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The Principle of Safe Assumption, Part 2

Though I doubt you feel as though you’ve been left to hang and twist in the winds of anticipation, it is safe to assume that curiosity and interest has brought some of you back for Part 2 of this article (the first part was published in last month’s magazine). If you are one of those die-hard, passionate business people who never settles for less than the best and you read Part 1, welcome back. If you haven’t read last month’s article and you have a similar passion, get your hands on it. It’s well worth a read, and I could never do it justice with a mere summary. Nevertheless, in the interests of providing a meaningful and complete article for those who haven’t read Part 1, let me touch on 10 key points covered last month:

• There is nothing wrong with assumptions, if they’re safe.

• A principle for the passionate.

• The advantage the passionate have over competitors.

• Agreement + Delegation = Excellent Execution.

• The need for agreement.

• Process owners and participants versus management and employees.

• It starts and stops at the top.

• Defining your organizational “It.”

• Process development and maintenance.

• Eliminating resistance.

Reading the aforementioned points is like watching a stone skipping across the surface of a very deep pond. If you want to explore the depth beneath them, read part 1.

Finishing our review, we also noted the repetition of the term “agreed” within the principle, and dissected the meaning of agreement: “What we’ve agreed to, within the agreed upon time frame and in the manner we have agreed to do it.” Who will do what by when? In addition, we took a look at what’s involved in making the agreement necessary for the implementation of the principle. A = Agreement + D = Delegation = EE or Excellent Execution. We finished up by baiting you with the assurance that you have something to learn about delegation. So let’s see if that’s the case.

Delegation and Personal Responsibility

Delegation is an organizational culture of personal responsibility

Delegation is old news; we’ve all heard it before. But Let me clarify exactly what I mean when I say that when it comes to delegation, though the milk may be out of the cow, there is still some cream that needs to rise to the top. I’m referring to a higher level of delegation, a delegation of personal responsibility to operate in an environment where your assumptions are safe. Delegation in this sense is a shift of responsibility away from management (process owners) to every participant (employee) within your organization.

With that in mind, let’s take a fresh look at POSA, the principle of safe assumption: It must be safe to assume that we will do what we’ve agreed to, within the agreed upon time frame, and in the manner we have agreed to do it. In addition, it also must be safe to assume that in the rare event that a failure or variation occurs, and if possible before either occur, notice will be given to everyone affected with enough lead time to avoid or minimize negative impact.

An assumption is safe for one simple reason: because everyone involved knows what is expected and has agreed on the manner as well as the time frame in which it is to be done. In addition, a fundamental part of that expectation is that every participant operates under the principle of safe assumption. First and foremost, participants are obligated and held accountable to POSA.

This requires a change in the typical business culture, a shift in responsibility to every participant within an organization. There is a sense in which businesses expect this to be the case. They assume it is. But without making certain, that’s an unsafe assumption. Deep work is required to be certain of that. It requires a deliberate effort from the top down. The agreement must be determined, crafted, communicated, agreed to and enforced. The culture of that business must be one in which participants know what’s expected and agree to it. They must be confronted with the requirement of taking personal responsibility to play their role and abide by POSA.

The culture of a business is extremely important. It is powerful and influences everyone who enters into that culture. It can be a bad culture resulting in bad behavior, or a good culture resulting in good behavior. Every business has a culture. Good or bad, one exists. I can’t stress enough the value of developing the right culture and its usefulness in business.

Let me give you a simple example of how culture influences behavior: Years ago, I did a job for an Asian neighbor. On my first visit I noticed that all their shoes were placed carefully at the front door and that they did not wear them in the house. Although that wasn’t my practice, as I entered I promptly removed my shoes and left them where the shoes belonged in that culture. No one had to tell me to do it, the culture spoke for itself. If the culture of your business is one of personal responsibility, it will influence every participant who steps foot into your organization. It will foster personal responsibility.

While there is much more to be said about the power of culture and its influence with regard to safety, professionalism, etc., I want to stay on point. I’m talking about a culture of organizational personal responsibility, a culture where every participant knows what’s expected because you have taken the time and put forth the effort to develop, document, communicate and enforce those expectations.

The goal is to become an organization in which every participant enters into an agreement with your business to live up to such expectations. They understand that they are responsible to abide by POSA at a minimum. What’s the difference in an organization that has POSA in place? We’ll see.

The Principle in Action

Apply the following to any aspect of your organization. You could apply it to estimating, providing budgets and necessary information to the field prior to job start, payroll being turned in correctly and on time, budget overruns being monitored and reported to upper management, or how past due receivables are handled. You can apply the following scenario to any of the various tasks involved in your organization.

In order to best illustrate an example that may apply to all of you, I have selected the subject of cleanup and debris removal. Final cleanup and debris removal in our organization is to occur no later than the completion date of the project. That is expected, clearly documented, communicated and enforced. That’s what we have established internally as a business, and communicated externally to our customers. In addition, we have two pages of cleanup responsibilities that clearly define what “clean” means. This expectation is documented in our processes and job descriptions, and is non-negotiable.

