Friday, April 03, 2020

Sharing Learning Across the Organization: The Power of Near-Misses

Source: Moody Air Force Base
I'm working on a new case study about the Boeing 737 MAX crisis right now, and I've come across a very interesting incident that arose before the first crash.  I think there is a key lesson from that incident that applies to all organizations as we cope with the COVID-19 crisis today.  

On the day before the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia, pilots flying the same plane nearly experienced tragedy.   Fortunately, a third pilot happened to be in the cockpit that day.   He observed the captain and co-pilot struggling to understand and react to the fact that the stall-prevention system was pushing the nose of the plane down repeatedly.   Finally, the observer recognized what was happening and identified how to rectify the situation.  He intervened and saved the day.  Unfortunately, the lessons from this "near-miss" never flowed to other crews at Lion Air.   On the very next day, flying the very same plane, tragedy ensued.   Pilots experienced a mis-fire of the stall-prevention system, brought on by a faulty sensor reading.  They did not know how to address the sitaution, and the plane crashed into the sea, killing everyone on board.

What's the lesson for us today?   We have to make sure that teams are reflecting on what they have learned, particularly after failures, and sharing their lessons learned with others throughout the organization.   Of course, failures often get a lot of attention, and people do hear about what went wrong and what the lessons learned are from those situations.  However, people often do not hear about the near-misses, yet they are some of the most valuable learning opportunities.   Near-misses are those situations when a failure almost occurred, but thankfully, someone intervened to take action, avoiding a major negative consequence.   

Why don't we hear about the near-misses?   Often, people's natural reaction is to simply say, "Phew! Thank goodness!"   Then they don't share the news of the situation with others.  In part, they do it to avoid scutiny or perhaps the assignment of blame.  Sometimes, they simply don't think about how the lessons from that incident can be helpful to others in the organization. 

Years ago, Amy Edmondson, Anita Tucker and I wrote a case study about Children's Hospital and Clinics in Minneapolis/St. Paul.   They wanted to surface near-misses, rather than sweep them under the rug, so as to learn from them and avoid future medical accidents.  Someone there came up with the brilliant idea to rename the near-misses!   They started calling them "Good Catches."   Clinicians were asked to record these "good catches" in logs, and then a team studied the lessons from those situations.  The term "good catch" emphasized the heroic action to intervene and avoid tragedy, rather than focusing on the bad things that happened leading up to the problem.   I since have encountered another organization, in a manufacturing environment, that actually borrowed the phrase "good catch" and actually created an award for plant employees who initiated a "good catch."  As a result, they learned about many more near-misses than ever before, studied them closely, and over time, they reduced quality defects in the factory considerably!  

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Coping with Quarantine: Learning from the Polar Explorers

Daniella McCahey, a history lecturer at the University of Idaho, has written an inspiring column for Fast Company this week.   She takes a look back at the Antarctic explorers of the early 1900s and examines how they coped with months of isolation, darkness, and surviving in close quarters with fellow adventurers.   She argues that seven things helped the explorers cope effectively, and that we can use some of these same strategies today during the COVID-19 crisis. 

1. Music: McCahey quotes Apsley Cherry-Garrarde, an English explorer and member of Robert Falcon Scott's expedition of 1910: “It is necessary to be cut off from civilization … to realize fully the power music has to recall the past…to soothe the present and give hope for the future."

2.  Books:  She reminds us that, when Shackleton's ship sank, he made sure to grab his favorite Rudyard Kipling poem.  Grab that book you have been meaning to read.  Dive into a subject you would love to learn more about, or expand your understanding into a related domain.   Reading widely can help spur creativity and innovation, as we sometimes find ideas in adjacent fields that are applicable to our own.   Read a few fun books too... a mystery that captures the imagination or keeps you in suspense.
3.  Diary Writing:  Taking the time to record key events and reflect upon them can have value.  It also helps people release a bit of their stress.  

4.  Expedition Newspapers:  Some explorers also chose a different form of writing.  Not only did they record personal diaries, but they also produced newspapers for the expedition as a whole.  These basic newspapers included poetry, humor, games, and puzzles. 

5. Games: She quotesCarsten Borchgrevink, leader of the Southern Cross Expedition: “The sameness of those cold, dark nights attacks the minds of men like a sneaking evil spirit. We found that … playing chess and cards were very valuable pastimes.”   I can attest to the value of playing games.   My family and I have been enjoying many game nights amidst the crisis.  As the kids grew older, we played board games much less often.   Now we are revisiting our game night tradition, and we have enjoyed the break from our remote work.  

