The ED as a social construction, and some personal notes

I’m interested in sense-making and cross-silo collaboration in complex environments. Despite these topics simmering inside of me for about a decade, it took time to articulate these interests into a short coherent sentence. The seeds were planted in 2006, whilst working on an oil platform as a medic, and it kept growing as I continued reading, experiencing and learning e.g. doing an MBA and a BTech Management. Eventually, it culminated into one study a PhD allowing me the opportunity to explore sense-making and operational decision-making in Emergency Centres (EC) as complex environments.

I chose a few public hospital ECs, all situated in Cape Town. The study was divided into two main parts, first a description of the ECs detailing and comparing policy, procedure and daily happenings.  After that, I explored how people make sense of their complex environment e.g. how and when they share of information, level of collaboration, trust, communication and beliefs regarding other disciplines and management.

The social constructionist stance

The research was approached from a social constructionist view; I argued that the EC staff create their own reality and that knowledge is generated and shared via social processes. Thus, social relationships shape how the team or workgroup experience their situation/reality. Management literature describes social networks to be a key determinant of resilience. In turn, resilience is a vital characteristic of high-reliability organisations (HROs).

Linking stories and culture

People interact by swapping stories and sharing their account of events.  Some of these accounts are repeated and in time it is accepted as truth, demonstrating how things happen ‘here’. In a way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – because people are more likely to see what they are scanning for whilst disregarding some other aspects in the environment. Newcomers are rapidly introduced into how things are done and what to notice and what not i.e. the culture of the workgroup. The culture is reinforced via daily rituals, communication, and anecdotes.

The underlying beliefs (and culture) determine vital interactions e.g. level of engagement, the ‘allowed’ social networks, level of transparency, trust and sharing between peers, other disciplines and those holding positional power (management).

For example, if the prevailing story is that management is ‘out to get people’ or that management cannot be trusted – the operational staff will protect themselves by withholding information and will not report minor mishaps, errors or events. For as long as the prevailing story sticks no progress will be made to introduce a safety culture, create transparency in relationships, etc. The grapevine and informal networks in the workplace are the gatekeepers of the culture.  And as mentioned earlier, these social relationships directly impact on the resilience and reliable functioning of the EC. Studies show that people are more likely to accept organisational stories by face value, favouring plausibility over accuracy.

As Nietzsche wrote:

Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.

The organisation is socially constructed

The EC is a social construction that is dynamically and collectively shaped by all working in the EC. Those holding positional or personal power have louder voices and are more influential than those with less voice. Those holding personal power may yield their influence to block change e.g. improvement projects that are driven from the top-down or hindering cross-silo communication.

Why it matters

Essentially sense-making is about how abnormality or fluctuation is noticed, whether this information is shared, and what happens next – the subsequent decisions and actions. Gaining insight into how sense-making occurs in the EC provides crucial knowledge about the more obscure factors that determine operational efficiency. It also provides information regarding team dynamics, communication methods, and cross-silo collaboration.

Exposing deeply held assumptions

Tapping into the underlying assumptions that inform sense-making is not straightforward; assumptions are accepted as regularly reinforced truths, and the dynamics are not obvious, not even to insiders.  These deep beliefs are a constraint to sense-making in the EC.  When it acts as an enabling constraint it ensures collective sense-making, effective decision-making, reliable operations, and social cohesion.  Alternatively, when deep beliefs act as limiting constraint, it results in failed collective sense-making, poor decision-making, operational failure, and strong silo mentalities.

Exploring sense-making

To recap: the people in the workplace hold deeply ingrained assumptions, that they are mostly unaware of.  These assumptions directly impact the level of collaboration, situation awareness and their ability to respond to variation in their environment.

So, how do we expose these assumptions? By exploiting the organisational stories told.

Language and stories are essential tools that shape how people understand the world (or workplace). The understanding created is reshared by sharing stories and knowledge, and by using specific words and phrases the storyteller can emphasize certain facts whilst ignoring others.

For part two of my research, we captured the stories that the people in the EC tell about their daily experience, hearing all voices equally. This was done by using the SenseMaker® tool – proprietary to Cognitive Edge to capture the stories.

Capturing stories

Using SenseMaker®, after telling us a story, the participants answered a series of questions based on the theoretical basis from the fields of collective and organisational sense-making, especially those that explored catastrophe, crises, ambiguity and time-critical decision-making.

