Operational Execution Analysis-Are the Details in the White Space?

A quick look at the Wikipedia definitions page for the term “white space” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_space reveals some interesting definitions (or descriptions). My favorite is the one related to visual arts and how it refers to the portions of a page that are left unmarked. We often hear leaders and managers use the term “white space” and I think that particular description from Wikipedia lends itself well to a discussion about execution analysis.

First off, let me explain what I mean by the term “execution analysis.” Operational execution is the portion of the operation, process, procedure, or task that commences after the formal planning and briefing phases or stages have been completed. Execution is where and when the actual work commences. Execution analysis refers to the [hopefully] ongoing comparison between the plan and pre-operations brief and the actual work itself to determine 1) the level of progress towards the goal, 2) the degree to which reality (the operational environment, hazards, work methods, tools, and equipment) matches up with the perception of reality (normally what was planned and briefed to the team or crew), 3) the required actions needed to reduce the gap between the plan and actual work either by adjusting the work or adjusting the plan, and 4) a projection of the work task status, progress, and impacts into the future to determine how the job is likely to unfold as time goes on and who or what will be impacted. [As an aside, you may notice that I sprinkled a description of situational awareness in there as well (perception of reality vs. reality) because execution analysis involves the application of situational awareness.]

Well this sounds reasonable and easy, right? We all do this every day, don’t we? Don’t our teams and crews do this? Maybe they do, but due to numerous biases it can be pretty easy to dismiss changes during operational execution and simply think that the plan is working just fine. So where do these changes reside and how do we identify them? I think the changes exist in the white space. They are often the small details that exist in the areas of work that seem to be unmarked. This may mean that in many cases instead of being glaring problems that are easy to spot, they are the minor nuances in the work; the tool that was pre-staged is a different brand with a different grip and a slightly different length (or maybe there are different features and switches), a couple of other tools may have been modified slightly to do the job according to the needs of the last crew, some ancillary equipment is delayed an hour over the course of a 12 hour project, and funding approval for a slight budget increase has not been approved even though parts requiring this funding are on their way to the job site. These are simple examples and while to many people these would seem to be clear areas that are salient and easy to spot (definitely not in the white space of a plan). However, during the messiness of daily work crews can become numb to these types of changes and the changes may inadvertently drift towards the white space.

Would a standard planning guide that does not include a space for discussing variances address these areas? If not, these areas may be the white space in the plan. By creating a planning system that includes discussion points for changes may help. Additionally, by creating an execution analysis system that requires un-briefed changes to be acknowledged, exposed, and dealt with (including informing those who need to know) crews and teams may be in a better position to identify the consequences of these types of issues. By taking these concepts further we can then begin to think about past experiences with execution analysis and how we could have analyzed actual operations and compared them to the plan a bit better. You might think about situations where your teams did a great job catching variances and mitigating or otherwise dealing with them in real-time. If you find these positive situations, teach others from these examples so your organization may be able to learn and grow when faced with the changes and challenges that occur during real work. You could also consider developing your own heuristics (“rules of thumb”) that may serve to help during execution analysis, and perhaps in particular during time-compressed situations. Just remember, that heuristics are often only “good enough” when “good enough” is “good enough.” Sometimes you need more details and a more thorough approach.

Regardless of how you approach execution analysis, just starting with a process to help identify, expose, and handle changes during operational execution may help. Rather than assuming changes will have little impact, develop a process to analyze the changes, discuss them with technical and functional experts, and determine what actions (if any) may need to be taken. In some cases perhaps no actions will need to occur, but by working through the process this can help build habit patterns that can be integrated into work and maybe these habits will help improve long-term sustainability.

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