MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- A firefighter from the 366th Civil Engineer Squadron pulls a firehose during a base-wide operation readiness exercise March 4, 2013, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse)As a Facilities professional do you encourage your team to be creative in the face of obstacles? Do you reward and recognise those employees that go the extra mile to resolve problems in the workplace? Do you have a team of service heroes and heroines that just manage to keep the ship afloat at all times? Do your team manage to fix all their work orders within the time allocated? Are you relying on the use of a workaround or hacks to get through your daily workload?  Well, you maybe achieving your Service Level Agreements but you may be setting yourself up for longer-term failure.

The use of workarounds is a common occurrence in the facilities management world. A workaround is “an improvised method to circumvent an obstacle, but one which does not eliminate the obstacle”. The occasional use of the workaround may be necessary and desirable. Where this develops into a workaround culture, it is not. A workaround culture is where employees consistently work around obstacles that arise to meet the demands of the moment but never make improvements to meet the demands of the future.

A few years ago when I was leading a team of approximately 120 professionals countrywide. I was preparing for our annual strategy session with the senior management. The breakaway was to review the previous year and to lay out our organisational objectives for the year ahead. In reviewing the previous year’s performance, there was a lot to be proud of, I was truly amazed at what our team had achieved. This was a dedicated Group of men and women who had yet again had surpassed all my expectations.

In looking a little deeper however, I was concerned that’s perhaps this had come at not only some personal but organisational expense. Some of the managers were burnt out, some staff members constantly raised seemingly small even petty issues that used up inordinate amounts of management time and energy. In trying to resolve this problem I came across a study undertaken by Professor Anita Tucker on nurses and the pressure they feel to perform. The report is entitled  The Workaround Culture: Unintended Consequences of Organizational Heroes

In facilities management, the idea of a workaround is a common phenomenon. In its most basic form leaking pipes, for instance, need to be repaired immediately with anything that is to hand to prevent further damage to the fabric and contents of the building. This is often achieved by means of a temporary repair whilst awaiting parts or a more permanent repair to resolve the issue. Providing these temporary workarounds are normally noted in the works order and a full repair is carried out in due course and hopefully before the temporary workaround fails.

Most people would consider this a win-win situation. The situation has been contained, functional performance restored and in time a permanent repair will be completed. In its more sinister guise, however, workarounds manifest themselves as the circumnavigation of processes and governance procedures to achieve what may be seen as an acceptable fix initially but this can spill over into actions that have the nefarious purpose of hiding non-performance, avoiding penalties or cover up defects.

The occasional workaround or hack is acceptable but where the culture of an organisation is built around a capability and continual execution of workarounds this becomes an embedded DNA and there are some long-term consequences of continuing to operate in this fashion. A workaround culture can be damaging and pervasive in an operational environment. This could be characterised by a situation where people are constantly fighting fires, where employees are tending to invent ways of dealing with day to day issues rather than confront constraints and obstacles with permanent solutions that improve service delivery. This is an environment where managers and other staff members often feel and are treated like heroes in the process, whic just compunds the problem by reinforcing what is ultimately undesirable behaviour in the long term.

Workaround Criteria

Workarounds can be categorised based on 2 criteria

  1. The characteristics of the obstacle
    1. If the obstacle is as a result of either rules, processes or procedures that do not fix the problem. Employees see the process as a hindrance and these are adapted and rules are bent if not actually broken, in order to achieve the organisational goal.
    2. Alternatively, the staff member is faced with a problem whose characteristics mean that she is ill-equipped with incorrect or insufficient tools, skills or resources to deal with the issue at hand.
  2. Employee awareness– where the employee is faced with a problem to be resolved they approach it in one of two ways.
    1. Where they are conscious of the obstacle, they are prone to bending the rules or resolving to ‘patch-its’ in order to circumvent rules, standard operating procedures or SLA’s.
    2. Where an employee is unaware of standard operating procedures and where there is often pressure to perform to resolve the issue, they often engage in creative hacks to circumvent the problem. In this instance, there can be unintentional non-compliance with processes or procedures. In a more critical situation, either statutory or legislative requirements may be breached. This can lead to serious ramifications for both the individual and all the company concerned.

Cost of Workaround’s

The reasons for a workaround culture are manifold, but they are costly in both financial and human terms. Whilst all front-line staff are encouraged to be aware of compliance issues and of standard operating procedures etc they are often encouraged to be creative and this can send conflicting signals. Whilst we want our frontline employees to be empowered to resolve issues in a creative way a culture of frequent workarounds as the operating norm can be costly and impair organisational effectiveness.

