After a day of no production because of computer problems (in the days of mainframe computers), the Warrant officer in charge of the Automated Data Processing Section finally had some good news for the Major in charge of the Marine Aviation Supply Department, “Sir, it seems that Sergeant Bernat has fixed the computer and he expects to have all the backlog caught up before he leaves for the day.”
The Major was shocked, “But Sergeant Bernat is not a computer technician. How did he fix the computer?”
The Warrant Officer was hesitant, “Well, let’s just say he fixed it.”
The Major was insistent, “Look, if he went above and beyond his normal responsibilities, we should process an award for him. Now, I want to know just how he fixed the computer.”
“Please don’t make me tell you, Sir. You will never believe it and will probably throw me out of your office,” plead the Warrant Officer. The Major demanded an answer – and he threw the Warrant Officer out of his office.
We have all heard of Einstein’s statement that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. There will be times in your life when conventional wisdom and solutions need to be tossed aside and new innovative ideas need to be utilized to achieve an improved result. The phrase you hear most often in association with this practice is “thinking outside of the box.” So, when contemplating the use of new ideas or when considering a change of direction, here are something you should consider.
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Before looking outside of the box, maybe you should look in the box to see if the tool you need has been there all along. A simple example is using a hammer to drive a screw into place. It does not work very well and causes more damage than you would want. If you look inside the box, you may find you have a screwdriver which will make the task simple. So, rule out the tools you have before you go looking for a new tool.
Maybe your existing plan is good but needs just a minor tweaking to be a great plan. I learned while working in retail that having the best price on a quality item does no good if the customer cannot easily locate the item when they come into your store. So, moving sale items to a place where they were the first thing a customer would see when entering the store increase my sales and brought new customers into the establishment.
Maybe your existing plan is a great plan but your team did not fully implement it because they did not understand how to effectively execute each step in the process. So, before you try to come up with a new solution, gather your team together and review the process of the existing plan to ensure a thorough understanding of each executable in the action plan. A simple course correction may get you heading in the right direction. In the Marine Corps, I often provided my new Second Lieutenants with step by step written instructions for major projects and then sat down with them to review their progress daily just to answer questions and keep them heading in the right direction. The object was to help them so that they could learn from a success and not be demoralized by a defeat due to poor execution.
If after you have reviewed all of your existing tools and plans and you come to the conclusion that you are still not achieving the success you desire, it is time to “think outside of the box.” The advantage to considering the above steps before you jump to a new idea is that you will have had to assess all the factors that have changed in the environment, the market, the consumer expectation, and any other important factors so that you will have a complete understanding as to why the tools and plans that at one time made you successful are no longer leading you to the success you desire. Therefore, you will have the knowledge you need to formulate that new and innovative solution that will lead to your success. [/message][su_spacer]
So, back to the opening story (and it is a true story). What was my computer fix that got the Warrant Officer tossed out of the Major’s office?
Knowing we were having processing problems, I had gotten up early to get to work. When I entered the computer complex, the mid-crew computer operator looked absolutely exasperated, the computer technician had schematics spread across his desk and stubble on his face that told me he had not left the complex and had been on site trying to fix the problems since yesterday morning, and the Warrant Office was looking frustrated with the lack of progress. I immediately went to the computer van (our main frame computer was in an 8′ x 8′ x 20′ van so it could be deployed to war) to review the yellow sheet (The teletype that communicated with our computer printed a history of all operations on a roll of paper that was yellow in color. These were kept with each run to provide a detailed history of the job process and any complications.). Over and over I could see where the system would experience a non-recoverable fault forcing the operator to restart the segment – the same problem I had experienced the entire day before and late into the night before I went back to the barracks to get a little sleep. We were still in the same segment as we were when I had come to work the morning before. Then I heard this question from the Warrant Officer.
“Well, Sergeant, what are you going to do to get this update complete and all other jobs caught up?”
I quickly reviewed in my mind all that we had done to try and get the system up and running. None of the normal processes were working. It was time to try a completely different, more radical approach. I told the tech to get all his test equipment disconnected from the computer and to get it out of the van. I told my operator to get all his stuff and to go back to the barracks that I would take it from here. Once all that was done, I announced that no one was to enter the computer van until I had everything caught up.
We had affectionately named our computer Igor. As I walked into the van, the computer technician and Warrant Officer stood at the door and watched to see what I was about to do. I prepared to restart the segment we had been in for over a day. Then, I went to the central process unit, stroked the side of the unit and softly said, “Igor, don’t you know I still love you?” I then leaned forward and kissed the unit.
I walked to the teletype, enter the command to restart process and stepped back to watch everything begin work. I noticed the Warrant Officer was about to walk in and I stopped him. I let him know that Igor and I needed to work together on this. At about two in the afternoon, I began bringing the reports and keypunch cards out for processing in the different departments and I let the Warrant Officer know that I would have us caught up by the end of the day.
So, when the Major demanded that the Warrant Officer tell him exactly what I did to fix the computer, he sheepishly replied, “He kissed it, Sir.”
If you are going to be an exceptional leader, learn to assess your processes when success begins to slip away to determine how to make a course correction. And when new and innovative ideas are necessary, don’t be afraid to try the impossible.