This allowed for a comprehensive data set via a novel way of combining stories (qualitative data) with self-analysis (quantitative data). The data was then visually displayed allowing easy visualisation of patterns or clusters of responses.

What I liked most about using SenseMaker® is the self-analysis – participants provided information regarding the meaning of their story, distancing the researcher from the initial analysis.

Utilising the stories to effect change

Roughly, the stories can be divided into two extremes: those stories that promote sense-making and collaboration and those that don’t.  By shaping the daily stories in the direction of those that promote sense-making, the underlying beliefs and assumptions can shift, creating a new reality or situation. In time this may lead to a different experience of the workplace, (hopefully) improving relationships, decision-making, and cross-silo collaboration. This can be continuously tracked by using SenseMaker® as a monitoring and evaluation tool.

Personal impact

I plan on journeying more into sense-making, narrative methods, and complexity. I have a special interest in the gaps and overlaps between disciplines and cross-silo work as I deem it the space presenting the greatest potential to disproportionately improve systems and processes. By impacting the level of social cohesion between disciplines, the ability to continue functioning despite major flux or challenge is immediately improved, leading to resilience.

I intend on discussing my PhD learnings and its applications to the health industry, yet the unintended personal consequence is that I realise that I cannot limit myself to working only within Emergency Care or even healthcare. It’s time to spread my wings a bit wider, and in future blogs, the focus will shift a more towards complexity, culture, team, collective sense-making, communication, and management.

I’m in the process of revamping my blog site to be more aligned with these topics, and I hope that you (the reader) will continue supporting the new angle.  I thought it apt to end with the words of Winston Churchill. Even though WW2 only ended in three years later, the battle of Alamein in 1942 marked the turning point in the war and it was after this battle that Churchill spoke these wise words.

Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

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The garbage people: unintended consequences of change

With a capacity for 20 000 people, the cave church of St. Simon are said to be the largest Christian church in the Middle East.  The church’s limestone walls have breath-taking carvings.  Getting there requires travelling through a section of Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser neighborhood known as the garbage city. This is breath-taking in a completely different way…

Your senses alert you that this is the garbage city, the putrid smell is intense and there is garbage everywhere.  Garbage fills the narrow streets, the balconies, kids play in it and the shops are hidden between garbage. Garbage city is home to the Zabaleen (garbage people).  The Zabaleen travels from house-to-house in Cairo, collecting household waste and transporting the collected waste back to the garbage city. Each family specialize in a type of garbage that they sort, recycle and sell.

Until 2003 the Zabaleen collected garbage at almost no cost to the government and residents of Cairo.  Their main income came from recycling the garbage.  It’s estimated that in 2003 the Zabaleen recycled 80% of the garbage collected.  This was described as one of the most efficient recycling systems globally and it has earned the Zabaleen international acknowledgement.

 

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View from the car window

 

The Zabaleen are Christians in a Muslim majority country.  In the recycling business this provides them with a competitive advantage: the ability to keep pigs.  The Muslim’s religion does not permit living close to or keeping pigs. Most of the waste collected is food waste; the Zabaleen recycles this by feeding it to their pigs to fattening them up.  Once fat, the pigs are sold, providing further income.

The improvement: fake green grass on the other side of the fence

In 2003, the Mubarak government decided to ‘modernize’ the garbage collection system of Cairo by adopting the systems used in Europe.

Unintended consequences of the change

  • Adverse impact on the socio-economic stability of the Zabaleen
  • The modern mechanism of compressing garbage complicated recycling and the level of recycling dropped
  • Cairo’s streets were too narrow for the mechanized equipment, uncollected garbage was dumped by the residents
  • The new collection system introduced higher fees resulting in further illegal dumping, burning of waste and increased pollution

To compare: in 1997 the Zabaleen collected 3000- 4000 tons of garbage per day at almost no cost to the government; they recycled about 80% of the waste collected.  In 2004 the government was paying ten times more to have only 60% of the garbage collected and 20% of the collected garbage was recycled.

 

Then in 2009, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of some 300 000 pigs as precautionary measure to prevent swine flu (H1N1). This effectively destroyed another vital aspect of the Zabaleen’s recycling methods.  The WHO called the killing ‘scientifically unjustified’. The government’s actions against the Zabaleen was almost certainly politically motivated and grounded in religious tensions.

Moral of the story

There is a tendency to view another country, organization or functional work unit’s methods as superior.  It is problematic when these methods are adopted without considering feasibility, cultural differences and why the current system operates the way it does. There is always a reason for the faults in the current system, a few examples would include hierarchies, history or power struggles.

