After I gained some experience as a leader, I realized something simple and yet profound: whispers turn into screams. Small issues can become large issues if left ignored for too long. Something that can be handled very quickly is often ignored until it becomes an emergency.
Time and time again, we hear about a systemic issue in the business world and even in the Air Force. For example, one of the root causes behind the Minot Nuke Incident was a high turnover rate with personnel on station. It had been pointed out before that people were leaving just as they were getting proficient; however, it had been dismissed just as quickly as it was voiced. This little whisper of a brewing issue was one tiny thing that contributed to a huge screw up which could have been much, much worse.
Although most of the time, the small issues in our organization do not lead to the mishandling of a nuclear weapon, there are still many events that could have been prevented by not ignoring the initial signals. Think about it in the sense of launching a mission. Usually, the issues that hold up a line (i.e. load plans, life support equip, etc.) are brought up very early in the sequence. The urgency behind this is very low because there is still plenty of time. Eventually, we realize key sequences are not happening on time and we begin to wonder what the deal is. It is at this point we begin to jump through hoops and turn up the intensity levels. When it could all have been dealt with much earlier.
On a daily basis, we hear about little things that are happening throughout the work center. Not every one of them is something we need to act upon; however, there are several needing attention. When I overhear someone say there is a potential scheduling issue for an event three months away, the tendency is to ignore it. “Who cares, it’s three months away?” Then suddenly it’s the Friday before the event and the issue was never resolved, everyone is in full panic mode.
Over the years, I have come up with a system to help me manage what whispers I need to worry about. It is a simple question: will this impact the people or the mission? If the answer is yes, I take this whisper and dig into it a bit further. If the answer is no and I can make the whisper go away within a few minutes, I handle it on the spot. Everything else is noise.
When I decide to dig into an issue a bit further, I look at what the potential causes are and how I can align resources right now to account for this. If we had a similar long term view in our personal lives, it would look like this. Every year my HOA hits me with a bill right after Christmas. This is the time of the year when funds are low due to all the gifts and festivities. Knowing that bill sneaks up on me, I can put away the money for it now when funds aren’t tight and be ready. We all do something similar to this in our own lives, but we overlook simple solutions requiring an ounce of foresight when it comes to work.
I personally hate being in full-on panic mode and know those on my team do as well. There are times when we need to be and they are taxing on the people and the equipment. However, if we learn to listen to the whispers and deal with them intelligently and early; many of the “emergencies” are able to be avoided.