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Proactive leadership: Crisis-ready organizations need strong foundations

April 19, 2021
Proceduralized operations and a proactive culture can help you navigate and emerge from emergencies.

Prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, businesses and organizations were already challenged with navigating through an increasingly volatile, uncertain, and dynamic risk environment. Although COVID-19 is a unique, pervasive disruption, it is a stark reminder that an unpredictable crisis can be looming in the not-so-distant future.

Yet, even in the absence of crisis, many operations and maintenance organizations struggle to maintain a proactive culture in their day-to-day routines. Organizations that are firefighting on normal days have no remaining leadership and management capacity to deal with crises when they strike. Leading during a crisis involves guiding your team to achieve the best possible outcome during this time of chaos and disruption. A crisis is not the time for passive or reactive leadership or to ponder decisions at a leisurely pace. Leaders must proactively respond and effectively integrate speed into the decision-making process. They must quickly evaluate the facts at hand and then make calculated decisions on the best courses of actions while simultaneously minimizing risks. Organizations that do not have a solid proactive foundation built in the good times are in no position to magically rise to the task during crisis.

Emergency action plans, crisis management, and the like address how to deal with the crisis itself. Yet, successfully dealing with a crisis entails more than crisis management. Organizations must continue the successful conduct of normal operations while maintaining a proactive posture, as well. This is where organizations struggle. In the face of crisis, they relapse to a reactive culture of firefighting rather than returning to a proactive approach. Although some reactive leadership is occasionally required during extreme uncertainty, the spiral into an increasingly reactive culture can cripple both crisis response and successful return to normal operations. Senior leadership must make every effort not only to minimize the disorientation or reactionary responses of their personnel, but to also redirect everyone’s efforts in a more clearly defined, proactive approach.

The foundation of a proactive culture must be built well before crisis strikes. This includes well-implemented standard operating procedures, a strong culture of proactive leadership in the front-line supervisors, and the cultivation of collaborative problem-solving. If these elements are not firmly in place when crisis strikes, your organization will be fighting an uphill battle to stay out of the reactive spiral.

Standard operating procedure foundation

Organizations cannot be proactive if their operations are a constant improvisation. Without a specific, standardized way of identifying, planning, scheduling, and executing work, every employee, supervisor, group, and area is reacting to circumstances and making up the rules as they go. Think of the contrast between a backyard pickup game and a professional sport. Pros have detailed standards and processes. Note that I did not say rigid: pro teams have the basics extremely standardized so that they have the capacity to adapt quickly to challenges and opportunities.

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are the documented step-by-step instructions and processes that detail routine and complex work-related tasks and operations. They ensure processes, products, and services are repetitively executed by all personnel in a consistent and predictable manner across the entire organization, which will minimize errors and assure quality output with efficiency and uniformity.

A critical, but often overlooked objective of SOPs is to capture employees’ years of corporate knowledge of “the way we do things around here.” Too often, this information is not documented and only exists in the minds of certain individuals or teams of individuals. Competitive organizations recognize they must continuously take proactive measures to capture this vast “treasure chest” of collective knowledge, convey and transfer this knowledge into specific SOPs, and make this valuable knowledge accessible to all personnel across the entire organization. This effort can be even more critical to success in times of crisis, however. In a crisis, the “one person who knows how to do that” may not be available. In the case of COVID, the expert may be off-site due to social distancing or even unavailable due to quarantine or illness. If critical procedural knowledge is captured in SOPs, it enables routine operations to continue in the face of crisis.

Furthermore, SOPs create welcome predictability and continued performance in the face of broader uncertainty and challenges. Clear and concise SOPs help an organization communicate effectively, respond quickly to emergency or disruptive situations, and keep their employees and the community safe.

Without SOPs, an organization is like a ship without a rudder, going around in circles without any clear direction. Effective SOPs are critical reference guides and allow employees to work independently without excessive reliance on supervisors. This enables supervisors to be forward-looking and to prepare for the next challenge or the next opportunity.

Front-line supervisor core

Front-line supervisors (FLSs) are indispensable to any organization. Too often, this is because the operation would fall apart without their daily firefighting. FLSs bring much more value, however, when they form the core of a proactive culture. When normal operations are proceduralized and run without constant intervention and firefighting, supervisors have the capacity to keep their eyes on the future, identifying and addressing crises, big and small.

This is not to say that FLSs do not have a key role in keeping daily operations on the rails. Even the best SOPs will not achieve the desired results if the end-users do not consistently adhere to them (and continuously improve them so that they are worth adhering to). An ever-present threat to SOPs is procedural drift: the slow and steady uncoupling of actual practice from written procedures. Since this phenomenon tends to be a slow, incremental departure from the intended norms, it can often go unnoticed by leadership for extended periods of time with no apparent impact on the desired result until it is too late. This normalization of deviance from procedures can and has resulted in dire consequences.

