Resilience Engineering #22: Organizational Failure – Ping for Failure

by Gary Monti on November 17, 2011

Hunting submarines is similar to hunting situations likely to fail. In this second blog on organizational fatigue let’s do a deep dive and see what we can find.

There is an irony in that while the submarines are lurking below the surface the organizational factors increasing the probability of failure are right in front of the team. There are several reasons for this, which we will get to in a later blog. For now let’s stay with defining a system that searches for potential failures.

The first question that comes to mind is, “What do we look for?” Elizabeth Lay provides a good list in “Practices for Noticing and Dealing with the Critical. A Case Study from Maintenance of Power Plants.”

 “Error-likely” Climates

Lay provides 8 behaviors that are good indicators a failure is on the horizon:

  1. Leaders who use a top-down or intimidating style;
  2. Leaders who are closed off to listening to those close to the work and discouraged questions;
  3. Leaders who are not engaged in the work;
  4. Unclear roles and responsibilities for day-to-day work;
  5. Unhealthy win-lose competition between groups of workers;
  6. Over-involved customer who lacks an understanding of the work;
  7. Leaders unfamiliar with best practices and/or the cultural requirements for getting the job done;
  8. Leaders who don’t ask for help.

There is something familiar about this. Remember from the previous blog the child making a mess in the department store? What is the first question that comes to mind? “Where are the parents?”

From my work in change management one thing that stands out in this list is the absence of technical excellence. Does this mean we can just march in without technical know-how and still get things done? No. Quite the contrary. We do need technical excellent but it is only a starting point. We need a resilient organization. So how do we know resilience is missing?

Going back to the submarines, the above list is about what is invisible. The invisible component is the human factor – that “soft” stuff. It is about hubris, a subject covered in a previous blog.

Hubris is a big part of what keeps me in business. It shows up as intellectual prowess and the belief that he who knows the most will provide the best product. Frankly, that is just the starting point and provides only half the solution.

Complex projects require a communication network that runs in two directions. The one we are most familiar with is top-down. This sets the stage for contracts, statements of work, etc., and gives the team a sense of direction. This rarely is perfect and complete, which gets to the second direction – bottom-up. In complex projects this is known as emergence. The project actually evolves (which can create real problems in a fixed-fee situation – but that’s another blog) and requires good information from team members closest to the project climate and work at hand.

In order to avoid organizational fatigue a back-and-forth between senior managers, the customer, and team players is needed. In a way, we become our brother’s keeper not so much in terms of taking on his responsibilities but in terms of being sensitive to the ripple effects of what we are doing as well as what is going on in the environment.

Pinging the organization for the 8 behaviors mentioned and taking corrective action will go a long way towards helping steer resources and expectations in the right direction.

In the next blog we’ll continue our journey into the causes and ways to avoid organizational fatigue.

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