Check the Horizon Often

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Is There Bad Weather Ahead? 

 

Every year or so, we hear about climbers or hikers who are caught unexpectedly in storms and suffer accidents or loss of life. In his book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales says one of the highest survival rates in these situations is among children.  "The secret may . . . lie in the fact they do not . . . have sophisticated mental mapping ability . . . . and so do not try to bend the map.  They remap the world they're in".  Their survival depends on their ability to change to fit the new circumstances.

 

Many managers and leaders focus on the mission or the task at hand, which is essential for great execution.  Those efforts can become meaningless if we miss the fact that bad weather is coming up, so we need to look often for the context provided by the horizon.

 

One customer start-up we know was in a very competitive environment with high margins.  Their strategy was sound for the environment they were in and they grew accordingly.  But, they were blindsided by events they didn't see coming.

 

First, an alliance between two competitors was focused on driving margins lower to make the service a commodity. The new strategy then became one of survival for the start-up and a new owner.  We helped them sort out the pieces to maintain the level of service their customers came to expect, helped them sell some of their business assets and protect the people who made them succeed.  They changed and adapted with the new situation.

 

We make a point of helping customers check the horizon - to regularly ensure they are on course and looking to the horizon to check for both direction and bad weather.

 

What are your experiences?  What questions do you have for me?

~ Dennis Sergent

 

Need to get out of a rut?

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Attention To The Basics Can Make A Big Difference Fast

 

Early in my career, I encountered the first of many situations where a valuable lesson could be used over and over again in the telecom and consulting fields.

 

In the mid-1970s, the state public utility commission confronted Michigan Bell over the service levels provided.  A quality of service investigation found that none of the 341 local exchanges' met overall service objective levels or better. For whatever reasons, the company had not met these standards, but now had serious issues. The known set of 10 criteria was the standard used to investigate and measure, and a program to correct every issue was quickly developed.

 

As a reasonably new technician, I had found that attention to the most basic elements of the system could pay off quickly with results.  While more experienced technical managers were delving into technical issues, I proposed that one area of concerns could be addressed first.  I suggested improved communications, fixing process issues, and changing the consequences of performance.  I soon got the assignment as a supervisor to apply this idea to a subset of the exchanges, which had never been acceptable for even a month.  With the help of the whole service team and a focus on the basics, we changed course and went from bottom quartile to top quartile results in less than a year.  The idea was then implemented statewide to significantly improve results.

 

This pattern of paying attention to the basics has provided results in numerous other situations and organizations since then.  As consultants to your business or enterprise, we make sure the people, processes and technologies work together in the best possible way with experienced leadership, effective organization and proven communications. 

 

It doesn't matter how you got in the rut, but how you can quickly get out.

 

What are your thoughts about focus on the basics?  What questions do you have for me?

~ Dennis Sergent

You can see it, but can you get there?

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A Clear Goal Is Essential, But Getting There Is Complicated! 

 

Native Americans had an approach to this problem that was quite different than modern Americans would use.  They would paddle across the lake, portage the canoe across the land and then get back in the canoe to go to the next stop on the journey.  Today, we could use more and different people, processes and technology to make the exact same journey.   But which is better depends a lot on the situation and circumstances.

 

In a previous assignment, we were asked to help a start-up team to plan for the operation of a new long-distance carrier.  The goal of "what" was clear - and planning how we would enter the business and operate in that very competitive environment made us bend some assumptions.  We led a team in the task of defining the "how" and developed a plan that threw out conventions to be higher quality and lower cost by paying our operations force more than the norm.

 

This counter-intuitive approach demanded a broader range of skills and performance levels in the new operations environment.  We redefined the assumptions about the jobs - and needed not just functional specialists, but broader skills to support technical, managerial and customer service needs in each of the processes. Compensation for such skills cost us more in annual salary and benefits.  So how did we save money?

 

When we focused on the skills needed in the processes, it became obvious that we didn't need to hand off issues - anyone was capable of handling any issue.  It wasn't easy to find and hire, train and retain the right people to fill these positions, but we did.  And we saved the organization millions of dollars a year by eliminating handoffs.

 

We also found that as the leadership and competitive situation changed, the issue would be revisited, over and over again.  And, the original plan had to be modified in some ways to deal with the new competitive and technical environment.

 

We demonstrated that there are many ways to get where you want to go, and some of them are made complex by our assumptions, some by our choices, and some by the environment we can't control.  It's good to be adaptable in your thinking and flexible in execution of the plan.  And, it's great to get the whole team to the destination together.

 

What are your similar experiences?  What are different solutions you’ve implemented?  What questions do you have for me?

~ Dennis Sergent

Milestones on Your Journey

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Does This Milestone Track Progress On Your Journey?

 

In our journey to fulfill our mission, we need to keep the milestones in our sight, and measure our progress from start to finish, from one marker to the next.  The marker above means one thing to a sailor who left Chicago and another to someone who left Detroit.  It is the same milestone, but the meaning depends on where you have been and where you need to go.

 

One organization we know needed an alternate supplier of a technology platform to deliver their internet-based services.  They had already decided to purchase, but needed a set of operating requirements to make sure their investment would be well spent.  Their critical milestones were to write the requirements and conduct a field trial of the new technology in their environment, so they could implement it nationwide.

 

We helped them write their operating requirements with the help of their various functional teams and also tracked the supplier's answers to how they would meet those same requirements.  The field trial assessed how well the technology actually met those requirements and was extended by several attempts to modify it with hardware and software "fixes".  The organization ultimately concluded that the supplier could not meet their requirements and therefore could not help them on their journey to an alternate supplier.

 

As internal or external consultants to your business or enterprise, or as leaders in your system, we bring focus to stakeholder needs, plus those of customers, owners and team. We help the team make needed progress and act on all stakeholder concerns with relentless follow up to ensure the whole team is focused on the same purpose.  When a milestone indicates that you and your supplier are on a different path, we act to keep your needs first.

 

What is your experience?  What questions do you have for me?

~ Dennis Sergent