Routinely resorting to patch-it workarounds can be costly in multiple ways:

  • Increasing error- Workarounds lead to interruptions, which are associated with errors and failures. They increase the cumulative workload for FM’s and the team. Higher workloads are associated with poor performance, SLA failure and burnout.
  • Wasting resources- Studies have shown that the required hunting and fetching as well as the need to ‘touch’ the fault more than once eat up time and slow progress. we are all aware fo the adage ‘more haste less speed’
  • Promoting employee burnout- Persistently lacking resources required to do one’s job takes a physical and psychological toll that lead to burnout.
  • Stunting Improvement- When workarounds are common and seen as the ‘way to get things done’ people are less likely to seek system improvements. There’s an insidious aspect to the culture that causes people to dismiss notions of improving things and learning to live with imperfection.
  • Non- Compliance or Breach- Bending the rules can lead to legislative non-compliance and well as contractual breach and default on the contract. This puts lives, jobs and the contract at risk.

False Benefits of Workaround’s

There are what might appear apparent benefits to workarounds which can be very compelling on an individual level. For individuals facing obstacles, workarounds are a way to solve the following problems:

  • Workarounds enable employees to meet immediate operational need but may sacrifice the long term objective and improvements;
  • Fool staff and customer into thinking they are being effective;
  • They can make the employee look as though they are busy and hard working to their supervisors and managers;
  • They appear to keep clients happy, largely because they meet the SLA’s …but at what cost?
  • Workaround often doesn’t require involving managers in having to make decisions. This has the effect of keeping both managers ignorant and the staff happy;
  • Foster a “hero feeling” on the part of an employee who works around the system for the good of the client.

This hero culture is worn as a badge of honour by many. If you are so smart and skilled that you can work around the system and give the best care despite all the obstacles, you are known as a hard worker which is often wrongly reinforced by the approval of the manager. This behaviour is insidious and is often copied by fellow workers as it is seen as the way to get on the manager’s good side, achieve performance rewards and possible promotion.

Workarounds and Innovation

Although work-around cultures impair organisational performance, that’s not to say that workarounds are always ill-advised. Workarounds should be actively encouraged and may be the optimal course of action under certain circumstances

  • For obstacles that rarely reoccur
  • Where there are relatively low cumulative costs associated with the solutions
  • In emergency situations such as a fire or a leak.
  • As a signal to a need for innovation.

As a service provider our clients are crying out for innovation and we are struggling to deliver it. However, with an innovators eye, whenever you see a compensating behaviour, the incorrect tool being applied in the wrong way or a workaround in play this should give you a clue to a need that is not being fulfilled and an opportunity for innovation.

Reducing Workarounds

Because it is usually managers who address recurrent problems, it is the managers who need to know about problems that require workarounds. Therefore and FM’s willingness or ability to report problems to a manager is a key to reducing workarounds or spotting opportunities. However, studies show that in healthcare facilities when Nurses engage in a workaround, they report the problem just 7% of the time.

So the people who know about problems lack the authority to fix them, but the people who can fix problems don’t know about them. In the study, nurses decided whether to bring problems to their managers based on their perception of whether the effort is worth their time and trouble. This behaviour is driven by the cultural messages communicated by organisational policies and managers’ behaviours.

Therefore, the factors key to reducing workarounds are;

  • The FM’s willingness to report problems to their managers when they occur
  • The Manager’s availability to her staff to receive the reports
  • The Manager’s approachability and willingness to hear potentially bad news and be seen to act upon it

If you plot the Cumulative Cost of the problem and Manager Responsiveness as the different axis’s on a 2×2 matrix you will end up with the following descriptions of the cultures. Check out the accompanying my slide presentation with the matrix that was discussed with my team in the Strategy Session.

  1. Hero culture. This is bred by low manager responsiveness and low cumulative costs of problems. This is where there is little incentive to remove workarounds as the person responsible is made to feel like a hero and is often rewarded as such and hence reinforces the ‘Satexciting’ nature of the work. The Manager is not punished as he often is not aware of the scenario or is not hit on his budget. The rewards are appealing due to the recognition from the client and co-workers.
  2. Work-around culture. This reflects low manager responsiveness and high cumulative costs of problems. Lack of Management attention or knowledge of what is needed to solve the problem permanently leads to a continuance of the workarounds instead of a permanent solution whilst the lack of resources and funding will lead to resentment and burnout at operational level
  3. Cynical culture. This is when there are high manager responsiveness and low cumulative problem costs. Employees are cynical because high manager responsiveness encourages complaints to be aired. The cycle continues because their low-cost to the organisations means they’re not addressed.
  4. Improvement-oriented culture. In this situation—which is the solution to a workaround culture —there is high manager responsiveness and high cumulative problem costs. Communication between front-line employees and managers is encouraged, problems are reported, and their high-cost nature results in solutions that address root causes. Organisational performance is improved.

Take-Aways

  1. Workarounds are costly in the long run
  2. Workarounds are potential missed opportunities for innovation
  3. Being accessible and available as a manager will resolve reporting problems
  4. Be responsive to staff reports
  5. Hard workers do not equal good workers

Fundamentally the solution is to move to an improvement-oriented culture built on manager responsiveness and problem-solving efficacy.

What has been your experience of workarounds and what influence have they had on your management? Please leave a comment below