How easy is it to slip back into your ‘comfort zone’ during times of stress?
As Theory of Constraints (TOC) and Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) professionals, we’re used to a certain amount of resistance amongst some parts of any team towards implementing TOC or CCPM methodologies. We almost expect this resistance.
Because, more often than not, at least one element of our TOC or CCPM solutions will run counter to the current way of defining ‘success’, the current way of working, or the current way of monitoring performance.
In the beginning, this resistance is natural; we’re challenging the modus operandi. And change is always a difficult process, however agile the organisation. We know that TOC requires a willingness to change. Indeed, the final of TOC’s Five Focus Steps relates to the need to prevent inertia becoming the constraint.
However, sometimes resistance to change goes beyond inertia. Organisations must be prepared for a tendency in some people to drift back to their pre-TOC or pre-CCPM habits.
Even where we’ve had great success and clearly demonstrated the value of the TOC and CCPM methodology, this can be an issue. I remember one CCPM project where we identified a particular design team as the constraint within the business.
We implemented a range of policies to exploit the constraint (freezing projects, limiting the number of active projects, reducing multi-tasking), to subordinate to the constraint (borrowing design resources from elsewhere in the business, elsewhere in the group, and reallocating non-essential jobs to other departments), and elevating the constraint (applying for approval to recruit to the team).
We began to see improvements immediately. The following year, the flow of work through the constraint and overall sales had risen significantly as a result of these initiatives – despite there being less people working in the department we’d identified as the constraint. (Approval had still not come through to recruit to the department, and several people had left or were off long-term sick).
We’d delivered impressive results and, when we left at the end of that consulting period, we felt sure we’d laid the groundwork for continued improvement. The theory had been demonstrated and the results were uncontested. Management were pleased. Staff members were convinced by the changes. Enthusiasm was running high.
Yet, when we returned for the next scheduled consulting period, we were shocked by what we found.
The pressure to clear work before year-end, and additional pressures from absence and reluctance to recruit (even to replace lost staff) had weakened resolve. In a time of stress, staff had reversed the changes that had delivered such great improvements and reverted back to their previous modus operandi.
It isn’t an unusual psychological phenomenon apparently: under pressure people revert to what they know. Even if what they know isn’t working for them.
Multi-tasking was back with a vengeance. The teams were working on far more active projects than we knew to be optimum. Projects were going beyond their assigned buffer again. Far from clearing work for year end, the pressure to complete more projects had ensured that fewer would be completed by year end than seemed realistic three months ago.
For us it was a frustrating step backwards. For the client it was a sharp learning curve. Thanks to the improvements made in the first three quarters of the year, the site still managed to turn in 20 – 30% greater turnover than the previous year, so all was not lost.
But we were left wondering what that figure would have been if the expediters hadn’t been allowed to wrest back the control over project management. There might be a comfort in the old way of doing things, but the results must speak for themselves.
We learnt commitment is key. But a successful TOC or CCPM implementation demands more than that. It requires resilience under pressure. And an understanding that what feels like your comfort zone is, quite often, actually your un-comfort zone.