Team Communication Beats Individual Accountability

Written by:
Charles "Chaz" Campbell

Accountability & Ownership Are Nice, But…

I recently spent a day observing the work process and team communication of a crew in a typical industrial setting. I followed the threads of the work that ultimately resulted in delayed work, non-productive time, schedule interruption and many other issues that unexpectedly required last minute parts and resources. As part of understanding the How and Why of this inefficient work, I had the privilege of talking with a very experienced supervisor. As we talked through the events he was taking ownership and accountability for the actions that had led to this poorly executed work. So, accountability and ownership are nice … but is that enough? Let’s back up.

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The work under review was a pretty simple mission: “change out a 12-inch diverter valve.” The problem, however, was that this mission objective was not written correctly. Since the unit had a diverter valve that was not functioning properly, the first mission objective should have been for the appropriate craft specialists to: “Evaluate the problem, and fix or direct next steps.” However, this unclear Mission remained in the system as written despite the fact that leadership had made the decision to task the Boilermaker team to replace the offending valve. This was planned and scheduled for the Boilermaker team as routine, scheduled work; but was not planned and scheduled for the other crafts that were required to actually execute this change out: specifically, the Rigging and Instruments Teams.

The day of the work, the Boilermaker team and the Team Leads were coordinating for this work, accomplishing the tailgate pre-job plan, and obtaining the part. Shortly after work began it was identified that the required valve was not available in the proper configuration and would require Millwright work to reconfigure the valve. At this point, this scheduled work was now interrupting the work of 3 crafts as the needed support moved this job from routine to Emergency priority. I will let those of you reading this consider how much this impact to the day’s schedule cost in lost/non-productive time.

Team Communication Improved With a Debrief Meeting

However, the point of this story is not the efficiency of the work associated with what I had observed, but the need that I clearly saw to increase team communication and debrief the events that had led to this lack of production. So, back to my meeting with the supervisor. It is certainly refreshing to encounter a leader who said, when asked, “It’s on me!” Unfortunately, I had trouble getting him to understand that while I was thrilled that he was accountable, it would be more effective to ask the questions in a debrief:

  • What was the actual result of this event? Understanding the actual result in terms of time wasted and money lost helps us understand how much effort we should put into solving this problem.
  • How did this happen? We need to look back into the process and understand where this mission broke down. At this point I don’t completely know. But, as a minimum it started with a poorly defined Mission Objective: “Valve doesn’t work” is not clear, measurable and achievable.
  • Why did this happen? The root cause to a failure in scheduled work is not: “It’s on me!” or “Next time get the right part.” Don’t get me wrong, it could be simply a break down in discipline and the failure of an individual person to do what they were supposed to do. However, work should be planned in such a way that one individual is unlikely to make a mistake that results in a large nonproductive-time event. We need to look back at the planning as a root cause.
  • Finally, what is the actual Lesson Learned? What are we going to do to fix this, who is responsible for the follow through, and when will it be accomplished? If we don’t get to this step then we have failed our responsibility to be a learning organization. If we don’t do this step, even with great ownership and accountability, we have failed the organization. If we don’t do this step, we have simply conducted, at best, a review of what happened without the needed steps to improve future performance.

This event needs to focus on two important questions:

  1. Was the planning process sufficient to ensure that this work could have been accomplished in a planned and efficient manner?
  2. Was it the correct decision to allow a problem in planned work for one craft to escalate this job to an Emergency status and disrupt the planned work for 3 other crafts?

Successful Teams Communicate

In summary, ownership and accountability are wonderful … but let’s not think that the attitude of “I own it, and I won’t let that happen again” is sufficient to improve future performance. Communication is what builds successful teams.

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