No-Brainer Management, Part 8: Organizational Alignment, Continued


Last month, I started a new (for me) discussion about a topic I call “organizational alignment.” It is one of the topics in the No-Brainer program I have been presenting in recent seminars. I have noticed in my travels that many departments have a challenge trying to effectively connect all the different people and parts of their system in a way that creates a unified approach to delivering service on the outside and providing support on the inside.

Most bosses have not been trained or prepared to create and maintain such organizational coordination, particularly when their level of performance must effectively connect to the rest of the system to execute a function that requires everyone to go in the same direction. Although the topic is not included in a standard management training curriculum, it is a recurring part of the hallway conversation I engage in with the troops who observe that in their department, the left hand many times doesn’t know what the right one is doing at any given time. Even though we struggle to do that kind of multilevel coordination, we continually attempt to get the left/right hand together because we live with all the confusion that emerges from nonalignment. We also benefit greatly from having the different parts of the organization positively relate to each other.

When I look at the result of not effectively creating organizational alignment, there are some very practical (critical) areas of activity that require a boss to support using basic management systems to get everyone to do their part on their level to do those things the same way (= alignment). This may seem simple, but the lack of doing these fundamental things causes great confusion and sometimes great pain-in fact, in some cases, the lack of effective tactical alignment can create fatal outcomes. Every level operating at a line-of-duty death incident wishes it could replay its part and redo everything and anything that could have prevented the sad outcome.

Last month, we began to describe some of the basic areas in which the part of every level participating in that activity must be coordinated and connected. We discussed the importance of having all in the organization first agree on the values that will direct them before the members of each level act out their roles. This sounds simple, but it is a major challenge to get everyone from the top to the bottom to be directed the same way. Lots of mission/value statements are long and flowery and seem to cause the troops to roll their eyes when they are presented as part of the organizational sermon.

I was part of a system for a long time that had a five-word mission statement: “Prevent harm/survive/be nice.”

  • Prevent harm meant that we were in the harm prevention business and should always prevent harm wherever and whenever we encountered it. If harm was underway, we should try to stop it, and if someone had already been harmed, we should help him recover from it.
  • The survive component was directed toward the promise we made to put ourselves physically in between the customer and the incident problem and to do everything we can to protect the harm-preventing worker. This caused us to create and maintain an extensive safety/survival program.
  • The be nice part described that every person (inside and outside the system) had the most durable memory of being treated with respect, kindness, patience, and consideration (= nice). Those same people also had the same sometimes lifelong memory of when they were treated the opposite.

We described how the team performance is a big alignment deal when we must go out and operate on the strategic/tactical/task levels together in hazard zone situations that require every level to do what it is in place to do and to do it along with everyone else. The fireground is truly alignment “showtime” for the system. The tactical conditions we encounter will test our ability to effectively connect with each other in the most critical way because if we are not effectively aligned, we will get out of balance with each other, and the hazards sometimes will hurt/kill us.

I have engaged in an almost lifelong project of attempting to understand and create tactical alignment on the three basic levels (IC/Sectors/Companies) that produce an effective local fireground management system. Said system must manage the safety and effectiveness of the first-arriving unit all the way up to the resources required to control major greater alarms. That same system started in the 1970s and is now at a more advanced teaching/testing level (Blue Card Command) based on the efforts of my two fire officer sons. They have combined their street experience with their computer/audiovisual skills to take the program way past my paper/pencil level.

I have used a strategic/tactical/task fireground example to describe internal alignment because it is so graphic and so critical, but there are a gazillion of other very important areas where the three levels must effectively connect to do things the same way throughout the organization. In fact, those three levels have wide application to how we operate off the fireground and create a huge challenge/opportunity to align ourselves internally. It is an ongoing function of management to track and compare the positions of the strategic, tactical, and task levels on a scale as they relate to an activity or a function. The positions on the scale create an “alignment geometry” for that issue that shows a boss where to exert attention and effort to get the positions closer together. Doing this special geometry requires analysis, artful direction, and constant attention.

Another area of alignment involves safety. How do we do operational safety every time, every place, with everyone in the same way? A single person operating outside our basic safety routine in the hazard zone can threaten the whole team. Sometimes when luck runs out for the rule breaker, the whole team must expose themselves to extreme danger trying to rescue the reckless link in the chain. I am writing this sitting on an airplane where I now seem to spend a lot of time. I hope that the operation of “my” plane is being flown according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (really grumpy about safety) and that the pilot is directed by the standard safety stuff the FAA has developed to produce one scheduled takeoff and one scheduled landing. In my travels, I fly on almost any of the airline companies that wing off to where I am going; they all seem to follow the basic operational routine the same way.

