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By the time you open and read this newsletter, it is likely that Major League Baseball will be toasting a new champion. Nothing about sports in this newsletter, except to say that we feel that most of us should just bench Benchmarking. Yes, the Benchmarking efforts, as we’ve seen them firsthand, belong deep on the bench—riding the pine!

C’mon. We all know that it’s hardly ever done well. The subject of both laughs and scorn, consider some of the quotes that we’ve captured over the years:

"Since antiquity and spanning humanity, there's no greater waste of time than a Benchmarking trip."

"It's a vacation, and everybody knows it. It gets us out of the plant and allows us to breathe, but I’ve never seen a Benchmarking trip produce any tangible result."

"You kidding me? A Benchmarking trip is nothing more than a networking opportunity. People looking for a new job are the ones who like Benchmarking."

"They are downright expensive, and everyone pays. While we send a small team of leaders down to Benchmark, someone else—back here—needs to carry the water. Whatta waste!"

We’ve been around though, and, in essence, ELP is continually Benchmarking. With that said, we offer the Big Five below. While we’ll stop just short of offering a money back guarantee here, we do feel (and we’ve got some evidence to back us up!) that if you follow the principles below, you’ll go a long way toward improving your Benchmarking efforts.

  1. Keep the Focus Narrow. One of the great mistakes that we’ve seen time and again is that organizations and their leaders pursue grand Benchmarking efforts. In essence, there’s an effort to solve world hunger during many Benchmarking initiatives. These fail, bound by the problem that you are trying to solve and/or generate a focused purpose statement. Ideally—and we offer the following consultation—leaders should attach a 15-word (or fewer) purpose statement to all Benchmarking efforts. If you can’t explain the purpose of your Benchmarking effort in 15 words, then just don’t go. Focus is everything. For instance, we consulted with one client to narrow down their Benchmarking effort to something as simple as, “The purpose of my Benchmarking trip is to understand the tools they use for inventory control.” To be sure, there’s an added benefit of keeping the focus narrow: you save everyone’s time. By focusing your Benchmarking efforts, you, quite likely, won’t need to be gone as long. Also, you save the hosting organization some time as well. Remembering one client, they reduced their Benchmarking trip from five days to two by just applying a focused purpose statement.
  2. Do the Pre-Work. Many of the organizations that we work with are lean and, for that reason, many are hurried. Meetings and report generation chew up valuable time. Because of this, very few leaders adequately prepare for their Benchmarking trip. Some are lucky enough to grab their Benchmarking folder on their way out the door and have told us that they’ll study on the plane ride to the hosting organization. It’s kind of laughable, but we know these efforts to fail. 4.0 benchmarking trips require us to prepare and to even conduct virtually a Pre-Job Brief with our hosting organization. Part of this is just common courtesy. No leader wants to waste another leader’s time. So, let them know you are coming and hold a virtual PJB where you share your purpose, exchange reports and metrics, and nail down expectations. Very few organizations and leaders are prepared enough to do this. In our experience, though, it is a purposeful and thoughtful way to start the Benchmarking trip.
  3. The Benchmarking Report. This, too, could end up in a Dilbert cartoon. We’ve been told that upwards of 75% of Benchmarking trips never generate a Benchmarking Report—even if the procedure tells us to do so! The reason is quite simple, but it’s a loser’s excuse. What happens is that leaders come back from a Benchmarking trip and enter the whirlwind. While they’ve been gone (and because they didn’t follow the principles above) for 5 days, they’ve come back to their home organization and must confront 100 voice mails and 500 emails that are demanding their attention. The Benchmarking trip quickly, if not immediately, falls to the low priority. Because of that, we strongly recommend that leaders do the following: write the report within 48 hours of return. Just do it. By the way, with every passing hour, our memories along with the lessons that we learned begin to degrade. After 48 hours, if it isn’t written down, it is likely lost to our cognitive dustbin forever. Also, and this is every bit as important, try damn hard to keep the report to a single page—at max two. Nobody’s going to read a 15-page benchmarking trip report. So many leaders fail in this regard. The best leaders and individual contributors can pull out what’s most important and shelve the uninteresting and the low value noise. Staying to a single page forces us to keep the most important.
  4. Courses of Action and Corrective Action. Remember, we aren’t fixing world hunger here. So, one of the most important activities that a returning Benchmarking team can do is to enter two immediate courses of action/corrective actions. This is important for another reason as well: it focuses us all on things that could/should be fixed. To share an example, we worked with a leader who came back from a five-day benchmarking trip (yes, no purpose statement), and he mentioned culture over and over again. Of course, it’s important for leaders to see, feel, and touch when they visit another plant or manufacturing facility. We won’t dispute that. However, what corrective action can come from a cultural comment like that? We worked hard with this particular leader to identify actionable knowledge from his benchmarking trip. If it isn’t actionable, how could it possibly be an effective Benchmarking trip? Likely, it wasn’t. By immediately generating two courses of action or corrective actions, we are breathing actionable value into the Benchmarking effort.
  5. Report Up! Report Out. There’s both an accountability and a courtesy component to this principle. Before you leave on a benchmarking trip, get on your boss’s calendar two weeks after your return. The subject of the meeting is to brief your boss on the fruits of your Benchmarking efforts. Don’t wait for your boss to ask you how it went. Take the lead and schedule the meeting before you actually leave. Of course, the reason to do this is to put the stamp of accountability on the efforts. In addition to debriefing your boss, schedule a follow-up meeting with your hosting organization. We recommend doing this 30 days after the completion of the Benchmarking efforts. Remember, they gave up people, time, and effort to make you smarter. The least we can do is to close the loop and share our progress with those who attempted to help us.