The primary role of the FLS is to convey guidance and expectations to their direct reports on the day’s work assignments, provide clarity as questions arise, and then let their direct reports perform their assigned tasks. FLSs must ensure their direct reports are consistently working in accordance not only with SOPs, but also the overall intent of the company’s guidance. During their engagements, the FLS should be on the constant alert for procedural drift, obtain feedback on the effectiveness of the SOPs, and provide coaching as required. Based on this feedback and the need for continuous improvement, SOPs must be regularly and formally reviewed and revised to improve clarity and usefulness and to accurately reflect current and actual processes. 

Unfortunately, the criticality of FLSs maintaining and sustaining a proactive culture are often overlooked and neglected. Typically, FLSs are predominantly distracted by less effective activities such as administrative tasks and meetings, which prevent them from spending more valuable and proactive time engaging with their direct reports and looking out for challenges and opportunities. If senior leadership burdens FLSs with days full of mandatory meetings and administrative overhead, a proactive culture can slowly and incrementally deteriorate to a reactive culture. When this happens, the organization has lost its capacity to deal with crisis.

Factual data was observed and obtained in this very environment during a client engagement at a major petrochemical facility. Day-in-the-life-of (DILOs) or execution studies were conducted simultaneously with maintenance supervisor studies. Initially, there was absolutely no proactive supervision observed in the field. As a result, the maintenance technicians time on tools during the analysis was only 23%. Yet, per Doc Palmer, a leading authority on maintenance work management, best practice is 55%. After conducting leadership training and coaching over the course of several months, proactive supervision increased from 0% to 18%, while maintenance technicians’ time on tools simultaneously increased from 23% to 54%, respectively. This illustrates the value of proactive supervision—and the fact that it can be readily improved with the right attention.

Ensuring that FLSs have the time and culture to keep a proactive lookout is the best way to prepare an organization for crisis. Yes, you need emergency action plans, exercises, and the like, but if your FLSs are already reactive on normal days, they will not have the capacity to deal with a crisis until the organization is already overwhelmed.

A collaborative approach to problem-solving

Senior leadership must embrace continuous improvement to refine operations, enhance productivity, and increase customer satisfaction. However, they must be able to consistently uncover and solve their problems in a quick and effective manner. Too often, they either fail to acknowledge when problems exist or are too rigid or inflexible on seeking input from their direct reports on resolving challenges and problems. The best leaders are great coaches and recognize the need to help their direct reports grow and prosper.

One of the most effective mechanisms to help direct reports grow and prosper is by consciously leveraging their untapped potential by engaging them in problem solving as part of their daily work. By failing to take full advantage of their tremendous skills, talent, experience, and passion, problem-solving endeavors can actually fall short and impede progress. As direct reports present problems, senior leadership needs to encourage and listen to their suggested solutions. More importantly, senior leadership needs to support and provide them with the freedom to successfully implement these suggestions. This can help instill a sense of achievement, confidence, and trust in the workforce by helping them realize they can devise feasible solutions to problems with limited supervision.

Front-line employees need to feel empowered to solve problems on a daily basis. By developing a comprehensive problem-solving and implementation strategy, this not only increases the speed and likelihood of resolution, but also allows everyone within the organization to assume successful problem-solving responsibilities. Since they are the ones closest to the processes and services, they may actually be able to create solutions in a faster and more effective manner. This allows senior leadership to focus on larger and more strategically-oriented challenges. In addition, with cross-functional teams, this can help break down any silos that exist within the organizations.

At its core, a crisis is a large and complex problem. However, you cannot simply flip a switch and expect your workforce to quickly adapt and respond to a crisis if they struggle with diagnosing and resolving problems during normal day-to-day operations. Cultivating a competent, self-sufficient workforce with solid problem-solving skills is one of the most effective and proactive measures to ensure the organization maintains operational resilience during a crisis.

Take control of the helm

Senior leadership must take control of the helm, maintain situational awareness, and successfully navigate the organization not only when the seas are calm, but also through the storms. A proactive, engaged, and collaborative problem-solving organizational culture is the best foundation any organization can have to weather crisis. Senior leadership should support the workforce in their efforts to maintain proactive responses and reinforce the need for a proactive culture. Although the operating environment may appear different or may be characterized by uncertainty during a crisis, everyone must recognize this is not the time to abandon established fundamentals and spiral out of control.

Senior leadership must not only acknowledge the crisis, but also rapidly adapt, mount, and communicate a controlled and proactive response with the best information available at that time to set clear priorities across the organization. The front-line workers must execute their daily activities in accordance with SOPs to produce quality products and services. FLSs must proactively engage with their direct reports at set intervals throughout the day to ensure a safe and efficient working environment. The entire workforce must collaborate together to identify and resolve problems and engender stability. By sustaining a proactive, engaged, and collaborative problem-solving organizational culture, the entire organization can work together to confront, thrive, and emerge successfully from a crisis.

About the Author: Mark C. Munion

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