I was raised in a family that was passionate about using the right tool for the job. My parents have enough vintage tools and early tech gadgets at their home to fill a museum. One-of-a-kind hammers, saws and pliers. Unusual generators, power supplies and oscilloscopes. Not to mention all the old computers—our obsession with tech and tools spans four generations!
Over time I came to understand that each tool has a purpose, and using it incorrectly can have negative consequences—injury, inefficiency or permanently damaging a good tool. Try using a screwdriver as a chisel by hitting the handle with a hammer. The result is damaged handle that can injure your hand or a damaged tip that makes the tool no good for chiseling.
The Danger of SOPs in Aviation
In a similar way, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in organizations are really tools. Using them ensures the reliable achievement of a desired outcome, assuming they match the task at hand. If a process does not match the task it supports well, it’ll result in inefficiency, poor performance and low morale. It will act as a weight on the business instead of giving it wings to take off.
In fact, in the world of aviation, there are documented cases where strict adherence to SOPs led to disaster. The aviation industry has a multitude of carefully devised procedures, designed to keep us safe. In the nineties, an ELAL Boeing 747-cargo flight crashed over the Netherlands after two of its engines detached from the wings. The pilots could have saved the airplane; however, the crew followed the emergency protocol to the letter. Unfortunately, the plane’s instrumentation, no longer connected to the detached engines, gave the pilots false readings. The procedure no longer matched the situation, and the plane eventually lost the ability to control systems and crashed, killing 43 people.
Learning from this tragedy, airlines now train pilots to ignore SOPs in certain emergency situations. They are trained to trust their instincts instead and just land the plane. The landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009 is a perfect example, where instinctive thinking led Captain Sully to make the right decision not to try landing at a nearby airport, but instead ditch the plane into the Hudson River close to an active boat route that could evacuate passengers. Airlines frequently learn from accidents, building those scenarios into their flight simulators. Much like the use of duct tape to save Apollo 13, thinking outside of the box can save lives. While policies and procedures are essential in routine, stable situations, SOPs may be just the wrong tool in a dynamic situation.
SOPs in a SAAS Environment
I’ve spent much of my professional life building software, not working in aviation, but allow me to translate. In a Software as a Service (SAAS) environment, processes like Kanban and Scrum are essential to delivering projects on time and to specification. However, once your software service is running, bugs inevitably pop up, and servers and Internet connections fail, resulting in unexpected situations for the code. These events require prompt attention, and ignoring them or building a queue to fix them one by one, is like employing the wrong tool. You run the risk of a service meltdown and possibly even worse consequences—imagine the phone system for a 911 service failing.
Developing SOPs for the myriad of dynamic situations that can arise in a SAAS environment is impossible and in many cases, a waste of time. If you fix a software bug properly, the likelihood that you’ll need a standard procedure a second time is slim. You’re better served spending the time training people (your most effective tools) to think and respond creatively.
At Phone.com, we’re constantly working to strike the balance between creating effective procedures to ensure quality, while at the same time responding quickly when an unforeseen issue arises. Here is my advice. The next time you think you need to add a process in your organization consider the age-old acronym KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. Ask yourself if you will ever need this procedure again and how frequently. If the answer is no, use the time saved to evolve your tools and people by sharing information among the group. Evolution does not happen in one day, but as your team knowledge grows, the performance, efficiency and job satisfaction will build exponentially.