Category Archives: Failure

More examples of what not to do AKA how to stay in the frying pan and not fall into the fire.

This is the second article in the series about what not to do.  The person suggesting this article asked for examples of things that might help you save yourself from yourself.  Please send me your examples and stories of things not to do.  Your confidentiality will be protected unless you want credit for the idea.  Sharing this experience, especially with younger executives is one of the best ways to serve the industry.  I have an outline of a third article and depending upon response, I could probably keep this going for a while since like a consultant friend of mine used to say, “One idiot can keep three consultants busy forever.”

Project planning

Ben Franklin’s adage goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”  I have found this profound simple statement to be true time and again.

After being appointed interim CFO in a hospital, I learned that there was a major construction project under way.  The project and the rate at which the hospital was burning money on the project did not make sense to me.  To make a long, complicated story short, no one could produce a feasibility study to support the project’s value proposition or pro-forma analysis to support the project’s underlying  financing.  When no one could produce a sources and uses of funds analysis, I spent a couple of weeks creating my own from scratch.  When I was finished, it was clear that the project was underfunded by over $20 million and the hospital did not have sufficient reserves to cover the shortfall.  When this information was provided to the Board, after they recovered from the shock and horror, they decided to stop the project that would have resulted in a problem with the bonds used to finance the project by drawing reserves below bond covenant minimum requirements triggering a technical default.  The entire organization was oblivious to this looming disaster.

Ole Abe said that, “You should spend twice as much time sharpening your axe as you spend cutting with it.”  The implication of this admonition is obvious to anyone that has ever cut wood with an axe.  Still and yet, executives let distractions and competition for their time lead them to allow ill-conceived initiatives to go forward then they are surprised when the projects blow up on them.  If you want to entertain yourself, pick any executive out at a cocktail party and ask them if they have ever seen a project go bad.  The war stories you will hear are spectacular. Better yet, ask the ‘expert’ if they have ever seen a peer do something stupid.  Apparently, they have not heard or have disregarded the advice of Einstein, “Doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is the beginning of insanity.”

Project control

Oh boy!  The easy part of a project is the planing and approval.  The hard part is execution.  There are a lot of challenges with project execution.  One is that other unanticipated confounding priorities arise in the organization that bleed capacity from the organization’s leadership to remain focused on a critical project.  Another commonly seen problem with project execution is the loss of key leaders during the course of the project.  All too frequently, critical assumptions underlying the project’s rationalization are proven inaccurate or incomplete once execution begins.  Sometimes, a project’s success is largely dependent upon one person and if that person leaves or is incapacitated, the entire project goes into jeopardy.

To some degree, a project is analogous to a marriage.  In order for it to succeed, more than 100% commitment is required from all sides.  Every effort you make to manage your risk can be thwarted by uncontrollable changes in your business partner(s).  There is no guarantee that the people that sold a deal and made commitments on behalf of your business partner will be around to honor those commitments.  If they made commitments that were not in the contract, they may not be allowed to honor them.  More than once before a project was completed, I have found myself dealing with an entirely different cast of characters.  What about a business partner that gets acquired during implementation and none of the commitments made before the acquisition are honored?  A business failure or overcommitment by a business partner can move into your life like bad in-laws.  This is why business partner selection is so important.  Too often, a decision maker will chose a business partner based on cost alone and in the process buy himself a set of problems that turn out to be exponentially more expensive than the most expensive option that was under consideration at the time the decision was made.

A project does not have to fail to become a disaster.  Delays in a project can be as damaging.  I do not know of a delayed project that resulted in a better outcome.  Sometimes, delays cause cascading problems.  Take a construction project for example where the electrical contractor is contracted to start on a date certain and the project is not far along enough for them to begin work.  This kind of a delay can rapidly spread throughout an organization and create enough problems to overwhelm the ability of the leadership team to address them.  This is the reason you were required to study PERT in school.  How often do you see it applied in practice?

If a mistake is to be made in project management, it should be biased in favor of overcompensation for potential problems.  I am regularly criticized for being too conservative and too hard on pro-forma analysis assumptions. Never the less, time after time I see projected revenues and time lines being overstated and projected expenses understated.

