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Unconstrained Thinking
-- Walk the Squawk

A while ago, a discussion list I participate in carried a thread about how to engrain and assure appropriate behaviors in management of a project organization. The following had come into my inbox from a different source, and for some reason I thought of that thread...

There's a story about an MIT student who spent an entire summer going to the Harvard football field every day wearing a black and white striped shirt, walking up and down the field for ten or fifteen minutes throwing birdseed, blowing a whistle, and then walking off the field. At the end of the summer, it came time for the first Harvard home football game, the referee walked onto the field and blew the whistle, and the game had to be delayed for a half hour to wait for the birds to get off of the field.

A clear demonstration of the power of consistently walking the "squawk."

There's also a story from personal experience with a client that shows how deviating from the promised behaviors can get management into trouble. It happened in an implementation of Critical Chain-based multi-project management at a telecom equipment firm building systems of integrated hardware and software. Critical Chain training was given to management first (since they had to have the ability to "walk the talk" from the get-go), and then to members of the project teams as the projects were revisited for completeness of plan and alignment with the multi-project processes.

One of the key concepts demonstrated by games and simulations in the training is the idea of the "project as relay race," as opposed to the usually date-driven metaphor of a train. The team picked up on this idea with a vengeance -- so much so that they went out to the local sporting goods store and bought a set of relay race batons, which were painted brightly, and attached to a rope so that they could be hung on a doorknob or on the entrance to a cubicle. The batons were passed along from resource to resource along the critical chain (the resource-leveled critical path) of the project, the idea being that if the baton was in sight, you were not to interrupt it's carrier/keeper and instead address his/her supervisor with issues that might normally be addressed by that person. This allowed resources on the critical chain to work with head down, uninterrupted, and protected from pressures to multi-task, thereby speeding the project around the track from critical leg to critical leg of the race to the cash register.

Well, the story comes to a climax when one of the managers forgets his promise to the team -- the promise to support "relay race behaviors" and to help "drive out multi-tasking" among project participants. This manager keeps interrupting one of the project players assigned to a critical chain task, bringing the engineer into meetings, and asking for reports on non-project efforts -- meetings and reports that could be easily addressed by other members of the team. The engineer eventually reached the end of his patience, picked up the baton, and asked the manager if he had some place to put it -- some place very personal and potentially painful -- since it was obvious that the manager didn't respect the baton or the promises it embodied.

"Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it." -- Marian Anderson

In a follow-up session with the client team, when I was told this story, my reaction was only slightly conflicted. On the one hand, I'd be the last one to condone physical violence or threats of it, but on the other hand, it was clear that the engineer had gotten the message that the manager had not. Project participants, once they discover how much they can achieve if allowed to work in a single-tasking state of flow, are loathe to allow managers to take that high-performance environment away. Admittedly, it takes managers a bit longer to feel the real benefits, as they might need to see to believe the enhanced pace of project completions and unleashed capacity that results, but for most, effective education, indoctrination, and simulation allows them to suspend disbelief long enough to effect improvement, by walking the talk.

For those that don't, there are always the batons.

Think about it . . .

©2002, Frank Patrick

"Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it." -- Marian Anderson

This is one of a series of columns on improvement, TOC, constraint management, change management, systems thinking, uncommon sense, and whatever else comes into my mind. Suggestions for topics are welcome. - FP, 908-874-8664 or via the contact page of this site.

If you are interested in using these columns for your APICS, ASQ, PMI, or IIE newsletter, let me know through the same channels, and I'll send you the more easily usable MS Word versions.

-- Frank Patrick

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