 

cow-jumping-over-the-fence

The grass is not always greener on the other side….

 

Even in healthcare, when low-middle income countries (LMIC) undertake to improve their healthcare systems, they often model their interventions after high income countries (HIC).  However, HIC have the enabling infrastructure to support advanced health systems. In LMIC’s with poor roads, it would be more sustainable to invest in bicycle ambulances than to establish ambulance services.  Rather than develop university curriculums, train community first responders in the rural areas.  Instead of creating an urban center of excellence, provide electricity and running tap water in all the small rural clinics.

To the Egyptians, investing in the Zabaleen’s existing informal system would’ve probably been more beneficial, cost effective and sustainable.  By disregarding the functioning informal system, the policy makers destroyed a functioning system and adopted a system not suitable for their setting.  This resulted in failure so devastating that it’s even been cited as a reason for the 2011 uprising.

There are a few lessons that we can take from this:

  • Don’t discard local ownership
  • Thoroughly observe and analyze the current situation prior to suggesting change
  • The above implies spending time to explore the current situation
  • The first consideration should always be to augment the local/informal system or to formalize the informal system
  • If the solution is adopted, make it context specific, in other words innovate on what worked somewhere else
  • When formal systems are developed it should be done considering the integration of formal and informal systems from the beginning

Disregarding the above will result in change programs that are not sustainable.  Not integrating formal and informal systems result in parallel systems where the systems compete to the detriment of both.

Conclusion

A year after implementing the ‘modern’ system the Egyptian policy makers had to acknowledge failure. A decade later they are taking steps to integrate the Zabaleen into the formal system.  They are also investing in the Zabaleen that now have uniforms and vehicles.

In short, don’t solve problems that don’t require solving, observe, investigate and find the real and right problems.  Solutions should be feasible, involve the locals and the informal systems and don’t ever blindly adopt, rather innovate and make change context-specific.

To watch a short documentary about the garbage people

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0s7WsoC528

Read more

Wael Salah Fahmi. Keith Sutton.  (2006)  Cairo’s Zabaleen garbage recyclers: multi-nationals take over and state relocation plans.  Habitat International 30 (2006) 809-837

http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/culture/turning-waste-into-wealth-with-cairos-garbage-people-photos_31874

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/mar/27/waste-egypt-refuse-collectors-zabaleen-cairo

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/14892/32/Egypt%E2%80%99s%20garbage%20problem.aspx

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zabbaleen

http://www.samaanchurch.com/en/about_us.php

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/04/090430-egypt-swine-flu-video-ap.html

 

Making sense…learning about sense-making

Remember the movie ‘Back to the future’ where Marty (Michael J. Fox) travels through time, whilst figuring out what is happening and how to influence the future whilst simultaneously dealing with the current situation?

It reminds me of sense-making. Sense-making is about how we give meaning to a situation. Sense-making is based in our decisions and beliefs and it is influenced by aspects such as power relations, hierarchy, autonomy, linguistics, temporalization (focus on now, the past or the future), justification, culture and traditional society, equality, bargaining power, locus of control, openness to change. Sense-making is done individually or collectively in organizations and communities.  Capturing these underlying nuances in our perceptions allows deeper insights into why an organization or community are angry, failing, succeeding, innovating, etc.

Brenda Dervin, Gary Klein, Karl Weick and David Snowden are a few of the contributors to sense-making. They all describe their own theory about sense-making either as individual or collective activity.  Snowden combined several sense-making theories into one tool.  For my studies I am using his tool to capture community perspectives regarding cost as a barrier to access emergency care. 

Today I’m sharing my understanding of Brenda Dervin’s metaphor for sense-making.  Dervin sees sense-making as the individual activity of information seeking, processing, recreating and application. Information is described as a tool designed by humans whilst making sense of reality.  Methods of communication and the application of information (knowledge) are key aspects of sense-making.

The metaphor 

timespace

It starts in a time-space milieu, implying constant energy and movement. This environment is never static and time-space energy propels us forward or pulls us back, always fluctuating and never stable.

Moving through time-space we have Mr. Squiggly.  Humans are depicted as squiggly because we are caught between certainty and uncertainty.  Thus there is a constant flux within the person (internal) and between the person and the environment (external).  Mr. Squiggly carries an umbrella, symbolizing mind-set, perceived constraints and enablers. (I feel that it should be a backpack – demonstrating our baggage).

