The volume is being turned up on the Control Tower approach to running a business; I have recently been introduced to logistics control towers, supply chain control towers and operations control towers just for starters. I’m sure there must be at least a half dozen more out there – pick a noun, place it out front and voila, your very own control tower du jour.
By the time I got to the third one, I realized that these people were serious, and my initial reaction upon considering the implications was – Oh no, not another business process! Does it replace something? Does it consolidate multiple somethings into one something? Does it provide me with a new capability? If it doesn't do at least one of these, why would I bother?
Perhaps in the end the control towers will prevail, I will have been shown to have overreacted, and the answer to complexity might indeed be more complexity. But I’m not going down without putting up at least some token resistance, so what follows are a few critical factors I think you should evaluate before taking the control tower plunge, with the understanding that by borrowing the pre-existing label / framework / metaphor, the airport control tower, it means we’re borrowing and building on pre-existing concepts that will influence our expectations.
- OPERATIONAL: Control towers are for operations, they are tactical, not strategic. Control towers are about execution, they are not for planning or for simulations. I have seen presentations where everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in for good measure – a dashboard, some analytics, some alerts, some simulation, some reporting, some optimization. Good grief, the end result would more resemble NASA Mission Control than an airport control tower.
- INTEGRATION: I have likewise seen presentations where, in the name of “visibility” a worthy goal indeed, the objective becomes creating an END-to-END control tower, from the tier-n supplier to the end consumer and everything in between. This is not how real world airport control towers work. Most airport operations divide their control tower functionality into three, more manageable, segments: ground control (gate-side to taxiway, including ground vehicles), the local or “tower” control (active runways and close-range airspace) and regional airspace control, with carefully orchestrated handoffs between each.
Likewise, I think we would be better off focusing on improving our data integration and better coordinating our own internal handoffs than in building something unmanageable in practice. The end-to-end visibility is still there, but just in manageable chunks. While it’s always good to have a noble, motivating high-end vision in mind, often it is more productive to simply set our sights on meaningful, achievable, incremental improvement. If you are at stage 1 or 2 on a five level maturity scale, getting to stage 3 and staying there can be so much more important than aspiring to a level 5 goal that never gets any closer.
- AUTHORITY: Are you ready to give your control tower complete authority over the cross-functional processes it governs? Because if not, you are just wasting your time. An airport control tower works precisely because it has complete authority, the air traffic controllers are the gods of their domains, superseding even the airplane captains. Can you invest that kind of authority in your control tower personnel, over and above that of the functional domains, the department managers and division directors they are meant to be coordinating? Personally, I do think this is where business needs to evolve to (see my argument in favor of senior VPs, reporting to the CEO, in charge of each cross-functional “Value Discipline” in this post – “The Sound and the Fury of enterprise-wide process management”), but if that is the goal, then I think control towers are half-way measures doomed to failure.
- BUSINESS RULES: If control towers are about operations and execution, then their value derives from their ability to quickly identify and respond to issues as they arise in real time. The ideal front-end for a control tower would be an event stream processing or decision management application, triage for the incoming data, with the ideal platform a visual BI/analytics tool. Some problems could be dispatched automatically with no human intervention required. Others may simply need all inputs displayed for human evaluation, with a decision made based on comparisons, trade-offs, triggers and priorities. The most difficult situations might require real-time inputs to be married with supporting static data (i.e. customer, product, inventory, operational capacity, etc …) so that a more informed decision can be arrived at.
- METRICS: Lastly, if a control tower is going to fulfill its role and promise, then it needs its own operationally-oriented set of metrics, and not the metrics emerging from the overall planning process. If an event has come to the attention of the control tower via an alert, then something has already gone “wrong”, there has already been a deviation from plan. The control tower’s job at that stage is to make the best of a bad situation. The control tower is not optimizing at this point – the plan has already been previously optimized - the control tower is simply trying to keep deviations from plan as small and as inconsequential as possible. You don’t hold the control tower to achievement-of-plan metrics - that's for the rest of the organization - you hold them instead to metrics regarding how well they managed the disruption.
Despite my initial misgivings, I am trying to keep an open mind on this topic, and will be closely watching its evolution and maturity. Control towers may very well have their operational place in an organization, but I am skeptical that they will have a strategic role to play – more on that next time.