Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Improvisations: The Read-Aloud Team and the Official Sniffer

By Alexander Laufer and Jeffrey Russell 
In the previous blog we focused on project planning, demonstrating how a well-known planning tool can be used effectively and ineffectively to maintain project progress. However, at times planning tools have nothing to offer and improvisation is required. Brian Muirhead, who was responsible for the development and launch of NASA’s Mars Pathfinder flight system, argues that, “Everybody understands the need for a plan… But in a world of Faster, Better, Cheaper, improvising should be seen as an inseparable part of planning, the other half of a complete process. In the fast-paced, rapidly changing world in which we now live and do business, the ability to improvise has risen to the top of the priority list of managerial skills.”1
Following are two examples of improvisations introduced in the midst of projects. The first story is told by Kenneth Szalai from NASA, who served as the chief engineer and software manager for the first digital fly-by-wire aircraft:
A systems engineer called and told me that the preflight self-test had failed…. While troubleshooting, I froze and my heart sank. The problem was far worse than some self-test tolerance setting. I discovered that a half-dozen instructions did not match the program listing!… the flight computer had contaminated instructions. We did not have the means to automatically check the computer memory against the accurate printed listing… I laughed to myself and thought: How long would it take to manually check the computer memory dump against the listing? Let’s see, there are 25,000 memory locations, if we had five teams of engineers, and they could read aloud and verify one memory location every 10 seconds, five teams could verify 30 memory locations in a minute. That would take about 14 hours.… We finished by Friday afternoon, and did not find any other errors. I guess sometimes pioneering work needs solutions rather than elegance.… We flew on Wednesday, as Carl had asked." 2
Facing enormous time pressure, Kenneth came up with a spontaneous improvisation that provided a simple, albeit inelegant, solution to the problem.
In the next case, Leslie Shepherd shares a story about a renovation project for the U.S. Federal Government. Because the buildings were occupied, the project manager was required to work around the tenants and the existing site conditions, and to do it quickly. 
The roof of a fully occupied office building was being renovated, which required covering it with roofing tar. The fumes from the tar were being pulled in by the building’s fresh air intakes, making it impossible to work. The building manager could have shut down the air intake system for a few hours at a time, but not for the entire day. After considering his options, the building manager decided to take a non-traditional approach to solving the problem. 
My solution may not have been elegant, but it was effective. We hired someone to stand on the roof next to the air intakes and sniff for tar fumes. The building manager trained the new worker how to turn the air intake fans on and off. He started work the very next day, turning the fans on or off depending on his olfactory reflexes. That was his only job and the additional salary for this “Official Sniffer” was far less than the lost hours resulting from interrupted work that had to be covered by the tenants. The building manager received no more complaints about the tar fumes for the entire duration of the roofing project.3
Leslie, like Kenneth in the first story, was under great time pressure. His improvisation is characterized by spontaneity and creativity, demonstrating that high-tech is neither the only nor always the best way to solve a problem. In today’s dynamic environment, where living order often dominates, organizations and individuals should enhance their willingness to forgo planning in favor of acting in real time.4
Improvisation is a fundamental organizational skill that allows you to work creatively and quickly in today’s ever-changing world. As the noted author Isaac Asimov has noted, “To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well.”
        1.      Muirhead, B. and Simon, W. 1999. High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper. New York, NY: Harper Business, 193.

2.      Szalai, K. Fly Safe, But Fly, 2004. NASA Ask Magazine 19, (August): 12-15. http://appel.nasa.gov/ask/about/overview/index.html

3.      Shepherd, L.L. Simple Solutions Surpass Sophistication, 2000. In A. Laufer and E.J. Hoffman, Project Management Success Stories, 82-5. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

4.      Weick, K. E. 1998. Introductory essay—Improvisation as a mindset for organizational analysis. Organization Science, 9(5), 543-555.