The safety stuff on the card in the seat pocket of every airline must be printed by the same guy; they are all the same. I once asked a pilot what “shift” he was on to see if he practiced safety differently than the other shifts. He looked at me as if I were crazy. He seemed to fly the plane in a fairly standard manner from where I was sitting (cheap seat). I’m glad they don’t have A, B, and C shift. Maybe we need the FAA to manage how we operate. That would solve our seat belt challenge; it’s odd that a 135-pound flight attendant can get 175 passengers in their belts by walking one way up the aisle!

Different work groups on different shifts and in different places within the same organization must deliver customer service the exact same way for the organization to be effective. When we deliver unaligned customer service, Mrs. Smith will get treated differently (sometimes a lot differently) based on who is on duty that day and the mood of that person. Such uneven treatment leads to a ton of customer complaints. It is critical that bosses create, teach, and reinforce a standard routine for how humans (regardless of where we encounter them) will be treated wherever they connect to the organization. As we have discussed over and over, how the leaders inside the organization treat the members gets delivered on the outside. A major function of senior officers must involve developing policies, procedures, and practices that describe how inside-outside human relations will be conducted. The behavior of those bosses when they interact with everyone, every place, every time also sends a strong message of whether the positive treatment policy is beef or bologna.

Mrs. Smith trusts us and loves us because we help her when she is having a really bad day. In a related way, Firefighter Smith loves and trusts Chief Smith when he receives that same help on a bad day (or sadly, the opposite). The management of human relations absolutely requires the same structure as every other operational activity. Those policies must be written, training must be done, the system must be reviewed, and the lessons must produce a practical and timely update. The word “nice” always seems to be used and remembered when the first human connects to the second human; creating and using a procedure that describes that behavior could be the most important one in the manual.

It would be simple and peachy if we could line up everyone and just march on to alignment paradise, but life is not that simple. Virtually everything and everybody are in a constant state of change. This ongoing change requires that we engage in continuous improvement to match those changing conditions. It is the role of leaders to do two things at once: (1) to develop the systems to create and maintain the alignment process we have discussed, and (2) to continually review the environment and develop methods that produce the very best way to connect to current conditions and opportunities.

Making these improvements should emerge out of a regular process where everybody on every level can contribute their observations and ideas to improving operations. This occurs in an orderly and ongoing way and must become a regular way of life for the system. This approach causes an ongoing internal discussion based on this ongoing input. The alignment process must be very stable and predictable so the members can depend on how the system operates. Within that stability, there must also be an ongoing conversation about how those stable systems are meeting the needs of the current (many times changing) environment. The conversation becomes more effective if the input comes from a diverse set of people who share their personal capabilities, experiences, and perceptions. This diversity creates a robust process that must be managed by smart, patient bosses with good facilitation skills.

Everyone must have the confidence that any changes will be well discussed, tested, and developed in an effective way and that everyone will be trained in a functional manner to implement the change. These processes generally will occur in a gradual way wherein department members will be informed and prepared to do the new routine. This continuous improvement approach within the context of alignment must become a familiar, natural, comfortable, and habitual part of the regular culture.

Let’s look at such an improvement example. We are currently living through a revision in how we conduct structural firefighting operations. Recent scientific testing has shown us that some of our traditional fireground methods require updating. Tactical things like flow path (air) management, the disposition (closing) of doors, quick water application, and a new understanding of ventilation dynamics have created an exciting set of new operational improvements. What we have done in the past has served us in the best way those traditional methods could produce. Those past practices were based on the best information we could produce at the time. Now, very capable, experienced scientists have set fires and done testing in real structures and have produced a safer, more effective way to do business.

Today, the role of operational bosses is to acknowledge the data the new testing has produced and to connect and integrate that testing direction to our current standard operating procedures. Updating how we operate does not require a huge personality change. The new techniques fit into and improve what we have done for a long time. Mrs. Smith called us because her kitchen is on fire. She really doesn’t care or really notice if we do a quick hit, interrupt the air flow by managing the doors, and then go in and finish the job as we have done for the past 300 years. We have always protected her, the cat (Fluffy), and her possessions, and the new techniques will improve how we continue to do just that. Our task now is to smoothly produce a revised set of procedures that creates a new, safer profile of alignment.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site


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