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From T.G. Rose to Robert Ludlum: conquering operational myths.

From T.G. Rose to Robert Ludlum: Conquering Operational Myths

Within our work environment, we often find ourselves in a reactive mode and never find, or take, the time to develop and then implement a proactive course of action.

To help ease our personal frustration with this situation, we often repeat and subsequently find reassurance in a number of operational myths. Two of the more common ones are:

Someday we will sit down and plan a course of action for the future.

Our inability to gain control over our organizational activity is inherent with the pace of today's business environment.

We have heard these and many other myths so many times that it is easy to fall into a trap of accepting them as being correct. Is this an appropriate response, or is it a cop-out?

On Tuesday evening, March 15, 1932, British consultant T. G. Rose presented a paper entitled "The Management Audit" to the Institute of Industrial Administration in London. In the later part of his presentation, he said:

"As a general rule the officials of a company have so much routine work to do that they have no time left for the really important duties, and as a result, instead of shaping their policies in a definite direction ascertained by statements of fact, they spend their time in tackling a continual round of troubles and difficulties which have come upon them, very often, just because they are being controlled by, instead of controlling, circumstances."

Were we warned of these two myths 58 years ago? If, so why are these (and perhaps numerous others) still commonly accepted as being appropriate today?

Several ideas come to mind. First, routine activities or fighting fires can be fun. It is a short-term surge of pressure and excitement, which is rewarded by the success or failure of our corrective efforts and actions.

But firefighting tends to create a continual state of operational crisis within the function or organization. Our personnel become adept at reactive management techniques and forget one of their primary responsibilities within the organization - that of smoothing the operations to a steady state and using this base to expand the organization.

Even though it may be fun, it is time-consuming and expensive to fight the same battles on a regular basis. During this process, we may find ourselves solving or developing a different solution for the same problem a number of times. Or, we may have identified a specific solution and are constantly implementing it or modifying it to fit the reoccurring crisis. After a short time, we become good at it, and it becomes easy.

Often these procedures aren't documented, nor do we train someone else how to do them. By ignoring these two issues, we are able to point to something that we have been successful in accomplishing and perhaps rewarded for achieving.

But in reality, what we are doing is solving the puzzle and not the problem.

Another trap into which we may easily fall has recently become known by the popular buzzword of micromanagement. This trap is not new. Basically, it is spending our time and resources on a few specific details of a project, operation, or report and forgetting the whole. Once again, it is easier to concentrate on one (often minor) specific activity and constantly modify or rewrite it.

These activities accomplish several things. First, we are able to give the appearance of contributing something to the project. Second, we look busy. However, these efforts often tend to hinder - or even compromise - the entire project.

The easy part is identifying these traps. The hard part is getting out of them or avoiding them in the first place.

Take a few minutes and list the specific problems which you face or activities which you do during a typical two-week period. If you find that one or more of these activities occurs several times, count each time you address the issue. Estimate the amount of time you spend on each issue and list the people that you discussed the issue with.

One of the keys to this process is to be as specific in identifying and describing these problems or activities as possible. It is also important that you list what you actually do or accomplish, not what you are supposed to do or accomplish.

The next step is to make several revisions of your list. The first is by order of importance. What is the significance or importance of each activity on your list as it relates to either your function, department, or organization? In other words, would the organization still be able to provide a product or service if this activity was not accomplished?

This may be an arbitrary classification, but you must make a decision as to the significance of each activity on your list. The definition of these two terms and the classification of activities will depend upon your organization, its principle lines of business, culture, competition, etc.

A second and third list should be prepared according to the number of times you perform a specific activity or function and the amount of time that you devote to each activity. In some cases this can be accomplished in the same revision, but remember that each element (occurrences and time) are important.

Finally, classify each activity as:

* Your specific responsibility as contained in your position description.

* Specifically assigned or delegated to you by your boss.

* From a previous position or assignment which is informally deferred to you because of your expertise.

* Accepted by you because you enjoy doing it (even though it is not within your formal responsibilities).

* Accepted by you by default, because no one else will do it.

For ease in analysis, try assigning a letter (A through E) or a number (1 through 5) to these categories.

By time you complete your lists, you should have an understanding of what you are doing - or perhaps more important, what you are not doing. As you are specifically accountable for categories A and B, your initial review should start with categories C, D, and E. How much time and effort are you spending in these activities? While they are important, can someone else do them? In fact, should someone else be doing them? Are there instructions in your Policy and Practice Manuals for handling these issues? If so, are they current and being observed? If not, why not?

Or are you one of the problems in this situation? Are you unable to say "no" when someone asks for your help? Can you tell your boss that you can complete that additional special project, but that because of your other work load, you can't do it until later? Can you resist the challenge of solving a problem, even if it isn't yours?

The first time I participated in this exercise, I was dismayed at the amount of time I was spending on the last three classifications. My initial reaction was that I could gain a lot of control over my activities by reducing my commitments to or by eliminating some or all of the activities in these classifications. But then I realized that while this was part of my problem, it was not the complete issue.

My real problem was in my handling of the issues and activities which I had assigned either an A or B classification. Reviewing these activities, I found that they could be broadly placed into three categories: special projects, firefighting, and routine.

These three were then analyzed by the individual activities within each category. I discovered that I was spending a lot of time working with problems within a specific area. The next step was an analysis of these areas to determine what was or was not occurring that required my regular involvement.

Some of this involvement was my specific responsibility and, for that reason, could not be eliminated or delegated to someone within the department.

But I found that a portion of my efforts were indeed self-defeating, as we were constantly involved in micromanagement. In other words, a problem would arise and instead of taking the time to address the issue, we developed a solution and, in effect, put a Band-Aid on the issue. Later, a similar situation would arise. We then made two errors. First, we assumed the problems were completely identical. Second, instead of evaluating why our original "solution" did not work, and perhaps try it again, we devised another.

While not "fatal" errors, they nevertheless compounded each time we changed the solution without reevaluating the underlying issues. It was only when we realized what was occurring and backed away were we able to resolve the issue. In our efforts to solve a problem, we often were not allowing enough time for our solution to work completely through the process. We were then short-circuiting the entire process by our efforts at micromanagement.

Fortunately for our egos, we learned that we were not the first to make these mistakes and that, indeed, others were still making them. In fact, there is a typed memo on my wall that contains a paragraph from page 288 of Robert Ludlum's best-seller "The Icarus Agenda:"

"But it wasn't until his third meeting that he understood a recurring error in his colleagues' approach to the witnesses from the various intelligence branches. The mistake was that they would look for flaws in the witnesses' strategies for carrying out certain operations when what they should have been questioning were the operations themselves."
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Author:Morris, Richard M., III
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Previous Article:Safety, OSHA, and management's responsibility.
Next Article:Concurrent engineering, global competitiveness, and staying alive: an industrial management roundtable.

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