Monday, August 18, 2008

Commanding Officers speak to organizational performance consultants

At the OPC course this past week, the LDC sponsored a panel of present and former command staff (CO/XO) for the folks going through the course. The panel was composed of an O-6 currently serving as a district resources officer, an O-5 on the staff of the Academy, an O-4 serving as an XO, and an O-3 station commanding officer.

I found the panel discussion enlightening and useful; this wasn’t appropriate solely for new organizational performance consultants. There was something in the discussion for everyone.

Here are some rambling thoughts about the panel presentation.

How a consultant can help unit leaders

One of the primary take-aways for me is that the panel members believe that the relationship between the consultant and the client are key. They want an honest assessment of what the consultant finds, and they want recommendations as to the key one or two things that they can do to improve within the Criteria framework.

At a large unit, it is difficult for the commanding officer to really know what is going on at the deckplate level, and the work of the consultant allows them to see down to that level. They want to tap into the consultant’s experience; OPCs visit lots of units, and the panel members want to hear about proven practices within the framework of the Criteria in the same way that operational standardization teams bring proven practices which can be implemented to increase performance.

They don’t want another inspection; they want consultants to show up and help implement systems and processes in alignment with the Criteria.

Consultant/Client relationship

There was an interesting discussion about how to nurture that relationship between the consultant and the CO/unit members. They suggested OPCs should spend time at the unit, interacting with the crew, getting underway, and putting fresh eyes on the unit to examine processes and provide a new perspective and suggestions. No one in the Coast Guard, suggested the panel members, can rely on what they used to know: things in the Coast Guard are changing too quickly. Consultants (and all staff members, likely) need to get out and see what’s going on now. Panel members suggested that consultants must build relationships with unit commands and crew; consultants must learn about the unit, even going to far as to embed with the unit during operations. Consultants should not rely on hearsay to learn what is going on at the unit, but see it with their own eyes.

One of the panel’s observations was that, generally, unless they reach out to the OPC, they don’t hear from the OPC. The consultants they’ve worked with in the past have not done a consistent and thorough job in terms of reaching out and providing information about the products and services offered.

Panel members also noted that sometimes they don’t know what products and services consultants can deliver or how consultants can help or even when to contact a consultant to request assistance. Helping leaders and managers learn about products and what might trigger a call to a consultant are important.

No time to think… and a specific best practice
The panel also noted that there doesn’t seem to be time any more to just think. They’re putting out fires; there’s no time to analyze data; units and staffs are generally thin and there’s no bench strength. The OPCs can provide at least a little help in those important but not urgent tasks required within the Criteria framework.

Having heard that, I also noted a best practice from one of the panel members that did take time to think but is a best practice which we might want to encourage other units to do. We’ve long complained that “nothing ever happens” with survey data and we’re tired of so many surveys. Unit members end up taking DEOMI surveys, ULDP surveys, OAS surveys, Crew/Climate surveys, and a host of others. One panel member said they had gotten all the survey data and then drafted a summary providing an overview of the results of each survey for the past year or two and what actions were taken in response to the various surveys’ findings. In this way, unit members could see the relationships between all the surveys and see common trends and themes. By including what actions came from each survey, the members also see that survey data doesn’t just go into a black hole, but rather drives action on the part of the command.

Reports and deliverables

Consultant reports and deliverables must be useable to all who need to use it. They ought to be free of jargon, suggested the panel, and they ought to be written in a way appropriate for the message and the audience. Consider multiple reports for a single assessment or intervention, targeted for different segments of the unit (senior leadership, ward room, chiefs’ mess, crew).

Staying awake at night

As already noted above, the panel felt that, as a rule, there’s too much to do with the resources currently on hand. There is a difference between qualification and proficiency, and getting our people past the just qualified stage to proficient, or beyond, is difficult. For instance, at times there are barely enough bullets to just qualify, much less “practice.” Our operational personnel, they suggested, are tapped in terms of the skills, qualifications, and certifications needed for today’s multi-mission environment. One panel member asked, “How do we inspire people to be more than qualified” given the system constraints we currently face? What we need, they suggested, is a Coast Guard where we have the resources to move beyond just the qualification.

In line with that, the panel members noted that they want consultant services which are helpful, not just mandated. Consultants must tie services to the characteristics and needs of the unit.

How to keep on track with organizational management, even through a change of command

Panel members acknowledge d it is difficult at times to continue on the journey to excellence given some of the Coast Guard’s current systems and biases. Success at maintaining travel along the same rail means that processes – such as for planning, measurement, customer focus, etc. – must be documented. Get approach and deployment as a part of the unit’s culture. A change of command will often throw progress off track. Units that have a strong, credible civilian employee at the unit who drives and can help with the succession, is most beneficial.

And in conclusion

That was about it. Great discussion and a great opportunity for learning. I hope my summary was at least of some value for you as we continue our work to help the Coast Guard increase performance and lead and manage organizationally.

Please contribute your thoughts and comments below. Thank you.


wrigjef said...

“In line with that, the panel members noted that they want consultant services which are helpful, not just mandated.”
The main part of this sentence I completely agree with but the use of the word mandated makes me ask if there is a current document that I am not aware of. Local direction can not be refuted in the field but I am not aware of a CG requirement or mandate and we are certainly not trying to convince our clients that there is one.

Peter A. Stinson said...

Jeff, I think it had to do with mandated CPCs and any other products which, historically, have been mandated. I know that years ago, MLCA had mandated some OPC-like stuff for its units.

The bottom line, I think, is that they want us to ensure there's a WIIFM for them and that the WIIFM is not just a block checked on some form or database.