Plan Z

I have been a manager for many years, and although I do not manage people well (or more precisely,  I only manage certain types of people well, others I struggle with), my own forte is in project management.

Now, over the years I have been called many things like negative, unhelpful, even anal (which when coming from your boss is a bit offensive)  and yet I have never been noted for what I consider to be my strengths – meticulous attention to detail, forward planning, and always achieving the final result by whatever means necessary.

Being brought up in Quality Assurance has exposed me to many different philosophies and I have found myself drawn towards three methodologies, if you wish to call them that.

The first is a collection of Japanese quality techniques developed after the second world war, with the aid of the Americans.  Ironic that they introduced the idea of a formalised quality control to the Japanese and they ran with it.   There isn’t a single particular method that I would cite, but a collection of excellent quality tools that, even if only loosely followed, can assist in making sure your plans do indeed go according to plan.

If you want to learn more,  I would recommend you go and study the ideas and tools presented by Ishikawa, Taguchi, Shingo and Taiichi Ohno amongst others.   Do not be fooled into thinking this is nothing to do with life or your particular line of work.   These principles apply everywhere, to everything.

And then of course there was Edward Deming, the founder of quality, the guy who took it to the Japanese, who invented the famous PLAN DO CHECK ACT cycle – originally brought to quality in the UK in BS 5750 but later sneakily introduced into health and safety, environmental management, and even hospital management.   Again, it helps in attaining perfection in the long game.  A simple philosophy which is easily understood and implemented.

And thirdly, from a management point of view,  I am a firm believer in the writings of the great Kenneth Blanchard, creator of the “One Minute Manager” series of books, and more.  My particular favourite is “The One Minute Manager Meets The Monkey” and I have adopted this particular management style for years, and regularly preach the technique to my colleagues and up and coming apprentices.

But my own particular method, which is my own invention, not copied from elsewhere, is “always have a contingency plan”.

And where most people fail is that they only have the one.   I once had a challenging project in Malaysia, and I had a Chinese labourer working with me who was particularly defeatist and negative in his approach towards my ideal of always achieving the objective.

He would quite happily throw the towel in at the first sign of trouble.    This particular project was a series of failures just waiting to happen, and the first time we had a major issue that looked like it would shut us down, he looked at me for inspiration, and I just smiled and said “switch to Plan B”.

Myself and my colleague had already identified that the “Plan A” handed to us by our superiors would most likely fail miserably and not to be outdone, we had already formulated a Plan B.

But as our alternative plan went into effect, I had already started contemplating Plan C,  because there was no 100% guarantee that Plan B would work either and only the foolish would assume as much.

So later that day, the Chinese guy and this time my own colleague turned to me as the machine ground to a halt once again and said “now what?” – And I simply turned and said “Plan C.”  And we recovered and moved on.

As the job progressed and more and more obstacles where thrown in our path towards completion, we ended up on Plan F.  And finally the penny dropped for the Chinese guy.  He understood how this worked at last.  No defeat, no surrender.

After everything else that had already occurred, a bearing seized on a major part of the equipment right in the middle of Chinese New Year.  We couldn’t fix it with our limited site equipment and tools, and all the Malaysian workshops were closed and we needed to find one desperately.

I have to admit, I was fairly despondent by that point;  this job was gruelling and was taking its toll on morale.  And as the machinery fell silent yet again, with my colleague also looking defeated, the Chinese guy turned to me, and quite sincerely asked in a questioning tone, “Plan G?”   – The sound of pennies dropping…

I sat for a moment, collected my thoughts, composed myself, and replied.  “Of course – Let’s go with plan G”.

I hadn’t seen this one coming, I hadn’t got a contingency for this happening.  But that didn’t mean there wasn’t one.   A quick phone call to a friend brought the welcome news that there was one guy over the border in Singapore who was happy to open up his workshop for us, as a favour to my friend. Plan G was in action.  And actually, Plan G had been there all along, from the beginning.  Because Plan G was simply “When all else has failed, seek help from a friend”.

It didn’t go the way we planned, but we completed the job.

Only on one occasion, in a little town in the Czech Republic called Olomouc,  have I failed to produce the goods.  And yet, having already exhausted every option myself, my trusted colleague and even our agent could come up with, I still had the final plan – Plan Z.   Throw the towel in.   But not in a defeatist way.   This wasn’t merely a case of giving up – it was the next logical step in ensuring the customer got the service he was paying for.   I called the boss and said, “we are over.  We aren’t in a position to complete this job – we need to call in one of our franchises and get them to finish for us”.

It wasn’t a great plan, we lost most of the profit by giving the job away, but for the customer, the job was completed on time, and therefore Plan Z worked.  And despite our failure, our Czech partners dubbed me and my colleague “Super Workers”.   Because at the end of the day, the end game was all that mattered.  How we get to it is irrelevant.

One last thing.  Some times your plan B will be accept defeat and move on.  You have to know what matters in life, what is worthy of expending your energy on.  Example.  I always like to wash the car before going on holiday – i don’t know what it is but i don’t like turning up at the airport, hotel or campsite with a dirty car.   But if I run out of time, I don’t necessarily invoke plan B – sometimes you just have to say “oh well, it isn’t THAT important” and abandon that part of the process towards the perfect holiday.   Because remember, the actual target is “Go on holiday” and does it REALLY matter if some of the sub-objectives fall by the wayside along the way?

Happy planning.

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