The 4-C Failure Cycle™

The 4-C Failure Cycle™ – Correction, Conformance, Confidence, Casualness

Early in the Space Shuttle Program after a string of unlikely and unfortunate operational incidents, I was one of many tasked to look at the log of these incidents to determine if there was a pattern or story. One interesting characteristic popped out at me that I now call “The 4-C Failure Cycle™ – Correction, Conformance, Confidence, Casualness.

The incident that demonstrated this cycle best was “technician ran bridge bucket into Orbiter.” Meaning the technician while working on or near a Space Shuttle Orbiter accidentally bumped it and those heat protection tiles are easily damaged by impact. The review of the log showed this incident occurred approximately every 18 months to two years – A two year 4-C Failure Cycle.

gradient circle arrowsAfter the incident the 1st C “Correction” phase is entered. They analyze what happened and make corrective action recommendations. During the 2nd C, “Conformance” phase every one complies with the corrective action, (they have trained personnel appropriately and limit who has access to the bridge bucket.) During the 3rd C, “Confidence,” everything is going smoothly, but it is during this phase that the training and corrective action steps start to become a memory. Additionally, as with any organization, changes in leadership and personnel have occurred and everyone doesn’t have the same history with regard to the failure. (New technicians, new supervisors, different processes, other priorities, etc.)

The 4th C is “Casualness” and occurs when the original corrective action is forgotten or deemed no longer necessary. “We know what we are doing, we don’t have time for this formality.” (In the case of the bridge bucket scenario what was limited access to trained personnel essentially becomes open access to anyone with a valid work order.) Guess what happens next? Someone runs the bridge bucket into the Orbiter and the cycle starts all over again.

I recently spoke with a long standing client about a project failure that just occurred. They were looking for some training in addition to the corrective actions they had taken. After we spoke for awhile she asked if I had a course that addressed this. I said yes, and I think we actually conducted it a couple of years ago. My notes showed a couple of years ago was actually seven years ago and I had provided the training in 2007 before she came on board.

As I read the notes from the meeting to plan the course objectives from seven years ago the notes could have been for the exact same conversation we were having today. This was a seven year 4-C Failure Cycle. Imagine the organizational change that takes place in seven years, leadership changes, personnel changes, policy changes. Project failures like this are not a surprise.

Project management is a skill, a skill that must be honed and sharpened regularly, not just through execution but training (facilitated discussion with peers).

If a team sports coach viewed their athletes like some organizations view project managers they would say something like “we don’t need to practice, we just practiced three years ago, after all you have been playing (baseball, soccer, cricket, basketball) a long time and the rules haven’t changed. Just work on your own and stay in shape.” How ridiculous would it be for a team sports coach to say “see you next game” with no thought of practice, but that is how some organizations treat project managers.

Training is beyond just a two day class on something, it is having the team read a great book and review chapters month by month at a lunch & learn sharing takeaways. It is about kicking off meetings reviewing a best practice, article [like my newsletters :-)] or recent failure, etc. As leaders we have to be diligent about making sure we stay in the conformance phase, because confidence without conformance leads to casualness and then failure is as predictable as an afternoon thunderstorm in Florida.  You don’t know the exact time, but the conditions tell you it is going to happen (you may be hearing thunder in the distance right now for some projects).

P.S. The economy is turning around. This means organizations are starting to experience a higher level of turnover because people no longer feel trapped and are becoming confident about changing jobs. This increase in turnover results in a shorter 4-C Failure cycle if the organization is not continually taking the time to focus on conformance.

Posted by Dr. James Brown in accountability, Discpline, Project Management Training.


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