Waiting too long to intervene

I have watched executives demur from engaging an issue in hopes that it would go away.  I have rarely seen this strategy work.  More often than not, a problem in an organization will get worse the longer intervention is delayed.  There are a lot of reasons that this occurs not the least of which is that addressing operational problems most often involves dealing with a personnel problem.  I do not know many executives that enjoy taking on a personnel problem.  Vince Lombardi said, “Hope is not a strategy.”  Failing or refusing to intervene can allow a problem to become exponentially more damaging until it reaches the point that the organization’s financial statements are impacted.  Time and again as an interim, I have been asked, why it was going to take so long and cost so much to address a problem?  I have seen ten or more interim executives committed to address what had been allowed to become a major business problem on more than one occasion.  My answer to this question is always the same.  Cutting costs after an organization finally decides to address a problem only prolongs the time and cost necessary for the mitigation.  All too frequently, organizations create a problem by under-resourcing an area or initiative.  When this leads to a melt-down, the leaders charged with the mitigation are frequently frustrated by the cost and time associated with fixing the resulting mess.  Sometimes, I have to tell them for their future reference that the cost associated with keeping a process or function under control is always a small fraction of the time and resources necessary to straighten it out after it goes catawaumpus.  Every executive I know can relate one or more horror stories to prove this point.  More often than not, the fiasco is related to an I/T implementation where the costs and operational consequences associated with a failed project can exceed the original budgeted cost of the project.

Fire fighters are known for over-commiting resources to a fire.  This strategy is designed to err on the side of having more resource than is needed to address the fire as opposed to running the risk that a growing fire will overwhelm the resources that are available on site.  Once, I asked an interim CEO how it was going relatively early into his engagement in a very troubled large hospital.  His answer that I have never forgotten was, “The platform is on fire.”  A platform is like a ship.  When it catches fire, getting off is rarely an option.  You must fight the fire where it is and failure is not an option.  Remember the USS Forestall?  Skimping on resources when dealing with a problem like this can lead to figurative death in the form of an unplanned career transition.  A business problem is analogous to a fire in the organization.  If you are going to make a mistake addressing a problem, your personal risk will be much lower if you respond aggressively to a problem and err on the side of over-commiting resources until the problem is resolved and the situation stabalized.  The alternative is a potential conflagration.

Non-evidence based decisions

The mantra of UAB’s Doctorate of Administration in Health Sciences program is, “Evidence based practice in Healthcare Administration.”  I have commented before on what appears to be a paradox in healthcare.  On the clinical side, most of what is done is based on evidence gained from objective, peer reviewed research.  The purpose of the research is to yield better outcomes and safer facilities for patient care.  In the administrative suites of too many healthcare organizations, decisions are routinely made based on seat-of-the-pants hunches, historical precedent, little or no analysis, ridiculous assumptions, no assumptions, flawed analysis, systematic ignorance or reckless disregard of applicable evidence and research.  More often than not, harried administrators do not even bother to see if any applicable research is available to help them make better decisions.  In other cases, decisions are made for political expediency or to appease Dr. Huff-and-Puff.  I got into trouble in a Catholic hospital for suggesting the leadership team’s decision making ranged from magic eight ball to Ouija board.  I now keep a magic eight ball on my desk as a reminder to not fall into this trap.  It is funny to have younger people ask me what the magic eight ball is.  They’re not old enough in some cases to have ever heard of the magic eight ball and they are fascinated to see how it works.  It is a wonder some organizations get along as well as they do.

