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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Organisational drift – Do you have a reality gap?

Posted on 26th March 2018 at 16:57pm

In the second blog in our Human Performance series, Teresa Mulllen examines how the slow slipping away from correct processes and procedures can be addressed

Employees must feel secure in order to be honest when discussing the reality of their work with their leaders and managers (Zasabe/123rf)

Welcome to the second blog in our Human Performance series, and thank you for the feedback to the first blog in this series (if you missed the blog, you can read it here).

At the end of the last blog, I challenged readers to get a deeper understanding of your organisation’s true culture, by reflecting on the way it responds to unwanted outcomes. And much of your feedback indicated that this is an area that could benefit from some improvement.

So this time we are continuing our theme and examining organisational drift. Hopefully, this will provide you with more to think about and debate.

What exactly is organisational drift?

As we know, standards slip over time. Organisational drift is the slow erosion of correct process and procedure; it is the gap between what processes say should happen, and what actually occurs or as we call it ‘work as imagined’ vs ‘work as done’.

We all know that poor procedures, unsuitable tools or poor design of plant or work environment can set workers up to fail. But what about the organisational drift that is often unintentionally reinforced with praise? For example:

  • Bad weather increases the likelihood of an excavation collapsing, so shoring needs to be put in place as soon as possible but we don’t have all the correct tools;
  • The electrical test kit that is out of calibration because a company’s account is on hold with the lab, but the equipment needs to be commissioned to meet a tight deadline;
  • A massive order for a major new client has been dispatched against a tight deadline; but in doing so, the team pulled out all the stops to get the job done, working long hours without breaks; or
  • The blockage on a production line which happens late on a Friday night, but the maintenance crew is not back in until Monday, so employees need to get it sorted themselves.

This is the reality of ‘work as done’; and, while the job is getting done successfully, what is the problem? Where’s the harm?

The issue is that anybody involved in any of the above scenarios and actions could be considered either a rule-breaker or a hero. What often differentiates the two at an organisational level is the outcome.

If the task is successful, those involved are heroes who saved the day. If they failed to get the job done successfully, there is a problem. For example:

  • The trench collapsed and killed a labourer;
  • The test kit was faulty and the newly-installed equipment failed as a result;
  • The major new client sends half of the delivery back because of poor quality; or
  • The worker who crawled into the machine to clear the blockage is crushed to death.

Instead of being lauded as heroes, the very same acts are viewed as having been committed by rule-breakers, bad apples, or workers with poor attitudes, doing things without the knowledge of management.

Organisations are built on processes, procedures, systems and documents. These communicate how people are expected to behave in their workplace and include: Induction training; technical training; procedures; team briefings; risk assessments; operating instructions; and so on.

Together, these become an insurance policy, ie: “We have done all that is reasonably practicable to keep our business and our people safe, healthy, profitable, effective (etc).” This allows leaders to sleep at night, knowing that in the unfortunate event that something should go wrong, they have met their legal duty of care.

These processes and procedures are what we call ‘work as imagined’.

If employee feedback does not reflect the reality of their work as done – because they are scared of recriminations or losing their job – leadership improvements will not work because the real problems are not addressed (Krill Makarov/123rf)

So what can we do about organisational drift? Simply ordering workers to follow the rules, to adhere to procedures or to be more vigilant, is not the solution. In fact, this response can lead us into a whole world of pain.

Addressing organisational drift requires a shift in thinking. Improvements cannot be implemented on the premise that the major cause of unwanted outcomes is employees not following the rules or having a bad attitude, because that is not the case. Success is not the absence of unwanted outcomes, it is the presence of resilience in the system that enables us to bounce back from adversity, accuracy in the documentation that describes the context of the task, as well as the methodology of completing it, and in the ability and empowerment of workers to make crucial operational decisions at the right time. Why? Because employees are making up the gap to excellence where systems and defences are flawed and this is exactly the behaviour we need.

To put it simply, systems are rarely flawless; people are rarely a root cause of an unwanted outcome and so the solution does not lie in ‘fixing the worker’ by trying to make his or her behaviour more compliant – people are not the problem to be solved, they are the solution to be harnessed.

Employees have intimate knowledge of plant, equipment, systems, processes and procedures. They know about that particularly troublesome sticky valve; they know that the method statement does not reflect the actual way the job gets done successfully; and they know that the correct equipment is unavailable today. And while their managers or leaders tell them that safety is the priority, the attitudes and behaviours of those leaders often say something very different. Leadership must address the disconnect between work as imagined and work as done.

Closing this gap reduces organisational drift.

The first step is to acknowledge that this is a problem of our own making; and that is never an easy thing to face – it can be incredibly challenging for leadership teams. A good starting point is to focus on how employees can communicate with their leaders; channels need to be created for people to do so in a number of ways. The leadership team must then find a way to get simple messages back to workers about what is going to change, and why.

A shift in culture is needed, the first being that employees must feel secure in order to be honest when discussing the reality of their work with managers. If employee feedback does not reflect the reality of ‘work as done’ – because they are afraid of recriminations or losing their job – leadership improvements will not work because the real problems are not addressed. In the initial phases, therefore, a no blame or blame-free culture might need to be encouraged.

Responsibility, accountability and culpability are three very different things. It goes without saying that a wilfully negligent act (or an act of aggression or vandalism) always merits some degree of punishment. But there are ways to encourage a blame-free culture without becoming an organisation with no accountability at all, and here are a few practical steps:

  • Leadership can increase time on the floor – talking with, listening to and learning from employees;
  • Team briefings can be introduced, or their frequency increased. These provide the opportunity for everyone to contribute to the discussion in a safe environment;
  • Leaders can observe routinely successful work with a questioning attitude, asking why there are never any issues on particular activities. It is easier to repeat the things that result in successful work than it is to change the things that lead to unwanted outcomes. In addition, success rates are generally higher than failure rates, so there are more data points to look at. This provides the opportunity to observe how employees are adapting to overcome hidden problems and weaknesses in processes;
  • If drift is discovered – ie work is not being carried out as per the process or procedure, action must be taken – with the process or procedure, not the person;
  • Redesign the work. Improve the work environment. Reduce the reliance on the worker to adapt to get the job done;
  • Human error will always happen, so make sure you have the tools and mechanisms in place to minimise the likelihood – and reduce the consequences – when it does occur;
  • It is essential that changes are made as soon as the drift comes to light;
  • If employees are consistently expected to work with unsuitable tools, poor or incorrect procedures and conflicting objectives after they have been highlighted, the situation will be straight back to square one; and
  • Be the behaviour you expect to see. If employees started to model your current behaviour, would that be a good day at the office? Our actions are so much more powerful than our words. A great leadership team recognises that it is under constant scrutiny and being judged by the workers. So it is crucial that leaders keep their word, and start the change within themselves.

Drift exists in every single organisation. There will always be a gap between ‘work as imagined’ and ‘work as done’ but, once we accept drift – and our role in it – we can work together with our people to identify, understand and address it.

We can massively reduce the chances of that trench collapsing and killing a labourer, of the newly installed equipment failing, of the worker being crushed to death while clearing that jam, or of the major client returning its delivery.

Because once we understand the reality of what is happening on the ground – the actual reality – we can improve our processes and procedures to deal with it.

Employees are not the problem. They are generally good people, trying to do the right thing for their employer. By striving to eliminate drift, to close the gap between work as imagined and work as done – your people can help drive true excellence in your organisation.

Teresa Mullen is Founder and Director of Paradigm Human Performance Ltd

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