Operational Issues Can Be Your Greatest Asset

Operational Issues Can Be Your Greatest Asset:
DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT®
By Julie Benezet

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hassled executive

Most executives view the countless daily operational issues they face as negative and a drag on the business. These problems certainly can be a hassle and hurt the bottom line. What most executives miss, however, is the opportunity these everyday problems offer to improve their company’s long-term strategic growth.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, it is when things are destabilized by operational issues that people are most willing to embrace change, if for no reason other than to decrease their stress. The drive to get rid of stress increases their motivation to look harder, dig deeper, and consider something new and of longer-term value to the organization.

With the intense time pressure experienced by leaders during a typical business day, how can they find any bandwidth to solve operational issues in a way that leads to strategic growth? Deferring attention to strategic solutions until the proverbial strategic planning offsite, though, can perpetuate annoying situations and miss important opportunities. Instead, an executive can focus during the regular business day on solving two levels of the problem simultaneously. This means curing a specific operational issue and building something of longer-term value as part of the same effort.

We call this approach DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT®. Just as a person may have two screens open on a computer to tackle two tasks at once, when confronted with an operational issue, a manager can solve the immediate problem (on screen 1) and at the same time find a longer-term, more strategic solution (on screen 2). The approach has the virtue of optimizing one’s use of time and reducing the possibility of the original operational issue recurring. Solving a problem this way also reinforces the company’s commitment to the broader and longer-term change.

dual screens

The DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT® Approach:

DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT® looks at two sets of questions simultaneously, each with a different scope in mind but derived from the same situation.

Screen 1:

1. Frame the operational issue: Nothing can be solved until the question is clear. The place to start is to understand the complaint. This can cover anything from late delivery of financial reports to poor quality work for which a customer is threatening to fire your company.

2. Research the facts: Starting with the source of the complaint and moving out to all those immediately affected (the manager in charge, team members, and the customer), uncover the answers to the five W’s: what went wrong, who is involved, when did it happen, what caused it to happen, and why were steps not taken to prevent it?

3. Drive a collaborative solution: Share what you learn with the affected parties, ask them for their suggestions, and incorporate those suggestions as much as possible into solving the operational issue.

Screen 2:

Fundamental to the DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT® approach is to make sure that while you are doing the Screen 1 tasks, you broaden the inquiry to address longer-term business needs. This means enlarging the pool of people you consult, the questions you ask, and the data you consider.

1. Frame the deeper issue: Go beyond what appears to be immediately wrong and look at the possible underlying causes. What deeper questions does the situation raise, and what are the potential impacts of those questions? For example, delivering late reports could be simply a job performance issue. The person organizes his or her time inefficiently and forces others to have to work without current data.

However, the failure of the person to deliver timely reports may reflect a greater company issue. Is it possible he or she knows there is a problem with the reliability of the data, or no one reads the reports, much less uses their information, or the company has a shoot-the-messenger culture in which senior executives will criticize the person preparing the report for negative results rather than dealing with the responsible business unit managers. All these suggest more systemic organizational issues that could have significant consequences far beyond the timeliness of reports.

2. Collect the less obvious facts: While asking the questions under Screen 1, ask the same people about their broader concerns. When under stress, people initially often couch the issue as a simple complaint instead of talking about a larger fear. Rather than caring deeply about late financial reports, the real fear may stem from having inadequate data to meet their departmental business goals and feeling disempowered to do anything about it. Invite them to talk about those fears and what else they believe is relevant to the situation.

3. Collect facts from a wider set of stakeholders: Chances are the operational issue that precipitated your investigation affects more persons than just those on the front line. Failure to deliver by one team could compromise the performance of other teams who depend on the work of the first team. Lack of timely and reliable financial data clearly has an impact on all departments beyond finance, because without them their business managers cannot successfully manage their department business plans.

Less obvious is the case of a customer who is unhappy because of a design flaw in a company product. That issue could affect not only the engineering group but also the sales department for whatever representations it made to the customer, marketing for how it described product features in its materials, and product management for how it built the product. Screen 2 work would involve talking with all these potential stakeholders.

4. Collect core company facts: Integrate into your fact collection the core company priorities: its values, vision, and strategic goals. A manager choosing speedy delivery over spending more time to achieve a high standard of quality may be confused about the company’s strategic priorities. In fact, others might be similarly confused, suggesting the core vision and values need revisiting and buy-in.

5. Drive a strategic solution: While leading the search for background information, ask each stakeholder for his or her recommendations. Incorporate those recommendations into your analysis, and craft an appropriate strategic solution (change in process, structure, training, hiring practices, etc.) that addresses the underlying company issue. If the strategic solution requires a major undertaking such as retooling the brand or restructuring company job descriptions, task someone with championing the action and a date certain for delivery.

6. Publicize the solution: Make sure that all the stakeholders know, as soon as possible, the results of the Screen 2 work and the Screen 1 issue that catalyzed it. Celebrate the work and commit to monitoring the results. It will allow you to share the success with everyone. You also can motivate them to support further changes by their seeing that solving their day-to-day problems more strategically can lead to better things.

Three Case Studies:

The following are three examples of how DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT® approach has been applied.

