LEADERSHIP: Organizational Entropy- Second Law (Part 1)

This is a transcript of REPSradio.com Episode 018. To listen to the Podcast or download resources, Click Here.

I don’t know…

It could be the old “nuke” in me that simply won’t let go. After all, I spent more than 20 years as a round peg in the [very] square hole of nuclear power generation.

It might be that despite my creative right brain being dominate, my left brain loves the underlying science of things.

Or…it may be because relating physical laws to human behavior simply tickles my mind- just ask my team.

But whatever the reason, I find it enlightening to compare the physical laws of nature to the quantum laws of human behavior.

In Episode 17 of REPSradio.com, I detailed how we can literally DEFY an essential law of the physical universe- in this case the First Law of Thermodynamics- by tapping into quantum laws that apply to the smallest particles or elements (which in the case of companies like yours, happen to be…human beings).

Using the First Law of Organizational Thermodynamics, it becomes clear- energy can indeed be CREATED…or DESTROYED- by people working within a system.

If you’ve not yet listened to Episode 17, it’d be a great idea to do so before you listen to this one.

And by the way, if you only vaguely remember any of this from eighth-grade science class, no worries. I’m gonna make this fast, simple, and easy to understand…and to put to use.

I promise- I will NOT leave you dazed and confused…

Now we’re moving onto the Second Law.

And we’re gonna do this in two parts.

I like to keep the length of REPSradio podcasts within typical “drive-to-work” times, or within the time it takes to do your intervals on the treadmill.

In this first part of taking on the Second Law, we’re gonna talk about “Organizational Entropy”. I’m gonna make it simple…and very easy for you to recognize and understand.

In fact- by the time you get back to work, I’ll bet good money you’ll be able to spot it…everywhere.

In Part 2, I’m gonna give you a recipe for how to STOP and REVERSE its insidious effects.

Let’s get started…

In physical science, the Second Law of Thermodynamics states, “Entropy in a closed system always increases.”

So, first we’ve gotta understand what “Entropy” is…

Entropy is defined as, “the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system[i].” In addition, science reveals that left unchecked, entropy naturally increases over time.

This is a very important concept- disorder and uncertainty in a system tend to increase unless counteracted.

And in a physical process, let’s say for example, the generation of electricity- entropy results in a net energy loss to the system.

When we look at your team, facility, or entire enterprise as a system, the Second Law discloses that as time passes, if nothing is done to counteract it, performance will naturally head downhill!

Our observations and studies over the past 20 years have validated this to be absolutely true.

On a macro level for example, the 1980 best-seller, In Search of Excellence, written by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, highlighted 43 companies as being “excellent”.

By the way, with over 3 million copies sold in the book’s first four years, I have to thank Tom and Bob for the proliferation of the term “excellence”- which is STILL being incessantly bantered about by well-intended organizations around the globe.

If you haven’t seen my four-minute video rant on “What’s Wrong with Pursuing Excellence?” you should. I’ve provided a link to the video on the web page for this podcast.

Of those 43 companies highlighted as “excellent” in 1980, many no longer exist, or have been substantially marginalized- companies like Atari, Wang Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, and NCR.

In 2001, Jim Collins’ identified 11 companies that had gone from being “good” to being “great”. Of those 11, one (Circuit City) has since gone bankrupt and is out of business. Three have dropped to a “B-level” credit rating. And another, Wells Fargo, was recently fined $185 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for having created millions of fraudulent savings and checking accounts.

Not so long ago, these companies were heralded, admired…seen as models for others to emulate.

What happened?

The Second Law- Organizational Entropy.

Organizational Entropy is indeed very much alive and well in corporate America.

As a force of nature, it works steadily, generating disorder and uncertainty within every enterprise. And it succeeds. That is…unless direct action is taken to counter it.

What action?

Well, I’m gonna give you the strategic and tactical counter-punch in Episode 19 of REPSradio.com.

For now, I want you to anchor the concept- to give you tangible insight and awareness regarding this negative force. Few understand it, let alone know how to recognize its presence in the day-to-day functioning of a team or organization.

This is where I make this fast, simple, and easy to understand (so you can do something about it).

I’m gonna introduce you to two terms.

Depending upon your background within the performance improvement arena, you might’ve heard of ‘em before-

The first is “drift”.

Visualize yourself on the bank of a river. Water flows past you because of the force of gravity- from some higher elevation…ultimately toward the ocean. If you’re not in the mountains, the difference in elevation is imperceptible- from left to right…or right to left. You can’t see it, yet- it’s there.

An unseen force is causing the water to flow (or drift) from one place to another. And- its’ ALWAYS down-hill.

This is how drift works in your organization. Prompted by nature, performance will trend downward unless the force of behavioral gravity is counteracted.

There are two types of drift, both of which degrade the Reliability, Efficiency, Productivity, and Safety of human choices, actions, and behaviors- and therefore of your organization.

The first is drift in the perception of risk.

When it comes to this type of drift, success combined with human nature becomes the culprit.