In closing, the best way to move Benchmarking off the bench into the starting rotation is to follow the principles above. There are more, for sure. If you want to get even more out of your Benchmarking efforts, please reach out to one of ELP’s principals and co-founders, Robin Bichy at robin@elpadvantage.com.

A wise mentor once remarked to us that there's leadership lessons all around us, if we're only willing to stop, look, and reflect. We're going, now, to apply this maxim to the month of September as we canvas this turbulent month for some universal leadership lessons. True to the point above, we found no shortage of good and not-so-good leadership lessons from September. We offer our own version of a Top Three list below.

Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo bank has long been the darling of the investment world. As most banks continue to struggle even years removed from the Great Recession, Wells Fargo seemed the lone bright star in the dark. Investors and stakeholders often pointed to Wells Fargo as the exemplar in the financial world as well-run and earning top-performing labels from a variety of sources. Indeed, iconic investors, such as Warren Buffet, were vocal supporters. That’s over for now. And, just maybe, forever. The facts of the case are startling. In the retail arm of Wells Fargo, over 2 million fraudulent accounts were created without customer authorization. This is Enron-like in its breach of trust and flagrant disregard for ethical behavior.

Root Cause Evaluation. First, there was a Production over Integrity environment. In high-risk/high-hazard organizations, we need to ask not just if we are supporting a Production over Safety or a Production over Quality culture, we must ask the most pivotal of all questions — are we building a Production over Integrity culture? That’s what happened at Wells Fargo; at least in their retail banking arm. Second, we need to look at Procedures and Systems. Indeed, Procedure Use & Adherence (PU&A) is a big deal in the places where we consult. In complex, high-hazard organizations, leaders should ask whether the Procedures put the individual or plant in a safe space or in a compromising one. At Wells Fargo, their compensation and performance evaluations and bonus procedures helped drive individuals towards compromising positions. Specifically, employees were faced with the unthinkable—do I cheat and lie, or do I preserve my job? Ultimately, of course, there’s individual ownership and accountability. That said, shame on those who designed and institutionalized the Wells Fargo systems (compensation and bonus structures) for driving good individuals to a bad place. Finally, the buck needs to stop somewhere. Over the last 8 years, Republicans and Democrats have agreed on almost nothing. In our lifetime, we’ve yet to see this type of political polarization. But that changed, thanks to Wells Fargo. The CEO of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, was able to unite Washington when no other issue possibly could. Whether you are the most conservative Republican, like Texan Jeb Hensarling, or a firebrand Democrat, like Elizabeth Warren, we can all agree—Stumpf’s absence of ownership is without excuse. At ELP, we lobby behind an unassailable truth—the most important activity a leader can do is to build a sustainable culture of success. Stumpf didn’t do that, and now the financial health of Wells Fargo is at risk. He should be held to account.