Mr Squiggly.png

Whilst moving through time-space, a gap or barrier is encountered. For the purposes of my work, the gap is a life-threatening injury or illness requiring urgent care. The gap can however be any barrier or difficulty in daily life (in an organization it could be new policies, a new boss etc.). The gap forces Mr. Squiggly to stop until a way has been found to ‘bridge’ the gap and reach an outcome.

The outcome depends on how the gap is bridged.  Some potential outcomes are not obvious in the beginning and it may only become apparent retrospectively, influencing future decisions and beliefs.

Moving from situation to outcome requires a bridge. The building blocks used to build the bridge consists of different types of blocks.  One being the individual mind-set, during a life-threatening emergency it would include individual beliefs about health, healthcare, medication, culture. Building blocks also include inputs from others, the stories within the community about a time that something similar happened to someone else, financial hardships suffered, patient outcome etc.  Mr. Squiggly consciously and unconsciously use all the information in the form of building blocks to create the bridge.

Once the bridge is built, Mr. Squiggly can leap across the bridge to the outcome; this is aptly called gap-bridging.  The building blocks of information is now applied, thus knowledge are created. Dervin use the term ‘verbing’ as an important gap-bridging and sense-making tool.  Everyday examples of verbing include the use of words for example emailing, googling or ubering. Verbing thus occurs when a noun is turned into a verb, creating action or experience.  It certainly fits a methodology where knowledge is seen as a context-specific sense-making activity in a specific point in time and space.

 teh gap.png

I’m using sense-making to capture the various roles within a community perceive gaps, bridge gaps and view the outcomes during a life-threatening injury or illness. Perceptions will be captured using a type of narrative enquiry, where the participant is asked to tell a descriptive story.  After telling the story, the storyteller explains the meaning of their own story by indexing it onto a predesigned framework.  This is very different from ‘traditional’ research where the investigator assigns meaning to the stories. Neutral questioning is used to guide the indexing.  Questions are framed in such a way to capture the nuanced aspects of hierarchy, autonomy, equality etc.  After capturing, the data are combined and the software allows for it to be visually displayed, enabling easy identification of patterns and trends.  More details on the software are a story for another day.

This technique has been applied to monitor, evaluate, communicate, and create feedback loops in projects, organizations, communities and even broader society.

I am using sense-making because I’m passionate about the voice of the ‘voiceless’ in organizations and communities.  I feel that tacit knowledge is often overlooked.  Sense-making provides a tool to capture many voices, combine the different perspectives and seek common ground, emerging trends or underlying moods. This is powerful, whether in an organization, community or development project. It prevents the implementation of one perspective, ‘outside’ views or only top-down approaches. Inclusive sustainable implementation requires more than one story, one perspective and more than one type of knowledge.

 As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her powerful TED talk about the danger of a single story:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

References

I adapted the pictures from: Facing a gappy situation. Sense-making methodology: communicating communicatively with campaign audience.  Dervin, B. 2003.  In Dervin B, Foreman-Wernet L (Eds). Sense-making methodology reader: selected writings of Brenda Dervin, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press 2003.

http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

On ‘death and dying’ and organisational change

‘Buy-in’ is a term commonly used when talking about change in the workplace. We want everyone to buy in to the change.  Often, supervisors and managers appear completely perplexed when people do not simply buy in or change their ways when told to.  Numerous books have spoken about ‘managing change’ and ‘obtaining (the elusive) buy-in’.

The lean methodology addresses some crucial aspects of ‘obtaining buy-in’,  including involving the people performing the task in the change process, empowering people to experiment with new ways, and coaching employees in problem-solving techniques.

There is a significant human factor that, if ignored, hampers sustainability of change: emotions.  In the work environment, where change is underway, these are labelled different names such as resistance, anger, or passive aggressiveness.  In this blog we will call this emotion grief.

We become emotionally attached to our routines, and our way of doing things.  And even though we might logically know that it’s not the best way to perform a task, we experience a feeling of safety and a sense of belonging within our routines.

In organisations with strict hierarchies and bureaucracies with red tape such as hospitals, those that have been around for a long time find and establish the loop holes which enable workers to get the job done based on longstanding networks and local knowledge.  Long-serving staff may view a suggested change to the way they do a well-established process as a threat. Exposing the loop holes can lead to feelings of vulnerability, frustration and anxiety about getting into trouble with management; especially within the ‘blame culture’ typically found in these bureaucracies.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who studied near-death situations and the emotions involved,   identified five stages of grief as a pattern of adjustment: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Each person will pass through these stages at their own rate and in their own way.  The task of a grief counsellor is to provide support during these phases.

