn’t be surprising since very few managers and supervisors have been trained in leading OD. It’s a form of leadership that requires a unique set of realizations, faculties, and skills that simply aren’t inherently acquired during a business leader’s natural progression.

Those of you out there struggling with OD, congratulate yourself on realizing it’s an issue in the first place. Use my following guidelines for developing OD to turn your organization around:

Make OD integral to a compelling vision.

OD begins with a leader stepping forward and offering her people a big game to play––a vision of the future that is so compelling her people say, “I want to be part of that. In fact, I want to be a part of that so much I am willing to change and give more of myself to make it happen.”

Operating with discipline must be a core element of that vision. The vision must be authored and articulated in a manner that makes it obvious that without OD, the vision cannot be realized. OD for its own sake is not very compelling––certainly not compelling enough to inspire a universal willingness to do everything the right way or to even agree on what the right way looks like in the first place.

OD must exist in service of a grand vision and a meaningful mission to which people are passionately dedicated. The U.S. military, often cited as the OD standard, would not achieve the level of OD it does were it not for soldiers and officers seeing OD as essential to carrying out their missions.

Crafting a compelling vision and translating that vision into meaningful missions are faculties that leaders must possess if they are to have any chance at creating genuine OD.

Enroll, don’t sell.

Even a leader who has a compelling vision and mission must be able to articulate them in ways that motivate her people to consider them. Leaders, you must facilitate conversations and events that allow your people to explore what you’ve laid out and choose whether or not to commit to making it reality.

The best leaders do not sell or convince people to follow them or commit to their vision. True commitment involves exercising one’s freewill and making an uninhibited choice. If an individual cannot say no to the leader’s invitation, then he doesn’t really have a choice––and a real commitment can’t occur.

Leaders, the ability to tap into your people’s will to do everything the right way is at the heart of OD, but few of you have mastered this skill. It’s not found in any corporate leadership training, and people capable of modeling the skill are few and far between. Ultimately, tapping in to your people’s longing to do right is tied to your ability to enroll others in your vision––another rare skill that’s difficult to perfect but absolutely necessary if you hope to generate the necessary collective will for authentic OD to exist.

Use your best tool––your leadership.

If you want to lead OD, you must acquire the realization that you are your best tool for creating it. Too many leaders view OD as a process or program. OD is actually a direct reflection of a leader’s ability to inspire and enroll her people. Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of shifting the burden of leading OD over to a program and its facilitators. You will lose all power and influence you have as a leader, effectively putting your best tool on the shelf.

Clarify the “right way.”

Once you as the leader have generated the commitment and will necessary for OD to occur the next step is to clarify exactly what is meant by the “right way.” If your people are to do everything the right way, they need to know what that looks like. You have to make it easy for people to put their commitment into action––otherwise, their willingness is worthless. Making sure everyone understands what the “right way” looks like is the first step toward  making OD easy.

Ask yourself specific questions about specific situations. A few examples to get you started:

  • What does OD look like in the morning operations meeting?
  • What does it look like during a job briefing and debriefing, when intervening to halt a wrong decision or at-risk behavior, or when performing high-hazard tasks?
  • What does it look like when managers make decisions?
  • What does it look like in a technical or safety meeting?

Without clear answers to these and other questions, OD is nothing but a slogan that goes on posters and PowerPoint slides.

For genuine OD to occur, every critical task and behavior in the organization must be objectively defined. There must be a clear, pragmatic description of what everything that needs to be done right looks like when done right.

The development of these definitions, instructions, procedures, and checklists must be facilitated by people who know how to write and assemble them in ways that are easy to find and use. Too often, leaders underestimate the knowledge and skill required to complete this task and mistakenly assign it to some poor engineer who has no clue how to do this type of work. For most organizations, this step requires retaining external expertise and consultation.

If OD is doing everything right, then developing these objective descriptions is the first place to start.

Next week, we’ll delve into the ways you should empower your people to take ownership of OD, as well as the flexibility you’ll need to build into your system. Let’s go All-In.