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Managing Yourself and Your Vendors to Avoid A Crisis

by

Jeanne Sawyer

Steps to Solving Problems Effectively

1:  Define Success Criteria and Measure Performance

2:  Identify Priorities and Risks

3:  Develop and Execute Action Plan

4:  Measure Results

5:  Celebrate

 

A crisis was coming. It was the middle of April, and busy season would begin on July 1, with a seasonal 40% increase in call volume. Busy season for this major utility company’s multi-site call center would last until September 1. The new computer systems were anything but stable, and performance was inadequate even at the current volumes. The utility company and two key vendors were frantically trying to resolve the multitude of problems, but it was obvious to all concerned that the current path was leading to a crisis. At risk were millions of dollars and everyone’s reputation. Failure would be national front page news.

This true story of how three companies implemented a successful "Busy Season Crisis Avoidance" (BSCA) project provides a step-by-step example of how customers and vendors can solve problems effectively and build a real partnership by choosing where they want to go, and defining an effective route to get there. 

Step 1:  Define Success Criteria and Measure Performance

Identifying and defining any problem begins with data: we start by defining what success means for all participants in measurable, objective terms. This tells us what to measure and defines both "threshold" and "optimal" levels of performance. The threshold level defines the point at which we fail; optimal level was where we really wanted to be.

The question to answer is, "How will we know the problem is solved, or as in the example, how will we know that a crisis was successfully avoided?" This key step forces us to focus carefully, get specific, and agree about what is important.

However, we can use the success criteria for more than simply answering "yes" or "no" to whether we solved the problem. We can track trends in these key measures to help us:

  • Determine the truth about what is actually occurring,
  • Understand and plan for risks and vulnerabilities,
  • Focus action to achieving specific results, and
  • Verify that the action taken achieved those results.

In the BSCA project, the success criteria were defined and agreed to in an intensive, facilitated all-day work session. Participants included key management and technical representatives from both vendors and the customer. It was hard work. The group struggled with limiting the success criteria to the minimum required to survive busy season, without adding "would-be-nice" objectives. If extras were added, no matter how desirable for other reasons, the work required to survive busy season would be diluted or even obstructed. However, survival depended on our ability to focus on exactly what was needed to survive busy season—nothing more, nothing less. This was not the time for stretch goals.

Choosing the right metrics was the hardest part because everyone had to discipline their thinking differently than they ever had before. The first difficulty was staying focused on defining survival. The second difficulty was pinning it down to specific, measurable criteria. The third difficulty was accepting that, for this project, establishing thresholds that were less than perfect was not only OK, but necessary. We succeeded by brainstorming possible metrics, then questioning each rigorously:

  • Was the metric important to surviving busy season? If we did not make the threshold, would the president of the utility, or the utilities commission, be calling to ask what happened? If we did achieve it, did we deserve congratulations and a party?
  • Was the metric specific and measurable? Would we know—unambiguously—whether or not we were successful?

After much discussion, the group agreed on threshold and optimal levels of system performance and availability that, if met, would define success. These included such measures as system response time, numbers of timeouts, amount of time lost to unplanned outages, and occurrences of databases not being synchronized.

Once the metrics were defined, it was relatively straightforward to begin collecting the data to demonstrate how we were progressing. For BSCA, updated graphs were produced and reviewed weekly. This allowed us to detect and intervene early if any trend lines headed in the wrong direction or got dangerously close to the threshold levels. Because we started collecting data at the same time we started taking action, we were not able to demonstrate improvement over previous performance. This was not important, however, since we really didn’t care about details of past history. What was important was that the metrics showed our intervening actions were effective at keeping performance below the trouble threshold. The figure below shows an example of how we tracked the data from the beginning of the project through busy season for retrieval timeouts during busy hour. The project began in April. The immediate, positive impact is clear (and successful beyond what anyone thought possible at the beginning of the project).

Graph: busy hour timeouts

 

Step 2:  Identify Priorities and Risks

The next step is to identify priorities based on the success criteria. By analyzing the data, we can choose the areas to focus on that are most important to achieving our success metrics. For example, for BSCA, if timeout levels had started to rise, we knew we must investigate why and address that specific problem immediately. If we did not, timeouts would soon exceed the threshold level, and we would not have survived busy season. The defined success criteria dictate the priorities: we would focus on anything that threatened our success metrics—and not waste our time on anything that had little or no impact on those metrics.

