Take Ownership for Reliability

Dr. Nathan C. Wright, Transformational Performance Solutions

I am proud to partner with the great folks at Noria to inform and educate those looking to their organization’s reliability effort as well as work on self-improvement. To this end I will be writing two articles a month on a variety of topics directed at the improvement of ourselves and our organizations.

I have found that in order to be successful at anything we do, we first need to look at the leadership involved and the key aspect to that is taking Ownership. As one of my friends reminds me, “Ownership is The One Grand Key that Changes Everything Else.”

Why should you read this article? Well the fact is that if you can achieve a proactive approach to your equipment, you can save up to 90% of what it is costing you to react to it. The universal fact about equipment is you schedule the right maintenance, or it will schedule the wrong maintenance for you. Let’s not look at the 90% possible savings but look at a 10% reduction in maintenance costs.

If you can correctly reduce maintenance costs by 10%, it is equivalent to a 40% increase in production. The difference being that reducing maintenance costs correctly is achievable without building another plant and employing another workforce. Increasing production would require both. So, this and the following articles will focus on the correct way to reduce maintenance costs in order to capture the 40% increase in productivity.

The informative years for all of us are from birth to five years old. Think about how you are taught during these years. You have a coach/mentor by your side guiding you. If you do something well, you are praised and even possibly instructed as to why you did well.

If you attempt to do something harmful, you are stopped and instructed in corrective measure to prevent harm. Sometimes you can fail, and then your coach helps you understand why you failed and how to adjust to correct the approach. This coaching continues throughout your first five years.

What changes when you turn five? You are sent off to school. Here the teaching changes. In your academic environment, you are rewarded for good behavior and disciplined for bad. You are strapped in a chair and force feed mounts of information.

You are never told how it relates to what you are doing or given validation that what they are teaching is correct. This is repeated by your leaders and others in leadership positions serving as examples for us. No wonder most of us end up leading transactionally; it is all we know.

The most common question I get when I talk about taking ownership, is when do I have time? I understand this question, because I have been in your shoes. Along time ago in a galaxy far far away, I had a mentor that gave me the answer to this question.

He told me that the answer to doing the right things, is to stop doing the wrong things. Then he proceeded to tell me what the wrong thing were. So, I will start our ownership quest by telling you what five things we as leaders need to stop doing in order to free up our time to do the right things.

Things Leaders Should Stop/Start Doing Immediately

With the increasing pressure to do more with less, we are bombarded by the need to change the way we think. To lead organizational change, you need to figure out what you should stop doing. The difficulty is that this process is tougher than it appears. 

Many of us must manage both up and down the chain of command. You may find yourself in an organization that is not ready for a communication approach that is vastly different from one that anyone has seen before. With the preponderance of senior leaders lacking leadership skills, you may need to educate the leaders of your organization before employing the recommendations that follow.

What to Stop Doing

Five things I believe all leaders should stop doing in order to become more effective:

1. Best Practices

There exists no better example of herd mentality than that of best practices. I have always thought that a so-called best practice stops the minute it is branded as such. Best practices defend the status quo and limit innovation by ensuring people/processes follow the same practices.

You cannot distinguish by accepting likeness. The idea of best practices is nothing more than mixing norms at your own peril. Smart leaders innovate past best practices, always in search of next practices.

If your choice to do something is made because others are doing it the same way, you are doing nothing more than conceding advantage and opportunity to those competitors more creative than you.

Lean manufacturing, and most other recent initiatives that are embraced by senior leaders, is focused on driving the organization towards best practices. In our rush to shortcut hard work, we have conceded competitive advantage. To regain this advantage, we need to realize this and stop doing it.  Don’t copy, create.

2. Cost Cutting

It is just impractical to beat your opposition to the future by spending less than they do; you get there first by investing more smartly than they do. Companies who surpass their competition focus less on risk and more on opportunity.

They are less concerned with controlling expenditures and more worried about finding new ways to create greater return on investment. I have often promoted the idea that the duty of leaders is not to leverage their people but to establish more leverage for their people. Stop expecting your people to do more with less and find ways to provide them with a resource advantage.

There is a big difference between cost cutting haphazardly and reducing the budget by improving reliability. Stop levying hiring freezes and begin an unyielding pursuit of creating a talent advantage. Leaders who complain about a lack of resources are doing nothing more than demonstrating their lack of resourcefulness.

3. Political Correctness

The fact is that politically correct thinking is most often deceitful, if not altogether intellectually dishonest. Politically correct thinking replaces uniqueness and authentic opinions with socially acceptable rhetoric and diluted behavioral tendencies. I miss the days when most conversations consisted of highly charged and stimulating discourse where people were urged to openly share their true thoughts and opinions.

