Don't Be a 'Zombie' Organization!

05/21/2013 10:29 am ET | Updated Jul 21, 2013

Zombies are all the entertainment rage, mindless brutes in relentless pursuit despite all the obstacles hurled at them. Though individually they are easy targets, they are terrifying when attacking en masse.

The outnumbered human heroes nevertheless prevail because they are agile learners, assessing situations and adapting to them -- seeing problems, developing new schemes -- solving problems, to clobber the mindless hoards.

It's not just TV that has plodding zombies massed against agile, adaptive people. Organizations also display either zombie or agile hero qualities. In zombie organizations, engineers, doctors, nurses, mechanics or managers encounter problems like missing information, missing documentation, unclear assignments, missing materials or even missing colleagues. Yet, not really seeing them as abnormalities, they don't solve them, unrelenting when something is amiss, not pausing to investigate and develop solutions.

They face the same problems every day in the same way, ad infinitum. Their virtual scuff marks get darker with repeated retracing of routinized workarounds. Like their entertainment counterparts, zombie organizations consume extraordinary resources -- financial and human - but to complete work inelegantly, without finesse.

We've all had zombie experiences, either when receiving their products and services or embedded in one at work. I took my daughter to an emergency department for a broken arm, watching as the triage nurse helped junior staff track specimen tubes, orders, and lab results. Her time would have been far more valuably spent through faster triage, more attentive diagnosis, or more focused treatment. Instead, that potential for better patient care was lost to solvable inefficiency, distractions, disruptions, and obstacles because no time was taken to evaluate the system in which care was being provided, identify problems, diagnose them to cause, and develop "treatments" to prevent their recurrence.

Zombie behavior in high-end manufacturing has technicians consumed looking for and decoding drawings, finding the responsible engineers and locating parts and tools, all while expensive aircraft sit with no value added. Time lost searching for material, equipment and instructions is speed lost in ramping new technology and applying existing technology. Product arrives later and less affordably than necessary, in smaller volumes and fewer varieties than what is needed by end users.

Zombie behavior is wasteful. Worse, it creates risk of catastrophe. In the emergency department, my daughter experienced a 30-minute lag between sign in and triage. Not a big deal for a simple playground injury, but it could have been consequential for injuries more severe than they appeared. There were 17 workarounds during diagnosis and casting, and I was assertive in making a stink, but imagine a non-English speaking parent of a more seriously hurt child. Would they have demanded attention, correcting the care provider when a symptom was misrecorded or an instruction was misconveyed?

The problem with zombie workarounds is that they leave the system vulnerable, creating possibility of real harm when any number of hazards line up to create a perfect storm.

For example, in virtually every catastrophe (Challenger, Columbia, 9/11, BP Texas City, BP Gulf of Mexico, etc.) the post-event investigations all showed that many factors (not one or a few) caused the disaster. No factors were unique that day but, when experienced before in isolation or in other combinations, those factors were perceived as part of the normal experience. Thus, they went unresolved. The only thing found unusual when disaster struck was the configuration of the factors. No doubt, when the West, TX explosion and other recent crises--financial, information systems, and so forth -- are autopsied, the same conclusion will be reached. Nothing unusual happened but the terrible result.

Fortunately, failure -- as repeated frustration or catastrophe -- is avoidable. In contrast to zombie-like churn, high-velocity learning organizations easily vanquish their foes with fewer people and fewer resources. They don't start with perfect products, services or processes. But, they start by recognizing that imperfection is inevitable, so they constantly look for and find stumbles in execution that impede progress. They aggressively investigate and diagnose those low-level problems and then develop robust "treatments" to prevent recurrence.

When they are really "on," they aggressively teach and learn, sharing discoveries organization-wide to get the maximum performance bang for the learning buck. And their leaders see critical part of their own mission critical capabilities to include coaching, encouraging, and harnessing the capabilities of: (1) seeing problems; (2) solving problems; and (3) spreading discoveries. These organizations get far better, far faster and their rivals cannot keep up. When these high-velocity learning capabilities are in play, nothing remains the same. Issues encountered on Monday are addressed on Tuesday, and by Wednesday new approaches are being tested and tried.

Learning speed leads to agility in execution, providing enormous advantages! Half the people in half the manufacturing space using half the equipment to create twice the product -- and a far better product at that. In new product introduction, similar ratios of fewer people introducing new and better products and manufacturing technology with higher reliability in fractions of the time. This spills over into design as well with half the engineering years consumed in half the calendar time, bringing better designs to market with double the frequency, and is reflected in infrastructure systems that are resilient and robust.

A good example is Alcoa whose embrace of the see, solve and share dynamic led to rates of workplace injury at 1/50th of the industry average despite the hazards of mining, refining, smelting and extrusion. And the U.S. Navy's nuclear reactor program has had an impeccable safety record on the strength of "the discipline of engineering." Hospitals adopting this "see, solve, share" dynamic have eliminated complications while increasing capacity. (If all of healthcare followed their example, we would have no "crisis.")

Leaders have a choice. Either they can complacently model and allow zombie like incuriosity and non inventiveness or they can model and encourage McGyver like ingenuity. With that choice about learning dynamic, they are choosing between failure and success.

Steven Spear is a senior lecturer at MIT in the Sloan School of Management and in the Engineering Systems Division and is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. He is author of the book, The High-Velocity Edge.