Flying Blind: The Risk of Putting Off Investment into Facilities Leadership

I was on a plane the other day listening to the familiar words of the flight attendant, reminding us all that “in the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you.” And a few sentences later, “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” As someone providing support or service to others (like a parent) that is an important, albeit foreign, message to internalize. It goes against every instinct in our bodies. Facilities leaders, so focused on serving others, are prone to making this same mistake.

It is easy for leaders to lose themselves in service of others, particularly the people doing the core business activity of the organization, like teaching, or practicing medicine, or doing groundbreaking research, or even serving food. Such ground-level work is crucial: Organizational excellence might be measured in graduation rates, cure rates, patents or sated appetites.

All of that business activity requires an environment within which to work. Roofs need to be leak free; space conditioning and power need to be functioning; data must flow; spaces must be clean or even disinfected; security systems need to be fully operational. And all those basic functions must happen in an environment that is attractive to inspire the best performance as well as draw in new people to the community. Facilities needs can be all consuming.

But as W. Edwards Deming said long ago, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” If you are so busy doing that you don’t take time to measure, you won’t be able to optimize what you are doing, and you might just get bulldozed by the challenges. And so, we have tools to track operating systems and physical assets. We have tools to track and coordinate the people who are at the heart of our ability to deliver top-tier service. Yet the tools produce so much data that measurement can be overwhelming too.

As stewards of their organizations, facilities and finance leaders must remember to commit to taking the time and the necessary energy and resources to focus on how to utilize this information. Leadership must invest in itself and the welfare of its teams. Money spent on systems that collect data but don’t manage it is money lost. Time a team spends to track activity without a strategic direction is time wasted. And wasted money and wasted time mean the community is not being served properly.

The most successful organizations we see are measuring what they do routinely and comparing themselves to others and their own pasts or aspirations. They’re setting real and definable objectives. Importantly these objectives are not just in lagging indicators like whether budget or energy targets are met. They are also about leading measures like the scale of the planned or predictive maintenance activity, community engagement, staffing levels or the renovation age of their buildings.

The people who steward facilities should take time every week to revisit their efforts in the following areas:

  • Are you able to assess the progress of your organization toward optimal performance for your community?
  • Does your community have a clear understanding of our priorities in serving them?
  • Can you measure whether you are successful in serving your community? What are your KPIs?
  • Does your team know what its goals are and why we are doing the work?
  • Does institutional leadership understand the demands being placed on your team and the necessary effort to support those demands?

If organizational leaders take the time to consider these issues regularly and assess how they are doing, they have the opportunity to fully serve constituents, support outstanding professional achievements, and assure optimal use of resources. But, to borrow advice from the airlines, leaders can’t assist others until they secure their own oxygen masks. Investment in leadership isn’t selfish; it is the key to helping others succeed.