Slack to Excel

By John Ledwith, MSOD, PCC 

I was working with a client, who was so focused on the goal, that her organization was in danger of missing this major commitment to their most important customer.   Does this happen in your organization? Are you and your team laser focused on your goals, but somehow still not hitting them? Are you clear on what you need to reach your goals? Have you addressed those needs in your plan but still not achieving the goal? And does working harder still not get you there? Could you be so focused on achieving the goal, that you may not be aware of what is truly getting in the way of excelling?

I was working with a client who had a true BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).  They needed to merge organizations (and cultures); relocate and build a new manufacturing facility; develop new manufacturing, qualification and business processes; build an extremely complex, expensive AND critical component for their customer; AND ship their first units to a very tight deadline. They had window of several years to pull it off. As they were getting within a year of the deadline, it looked like they would not make the deadline for 1st shipment to the customer. Their project plan had them focused on the expected critical path to the deadline. However, they were always behind because of a variety of unexpected problems that would come up and get in the way of their progress. While they were able to solve every problem that came up, these “unknown-unknowns” were eating their lunch! And because this group was filled with over achievers, their morale began to plummet. In a sense, the best they could do was “break even,” that is “meet the deadline”, and the critical path kept showing them behind because of the onslaught of new unforeseen problems.

They were consumed with fixing problems, when opportunity to excel is what usually motivated them.  Fixing problems and excelling create very different energy and creativity.

I suggested they needed a way to address this continual onslaught of unforeseen problems AND they needed the possibility to excel, not just break even, i.e. meet the goal. The possibility to excel could inspire and motivate them to tap even greater creativity. What we came up with was to create a “buffer” – a time bank account, if you will. I called it “slack.” If they could create slack in their critical path, it would help them address the future unknown problems. Measuring slack would tell them when they were ahead of the game plan and even offered the potential of excelling by coming in early on the project. If everyone in the organization could create just a little slack, it could make a difference in achieving the deadline. If they could create a significant amount of slack, it could ensure the success of the whole program. I suggested they start focusing on setting goals, measuring, recognizing and rewarding the creation of slack – tiny amounts, as well as huge amounts with informal to formal recognition, team celebrations and small to big rewards. I had management looking for and reinforcing slack under every rock and recognizing progress at EVERY meeting. Employees were encouraged to propose and implement new ideas that created slack in places never considered before. Slack that moved the critical path was highly recognized and rewarded. BUT every creation of slack was encouraged and recognized, to foster this change in thinking about the value of creating slack in meeting the deadline.   As a result, my client met this very difficult 1st ship commitment to their customer. And they had a huge celebration marking this major accomplishment!

For my client, what was missing was “slack” and “perceived opportunity to excel beyond the goal” which would provide the capacity and creativity to deal with so many unexpected problems.

So I wonder, what new thoughts might this story bring up about problems you face in achieving goals and overcoming challenges? What is missing in your system that is keeping your team from excelling and projecting them beyond today’s crisis? What is a rallying point that your team could all get behind, measure, recognize, and reward? What is missing that keeps you and them from excelling beyond your imaginations?

If you would like to discuss some of these possibilities, contact John to set up a time.