What keeps management focused?

I remember seeing tendrils of fog floating in across the San Francisco Bay that July morning. It couldn't have been more than 68 degrees outside, but in the boardroom, it felt hotter than our Phoenix call center's parking lot. We were reviewing production results from the day before, and a key vendor hadn't been able to meet our customer's demands. As the business analyst spoke about the vendor's actions, I looked past his shoulder to the wisps of gray outside and wondered what could have been different.

No corners had been cut on this project. IT, marketing and operations had worked well together; the product had been released on time. IT had followed a comprehensive vendor-selection process. The selection had been a transparent and inclusive process and universally approved by the team.

What could we learn from this? The team's self-assessment was that it had followed industry best practices, but with customer demand exceeding projections by more than 400 percent, there hadn't been any way to anticipate this project's failure. An internal audit came to the same conclusion. With the auditors satisfied, I stopped asking. I was sure there was something to learn, but it was time to move on.

That was years ago. Recently, on a similar day in California, waiting for the fog to roll in, I thought again of that project. I've come to realize that the lesson to be gained from it was not that a process or product failed, but that senior management failed.

When news reached us that our competitors were having problems meeting customer demand, we all clapped. But we didn't heed the warning for our own company that this news carried. Although we applauded ourselves for meeting our customers' demands when our competitors could not, we didn't stop to ask ourselves if their problems could become our problems. As a smaller player in a national market, we were used to picking up customers when the big boys made mistakes. In our business model, a competitor's failure wasn't a special event. Yet, two weeks later, we too would fail our customers.

When proven processes lead to unexpected, negative results, it can be only one thing: management. So, what keeps management focused? Companies rarely reward staff for suggesting that management may have made a mistake, but at the company I work for now, we have a self-professed professional devil's advocate. This is a member of senior management who directly challenges management's assumptions, just before a decision is finalized.

At first, it was a bit disconcerting to be consistently challenged, and it took me a while to understand when he was playing his devil's advocate role and when he was representing the department he oversees. In the beginning, I had to ask him to clarify for me which hat he was wearing, and for a while he made it his habit when presenting me with constructive criticism to begin his statements with the phrase, "As the devil's advocate. ..." Now that I know him better, this is no longer necessary, and having seen him in action for the past few months, I've come to believe that if we had had someone filling a similar role at my old company, the outcome would have been different.

As our applause over the competition's failure died, he would have asked, in a gentle but probing way, how we knew that we wouldn't fail our own customers. His question would have ended management's moment of hubris with some scorching reality.

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