Monday, March 21, 2011

A Process Improvement Lesson from the Libyan Rebels

The recent events in Libya remind me very much about how highly charged emotions always trump logic. At the beginning of the rebellion the Libyan rebels were flush with excitement and had an over-confident sense of invincibility.  I remember watching news clips and listening to the radio about how the rebels refused to be trained in the basics of marching and military tactics by the professional and experienced military pro-rebel leaders. Instead they were screaming “Just give me a weapon, I need to go fight, this training is a waste of time!”  Most grabbed weapons they had never used before and rushed off to the “front”.  It reminds me of the situation we face within process improvement as we try to teach an inexperienced project team to use a DMAIC methodology and the proper process improvement tools in order to solve complex problems.  Many of our trainees are frustrated by the methodology and the perceived slow pace.  They fail to see the value in defining the problem and working out potential solutions on paper and within a small pilot before implementing the improvements throughout the organization.  

Until the recent intervention by NATO the rebels faced almost certain defeat at the hands of the experienced Qaddafi forces. They were being slaughtered by the hundreds and thousands; they were completely unprepared to face a disciplined and well supplied army.  Before reality struck the rebels perceived the world through a very narrow lens – “We had no freedom now we are free so we must be powerful”. There was no thought to past history in their own country or in nearby countries were dozens of rebellions are crushed every year. Organizations, like the rebels, often look at success through a narrow lens that only reflects their small world: “Our costs are down 5% from last year, gosh we are awful smart and successful”; never mind that our main competitor’s costs are down by 15%.    

Many teams we coach are quick to forget the many years they have spun their wheels on the same problem over and over again. Past failures are often marginalized and excused away, blaming any problems and failures on specific individuals or on a “lack of management commitment”. 

I doubt there was even one experienced rebel military leader in Libya who thought the rebel’s impetuous actions had any hope of success and yet, they also knew that trying to stop their illogical initial actions was futile.  A good process improvement leader needs to strike a delicate balance; helping a team exhaust highly charged emotions while also using the right tools and methodology to help them see reality and to open their eyes to a much broader perspective. Unlike the situation in Libya, no lives are in danger (although sometimes it is a close call), but the revelation that the rebels experienced a few weeks ago when they were quickly defeated by Qaddafi’s forces has some relationship.  As process improvement facilitators we must present our team with many unpleasant but irrefutable facts so they are shocked back to reality; sometimes it is the only way that logic can gain a foothold and we can start to bring ego and unrealistic expectations under control. It’s too early to see if the reality of the recent conflicts will changed the way the Libyan rebels approach their future actions but one thing is certain, if they don’t learn to keep emotions in check and apply sound strategy and tactics they will not succeed.  The same goes for the many healthcare organizations that choose to mimic the “Libyan rebel methodology” which can be summed up as a fire, aim, hope methodology. 

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