6.  Food:  Here's one that I can relate to very much.   She says that the meals quickly became monotonous.  Out of boredom and at times necessity, the explorers experimented with new foods and recipes.  I've found myself doing the same thing.  I've always enjoyed cooking, but often don't have the time. Now, I'm usig my time at home to try new recipes, and the practice has not only lifted my spirits but made the entire family happy.  (well most of the time... there have been a few misfires!) 

7.  Alcohol:  I don't think that I need to say much about this one.  We all agree it has a role to play!  Of course, some research does suggest that drinking wine can enhance your creativity! 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Doing the Right Thing: Kent Taylor at Texas Roadhouse

This morning, I read some terrific news about a leader doing the right thing for his organization amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Kent Taylor is co-founder and CEO of Texas Roadhouse, the popular steakhouse restaurant chain. According to this article by Leo Shvedsky, Taylor has chosen to give up his 2020 salary and bonus.   He's giving the money to his employees who are hurting financially due to the crisis.  He's also made an additional $5 million donation to help his people.   Here's the excerpt:

Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor announced on Thursday that he is forgoing the rest of his 2020 salary and bonus and instead directing the funds toward paying his employees during the coronavirus outbreak. The remaining salary and bonus both amount to $525,000 each for a total of $1,050,000.  "Kent Taylor has always said that Texas Roadhouse is a People-company that just happens to serve great steaks. His donation of his salary and bonus to help employees is the embodiment of that saying," a Texas Roadhouse spokesperson told The Hill. "We are blessed to have his leadership."  The spokesperson also told The Hill that Taylor has already donated $5 million of his personal funds to Andy's Outreach, a non-profit run by Texas Roadhouse to help employees in times of need.

Paul Levy, former CEO of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, argues that all leaders should be taking these types of actions. In a blog post for Harvard Business Review, Levy, Atta Tarki, and Jeff Weiss write:

"If you are doing cut backs to save job losses, you must lead by example and do cut backs that impacts your own day-to-day as well. If you don’t, there is a danger that your staff will feel like saps, doing sacrifices while the C-suite continues unaffected. Get a commitment for a pay cut from your senior leaders. As CEO, you should take the largest salary cut yourself."

Friday, March 27, 2020

Small Wins: More Important Than Ever

In the 1980s, the great social psychologist Karl Weick wrote a paper about the importance of small wins. Weick argued that some problems can be cognitively and emotionally overwhelming. In these cases, people may find it very difficult to make progress toward addressing the issue and achieving their goals. Weick advocated breaking down large, complex problems and goals into smaller, intermediate objectives. Pursuing a small wins strategy could then help people achieve their goals, but lowering stress, creating a powerful sense of accomplishment, and motivating people to continue working on a tough project. Here's an excerpt from that paper:

A small win is a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results.

The idea of small wins seems more important than ever right now, amidst the COVID-19 crisis.  It's easy to feel overwhelmed at times.  Thinking in terms of concrete small wins may help us work toward longer term, stretch goals as well as to tackle very challenging projects.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Why Companies May Benefit from More Transparency about Product Drawbacks

Source: Pixabay
Most companies, quite expectedly, focus intensely on the positive attributes of their products and services when communicating with customers.   They market all the benefits, and typically, they minimize any discussion of the limitations or drawbacks of the product. After all, who would want to shine a spotlight on negative attributes of your products? 

Well, Harvard Business School scholars Ryan Buell and MoonSoo Choi decided to challene the conventional wisdom.  They sought to examine whether a bit more honesty and transparency might actually be beneficial for companies.  Buell and MoonSoo Choi published their findings in a paper titled, "Improving Customer Compatibilitywith Operational Transparency."   

The scholars worked with Commonwealth Bank, a large Australian financial services company, to conduct a randomized field experiment.  On the bank's website, potential new customers received one of two offers: one highlighted the best attributes of the company's credit card, while the other also mentioned key drawbacks that firms often tend to place in the fine print only.   In short, the company made explicit some of the key tradeoffs inherent in the company's strategy and product offering.   In other words, you get these wonderful features, but here's what we don't offer, or what we don't provide at the same level of service.   Think about Southwest Airlines... we offer you on-time flights, low fares, friendly service, and no baggage fees, BUT we don't assign seats, have no first class and no meals, and won't transfer your bags to other airlines.  The company makes the trade-offs quite clear to consumers.  

