Thursday, February 21, 2013

Managing Risk is Only Part of the Equation

It is interesting how the February ASQ Influential Voice topic has moved from addressing the fear of failure to the discussion of managing risk.  Guy Wallace and Anshuman Tiwari have excellent posts on risk management.  Yet, from a Quality professional’s perspective, managing risk does not go far enough in execution.   Often risk events are isolated tasks tied to specific projects and by doing so their value diminishes in that the focus is internal and does not impart systems thinking.  What we need to teach is that managing risk is just a part of the good leadership characteristics of anticipation and prevention. 
When people first take on the role of first-line supervisor their focus shifts from executing value-added work to care and feeding of their subordinates AND prime technical troubleshooter.  It is a busy time with the sole complaint that the care and feeding gets in the way of being a troubleshooter.  Experience is required to find the balance between the two.  Once you move up to being a supervisor of supervisors, the technical aspects of the work significantly diminishes.  Now you need to be an expert, or at least know where the expertise exists, in the systems that provide the care and feeding of the workers.  It takes a different skill set.  Organizations have become more complex so an individual often cannot be an expert in all systems.  Thus, a supervisor of supervisors needs to know how to monitor the health of systems so that they can best manage their time.  We call it anticipating problems. Since we deal with limited resources, our supervisor of supervisors manages risk daily; which systems can get him fired or get them in trouble legally and/or financially.  They put behaviors in place to avoid these situations.  This is the prevention piece.
The risk model that Guy mentions is now becoming en vogue for assisting in managing large Navy maintenance projects. There is a risk manager whose primary job in the planning phase is to identify problems and, using the risk cube that Guy shared, prioritize which things that they are going to do to reduce the risk.  These tasks are done during project execution and reviewed and shared amongst similar platforms. This is great for addressing project needs, and they have great inward focus but from the shipyard perspective they avoid the connection between what the shipyard does in anticipating problems. What might be good for one platform might be detrimental to another.  You are walking a fine line.
In my mind, taking an organization to the next step in performance requires a greater focus on anticipation and prevention. It is not sexy.  It is not taught. It is not well mentored and it is an assumption by customers and not an intrinsic customer expectation.  The funny thing is the STEM community has one of THE best tools to use for this type of work: the Failure Modes & Effects Analysis (FMEA).  In my mind, the expert facilitator needs this as part of their tool kit because it is highly versatile and is a great management tool to track anticipation and prevention. Risk managers will say, “What we do is 2/3 good enough.”  It may be but often the same problems keep cropping up.
Bottom line:  managing risk is not enough from a quality perspective.  We need to teach the good leadership characteristics of anticipation and prevention to truly experience “breakthrough quality.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Failure, Patience, Perseverance, Self-Confidence, Success

The ASQ Blog topic this month by Paul Borawski talks about a study published in advance of next week’s National Engineers Week (17-23 Feb).  There is a lot of meat in the study that I fully support.  I am a “shining” example of the truth of the findings, although I am not an engineer.  What I will talk on is the “process of learning, growing, being successful”; you could call it the basic life process.
Nobody likes to fail.  When we do, we feel bad.  Often our first impulse is to “try harder.”  It is a topic I am working on with my 14 year old son after he recently got very good semester grades (2 A’s 5 B’s). He did poorly on exams in two subjects so his first response was quite defensive when I asked him about his grades.  It wasn’t until he and I actually reviewed the data and I started to have a conversation with him did we start to actually come up with a way to “try harder.”   To me, this is important because our current public school system does not promote this life process.  The one skill that students do not learn and practice is how to learn.  So the answer is to try harder, which actually means do the same thing as before (Einstein’s definition of insanity) and feel worse when we fail again because “we tried harder.”
As parents, mentors, teachers we have a responsibility to practice patience in the light of failure.  As parents, mentors, teachers we work to prevent to catastrophic failures; we need to create an environment where the student can fail, feel the emotion, and then train them that skill of introspection and problem solving.   Novices will not understand this process so we have to be patient and let the novice fail in this process and build the perseverance skill so that the novice will want, and eventually need, to try it again and again.  This is a basic human skill.  My son does it all the time when playing video games.  He fails and keeps trying.  Unfortunately, the failure is not personal so the learning value is much smaller.
The repetition of this cycle is important in building the critical skill of self-confidence.  I define self-confidence as the ability to easily accept failure as part of future success.  Unfortunately, our culture and public institutions have the desire to achieve this end-state with the charges without practicing the life process.  By shielding novices from emotional pain of failure we are stunting their ability to learn.  So what they build in the way of self-confidence becomes shattered when faced with a catastrophic failure.  There is no safety net, no realization of owning the consequences of the made choices, and no ownership of improvement.  There are numerous examples of this phenomenon in personal and professional life.
I have been in the quality profession since 1994.  When I first started out, I successfully got a position based on an ASQ certification.  I had the knowledge, not the experience or self-confidence so that when placed in difficult situations I did not respond well.  I experienced the same thing when I first started teaching statistics. My failures are currently viewed on “” But introspection, a good mentor, and the patience and determination to succeed provided me a successful stint as a Lean Six Sigma instructor for the Navy.  With this success, it gave me the confidence to accept a leadership position in a whole different quality discipline—metrology.  Now, I feel I am successful because I am handling tough situations using a time-tested process and I can trust my people to do the right things daily. 
What we fail to realize is the peer pressure push to succeed sooner in our careers is detrimental to our long  to success. We HAVE to fail.  To not fail is to not learn.  To learn means that we grow.  The pace that we need to learn is much faster so we need a support system that efficiently helps our charges in going through the “life process” and being able to fail successfully.