Every time an individual successfully completes a task, the tendency is to become more confident.

Think about the first time you ever drove a car. If you were like me, it was exhilarating and scary at the same time. It had your FULL attention- your FULL focus. Not likely that you were fiddling with the radio, or worse yet…texting like so many unfortunately do today.

By the way- you don’t EVER text while you’re driving do you?! I didn’t think so…

However, even in the beginning, each time we drove, you became more and more confident- second time you relaxed a bit, third time the accelerator became more of your friend, and onto the point where you’re switching between radio stations, selecting specific songs on your MP3 player while downing a 7-Layer Burrito, and incessantly checking your cell phone.

All while piloting more than three-thousand pounds of metal, glass, and rubber down asphalt pavement at the rate of nearly 100 feet per second.

Unchecked, growing confidence leads to…complacency.

The same thing is true in the workplace. Not because we’re reckless or uncaring, but because our perception of the risk involved has diminished.

This is drift in the perception of risk.

The second type of drift involves the difference between the “4.0” way of performing a task, or as we might say, “by the book” or using “verbatim compliance”, and… the “way things are actually done around here.”

If you’re familiar with what we call the Precepts of Practicing Perfection®, the third precept is, “People come to work wanting to do a good job.”

This is a tremendous asset overall; however, when it comes to this type of drift, it can also promote undesired behaviors.

Think about it- what is a team member’s performance primarily based upon?

You got it- productivity.

Now put yourself (or any other team member) in a position where you’ve been assigned a task. Your job is to get “the job” done. And let’s add a bit of everyday realism to it- you’re on a tight schedule, and this has to be done NOW in order to not fall behind.

In the midst of doing your work, you come upon a step in the procedure or work instruction that conflicts with a requirement in the Safety Policy. In this case, the Safety Policy may not apply, and doesn’t appear, under these conditions, to really be necessary. What do you do?

If you’re like most…you’ll do what it takes to get the job done.

Now- let’s expand this a bit. Let’s say this task is recurrent- you do it every Thursday at 2:30 in the afternoon- same task, same potential conflict- you’ve done it successfully before (many times). What do you do?

And let’s take it one layer further. You’re assigned a new team member for some On-the-Job-Training. It’s Thursday afternoon. You’re doing the task. How will you likely instruct your trainee?

Remember- people (including you) come to work wanting to do a good job.

“Doing a ‘good’ job ultimately means…getting whatever work you’ve been assigned completed…on time.

This has EVERYTHING to do with why corners get ‘cut’, requirements get violated, and undesired behaviors get not only tolerated, but accepted, trained, and even applauded.

There are two underlying reasons this type of drift exists and tends to multiply:

First- there’s confusion. Like the example I used above- the Safety Policy requirement would slow everything down, and doesn’t appear to make sense under these conditions.

A confused mind turns negative, with a bias most always toward getting the work done.

This manifests as a willingness to take more risk- conclusions are justified, choices get made, and actions are taken accordingly.

And once the task is completed successfully the first time (while cutting a few corners)- well, we already talked about that.

Second- there are undoubtedly steps or requirements in your procedures, processes, and structures that directly inhibit work flow. We call these “roadblocks”.

Sometimes such roadblocks are legitimate and necessary.

Think about a physical roadblock requiring drivers to detour because a tree has fallen and damaged the bridge just beyond the sign.

Appropriate and necessary.

Other roadblocks are inappropriate, unnecessary, and likely to be violated.

Such as the signs on each side of the elementary school. Each “Slow 20 mph” flashing caution sign continues to activate every time your car approaches…even during the middle of the night and during summer vacation.

When school is out- most people will conclude that the 20 mph limit isn’t appropriate and maintain their speed. How about you?

Here are just a few examples of how roadblocks are created in your organization:

  • incomplete procedure revisions,
  • policies or procedures changed without considering all impacts,
  • miscommunications or competing agendas between work teams or departments, or
  • requirements left over for reasons that no longer exist.

I can just about guarantee that any of your team members could quickly identify numerous roadblocks they’ve gotta deal with while attempting to do their jobs.

And it’s highly likely that if they stopped for each one, work would never get completed.

Now think about this…

In the absence of injury or catastrophe (in other words in the face of success), complacency is a natural human tendency. This results in two things:

  • drift in the perception of risk, and the willingness…over time…to take more chances, and
  • drift in work standards due to confusion and roadblocks generated by incessant changes, modifications, updates, upgrades, replacements, and revisions.

These combine, consciously and unconsciously to generate drift in the behaviors of individuals, and over time, drift in the accepted behaviors of the organization.

Got it? Okay.

The second major player in Organizational Entropy…

The second term I want you to become familiar with is- accumulation.

When my wife and I moved to Ecuador four years ago, we were thrilled to have gotten rid of most of the ‘stuff’ we’d accumulated over the previous few decades. When we moved from our 5,500 square-foot home in New Hampshire to our 3-bedroom apartment in the city of Cuenca, our closets were mostly empty.