The irony of politically correct thinking is that a society empty of individual thought creates the reverse of diversity. Politically correct thinking results in a programmed group of sheep who completely lack diversity because of a gentrification of thoughts and actions. The sinister secret behind politically correct thinking is that it gradually clouds your senses and sterilizes your inherent capability to be discerning.

If you are like me, you don’t want your team to say what they think you want to hear, or what they believe they should say, but you do want them to say what they are thinking. How many meetings have you attended where everyone sat around the table like a bunch of deer in the headlights trying to figure out how to wiggle around an issue rather than address it head on?

It is this type of issue that taints our culture, suppresses innovation, weakens our productivity, and condemns those who accept politically correct thinking to a life of mediocrity.

4. Glorifying the Few

Leadership is not a position or a title. It is not a job reserved only for a precious few presiding over the masses. Here is something to keep in mind: if you tell people enough times or loud enough that they are not leaders, you should not be amazed when they begin to believe you.

Your job is not to repress people from leadership, but to establish leadership ubiquity. The most triumphant organizations are those where all team members view themselves as leaders. Leadership that cannot be transferrable, scalable, repeatable, and sustainable isn’t leadership at all. Build your organization on a foundation that builds leadership into all team members, regardless of where they are on the organizational chart.

5. Unwillingness to Change

Look at any study on the speed of change, and you will find you are living in an unprecedented time. The rate of change is clearly overtaking most leaders’ ability to learn and unlearn. Most leaders fight to remain current, not to mention find a way to move ahead of the curve.

Here’s the thing: if leaders are living in the past, their organizations will be required to travel an extremely rough road to the future.

The solution to the leadership training problem is to scrap it for development. Don’t train leaders--mentor them, coach them, and develop them--but please do not train them. Where training attempts to homogenize by blending to a norm and adapting to the status quo, development attempts to call out the unique and discriminate by shattering the status quo.

Training is something leaders dread and will avoid, while they will embrace development. Development is nuanced, contextual, collaborative, fluid, and primarily actionable.

The reason it is important to stop doing things that do not add value is to free up the time you will need to start doing things the right way. People are always telling me, “This is great, but I do not have time to do what I am doing now.” I have found myself in this same place, but I eventually realized that about half of what we do each day does not add value. Taking a critical look at your daily activities will open your eyes.

How many meetings do you attend that have other members of your team in them? Why? How many meetings do you attend and say nothing? This goes on and on. When I say this I always hear, “Not me. Everything I do adds value.” Sorry, you are lying to yourself because that is not possible.

The only way to make a change happen is to do something. To do something, you need time. To get the time, you must stop doing things that do not add value.  As a leader you need to understand what adds value. The key to adding value is to take ownership and not use victim statements. Next, I want to explain what I mean when I say that you should take ownership and not be a victim.

Start Taking Ownership

The ability to lead is all about taking ownership. Throughout your day, you must make many decisions. To accomplish this, you must make a choice. This applies to almost every moment. You stand at either a conscious or unconscious nexus of choice. At this moment, you must choose to respond as either a victim or an owner. The criticality of this decision cannot be overemphasized.

Even when they seem unimportant, these choices represent pivotal moments in your life. In these moments, the victim or owner decision has consequences, and these consequences drive results.  With each owner choice, you take charge of the issue, costs and outcomes by deciding to act rather than be influenced. A good friend of mine, Dr. Dennis Deaton, is the author of the book Ownership Spirit: The One Grand Key that Changes Everything Else. When I first read his book, it changed my life.

Dennis says, “The consummate truth of life is that we alter our destiny by altering our thoughts.” We have power over our thoughts, and while you may not be able to control what happens to you, you can control how you respond to it. I am reminded of this day in and day out.

Reliability leadership is all about making decisions. The only way to accomplish this is to have the experience to draw upon to make the decision. The only way to get this experience is to have hands-on reliability work history. There is no college degree that teaches you what you need to make the necessary decisions every day as a reliability leader.

As I have noted over and over throughout this book, there are no shortcuts to leadership in reliability. There are no substitutes for hard work and the time it takes to become a skilled tradesperson. Organizations are setting the people they are hiring to fill these key positions up for failure if they are not qualified. To have the confidence to take ownership of the situations that they will be presented with, they need the wealth of knowledge that only comes from hands-on experience.

A title does not make you a leader, having followers does, and the only way to get a reliability team to follow you is to earn their respect. To do this, you will have had to have walked in their footsteps and had the internal fortitude to take ownership of the fact that experience is the only path to reliability leadership.

Owner or Victim are not Characteristics

Owner or victim are not characteristics but represent contrasting mental approaches. They are different ways to look at the world that deliver dramatically different results. When you are a victim, you relinquish your power and are ineffective.

As an owner, you retain your power and release more power. Think of all the times you have been confronted by the issue of having insufficient time and money to accomplish a task. How did you respond? Was your response “How do they expect us to do this?”  or was it “Here is what we can do given these constraints?”  The difference between victim and owner thinking is that simple.

