You had consultants come into your plant to do an assessment. The consultants found a number of gaps between current performance and best practices. They provided a detailed report with prioritized recommendations and a solid business case.
You provided the report to the plant manager, scheduled a meeting, and discussed the merits of going forward. Six months have passed and no decision has been made to go forward. Meanwhile several other projects were initiated. Why did this project not get the green light?
In my 36 years of working in and around large, often bureaucratic organizations, there are some obvious answers, and some that take a bit more contemplation.
Competing priorities require senior decision-makers to make choices based on their judgment. Their judgment includes consideration of risk, which is based on the scale of the initiative, the benefits if successful, and the probability of being successful. Small projects, small risk. Big projects, big risk. Relationships play a substantial role as well; having a history of success and being someone who is easy to work with helps.
The answer that requires more thought is how much latitude decision-makers have. How much autonomy the decision-maker has should be defined by the organization’s strategic guidance. If strategic guidance is weak, the decision-maker has more latitude. If strategic guidance is strong, the decision-maker will have less latitude. Strong strategic guidance provides more clarity for goals to be achieved, which constrains the leader’s latitude.
Defining and following strategic guidance for an organization is analogous to defining and following a good maintenance management process for a maintenance shop. Guidance creates the opportunity for order – control and stability. Defining strategic guidance requires understanding the external market environment, forecasting the future desired state, and stating the organization’s mission, vision and values. From strategic guidance, an organization can specify goals.
There are two general categories of goals; we’ll call them organizational performance and organizational mission goals. Organizational performance goals are your day-to-day performance targets. These include achieving or maintaining productivity, quality, unit costs, employee satisfaction, safety, and regulatory compliance at defined levels. Organizational mission goals are the initiatives that will advance performance and capabilities beyond current performance levels. These include renovations, implementation of new systems or processes that drive down costs, increased productivity, and/or expanded product or service offerings. From mission goals the organization can select the most worthwhile initiatives that will meet those goals.
So if your organization has strategic guidance with performance and mission goals and your assessment report provides an implementation plan that’s aligned with mission goals, why has the project languished for six months?
That’s a different problem. Good strategic guidance is necessary, but it's not sufficient. Guidance needs to be consistently executed – that’s a leadership issue.
Culture happens by default and operates as a lagging indicator of leadership actions or inactions. Leaders define the values and norms that they want projected throughout their organization. When senior leaders don’t challenge behaviors that conflict with intended values and norms, then those values and norms are viewed as optional.
Think of a sign that says "Stay off the grass" that is ignored, and never enforced. Soon a path will be worn in the grass. In the same way, when there is no overt challenge to non-aligned behaviors the guidance becomes ineffective – culture by default.
The root cause of culture by default are leaders that don’t allocate time coaching others on the following the strategic direction, modeling proper values and norms as well as challenging those who deviate.
Whether you’re a shop supervisor that wants to start up a vibration analysis program, or a maintenance manager that wants to design and implement a best-practice maintenance management process, the barriers are similar. Without defined strategic guidance, goals, values, and norms you are dependent on a decision-makers wide latitude and judgment. You are fighting the winds and tides. When strong guidance is in place you have "mechanical advantage" to leverage guidance to gain support.
If you’re a senior leader reading this column, decide whether your organization will do better through culture by default, or through guidance and leadership actions that shape the culture and align initiatives with performance and mission goals.
If you're a maintenance manager or shop supervisor, see what strategic direction currently exists. Observe whether senior leaders walk the talk. If they don’t, tactfully challenge them by asking that they support the strategic guidance or that they change the strategic guidance to something they will support.
Go forth and do great things.