As I’ve already indicated in Part 1, when I refer to this as non-negotiable I do not mean that policies and processes are not open for discussion. There is a time and a place to discuss and determine them. In other words, it isn’t up for debate on the morning it’s supposed to happen. It is understood organizationally that keeping such policy will not always be easy, but the policy will always be kept.

In the rare (and I do mean very, very rare) event that it cannot occur as per policy, those involved—and especially the customer—should be notified prior to the completion date, and a new agreement should be made and kept. So then, with that policy in place, a customer should never be calling anyone in our organization after the completion date wondering when debris will be picked up. Why? Because we have a policy in place that prevents the need for that phone call to happen.

The benefit of policies, as well as standard operating procedures, company-wide systems and the ability to safely assume that they are understood and in full function, is incalculable. As the situation unfolds, it will be obvious why.

So then, we safely assume that the cleanup subcontractor will make that happen. That is our policy, and it is safe for us, as well as our customers, to assume it will happen—unless they are notified in advance and a new agreement is made and kept.

To underscore the benefit of safe assumption, let me drill down into the crux of the matter and give you an even deeper illustration. Consider the following scenario: A customer calls. He is concerned about debris being picked up, and this weekend is the project’s grand opening. He’s been told to have his job spic and span. It is Thursday, and the completion date is Friday. He wants the debris out now. With the principle of safe assumption working, he can simply be assured that the debris will be out before the weekend. Our response is to assure him that everything is under control and his deadline will be met. We then thank him for the work and hang up the phone. We are operating on the safe assumption that it will be done, or those impacted would have been notified beforehand.

No POSA Leads to Possible Failure

Consider the alternative. You have no policy, no process or agreement in place, and you cannot safely assume anything. Everything depends on how busy the trucks are, if the driver is sick or healthy, if he or she has the day off, etc. The same customer calls, for the same reason, but you don’t know exactly what to tell him. You bashfully respond, “I’m not sure, but I think they will get them picked up in the next day or so.” He replies, “That’s not good enough, I need the debris removed now,” and he rants and raves about past problems with debris being left on site too long. You do your best to calm him down, and tell him you’ll remove the debris right away. He wants to know exactly when. You tell him by tomorrow for sure. You hang up the phone, hoping you can make it happen.

So, the “information chase” begins. I call it an information chase because the information you need must be pursued. It must be pursued because POSA is not in place. If POSA is in place, information will naturally flow to those who need it without them even asking for it. You know what’s going on because you know what’s supposed to be going on and you haven’t been told otherwise. No news is good news. It’s safe to assume and move forward.

All businesses should have a system in place whereby it becomes automatic to inform those involved both internally and externally of what they need to know before they need to know it. The principle of safe assumption is one such system. Think carefully about the benefit. Each part of the organization can operate independently, respond confidently when questioned and rely on each other to perform according to the agreement without the cumbersome need for constant communication.

However, in our second scenario without POSA functioning, you must now chase information. You put in a call to your cleanup contractor, who doesn’t answer. Perhaps he’s out of range, in a meeting or not working that day. So, you leave a voice mail for him explaining the situation. When he checks his message, he’s not exactly sure what his driver has or hasn’t done or intends to do (no POSA). Consequently, he has to contact him. His driver has a bad habit of leaving his phone in the truck, and he doesn’t answer. He leaves him a message. Everyone is on hold. Stress begins to mount.

In this scenario the customer and various individuals in both organizations wait for information. They chase their way down the line, trying to find out what each other can and can’t do or have and haven’t done. The business and its customer are caught in a web of inefficiency. Meanwhile, more and more time, energy and money gets wasted. Worse yet, no one knows what’s going on, and frustrations mount at every level.

This shouldn’t happen. Every organization and its customers should have a basic understanding of what will happen, when it will happen, and how it will happen. Expectations should be well managed. It should be the responsibility of the participant to notify those involved when that changes. It’s that simple. The participant who isn’t able to perform a particular task in the manner they have agreed to, or in the agreed upon time frame, should notify those who will be affected in a timely manner, make a new agreement, and keep it.

If that sounds like an ambitious undertaking, perhaps it is. Although ambitious and not something that we can expect to happen overnight, it can and should happen. It’s really not that complicated or unreasonable to expect. It’s just common sense, but unfortunately, common sense isn’t that common.

The decision is yours. Will you establish a clear agreement with participants, draw them into a commitment to operate under POSA and develop a culture of personal responsibility? Do you have what it takes to put this principle to work in your organization? Downturns like the one we’re in provide an excellent opportunity to do so. Due to time constraints it’s much more difficult to make such changes when the economic cycle turns and the workload picks back up.

So then, there you have it, the Principle of Safe Assumption. Now you know why I opened Part 1 with the comment, “Stop reading here and now” if you don’t have a passion for doing great business. I warned you that this meant hard work, especially for those individuals at the top who must drive the change needed. I also promised a significant return and competitive advantage for the investment of time, energy and passion involved. You’ll never know if that’s true unless you’re willing to do what it takes to put this principle to work in your organization.

Then again, you could opt to settle forever into the mediocrity of business as usual.

Which will it be?

Doug Bellamy is president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. DBA Alta Drywall, Carlsbad, Calif. His company is also a winner of this year’s AWCI Excellence in Construction Safety Award.

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