Indecisiveness
I was perusing novelty signs in a gift shop in Indiana when a sign captured my attention.  It said, “Decision making around here is like a squirrel crossing the road.”  Indecisiveness can be dangerous when it is practiced in the front office.  At its least, indecisiveness can lead to project and initiave delays.  At worst, it can wreck not only projects but the credibility of executives with their Boards.  There’s a one liner that says, “The road to failure is littered with run over squirrels.”  In an earlier article I said, “If you are a decision maker, make a decision.”  Not making a decision is making a decision.
As before, I would like to thank Dr. Christy Lemak Professor and Chair of the UAB Department of Health Services Administration for the inspiration or should I say assignment that resulted in this article. I am looking forward to seeing my grade.
Please feel free to contact me to discuss any questions or observations you might have about these blogs or interim executive services in general.  As the only practicing Interim Executive that has done a dissertation on Interim Executive Services in healthcare in the US, I might have an idea or two that might be valuable to you.  I can also help with career transitions or career planning.
The easiest way to keep abreast of this blog is to become a follower.  You will be notified of all updates as they occur.  To become a follower, just click the “Following” link that usually appears as a bubble near the bottom this web page.
There is a comment section at the bottom of each blog page.  Please provide input and feedback that will help me to improve the quality of this work.
This is original work.  This material is copyrighted by me with reproduction prohibited without prior permission.  I note and provide links to supporting documentation for non-original material.
If you would like to discuss any of this content or ask questions, I may be reached at ras2@me.com. I look forward to engaging in productive discussion with anyone that is a practicing interim executive or a decision maker with experience engaging interim executives in healthcare.

Examples of what not to do – simple mistakes you have seen that others could avoid.  AKA – How many ways can you get yourself into trouble?

One of the items of constructive feedback I have received is that some of my articles are too long.  The subject of this article resulted in an article over 2,000 words long.  I have reminisced with friends in the consulting business that have suggested that we collaborate on a book on this topic based on the experiences we have had.  As a result, this article will be posted in multiple editions.

A very highly regarded friend of mine recommended that I address mistakes that might be beneficial to others.  Nasreddin said something to the effect that, ‘good judgment comes from the experience we get from exercising bad judgment.’  Given the benefit of this insight, I will address some of the things that I have seen as the cause of extreme angst in one healthcare organization after another.  An exhaustive listing is beyond the scope of any article.  However, I welcome tips and stories from my readers addressing vivid memories of things that would be beneficial for others to know, especially those that do not have the experience of some of us.

Blind trust of systems

This is one of the most basic managerial errors and it is seen over and over.  People ‘assume’ that a system will or will not do something without proving the assumption only to be surprised when their blind faith is proven wrong in a spectacular faux-pas.  Rather than assuming that people understand the meaning of the word ‘assume’, I will define it by dissection.  All to often, people engage in assumptions leading to flawed decisions that make an ASS/out of U/and ME.  I wish I could remember how many times I have witnessed flawed assumptions wreaking havoc around me.  Sometimes, these errors result in terminations of the people involved.  Mark Twain and Ronald Regan said that, “It is not what you know that will get you, it is what you are absolutely certain of that is just not right.”

Once upon a time when I had reason to doubt the controls in the hospital’s accounts payable system right after a new state of the art, super whiz-bang accounting application had been implemented, I was assured by my Controller that there were safeguards in the system that he said would guarantee that there was no scenario under which an automated check for more than $25,000 could be produced and signed with my facsimile.  I had set this limit to insure that I had the chance to personally review large disbursements and sign them manually.  About a week later, it came to my attention that instead of keying a construction draw request of less than $25K, the A/P clerk keyed the remaining balance of over $275K to a contractor that the hospital was engaged in an active dispute with.  What do you think happened when this transaction went through the system without interruption and out to the contractor?  If you ass/u/me that he brought the check back, you would be sorely mistaken.  I am sure others can provide similar nightmare stories.

There are thousands of ways to be trapped by our own systems. The more complex the systems, the greater the number of interfaces with other systems and the higher the volume of transactions, the greater the potential for error and the larger the error will have to become before it is discovered by normal control and balancing processes.