The scholars tracked customer behavior at Commonwealth Bank for the next year.  What did the researchers find?   HBS Working Knowledge summarized the key results:

"The researchers found that people who opened an account after learning about a card’s downsides spent 10 percent more each month than customers who heard only the benefits. Their nine-month cancellation rate was also 21 percent less, and they were 11 percent less likely to make late payments on a month-to-month basis... Although the team didn’t probe why customers spent more, they suspect that providing more information helped people choose products that were more compatible with their financial needs, creating a better customer experience."

Now, clearly, companies need to be careful with this added level of transparency.  They can't just dump a bunch of negative information on customers and hope to succeed.  However, they can think about how providing more transparency may help them gain consumers' trust and help customers self-select in a way that creates a more enduring and better fit between company and customer.  

Monday, March 23, 2020

Now is the Time: What is Your Organization's Purpose?

Source:  Needpix
Over the past decade, we have seen more organizations come to the conclusion that they must become purpose-driven.  They have come to realize that an authentic higher purpose (that connects to business goals and objectives) can be motivating and inspiring, and it can advance efforts to develop a highly engaged and committed workforce.  I would argue that now is the time for organizations to think deeply about purpose, specifically as it relates to the current COVID-19 crisis.  What is your organization's role in helping our society cope with this crisis?   How can your firm help our society preserve and improve public health, promote economic recovery and protect jobs, insure that global supply chains remain functioning effectively, etc.?   Even if you already have a clearly articulated purpose, now may be the time to adjust that purpose to suit the specific situation in which we find ourselves.  Or perhaps more appropriately, to communicate how your purpose connects to and can contribute to addressing the crisis in which we find ourselves.  

If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend an article from Harvard Business Review titled, "Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization" by Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor, published two years ago.  They remind us that we have to take great care not to simply resort to cliches and platitudes.  We have to engage with our employees to discover that authentic higher purpose, and to get their buy-in as we align the organization with that new sense of mission.  Here's an excerpt:

At a global oil company, we once met with members of a task force asked by the CEO to work on defining the organization’s purpose. They handed us a document representing months of work; it articulated a purpose, a mission, and a set of values. We told them it had no power—their analysis and debate had produced only platitudes.

The members of the task force had used only their heads to invent a higher purpose intended to capture employees’ hearts. But you do not invent a higher purpose; it already exists. You can discover it through empathy—by feeling and understanding the deepest common needs of your workforce. That involves asking provocative questions, listening, and reflecting.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Don't Overestimate Your Multi-tasking Capabilities

Source: Pixabay
Given the COVID-19 situation, many of us find ourselves juggling a variety of unexpected tasks and obligations.   For many parents, working from home has become the norm.  In addition, parents have been asked to home school their children in conjunction with various online learning being faciliated by their children's teachers.  In our home, my spouse and I are both teaching online.  My oldest daughter is home from college taking classes online, and my other two children are engaging in online learning at the high school and middle school level.  The house is busy, and the schedule is complex.   

The natural tendency in these cases is to find ourselves multi-tasking often.  However, we have to be careful about overestimating our multi-tasking capabilities.  Research clearly shows that human beings struggle with trying to work on multiple streams of work simultaneously, yet we are overconfident in our abilities to juggle in this fashion.  Here's an excerpt from an article Kendra Cherry on the topic:

Take a moment and think about all of the things you are doing right now. Obviously, you are reading this article, but chances are good that you are also doing several things at once. Perhaps you're also listening to music, texting a friend, checking your email in another browser tab, or playing a computer game.

If you are doing several different things at once, then you may be what researchers refer to as a "heavy multitasker." And you probably think that you are fairly good at this balancing act. According to a number of different studies, however, you are probably not as effective at multitasking as you think you are.

In the past, many people believed that multitasking was a good way to increase productivity. After all, if you're working on several different tasks at once, you're bound to accomplish more, right?

Recent research, however, has demonstrated that that switching from one task to the next takes a serious toll on productivity. Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Also, doing so many different things at once can actually impair cognitive ability.

Ok, so how do we handle the current dynamic situation given these research findings?  Building a schedule is a start, as is dedicating particular spaces as quiet areas where people cannot enter and interrupt others.   Building in breaks is essential, so that you can step away and clear your head.   Research shows that "unfocusing" in this way can stimulate creativity and enhance productivity.   For us, we've started a family workout challenge.   That has been a nice diversion, and it addresses the issue of breaks and unfocus time.   Next, you need to find some time to step away from being connected so that you can get some of your work done without interruption by email, text, and the like.   Be sure to let others know when you are going to be focused on a task and not able to respond to messages.  Finally, you have to spend some time each day prioritizing tasks, so that you are focusing your efforts on the most essential duties.   Getting three things done very well is always better than doing a mediocre job at ten things.