A criticism of the model is that Kubler-Ross did not adequately take into consideration the role that the personal environment plays.  Certain environments make grieving easier.  And not everyone experiences grief in the same way, as some people are more resilient and adapt with little grieving.   Charles Corr, a social psychologist and a critic of Kubler-Ross’s work stated that grief and resilience are influenced by patient empowerment.  The more empowered the patient, the faster and better they adapt to the end of life situation. He highlighted two important aspects from Kubler-Ross’ work that I think are also true for organisational change: 1. that each person will react in their own way to the challenges that confront them, and 2. that one cannot become an effective supporter or carer unless one has learnt to actively listen to the person grieving.

How do we create an environment where employees feel empowered during the ‘death of the old ways’?  This question is particularly difficult to answer in the beginning of a lean journey, where management (and the organisation) are using traditional methods, the ‘blame culture’ is still firmly established and people have no success stories to demonstrate that the changes are in fact improvements.

I’d like to suggest though that we can better support employees during organisational transitions by preparing people for change, supporting their emotions during change and making it ok to grieve.

Grief is personal and subjective.  We can’t measure grief by comparing it to other people’s grief or phase of adjustment. We need to create an environment in which it’s safe to express emotions without judgement, where concerns are not simply dismissed, challenges ignored and what-if scenarios discarded. Emotions and feelings should not be denied when implementing change, otherwise staff will feel oppressed and devalued.

As such, I am making a case that the direct line manager is not the most appropriate person to provide emotional support during large-scale change initiatives.  The line manager is emotionally invested in the change and going through their own grief and adjustment, especially if they are confronted with challenging their beliefs on how to manage and problem-solve within their unit. They are grieving themselves.

So who should provide support then?  Could Human Resources become more involved? Is this perhaps a role for HR departments, with an understanding in lean thinking?  I’m not sure.  What I am sure of, though, is that whoever provides emotional support needs to be like a grief counsellor:  slightly removed from the actual incidence, with little emotional investment in the operational processes and ways.

Kubler-Ross: Phases of grief in organisations

Denial:  This is often expressed through statements such as, ‘We don’t have any problems in our department.’  or, ‘If only Department XYZ worked harder, faster or better, then our results would improve.’

Anger: In organisations this is expressed as passive-aggressive behaviour rather than actual aggressive outbursts.  If the not-so-obvious symptoms of this phase are not managed, the change will not be sustainable.  It’s important to support people through all the phases; however the anger phase is probably the hardest to diagnose as its symptoms may be subtle. Behaviour or symptoms of the phase include obstruction, lateral violence and bullying of others.  Other symptoms may include threatening to resign or requesting a move to another department.

Bargaining: If anger is the hardest phase to diagnose and support, then bargaining is the tipping point for change. The following remarks may be heard in this phase: ‘This is additional work, so I will make the change if you increase my salary’, ‘This is not in my job description so we need more time/resources/payment and then we will be able to follow through with this’ or ‘If this way doesn’t work, then I will leave and go work somewhere else’.  These employee responses should be carefully managed if the organisation would like to move past a point of consistent bargaining or negotiation towards sustainable change and behavioural acceptance.

Depression:  People might appear to be sulking, sullen and unhappy at work.  An important ‘sub-stage’ of depression is testing: testing the new ways and acknowledging that the new ways are not  all bad, but the employee is still not ready to openly accept it.  This is when people come to the realisation that perhaps it is not as bad as they thought.

Acceptance:  This is the‘buy-in’ you were hoping for from the start, or acceptance of the change.

Summary

Lean organisations should strive towards resilience, a state that is at the other end of the spectrum to grief, because people feel safe, supported and are able to adapt within their environment.  This desired state of resilience takes time to attain.

The phases of grieving must be diagnosed, addressed and managed.  If this is not done appropriately it will have long-term adverse effects, including bullying or consistent bargaining to perform tasks.

