Last week, we defined operational discipline (OD) and began a deep dive into how to make it work in every organization. A seven-word synopsis: it all starts with you, the leader. This week, we’re exploring how to best pull your people into the OD creation and implementation process, which is the only way to ensure its success.
Follow these guidelines to create OD that is healthy and effective:
Let your people do the heavy lifting.
Last week, I said that in order for OD to be effective, you must define the “right way” of doing things in clearly. After you define the “right way,” everyone has to agree with the definition––otherwise, what’s the point? For OD to exist, you––the leader––must invest the time necessary for your people to examine the definitions and instructions, have a chance to give input, ask clarifying questions, and ultimately, agree to them. A best practice is to ask the people expected to do it the right way to develop the definitions of what that looks like, which will generate agreement with and ownership of the definitions.
Bring your people together.
Agreement is a social action, so it’s reached most effectively in a group setting where everyone meets to hash out the final definitions and agree that they are “our right way.” This often requires multiple sessions and can involve days or even weeks to accomplish.
Sadly, many leaders are unwilling to invest the time and effort reaching complete agreement requires. Instead, they assume their people will do everything the right way because “it’s their job.” That’s just wrong. Decades of observation have taught me that people will do what they think will make their supervisor happy and ensure they fit in with coworkers––even if it’s contrary to the way it’s supposed to be done. When people go through a process within which they see supervisors and peers agreeing on the right way, they are likely see doing things the right way as an easy way to please their boss and jell with teammates.
Hold your people accountable––with reinforcement and consequences.
Accountability is not accepting credit for what goes right or blame for what goes wrong. Accountability is a process that involves four steps: 1) forming clear expectations; 2) reaching agreement; 3) verifying results; and 4) delivering consequences. We’ve covered steps 1 and 2 already. Steps 3 and 4 trip up many managers and supervisors, but don’t ignore them because they’re challenging. OD can’t happen without them.
If people do their job the way everyone has agreed it should be done, but nobody notices or acknowledges their work, they’re less likely to stay the course. A consequence can be encouragement, gratitude––simple acknowledgment. Think of all the other pressures, social and personal, that try to pull people from the right way. If you are not countering those forces with efforts that deepen the connection your people have to the right way you’ve all decided upon together, they’ll be far more susceptible to drifting away.
Remember: the real right is the way we allow it to be done.
People at every level must fully believe in and model the definitions you’ve created, but it’s most important when it comes to managers, supervisors, and those workers whose peers hold them in especially high esteem. Just one renegade who decides he knows better than what the group has agreed upon can cause big problems.
Despite well-intentioned “stop-work” programs, most people won’t intervene when they see someone deviating from the right way. These days, children and even adults are rarely held accountable for poor choices and performance, and consequently, they have little experience with receiving or delivering constructive consequences. Without extensive training that overcomes these fears and limitations, a few renegades can derail OD altogether.
When deviations from the right way are not noticed and effectively addressed, they gradually become what the military calls “normalized.” In other words, the deviation becomes the right way.
The “normalization of deviations” is another malignancy that progressively destroys OD––but this dysfunction can be stopped before it even starts. Train your people how to successfully initiate and participate in conversations that address straying from the right way. Normalize intervention by making time to practice the best way to go about it. Praise those who stick their necks out there for the right way.
An important note: as with all critical activities, everyone must understand and agree upon what an intervention looks like when it is done right. Simply preaching, “You see it, you own it,” or telling everyone that they have a responsibility and the authority to stop their coworkers is grossly insufficient.
Have a process for exceptions.
We are human beings, not machines, so there will be times when deviating from the right way may be necessary. But here’s the deal: when OD truly exists, these exceptions are exceptionally rare and will therefore attract a lot of attention. One thing everyone should agree upon is what it looks like when an exception is well-managed.
Many companies have what they call a “management of change process” by which they deal with exceptions. It’s my experience that these systems are overused and often abused by folks who want to gain permission to deviate. Without a disciplined exception process and the will to enforce it, production or schedule pressures will trump OD and allow deviations that become normalized.
Here’s what you have to do: exceptions just be reviewed and approved at the most senior levels of your organization. Leaders granting approval must confirm that every reasonable attempt to do it the right way has been attempted before approving an exception. On the rare occasion when an exception is approved, the leader must communicate to everyone exactly why permission to deviate was given and what has been done to assure the exception is never necessary again.
I can’t emphasize this enough: exceptions should be extremely rare. One refinery I coached that had outstanding OD averaged less than one exception a month. When the plant manager first began working on OD, she received several exception requests weekly––virtually all of which she denied, to everyone’s surprise. But by doing so, she sent an unmistakable message to her people that doing it the right way they’d all agreed upon was her expectation, and she forced them to find creative ways of following through.
Leading OD takes great patience. For most organizations, the change to operating with discipline is monumental. Doing it right can take years, and it can only be accomplished by a leader with unbending resolve, along with the extensive training of all personnel in a collection of faculties and skills that are, frankly, uncommon.
Be prepared. People will resist this change and the need for their own development. Those who are best at doing things the old way will do everything they can to keep doing things the old way––who wants to lose the status of being an expert to become a novice? As a leader, you must be patient with them. Give them time to resist, explore, and ultimately choose OD.
Everyone won’t buck up against the change. There will also be a core group of early adopters and champions whom you must nurture and develop into influential and effective OD leaders. Over time, those folks will enroll the skeptics and bring along the resistors.
The best news: if you’re willing to do OD the right way, you’ll have fun and be fulfilled as you lead this crucial change. You will enjoy the rare thrill of watching your people develop into a high-performing team capable of producing performance you never dreamed was possible.
Operational discipline is a must for all teams. Pictured above: Just outside of Khulna, wooden ships and manual labor remain the standard in Bangladesh. Photo by joiseyshowaa, used with permission via CC.
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