Hillary versus The Donald. September also gave us another first. Forget about the last episode of M.A.S.H. and the record-breaking Super Bowl! Okay, maybe not quite, but a staggering 84 million people tuned in, on a Monday night if you can believe that, to watch the Trump-Clinton debate. With 1 in 3 adult Americans watching the debate, it shattered the record books for the most watched Presidential debate in our history. But there’s another first here. Besides the Nixon-Kennedy debates, where Kennedy arguably won the White House on his preparation, this debate offered two diametrically opposed options from a leadership perspective. There was The Donald, a man who successfully won debate after debate after debate in the Republican run-up. When asked about preparation, he dismissed the idea, and to the contrary, was proud and, quite vocal, about his decision NOT to prepare. Incredibly, Trump continued to campaign up to the day of the debate! Hillary chose a different path. She hunkered down and got deep into policy. She prepared and she studied closely Trump’s history and previous stances. She delivered considerable body blows regarding his personal taxes, his treatment (or mis-treatment) of women, and, quite astutely, went after Trump’s treatment of the “common man”—people that Clinton said that Trump stiffed in his rise to big riches. At ELP, we offer no political opinion. We’re not that stupid to go there. Suffice to say, though, we are worried across the board about the future of our country given the choices we face. However, what we do know by almost every analytic and metric is that Hillary came out on top in this debate and most seem to believe that it came down to a pivotal decision—the decision to prepare versus the decision not to prepare.

What We Can Learn. If this is a theme that you think you’ve heard before from us, you’re right. In fact, just last month we talked about hurricanes and the pivotal factor of preparation. Whether you are building barges, creating rail cars, or about to perform maintenance on a Reactor Coolant Pump, preparation will always, always allow you to do the job more safely and to reach higher levels of quality. Doing a job-site review, pausing to do a solid and thorough pre-job brief and task preview—these are all elements of preparedness. Conceivably, one could be successful without preparing. But even the smartest of us, we contend, could benefit from job preparedness. To be sure, Donald Trump will have learned his lesson. Expect a better, more even rivalry during the next debate. No policy issues will have changed. In fact, nothing will have changed except to say that Donald Trump will be better prepared. There’s a lesson there for all of us.

Fernandez. This story starts badly, but ends incredibly. Jose Fernandez was on the starting rotation for the Miami Marlins, a major league baseball franchise, which was starting to make a run for the last wild card spot and a playoff berth. But on September 25th, he and two others were killed when their speedboat crashed into a rocky jetty off the coast of Miami. His teammates chose to honor him in a special way. First, all of his teammates wore a Fernandez jersey. Second, in a spectacular show of sportsmanship, Dee Gordon, the leadoff batter for the Marlins decided to honor Fernandez by batting right-handed (he’s left-handed) for the first pitch of the game. After that first pitch, he switched to his left-handed position and proceeded to blast a towering home run, his first of the season! As he rounded the bases, he exploded in tears. To watch this extraordinary event, click here.

People died.

That’s an attention grabber, we know. But it’s that time of the year again—hurricane season—and we’d like to do a quick compare and contrast exercise using two mighty hurricanes.

In one corner, weighing in at 125 mph, we have Hurricane Audrey. Audrey struck an unsuspecting Cameron, Louisiana, with a surrounding population of about 12,000, in the summer of 1957. Since Audrey, only Hurricane Katrina has killed more people; at least 416 were confirmed dead.

In the other corner, weighing in at a whopping 155 mph, we have Hurricane Floyd. Floyd walloped the Carolina Coast in September of 1999 with the eye of the storm passing directly over Wilmington, North Carolina and its surrounding population of a quarter of a million people. Hurricane Floyd killed 57 people—mostly North Carolinians.