Step 2 also requires that we analyze the situation specifically for risks. We consider both threats to our business that could result from attempting to address the issue and getting it wrong (or from not addressing the issue at all) as well as vulnerabilities, or possible obstacles to success. What could go wrong? Once we know what could go wrong, we can take steps to eliminate the possibility, or at least contain the impact.

Priorities and risks are always evaluated with respect to their impact on our ability to achieve the success criteria. The goal is to resolve first the issues with the largest negative impact on, in this case, the performance and availability metrics. For example, everyone realized that the software vendor had been making, numerous changes to the application software, primarily to make available new features that the customer requested. However, the constant change was a major contributor to making the system unstable, a consequence that would cause BSCA to fail. Once we agreed that surviving busy season was more important than the new features, and once we understood from the data how much system availability suffered when the software was changed, it was easy to agree that no new software would be installed during busy season unless it was to correct a bug that threatened our performance and availability metrics, i.e., our success criteria.

Similar analysis enabled the customer to decide to wait until after busy season to retire some old equipment that the new system would eventually make unnecessary. Although the customer had obviously sound reasons to want the inventory off the books as early as possible, it wasn’t worth jeopardizing busy season survival with yet another major change. The success criteria gave us the ability to say "no" or "not now" to changes that previously had been considered mandatory.

Step 3:  Develop and Execute the Project Plan

With the priorities and risks clearly identified, the next step is to decide what to do about them— and then do it. For each priority and risk, we do the following steps:

  • Chunk it into component issues and define success criteria to measure that the issue is resolved,
  • For each issue, analyze for root causes and verify that the causes are real and important to achieving success criteria,
  • For each cause, identify what deliverables will enable us to eliminate the cause,
  • For each deliverable, identify what actions we must take to create the deliverable.

The actions are the bottom line: until somebody does something to change things, we’ll keep getting what we’re getting. Taking action to avoid or mitigate risks is as critical as taking action to resolve issues that are directly causing the problem.

In BSCA, for example, we identified one major chunk as the lack of change management. Individuals from the utility and the vendors would change things on the system according to their independent requirements, usually with inadequate planning and often conflicting with each other. We determined that one of the causes of the change management problems was that there was no procedure for authorizing any given change or determining when that change should be implemented. Deliverables included documented procedures, a change request form that had to be approved before the change could be implemented, and change criteria for deciding whether a change was essential to BSCA and therefore should be implemented during busy season.

Step 4:  Measure Results

As actions are implemented, we measure how we’re doing by continually checking our success criteria metrics. If the metrics indicate an undesirable trend, or worse, that we’ve exceeded the threshold levels, we immediately re-evaluate what we’re doing to find out why and adjust course as necessary. In this case, it is clear from the steady downward trend of the number of timeouts that the actions are having the desired effect. Some of the other metrics were less ideal, but in every case the metric provided advance warning and we were able to identify what caused the reversal and correct it before we were back in serious trouble.

Step 5:  Celebrate

Avoiding a major crisis is hard work and the people who achieve it deserve congratulations. This key step is often overlooked, perhaps because new issues are always ready for our attention or perhaps because it’s hard to identify when a crisis has been avoided. In any case, avoiding the crisis is far more beneficial to the customer and vendors alike, and we must take care to identify when that occurs and reward the individuals who make it happen.

 

The success of BSCA was celebrated in mid-September, after the seasonal increase was over and the metrics were available that proved we had survived. In this case, everyone who participated in the effort from the utility and both vendors was invited to a special breakfast hosted by senior executives from all three companies. The charts demonstrating the achievement were proudly displayed.

The busy season crisis was avoided, and demonstrated by measurable results. The party was great, the customer executives got their bonuses, the vendor got more business. Nobody made front page news.

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JSawyer@SawyerPartnership.com
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Copyright 2010.  The Sawyer Partnership.  All rights reserved.
Jeanne Sawyer, Ph.D.