Until organisations reach the point of resilience, they need to plan emotional support into the improvement process.  This emotional support should not be seen as an extension of the direct line manager’s task.  Rather it should be outside of the functional unit. This is of the utmost importance in organisations starting a large-scale lean transformation.

grief

The stages

Mentalities….Business firefighting versus real-life firefighters

In business language the firefighting mentality is not meant as a compliment.  Instead it refers to poor strategic planning and a disjointed organisation that is spending it’s time fighting unnecessary issues that could’ve been prevented with better management practises.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable about this accepted “business definition”.  My feeling is that whoever coined the term had no idea about the intricacies and complexity of real-life firefighting. At first I thought that maybe I just don’t get what is meant in a business sense, so I kept quiet about the fact that I completely disagree with the analogy.

However after this week’s devastating fires that swept through the Southern Peninsula and yet again observing the firefighters at work I need to say this:  Perhaps organisations need to develop a firefighter mentality.   11046952_398822600291088_530584084941375836_n

According the business definition a firefighting mentality is one where the organisation’s members are frantically rushing, making impulsive decisions; applying “Band-Aids” to problems without in-depth investigation, suppressed problems with short-term solutions.  According to the business analogy if you are proactive you won’t have many fires to fight.  I disagree.  In both nature and business, fire is a natural occurrence, it happens despite measures to prevent it.  There are always uncontrollable forces that organisations cannot influence.  So rather expect the fire, be prepared, train and vigilantly monitor for fires.

The business definition ignores how firefighters actually do their job.  Organisations can learn some principles on teamwork and decision-making from firefighters.

The REAL firefighter mentality

  1. Preparedness.  When not actively firefighting, fire fighters are preparing for the next fire.  If you visit a fire station you will find that the gear is ready and checked first thing on the shift, the vehicles are ready, fire suits ready, the control room is manned.  There is regular practise for emergencies and when the call comes in, everyone are trained and knows their role.  There is no need to add to the complexity of a fire situation by figuring out task allocations or panic about readiness and what next.  Firefighters know what is controllable and what is not controllable.  Controllable is preparedness, uncontrollable is wind direction.  By preparing for what can be controlled, decision-making during the fire is simpler and only targeted to strategies to deal with this fire now.  The groundwork to enable this focus has been done way before the fire.
  2. Consistent communication.  Close up to where the fire is being fought you can hear the fire fighters calling for more water, move closer, watch out, etc.  They are constantly speaking and updating each other, nobody is left out of the communication loop.
  3. Implicit trust.  During a major event the in-charge or commander are removed from the incident.  Decisions with a major impact such as evacuation of homes or mobilisation and withdrawal of resources are made relying on the feedback and opinion from the persons on the forefront.  Think about this….there is no time to check the integrity of a report, to micro-manage or to-do-it yourself.  There is limited time to question; Fire chiefs trust their team with life threatening decisions in a way that few managers trusts their team with minor decisions.
  4. Team approach.  Ever opened a fire hose?  The water comes out at a high pressure and it’s advised to have a buddy standing behind you for support.  Firefighters know that you can’t fight a fire on your own.  A team is dispatched to a fire and not a lone firefighter or fire chief.  Firefighters move together, they work together and they look out for each other, no one is wandering off doing their own thing.

    10900080_416000981908430_7134571997949818654_o

    Photo credit: Sullivan photography. Picture posted on Facebook.

  5. Strategic planning. Firefighters do not simply rush into a fire.  They arrive prepared, they make a decision and then they execute it rapidly.   What from the outside may appear as impulsive is actually an ability to stay calm under an immense pressure combined with experience and hours of simulation practise.

    11042974_10153157297066133_99558182578589751_n

                             Working together

  6. Practise. Firefighters practised and simulate various scenarios so many times that when they arrive on scene they are not even aware of making decisions.  If you are interested in reading more about how firefighters make decisions, Gary Klein has done fascinating research on how firefighters build a repertoire of patterns to help them frame a situation and make split second decisions.   It’s a combination of tacit knowledge, intuition and experience.

    Practise makes perfect

                   Practise makes perfect

  7. Courage and ability to remain calm under pressure.   Approaching a fire is scary and firefighters put themselves and their team members at risk with each decision they make.  It takes courage as well as physical and emotional strength.
  8. Humour during stressful situations.  Firefighters and other emergency workers relief tension by laughing, joking and teasing each other during stressful times.   I can think of plenty management moments where a smile, a joke or even just some friendliness could relief the tension.

To all the firefighters I salute you.  Well done.

To see what these brave men and women at work during the Southern Peninsula fires: http://ewn.co.za/media/2015/03/04/inside-the-flames

To read some more about decision-making process of firefighters, ICU nurses and fire fighters:

Brockman, J. (2013) Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving and Prediction.  HarperCollins, New York.

