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The Principle of Safe Assumption (POSA), Part 1

Twenty-five years ago, I remember organizing my desk preparing to leave the office after a 14-hour day. I wasn’t finished. I was never finished. I was leaving because my mental energy was exhausted and I could no longer be productive. The next morning I would return at 4:30 a.m. and do it again and again and again.

I felt as though I had been taken out to sea and dropped off in treacherous waters. Worse yet, I didn’t know which direction the shore was. I had one alternative: Keep swimming and hope I was headed in the right direction. I’d like to tell you I was picked up by a cruise ship, but the truth is I found a beat-up but oversize lifeboat and the challenge to refurbish it into a yacht.

Looking back, we had survived a serious downturn that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We emerged from virtually no available work and grew to 300+ employees in a few short years. Managing that rapid growth was a matter of survival.

We simply couldn’t be everywhere watching everything. It became apparent that we needed to foster an environment of dependability and trust. Somehow we needed employees and management to be responsible and reliable; we were nearly forced into discovering what many businesses in other industries already knew and practiced.

During that time frame we were producing a completed house every 45 minutes of an eight-hour day, five days a week. Necessity mothered the need for job descriptions, best practices, systems and procedures, as well as our own quality program DOQS (the Definition of Quality Service)—all built squarely on the principle of safe assumption.

You’ve probably heard the saying “assuming makes an ass out of you and me.” The implication is that you should never assume anything. Rather, you should constantly check up on everything and police your organization. However, that is way too much work and, in my opinion, unnecessary.

One thing is certain: Life is full of assumptions. We assume that a light switch will work, a starter on a car will start that car, the trash will be picked up on Wednesday and our paychecks will clear the bank. We expect and assume a long list of things every day. There is nothing wrong with that, unless of course those assumptions are unsafe.

The problem isn’t assuming. The problem is the unsafe assumption, the surprise failure and the negative impact of the unsafe assumption. The real problem is the failed occurrence of what’s assumed will happen and being blindsided by the failed assumption.

Before we get too far into this, let me preface everything that follows by saying two things. First, we have not arrived. This is a work in progress; however, our vision is clear. Our objective is a simple two-word phrase: Get there! Second, if you don’t have a passion for doing great business, this article isn’t for you. Save yourself some time and stop reading here and now.

If, on the other hand, you are passionate about improving your organization and charting a course to navigate today’s treacherous seas, read on. Your time will not be wasted. If you fall into the latter category, this article is written for you. Fortunate for you as well, your competitors have probably stopped reading and started flipping the pages to the next article.

Now, for those of you who have my attention, my task is to take a fairly complex but valuable principle and simplify it. If at times the principle described herein seems complicated or a daunting task, that’s because it is.

Most of your competitors will not even take the time to read this through, much less put it into practice. This is for the relentless few who refuse to settle for anything less than the best. This principle can and will revolutionize your business. That is, if you have what it takes to drive your organizational culture into it.

The “Principle of Safe Assumption (POSA)” is this: 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 must also be safe to assume that, in the rare event that a failure or variation occurs, and (if possible) before either occurs, notice will be given to everyone affected, with enough lead time to avoid or minimize negative impact.

In order to put this principle to work in an organization, it requires two key components: A & D.

A is for Agreement: Who will do what by when?

D is for Delegation: an organizational culture of personal responsibility.

A + D = Double E, or Excellent Execution, as well as the bonus of minimal need for communication organizationally and relief from the constant policing of your organization—a few of the benefits you’ll experience as a result of POSA, if (the biggest little word in the world) you’ve got what it takes to make it happen.

The Benefits of “Safe Assumption”

Reduced need for communication. Elimination of the “information chase,” we don’t need to talk unless we need to talk.

Ease of operation. People are well informed and processes function well.

Safe predictability. Confidence. We know that we can safely trust in one another.

Tasks are consistently performed well in a relaxed setting. No news is good news.

Maximum poise to respond to any variation. When changes occur, timely communication allows time to adjust before a failure occurs.

The desperate need to constantly police your operation is replaced by a culture of personal responsibility on which you can rely.

Let’s unpack the two key components (A & D). Rereading POSA, you will notice the repetition of the term agreed: what we’ve agreed to, within the agreed upon time frame and in the manner we have agreed to do it.

A = Agreement

In order to keep the necessary agreement, there has to be an agreement. So then, who will do what by when? But before you can make such an agreement you must determine “best practices” resulting in clear path processes, and determine job descriptions for participants and process owners.