Hiring mistakes

Another HUGE area of learning in the school of hard knocks is hiring decisions.  Jack Welsh said something to the effect of, “Getting the right people into the right jobs is a lot more important than developing a strategy.”  As an interim executive I have observed that one of the more common areas that gets organizations into trouble is hiring decisions that result in people being put into roles where they cannot succeed.  Some organizations and hiring decision makers are highly motivated to put the next person in line into a role whether they are qualified or not.  I have been criticized for bringing people from outside of town into the organization to fill crucial roles.  My response is that if  properly qualified local applicants were available, I would hire locally to save travel money if for no other reason.  I have counseled Boards and written on the subject of organizational performance being nothing more complicated than the collective caliber of the team on the field.  One of my mentors taught me by example the potential and value of getting the right people into the right places in an organization and the difference they can make.

Getting the right people is as important if not more important than avoiding hiring the wrong people by making mistakes in the vetting process.

AR valuation

I have seen so many executives brought down by incorrect valuations of their accounts receivable that I have lost count.  So many in fact, that I was inspired to address one of my blog articles to CEOs that all too often become one of the first victims of this error.  The article asks the question, ‘have you been caught looking?’  One of the biggest risks on a hospital’s financial statements is the valuation of revenue and accounts receivable and for every understatement, there are multiples of over-statements of receivable and revenue value.  In fact, I have not seen an undervaluation recorded although I have been in arguments with outside auditors about under and over valuations of revenue and A/R.  It is a lot easier to convince an audit partner to not book an undervaluation than it is an over valuation.   The executive that wishes to avoid becoming a victim of this trap needs to take the advice of my article on the topic to heart.

AR reclassifications

A reclassification of AR is potentially more dangerous and harder to catch than a simple error in calculating realizable value.  For example, consider an organization that holds self pay balances after insurance in the same bucket as the insurance.  This is considerably more common than many managers appreciate.  Suppose a commercial receivable is valued at 70% of the underlying charges and self pay receivables are valued at 5%.  When an amount like $5 million is reclassified from insurance to self pay to clean up a backlog after the insurance balances have been satisfied, the adjustment to the value of receivables will be 65% (70% – 5%) or $3.25 million.  There are other reasons for balances to accumulate in the wrong buckets on the receivable system leading to reclassification adjustments.  The receivables are not wrong, they are just valued incorrectly.  This kind of error is enough to knock an enormous dent into or potentially wipe out the operating income of any enterprise.  There are rarely adequate cushions or reserves in realizable value calculations to absorb a shock like this.

Summary

As can be seen, a text-book could easily be written on the topic of what not to do.  There are plenty of texts that are written on what to do, they are just all too regularly ignored.  Some leaders seem to not have the ability to connect academic learning and practice. These are but a few examples of things that I have seen go wrong in healthcare organization’s business operations.  This discussion is a good example of the value of experience.  Experienced executives operating on evidence based practice have a far better potential to avoid these pitfalls and others.  Sometimes the value of an executive in an organization is more related to what they know than what they do.  Once a patient in an outage accosted a surgeon  over his fee.  The patient took the position that the fee bore no relationship to the time spent on the procedure.  The surgeon replied that 5% of his fee was for the cutting and the other 95% was for knowing where to cut and what not to cut.

My plan is to publish another article on this topic with more examples of what not to do. If you have any stories to contribute, I would love to hear them.

I would like to thank Dr. Christy Lemak, Dean of the Health Administration program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for inspiring this article.  I am looking forward to seeing my grade.

Please feel free to contact me to discuss any questions or observations you might have about these blogs or interim executive services in general.  As the only practicing Interim Executive that has done a dissertation on Interim Executive Services in healthcare in the US, I might have an idea or two that might be valuable to you.  I can also help with career transitions or career planning.

The easiest way to keep abreast of this blog is to become a follower.  You will be notified of all updates as they occur.  To become a follower, just click the “Following” link that usually appears as a bubble near the bottom this web page.

There is a comment section at the bottom of each blog page.  Please provide input and feedback that will help me to improve the quality of this work.

This is original work.  This material is copyrighted by me with reproduction prohibited without prior permission.  I note and  provide links to supporting documentation for non-original material.

If you would like to discuss any of this content or ask questions, I may be reached at ras2@me.com. I look forward to engaging in productive discussion with anyone that is a practicing interim executive or a decision maker with experience engaging interim executives in healthcare.