The biggest part of this battle for me has been realizing when I am victim thinking. It is not possible to be an owner all the time. No matter how hard I have tried, I have not been able to keep the victim inside me from slipping out from time to time. The key to managing the times you are the victim is to realize when it is happening and make the shift to be an owner.

Now does that mean you need to wait for things to happen to you. Absolutely not. Here is where experience can help you prevent situations where you find yourself making a victim or owner decision. This is another example of being an owner. It is not all about how you react, but how you approach every moment of your life. Having the experience to get ahead of situations is another aspect of taking ownership.

Here again is where organizations are hiring into leadership positions people without the prerequisite experience and setting them up for failure. While owner and victim are not identities, they complement your identity either for better or worse.

A victim looks for a scapegoat. There are a lot of excuses, from something nearby all the way to God. Victims are pessimists who look at the world with a “glass half empty” mentality. They squander their lives, viewing it as one big plot or a string of hindrances.

When leaders act as victims, they feel that all situations are overwhelming and that they cannot influence anything. Victims reject accountability for the consequences and do not take responsibility for anything. You hear victims say things like “They made me do it,” “I had to do it,” or “It is your fault.” When victim thinking, you fail to work on problems, goals, or challenges. Victims are indignant, astonished, and intimidated. When victim thinking, you do not make a difference or see opportunity.

In reliability leadership, there is little room for victim thinking. When someone is hired for a position that they do not possess the knowledge or experience to fulfill, they will quickly find themselves in the victim-think mentality. Because they lack the breadth of experience to draw upon when confronted with the day-to-day operations of reliability efforts, they quickly look for scapegoats.

I have heard many such persons say, “I need to ask my manager” or “How am I supposed to know that?” Qualified reliability professionals do not need to ask their managers because they are the subject-matter experts themselves. The answer to “how am I supposed to know that?” is experience teaches you. With qualifications come more owner speak and thinking, so organizations looking for their leaders to take ownership need to hire qualified people for these positions.

How to Think Like an Owner

Owners look for what to do. They know that the right thing is usually not the easy thing to do and they don’t look for it to be. When they are faced with an obstacle, they figure it out and overcome it. Owners concentrate on values that trigger success and learn from previous lessons to build their body of knowledge. The enjoyment of overcoming resistance is exactly equal to it.  US Navy SEALS are the epitome of ownership spirit.

Making the decision to be an owner comes with experience and the knowledge that you are qualified for the tasks at hand. In the world today, organizations are less worried about having the most qualified personnel in their positions and more worried about the bottom line.

I have personally seen this in most of the organizations I have worked for and with. Few of the organization’s leaders have earned their way to the positions they hold. Most are examples of the “Peter Principle;” that is, they have been promoted to their highest level of incompetence.

All levels of these organizations suffer from having leaders who do not have the knowledge or experience to execute their jobs effectively. Because of this inadequate leadership, these organizations lean towards victim thinking. Owner thinking eludes them because they lack the qualifications for the positions they hold.

You share the process of victim or owner thinking. Nobody is one or the other but a combination of both. You move through victim thinking so easily you don’t even know you are doing it. It is important to understand that no one has a set personality or fixed characteristics.

Once you understand that what you are doing works and is progressing, you will be prepared to smash through all obstacles. There is no limit to the chances to release the power of victim/owner choice. Developing ownership muscle gives you the capability to act calmly in conflict or the noise around you. It allows you to think clearly. You have the option to respond as an owner or react as a victim. Real reliability professionals respond as owners.

A Navy SEAL friend of mine use to say that “they don’t bring SEALS in to negotiate, they don’t bring them in to be fair, they don’t bring them in for any other reason but to win. It’s not a self-help group-- they are there to take over and tilt the odds back in favor of America.”

Now I am not equating a reliability professional with a Navy SEAL, but there are similarities in the philosophy. A reliability professional does not negotiate; they are not fair; they take over and win. In the case of reliability, this unfolds as a dogged effort to transform an organization from production-centric to productivity-centric. Production cannot and will not happen without reliability.

It takes a hard-charging reliability professional to move this needle. These professionals operate and dwell in the space between reality and fantasy. The reality is that most organizations do not value maintenance but want reliability. When a true reliability professional leads an organization down the path to reliability, some might think it is fantasy, but it is only a fantasy if the reliability leaders are engineers or consultants who are not qualified by experience to lead the efforts.

My next article will focus on the history of leadership, the styles, and the research behind my approach to successful reliable plant operations. Feel free to drop me a note or call if there is a topic you would like to see, if you have questions, or would just like to chat.

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About the Author

Nathan Wright, founder and president of Transformational Performance Solutions, LLC is one of the country's foremost experts on maintenance and reliability and transformational leadership.