As we get into this you will note that I do not refer to management and employees but rather process owners and participants. Those are my preferred terms, and with good reason. The reasons will be self-evident as you continue reading.

To develop such an agreement requires an extensive effort to determine a step-by-step process from start to finish of what you do, how you do it and how you keep improving it. A good process should have a provision for every eventuality and provide clear guidance to the participants. Such guidance provides the compliant participant a failsafe approach to achieving the intended result.

I’m unwilling to agree with the assumption that participants “should know” or “do know.” That’s an unsafe assumption. First we must make sure they know what’s expected. Until a business owner has done his part to determine and clearly communicate expectations, the principle of safe assumption cannot be implemented.

The roughneck, ruthless approach of management (process owners) telling employees (participants) to “get it done” doesn’t produce great business. Participants may get it done and it even may get done on time, but who’s “it” is it? Is it the organizations “it” or the participant’s personal definition of what “it” was? Participants must know what “it” is. You must define your organizational “it.”

Determining what it is you want and need as an organization to operate at peak performance is challenging. It requires an organization to delve deeply into the operational intricacies involved in every task.

This “heavy lifting” on the part of owners, presidents, CEOs, process owners and participants must be a top priority. The desire to define and document processes for each task must permeate your organization. It is job #1. Everyone involved must row the same boat and row it in the same direction. In order to define your organizations “it,” your organization must make a concerted effort. The best way to determine best practices, develop job descriptions and communicate them is through deliberate effort, careful thought and in a documented format. A process!

The goal is to completely remove the excuse that ignorance provides and the uncertainty that exists in not knowing for certain that participants are informed. When failure occurs due to the ignorance of participants, it is a failure on the part of the business, not a field or office failure.

Without being certain that participants are fully informed of their responsibilities, it is impossible to know with certainty whether failure on the part of participants is the result of non-compliance or ignorance. Therefore, you cannot act decisively and take the proper action when failure occurs.

Defining a Process

As you delve into process making, oftentimes you realize that you haven’t really considered how intricate some tasks are. Consequently, you begin to see how difficult consistently accomplishing some tasks properly can be. Why? It’s because there are so many variables. What if this happens, or that? What do we want participants to do? If the business doesn’t know, nobody does.

When you don’t even know what you want participants to do, how can you expect them to do it? In many cases you probably haven’t carefully thought about the numerous possibilities and given them clear direction. Without completing this important role, you are merely leaving your success to chance and hoping for the best, which is a very unsafe assumption.

However, maintaining this regiment of clear path processes does not mean that you should overly restrict behaviors and or complicate matters. Nor should you ever remove the potential for personal creativity and innovation. Processes should be no more burdensome than absolutely necessary. Regulation for regulation’s sake is not the point.

Processes should be the simplest path to consistently achieve the desired outcome. If someone finds a better way, the process needs to change. You must remain open to change and insist on improvement. No process is so good that it cannot be improved.

Process owners should be assigned to each process and held responsible for its maintenance and enforcement, as well as the simplification and improvement of their respective processes. They own the process. They can and should constantly look for ways to improve and simplify processes. The last thing we want to do is stifle innovation by bureaucracy.

Nobody knows everything about anything. Processes should be living documents and subject to the “collective wisdom and combined brilliance” of both process owners and participants. They should be a synergistic effort, subject to the input of everyone involved. If a process needs to be changed or improved, then it must change and improve.

Participants must have a voice in each process they are involved in. They should appeal to process owners when they believe a process needs changed. This way everyone from every perspective has a voice in the process, and processes will continually improve.

Process owners should carefully analyze any failures that occur. A failure then becomes an opportunity for improvement. Please lay hold on this. A problem is an opportunity to improve! Failure should drive process owners back to the process to determine what needs to change in order to eliminate future failure.

Anyone within an organization refusing to play his or her part in this vital role can produce a stalemate of failure and inefficiency. They not only hinder progress, but in the worst case scenario, foster pockets of resistance that hinder the business and impede the possibility of obtaining this crucial and non-negotiable goal. They have failed to exhibit an interest in the common good of the organization, which is essential to every process owner and participant. If it becomes apparent that a participant will not align himself with such intentions, they must be eliminated.

So then, there must be an agreement, and in order for that agreement to occur, those involved must know who will do what by when. That covers A = agreement. Now for D = Delegation. We’ll be getting into that next month. But don’t be too sure you know everything there is to know about delegation. Though the milk may be out of the cow with regard to delegation, there is still some cream rising to the top!

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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