Condition-Based Management, in Times Like These

The format of the 2020 NFL draft was different due to social distancing requirements. Instead of players and announcers on stage, spectators in the audience, and live interviews, we tuned into the home offices of coaches, personnel managers and analysts. There was fundraising and recognition for people on the front lines fighting COVID. There was emphasis on stories of athletes who had overcome personal tragedies or other adversity. The event aimed to encourage as much as to entertain.

During commercial breaks, advertisers also adapted their message. During these times. In times like these. In trying times. We know these are challenging times. We’re here for you. Whether pizza or automobile sales or insurance, variations on these words were spoken over soft piano music in a minor key, to scenes of people at home on tablets or laptops, presumably buying cars, ordering pizza or resolving insurance needs. Each commercial was a relentless reminder of our situation. I appreciated the few commercials using humor to provide an entertaining diversion.

If you are running out of home-based pass times, here is one. Tune into commercial radio or television. Grab a bottle or glass. Take a swig anytime you hear “in these times” set to soft piano music. You’ll be intoxicated or well-hydrated in no time, depending on your beverage of choice.

Levity aside, thanks to globalization and the rapid spread of information, goods, people and microorganisms, we may be in the first time in recorded human history that everyone in the world shares a common, non-local understanding of what we mean by “in times like these”. That is remarkable.

But what do we really mean by “these times”? There is nothing about the current situation that is time-based. This pandemic is not on a timer. Our vaccines didn’t expire. We didn’t fail to meet a deadline. It is not a seasonal breakdown of supply chains or medical capacity. These “times” are no different than any other times. These conditions, however, are extraordinary.

There are important differences between how we predict, prepare and manage through failures that are time-based and those that are condition-based. The former allows us to plan activities on a calendar with a degree of predictability. The latter requires that we understand interaction of complex factors and monitor them closely.

Borrowing from the TPM body of knowledge, there are five factors which interact to result in broken machines or failed systems. They are

1. Not maintaining basic operating conditions
2. Not observing basic operating conditions
3. Not reversing deteriorated conditions
4. Design flaws in basic conditions
5. Insufficient capacity to address one or more of the above

One or more of these factors is present at any given time within any enterprise or society. When minor and few, we manage to whack-a-mole through these workaday problems. When multiple factors exist and interact, it gives factories fits, irritates customers, snarls business processes, or even destabilizes society.

The best, most resilient and robust organizations, and by extension societies, get through difficult “times” in a particular way. They establish basic operating conditions that deliver the results. They monitor change points in these conditions and escalate abnormalities rapidly. They tackle these problems closest to the point of occurrence, empowering the people closest to the issue whenever possible. They use problem-solving methods that are fact-based and scientific. Their leaders prepare for novel threats to our basic operating conditions. They centralize capabilities and reserve capacity, materials, intelligence, or resources as needed to repair breakdowns quickly.

The truth is that we’ve been living in times like these for decades. We just didn’t realize it. To be precise, we’ve been living in conditions like these for decades. The next global pandemic was predictable, even inevitable. We haven’t maintained basic conditions to guards against it. At the moment, the world is performing “breakdown maintenance” on itself. We shut down the machine to restore long-term deterioration. We are being forced to observe basic conditions to keep the failure from worsening. Moving forward, we need to figure out how to address design flaws and fill skills gaps in our society.

Commercials talks of “times like these” without concern for clarity or accuracy of those words, only their perceived relevance. These messages are meant to inspire hope and boost sales. The danger of this imprecise language is that we think of “these times” as something that happened to us, rather than as conditions that can take responsibility for. Once we get this machine up and running again, we’d be wise to put condition-based management in place.

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