Watch out for dangerous assumptions


Watch out for dangerous assumptions

You deal with life-or-death situations every day. Are your employees up to speed on which tasks demand priority, or are you risking a major mistake?
Oct 01, 2008

Many years ago, I managed the foaling department of a large thoroughbred breeding farm. In addition to foaling about 200 mares a year, I received shipments of either mares with foals at side or single mares waiting to be bred. Part of my daily routine was "walking pastures"—going into each pasture or pen and looking over each horse individually.

With so many horses and multiple large pastures, it often took two to three hours to complete this task. Checking a pasture meant looking at each horse from all four sides, asking each one to move off, and noticing everything: eyes, feet, udders, navels, attitudes, respirations—everything. It meant looking in the water trough, scanning fences, and checking gates.

When things ran smoothly, this was the best part of my day. But there were many, many days when my walkie-talkie summoned me back to the barn every 10 minutes. A mare decided to foal, a van arrived unexpectedly, a baby started colicking, or the teasing crew needed extra help. With these clamoring distractions, I was sometimes tempted to do a "drive-by" for the last couple of pastures. I could see the horses from outside the fence, after all. They were probably fine, right? ?

I never did a drive-by in the seven years I was there. This protocol was an absolute in our business. Each department head checked his or her horses every day: the breeding manager, the yearling manager—no exceptions. With so many horses, the statistics were against us: An illness or injury was likely to be lurking. So the care we exercised in checking our horses was nonnegotiable.

Expect the unexpected.

Every day your staff members weigh priorities and make judgment calls. Each is responsible for many tasks governed by multiple rules and policies, which are in turn challenged by daily circumstances. They must handle intersecting and overlapping duties involving patients, other staff, clients, doctors, and vendors in a daily square dance, and on a perfect day, they probably do quite nicely. But when did you last have a perfect day? More likely, you've recently experienced one of these scenarios:

  • A drug you use frequently wasn't added to the inventory order board. You reach for it and it's not there.
  • A client is upset by the bill for his hospitalized horse. He requested—but didn't receive—a notification when his balance approached a certain figure.
  • A busy technician discharges a hospitalized horse ungroomed.

If you're fortunate enough to lead a group of golden individuals who never misstep and make everything look easy, congratulations, and high fives all around. A great many of your colleagues, however, are in the process of building a solid support team. Most of you, in fact, work with at least one or two team members who are in the early stages of training. As they learn the ropes, add skills, and develop judgment, you watch with fingers crossed, hoping someday they achieve the ultimate goal: total reliability. It takes a long time, and there are few shortcuts, but to help them get there eventually, you need to spell out the absolutes in your practice.

Your absolutes are the priorities and core objectives within each position that guide team members in managing the unexpected according to both urgency and importance (note the difference). There are some missteps that simply cannot happen—certain responsibilities must be achieved 100 percent of the time. These are the protocols that are carved in stone—no gray areas, no wiggle room, no "almost" about them. Can your staff point to those absolutes within their job responsibilities?

Some are obvious—the way a surgeon scrubs in, for instance. Even if you're rushing to get to surgery, you wouldn't skimp on sterile protocol. Basic safety rules are another example. You'd never throw the end of a lead rope around your neck, not even with a bomb-proof 27-year-old horse, not even for "just for a second" to give yourself two free hands. Hopefully that's self-evident. But what about priorities that are less obvious?