Klein, G., Ross, K.G., Moon, B.M., Klein, D.E., Hoffman, R.R., Hollnagel, E. (2003) Macrocognition.  IEEE Intelligent Systems. May/June 2003 pp.81 – 84

Klein, G., Hoffman, R.R. (1992) Seeing the invisible: Perceptual-cognitive aspects of expertise.  Cognitive Science Foundation Instruction.  pp 203 – 226

Relentless leadership

Lead like a relentless but reflective bulldozer.   I’m off course referring to the LEAN Institute Africa’s 2014 summit theme.  I’ve summarized some of the summit’s consistent themes regarding the traits of such a leader.

The LEAN Africa’s Institute’s pamphlet for the 2014 summit defines the relentless leader as a purposeful leader, continually driving for improvement whilst simultaneously being compassionate. Thesaurus defines the word relentless as sustained, unremitting and unyieldingly severe.

Traits and ways of the relentless leader:

  • The relentless leader acknowledges participation.  The relentless LEAN leader realizes that people are more involved when they feel appreciated and acknowledged; therefor they find time and ways to encourage participation and experimentation.  The relentless leader not only knows that it’s about the people but also cares deeply about the people.
  • A relentless leader sets direction.  They do not simply introduce a toolbox.   They start by creating a shared vision and philosophy. The most applicable tools are adapted to suit organizational need and support the shared vision.
  • A relentless leader is persistent. There is no end to improvement.  The relentless leader makes LEAN stick; the relentless leader takes the organization beyond LEAN being a project, fad or process with an end date.
  • Relentless leaders are information conduits working consistently towards creating a corporate memory.  Relentless leader creates a focus on producing knowledge in the same way that one produces work.  Every problem is an opportunity to learn and generate knowledge.   The relentless leader ensures that there is no space for exclusivity and knowledge is shared across functional boundaries.  They know that functions may be specialised or specific to a work area; however the significance of knowledge is collective.
  • The relentless leader is a good listener and finds the problem before offering solutions.  In emergency medicine we teach that the most dramatic injury is not necessarily the most serious injury.  For example if a person has an obviously broken bone that you see as you approach and you immediately focus attention on that, you may miss that the person is not breathing and has no pulse.  So they will have pretty splint but also be pretty dead, because you didn’t address the real problem.  So don’t get side-tracked by the noise and always follow the same systematic approach. It’s the same with solving problems what appears to be an immediate problem and/or solution is most likely not addressing the root cause of the problem.
  • The relentless leader is visible at the workspace and makes gemba tangible.  Gemba is not simply going to the workspace to “see” the problem.  Gemba is going to the workplace and observing until your mind shuts up, applying all the senses.  It’s like meditation, you need to feel the workspace and observe the work cycle.
  • The relentless LEAN leader leads by example:  their office is neat, they use visual management tools, they can find data easily and they share knowledge.  They know that you can’t “delegate” LEAN or not have time for “LEAN” expecting that the team will then make the time, and buy into LEAN if it’s not visible from leadership.
  • The relentless leader is consistent. LEAN is not just for when things are going poorly.  It is habits that are formed by practising it every day.  These habits includes measuring performance, huddles, daily activities, workplace discipline, the relentless leader is consistently setting the pace and leading by example.
  • The relentless leader respects and values the team.  As such the relentless leader considers that when bringing about change for the first time, it’s scary and unknown.  They know that there will be resistance.  To add a little bit of my own spice, with regards to change I’ve been taught to apply the grief process as extensively described by Elizabeth Kuber-Ross to understand the initial resistance.  The relentless LEAN leader intuitively plans and allows for some adjustment and that there may initially be denial, maybe even anger because the workplace is changing.
  • The relentless leader measures performance.  The analogy presented was if you are a rugby fan and its 20 minutes into the second half when you first tune in on the tv.  What is the first thing that you look at?  The score.  Because that gives you an instant update of how the game is going.  The relentless leader knows that in order to know the score, the right score must be kept and displayed to the team.

I think that it’s the mission of the relentless leader that sets them apart. And I would like to add a quote by management guru Peter Drucker:  “The three most charismatic leaders in this (last) century inflicted more suffering on the human race than almost any trio in the history: Hitler, Staling and Mao.  What matters most are not the leader’s charisma, what matters is the leader’s mission. “