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January 1999

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Emergency Quality Management

Mission Impossible: The Ultimate Facilitation Challenge

Do You Believe In Magic?

Remembering Root Cause Analysis



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by Peter Block

Fox Shows Employees It Has Heart
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Mission Impossible: The Ultimate Facilitation Challenge
Group Decision Support Software Aids in Company-Wide Redesign

“Have you ever put yourself into a business situation that you thought you couldn’t get out of?” asks Caroline Thornton, a professional facilitator from Toronto. She and Erik Lockhart from the Queen’s University Decision Center in Queens, Ontario, wondered if they had done just that in the summer of 1997.

They were contacted in May 1997 by Imperial Oil Ltd. (Esso) in Canada whose Automotive Business Unit—which operates gas stations across the country—was in serious jeopardy after three years of underachieving. Esso leadership wanted the division to conduct an intensive exercise redesign of how they operated, and specifically to cut $10 million from their annual operating budget.

Four and a Half Days or Bust
Thornton recalls, “They were going to have to literally rethink their business. I know that term is used quite often, but they were told that if they didn’t get it right, they would be unemployed.” And the pressure was on, with the task compressed into a four-and-a-half day workshop in July 1997. Beyond an Esso-provided accountant who monitored progress toward the $10 million reduction, Thornton and Lockhart were the only “human resources” for the exercise, augmented by group decision support software (GDSS), Lockhart’s specific expertise.

“We had this huge team of people—65 to 70 total, many of whom were engineers,” Lockhart recalls. Diversity was another issue: the team was from across Canada (both French and English speakers). Some members were new to Esso and others were veterans. The facilitators worked with a leadership team of 16 people to plan the workshop. “Each felt it was his responsibility to design and manage the event,” Thornton remembers. “So we had 16 players, all of whom believed they would be allowed to lead and manage the event.”

“As we went into the session we had an incredibly broad purpose statement,” says Thornton: “Revitalize the Automotive Business Unit.” She adds, with so much at stake and so many weighty factors, “It might give you a clue as to why we thought this might be ‘mission impossible.’”

The Initial Connection
The marathon workshop was conducted during the second week of July, concluding with a wrap-up presentation to Esso’s executive vice president. A general agenda was followed for the week. Day One involved physical set-up and initial tasks, such as sharing established information with team members. An exercise was used to familiarize everyone with the GDSS system which used networked laptops and two servers. Participants were divided into groups of 6-7 and asked to describe “What would it take to delight your customers?”
“It was a warm-up exercise,” says Thornton, explaining the Esso team had no experience with GDSS and were skeptical of using it. “Good things came from this activity: a sense of humor and levity. People had fun with it. It was kind of a little step away from the misery they were about to undertake.”

Under the Microscope
Day Two was a massive amount of work, carefully examining each of the Automotive Unit’s business processes. They scrutinized how things presently worked and what the future looked like. According to Thornton, “Here’s the challenge: Where can we make gains? Where can we increase revenue or cut costs?” On Day Three, the exploration moved from business processes to business support functions such as finance, information systems and so on. People were assembled in new and different groups from Day Two, this time arranged geographically. Thornton remembers these two days as “very demanding, very detail driven, no down time every second of the day.”

Lockhart focused on managing the GDSS technology, while Thornton interacted with participants who were addressing many complex issues. Although Lockhart had used this technology more than 400 times, he had never applied it to such a large group. It was a technological challenge, “a wiring nightmare” he recalls, with 10 laptops linked to a central hub at the front of the room where a central screen could display information as it was collected and synthesized.

High Tech Decision Making
Lockhart describes the many benefits of using GDSS, especially speed. “We had so much work to do, and we could break it up into smaller chunks and assign it to each of the pods who would work on it parallel and share it with the larger group.” The software enabled a rapid turnaround of information to keep all participants abreast of decisions being made.

“GDSS points out very quickly where there’s agreement,” says Lockhart. “We were better able to keep a large group like this focused on the task at hand and build consensus, from the tables to the larger group. The system also enables input from each participant, not just those who are comfortable speaking out.”

Day Four, says Thornton, was “a big deal for us and the team.” They had programmed in a decision point to check if they were on track or if they’d need to go back and do more analysis. Fortunately, they were progressing effectively toward their goals, so they began to anticipate implementation and prepare for the final day’s presentation.
“The next step is one often missed,” says Thornton. “You have to move people into reality, building definitive, serious action plans.” The team decided late in Day Four what to present to the executive vice president.

Day Five unfolded according to plan. The workshop’s executive sponsor reviewed the financials and key decisions and each geographical division described plans and commitments they had made. On the final day, participants went through another exercise using GDSS, answering the question, “How will this make a difference in your life?” One answered, “I will be able to go home and sleep at night.” The day concluded with a celebration of what had been achieved.

Would You Do It Again?
Thornton and Lockhart feel their week-long exercise, while physically draining, was a success. “At the very beginning, we spent a lot of energy defining the scope of the activity,” Thornton observes. “We needed to know what was in and what was out.” Every participant was apprised of these parameters.

Thornton and Lockhart extrapolated four principal learnings. First is dealing with exhaustion. “We were typically in the room for 12 hours, a full-time dedicated effort,” says Thornton. “It was an arduous event.” She suggests being well-rested in advance is essential. Second, the facilitators believe the 16-member design leadership team was too large. “Four or five is best,” says Thornton, minimizing the number of people who want input and ownership in the effort.

Third, pay attention to the logistics of the event. “It’s very tiring to deal with so many people,” Lockhart observes. “Allow for plenty of time to set up and look after the technology,” Thornton adds, “and the people.” Pay attention to individual needs to keep everyone on track.
Finally, believe you can achieve a gargantuan task, even when it seems like “mission impossible.” Says Thornton, “If you don’t believe in yourself, your client will feel a sense of discomfort. Present an image of confidence and competence, and use great style to pull it off.” As a result of this workshop, Esso’s Automotive Unit turned the corner.

Seventeen months later over 70 percent of the workshop’s recommendations had been implemented. What seemed an impossible mission was deemed a significant success.

January '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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