But how do you explain this? Floyd was 30 mph stronger than Audrey and hit an area that was 20 times more populated. But, despite the potency and more populous area, Floyd resulted in only 57 deaths compared to Audrey’s 416. How can one account for this? Surely, a more vicious storm hitting a more populated area should result in more dead. But, that’s not what happened here.

Answering this question should help us in our management and leadership of high-risk/high-hazard organizations.

Without question, the answer to this riddle involves preparedness and foresight. In 1957, the population of Cameron, Louisiana was ill informed and, quite frankly, most were ignorant of the danger fast approaching. Actually, because of Audrey, we’re a lot better at prediction and emergency response (although that doesn’t necessarily seem true if we look at Katrina…more below). But Wilmington and the Carolinas, in general, were much more informed and got prior warning. Armed with this advance notice and some time to prepare, most were able to find safety.

Within this context, we offer the following as it relates to high-risk/high-hazard organizations.

Trending and Monitoring. Trending and monitoring matters. Tropical storms are now captured by advanced weather technology immediately. Actually, meteorologists are sophisticated enough that they trend and monitor for just the conditions that would spark a tropical storm. Once a tropical storm forms, it is closely tracked and monitored. Trend paths are computed. If a tropical storm does metastasize into a true-blue Hurricane, more robust models are built and tracking becomes fanatical. We can learn a lot from this practice. Just like the weather, valves, systems, equipment, and machinery can act up in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Like the very best meteorologists, engineers, operators, and maintenance folk should commit themselves to trending and monitoring. This is not an activity that should be ignored, or worse, pencil-whipped. When we trend and monitor, we head off danger before it ever surfaces.

Predictive Maintenance is Potent. Every organization that we partner with embraces preventive maintenance. Coincidentally, preventive maintenance is exactly the activity that feeds the trending and monitoring that we mention above. However, there are precious few organizations that really GO ALL IN! as it relates to predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance involves capturing and storing large quantities of data and building stochastic, probabilistic, and regression models that will help predict the next equipment failure. Tough to admit, and as attacked at the weathermen are, they tend to have most of us beat—they use data to make informed predictions and, more often than not, they get it right. Building a strong predictive maintenance program requires investing in some IT infrastructure and getting some smart people on board—statisticians, mathematicians, and/or engineers. Not surprisingly, getting this off the ground often takes a corporate champion to drive this effort. And patience matters. Because after you build the team and build out the IT platform to make data capture possible, you need some run-time to get an adequate sampling of events/observations. We’ll say this, though—that an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars now could save many millions later. For one of our clients, one day of not producing energy is a direct hit to the pocketbook of over $1 million. If predictive maintenance can save a station from one unplanned event, how could it not be worth the investment?

Aggressive Response. Lastly, how we react to data and forewarning matters. Let’s look at Katrina, for instance. Here, on the surface, this seems like an easy win. After all, we had the predictive tools and did all the trending and monitoring. We knew that danger was lurking. But some sociologists claim that in 2005, as a society, we found ourselves in a complacent mood. Others suggest that we ignored the bad warnings because earlier predictions failed to materialize so what made us think this one was going to be right? Other historians and sociologists offer that we were just dead numb to bad news given the Global War on Terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regardless of the reasons, the historical fact remains—we knew what was coming, but didn’t act. And as we approach the anniversary of Katrina, that may be the most tragic part of this story. But, respectfully, back to our discussion. In high-risk, high-hazard organizations, we need to react with force. Strong Fix-it-Now (FIN) or Rapid Response teams are a must. Sadly, in general, we’ve found organizations that were either good in trending/monitoring and maybe prediction, but not good at reacting (that’s Katrina). Conversely, we’ve seen organizations that just love a crisis and react with gusto, but it could’ve been prevented in the first place (that’s Audrey).

Be the leader. Be the organization. Be the team that invests in the capacity to predict, trend, monitor, and react. After all, there could be big waves ahead. Should we be battening down the hatches? The safety of your employees and the public, at large, may depend on how well you can answer that question.