Example 1: The Nonperforming Executive:

Complaints from business unit directors about a seemingly capable finance director, who now was routinely late in delivering key reports, may represent an issue more strategically consequential than the late reports. What the business unit directors may have been saying, whether they realized it or not, was that the nature of the company’s financial services has failed to change along with the strategic direction of the company. This issue occurred in the case of a company whose finance director, after many years of on-time delivery of reports, became routinely late for no obvious reason.

Applying the DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT® approach, the company’s Screen 1 work involved studying the specific problem of timeliness of the reports—speed of input, software capability, and the accounting department workload versus its headcount. All contributed to slow report delivery.

Their Screen 2 work analyzed the finance department to evaluate whether its skills and services aligned with the needs of the company’s five-year strategic plan. While asking business unit directors about the report lateness, the chief operating officer used the opportunity to ask for feedback on what they needed going forward to meet the goals of the strategic plan. Given their immense frustration about the late financial information, the business unit directors were more than happy to take the time to give frank feedback.

The strategic plan called for substantially increasing market share by geographic expansion and diversification of product offerings. To succeed with that plan, the business unit directors needed a finance executive who was adept at analyzing broad market data to help them create strategies for the fast-changing competitive landscape. There also was significant concern that the expansion plans called for raising capital, which required someone who knew how to deal with the debt and equity markets. Neither capability was at the time part of the finance director’s job description.

The DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT® approach forced the company to look beyond the matter of late financial reports (Screen 1) to address the difficult but vital issue of their future finance department leadership and the broader financial expertise needed to deliver on its new strategic plan (Screen 2). It decided to restructure the finance function leadership into a chief financial officer role and filled it with a qualified candidate. The former director of finance was given a new role that met his level of expertise.

Example 2: The Unhappy Customer:

unhappy customer

An unhappy customer can cause enormous business distress. When a major customer complains about missed deadlines the senior executive must move expeditiously to solve the problem. That starts by talking with the customer to express concern and commit to resolving the problem (Screen 1). However, the executive also should simultaneously pursue the deeper reason for customer dissatisfaction. Is the failed execution caused by the usual array of performance issues—employees confused by the directions, distracted with other tasks, or in need of additional skills and training—or is there also a bigger question at hand?

An engineering firm that normally delivered structural engineering design and project management services agreed to develop a new scheduling software package for a client. The engineers were accustomed to designing buildings, collecting programmatic requirements from clients, incorporating their requirements into pages of designs and specifications, and then implementing them. They were not used to the constant give and take with clients and multiple trial runs typical of the software development industry. The client was at the point of firing the firm because deadlines were being missed and it had lost confidence in it.

Applying DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT®, the firm had to address immediately the issue of late deadlines (Screen 1). Confirming what deliverables were outstanding and negotiating new deadlines was essential to rebuilding client confidence.

To succeed in establishing their new software niche, the engineering executives (applying Screen 2) took the opportunity to examine their project delivery behavior. With the help of client feedback, team input, and executive brainstorming, the engineering firm realized that it had to change its unidirectional service delivery model to a more open, customer-collaborative approach. Defining a new service delivery model, then training and supporting the company engineers on the new model were essential to regaining client confidence and to the success of their emerging software niche.

Until there was the destabilizing impact of a client crisis, however, no one wanted to consider the possibility that their work style needed to change. Changing company culture is hard at the best of times. Yet, combining solving an immediate client retention problem (Screen 1) with a larger cultural shift motivated the organization to revise its client service behavior toward building an appropriate service model to support its new software product niche (Screen 2).

Example 3: The Disgruntled Executive:

tired executive

Few things can be more miserable than a disgruntled executive, evidenced by low productivity, stubbornness, and intractability. Is the executive tired of his or her current responsibilities and looking for something else to do? Or is that person’s attitude and nonperformance due to lack of fit with the work style of the company employees?

An executive accustomed to running a tight ship, managing every stage of product or service delivery with process controls and metrics, may find herself out of step with a highly independent knowledge workforce. The fast moving and intensely global competitive landscape demands strong and creative knowledge capital. A directive, micromanaging managerial approach might work in some highly regulated businesses, but that style does not do well with the nimble, innovative approach needed to succeed in a product or professional services company serving a constantly changing global market.

The misery of the nonperforming executive may be attributable to the person’s desire to live a less stressful life. It also could be a symbol of how things must change in choosing firm leadership. Screen 1 analysis focused on correcting team performance issues, most of which stemmed from the annoyance and disempowerment caused by micromanagement.

The Screen 2 inquiry assessed the misalignment of the company’s historic work style with a style facilitating a new, more independent approach to give it a competitive edge in the global economy. It evaluated employee engagement, customer feedback, and new team structures to find a sweet spot that produced greater happiness and productivity. It then redefined the leadership skills and attributes that matched the new model.

Then it worked with the unhappy executive to clarify her future professional and personal goals to determine whether they matched the new leadership profile. The evaluation surfaced a mismatch and led to developing a succession plan that allowed the executive to move on to an environment more closely aligned with her needs. Hard as that change was to make, it ultimately benefited both the executive and the company.

Final Thoughts:

In each of these examples, an operational issue revealed a deeper problem detrimental to company growth that demanded a broader, strategic resolution. DUAL SCREEN MANAGEMENT® combined the tactical and strategic work to solve the immediate problem, build a longer-term solution, and motivate the company to move toward a stronger future.

© 2018 Julie Benezet. All rights reserved.

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