As I record this, we’ve been in Ecuador for four years. We moved into a much bigger apartment (with a lot more storage space), and our closets are…full.

Yes- nature abhors a vacuum. Empty space must be filled.

Within your organization, while the ‘sucking sound’ is not necessarily caused by empty space, the underlying force of accumulation is just as great. It’s generated by what gets left in, left out, or not considered- as the dynamic world demands things be changed.

And these ‘things’ become setups- setups that greatly increase the potential for your team members to commit errors or make mistakes while working hard to do what you’re paying them to do.

Let me give you a simple example. A controller is replaced for a remotely-operated stop valve in a high pressure system.

In the original configuration, there were three possible positions: “A” for CLOSE, “B” for MANUAL (allowing the valve to be operated locally), and “C” for OPEN.

The manufacturer of the new controller thought it made more sense for position “A” to CLOSE the valve, for position “B” to OPEN the valve, and for “C” to be the MANUAL position (allowing the valve to be operated locally).

The new equipment was installed.

When the procedure was checked and revised for the new controller, however, the new position functions were “missed”. The associated procedure steps were not modified.

The procedure is approved and put into the system.

We now have a huge setup.

By following this procedure, an operator in the Control Room will OPEN the valve when he intends only to release it to local control. The consequences could be catastrophic.

In the field-specific jargon of human error, this is what’s called a “latent organizational weakness”. The term makes sense. It’s now part of the organizational system, it’s a weakness because it’s a setup for human error, and it’s latent because at the moment (with the procedure sitting ‘on the shelf’)- there’s “no blood…no foul.” No notice. No consequence.

This is a side note, but I have to say it:

It’s been my experience that when your average team member hears you use a term such as “latent organizational weakness”, they tune you out quicker than a politician’s promise disappears after election day.

The truth is- your average team member couldn’t care less about “latent organizational weaknesses.”

He or she cares very much however, about doing a good job, about not getting hurt…about not screwing up.

The words you use…especially when you want to influence the behaviors of others…are critically important.

I therefore strongly recommend you change your language.

Leave terms like “latent organizational weaknesses” for your conversations with your fellow practitioners at the next human performance conference, or during your involvement in a root cause investigation. You’ll both know what you’re talking about…and you can sound really smart in the process.

When it comes to the rest of your team members however, start calling these setups- landmines.

Why “landmines”?

First, it’s “tangible” it clearly identifies an undesired ‘thing’.

Our brains work much better when they can anchor in an image associated with whatever we’re talking about.

Second, using the term landmine describes these types of setups perfectly- they’re generally hidden, you sure as heck don’t want to step on one, and if you do, something bad typically happens!

And by the way, I can guarantee that your organization…right now…as you’re listening to this- is chock-full of landmines. They’re EVERYWHERE.

This is because they have accumulated over time. Got it?

Now let’s put this together…

The Second Law of Organizational Thermodynamics, which we call “Organizational Entropy” EXISTS.

And it WILL push the performance of your organization downhill unless you take action to directly counteract it.

Don’t believe me?

  • Do you have repetitive work successfully being completed?
  • Do you have procedures, policies, drawings, checklists, or work instructions that conflict or don’t directly lineup?
  • Do you have old or outdated requirements or structures that make it hard to get work done?
  • Have you made any changes, modifications, revisions, updates, or upgrades?

Complacency…confusion…the accumulation of roadblocks and landmines.

I rest my case.

*****sponsor info***

This Episode of REPSradio.com has been brought to you by the Human Performance Academy, which proudly offers Human Performance LEADERSHIP™ courses around the US and in Europe, as well as Certification through the Human Performance MASTERS Program™ and TRAIN-the-TRAINER qualification. For more information, visit ppiweb.com. That’s ppiweb.com. And, oh by the way- as a listener to this Podcast, you may be eligible for a 25 to 50 percent tuition credit for you and other members of your team. To find out if you qualify, simply use the “Contact Me” form at the bottom of the homepage at ppiweb.com.

***end of sponsor info***

So there you have it, my friend- The Second Law of Organizational Thermodynamics- Organizational Entropy– is alive and well in YOUR organization.

Knowing how to recognize it is the first step in mounting your counter-attack.

Drift and accumulation are the manifestations of this force of nature.

Allow them to continue long enough, and the odds of something bad happening increase exponentially.

Now that you can clearly see Organizational Entropy, you can take actions to stop its downward pull.

I’m giving you simple answers on HOW to do that…and a simple formula…in Episode 19.

Until then,

Be Bold!

Be Safe!

Be Exceptional!

Tim Autrey, Founder/CEO
PPI

[i] Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition; 2011

By |2018-03-08T20:01:16+00:00March 8th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

About the Author:

Tim Autrey is a recognized thought leader in human performance. Through his ground-breaking approach known as Practicing Perfection® and creation of the Practicing Perfection Institute (PPI), he has helped organizations around the world develop next-level leadership while enhancing safety and reducing human error.

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