Diving Deep

A Twitter thread by FlexPort CEO Ryan Petersen recently went viral. The thread explains a massive backlog at the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together receive about a quarter of all U.S. imports. Unloading wait times have risen from negligible in normal times to a 13-day average recently.

This supply-chain snarl has been covered in the news for months. I had read several takes on it before I ran into Petersen’s, but his thread caught my attention:

Yesterday I rented a boat and took the leader of one of Flexport’s partners in Long Beach on a 3 hour of the port complex. Here’s a thread about what I learned.

“I rented a boat” is not how most explanations start. I recommend reading the full thread. You’ll come away with an appreciation of the complexities of unloading a container ship, and also with more respect for the value of diving deep.

Most of us have a sense of how to dive deep into an operation. It means digging into details, getting to the bottom of things, determining root causes. Sometimes we call the process “five whys.” As I wrote in Effective Operational Reviews, there’s nothing magical about five, but there is something magical about pressing beyond superficial reasons, however many questions it takes.

Diving deep comes naturally as part of an early operations career. It gets harder as you take on increasing responsibility. How do you balance your need to maintain high-level visibility with digging into the details? In many organizations the default is to let front-line leaders and entry-level analysts wade through the hairy details and tell you what they find. You can just read their reports.

As a day-to-day routine this is necessary in any big organization. But if you always rely on those report, you will be missing a big opportunity. I touched on this in an earlier post about Choosing Metrics:

Make sure you regularly dive deep to the ground truth. Not all the time, but often enough that you remain connected and you don’t lose the ability to find out what’s really happening. You will need to figure out the right cadence. This is more important the more senior you become, and the more separated from the front lines you are. Don’t limit yourself to the reports that are being brought to your desk. See for yourself.

How can you dive deep as an operations leader? You can start by establishing bounds. You know that never diving deep (see chart #1 below) isn’t good enough. You will lose your connection with the heart of the operation; your ability to truly understand out what’s happening will inevitably decay. How about at the other extreme: what if a leader is always digging in to verify data and conclusions from his or her team’s reports (chart #2)? That will demoralize the team, slow their development, and inhibit the leader’s ability to steer the ship.

Many of us know to avoid these all-or-nothing approaches. But we too often end up wandering haphazardly between levels (chart #3). This approach carries risks from both extremes. You can get lost swimming in levels of details and fail to navigate the big-picture forest. On the other hand, you may not get deep enough to really understand what’s happening. Meanwhile, your continuous wandering across layers is likely to irritate every level of your organization.

Three charts

How to escape this catch-22? I learned a simple approach from an Amazon executive. The key is in the phrase itself: diving deep. You don’t want to live at the bottom of the ocean! You need to stay primarily above water so you can steer the ship. When you do dive in, you go deep, but you don’t stay there for long. You come back up to navigate. It should feel something like this:


What does this look like in practice? A last-mile delivery leader could shadow her drivers to understand the barriers they are facing. A manager could dig into the source data of a dashboard when a result looks surprising. Or a logistics CEO could rent a boat and review in person the massive port backlog that is hurting his customers.

The key is to seek understanding directly, not only from the reports of others. You need those reports, and direct deep diving can’t become your full-time job. But if it is not a part of your job, I recommend you change that. Schedule time to dive deep into your own group’s operations just like you schedule time to meet with your manager, or with investors, or with customers. There is no substitute.

Comments and questions are welcome via this LinkedIn post, or direct to me: benj (at) principledoperations.com. Subscribe to receive future posts in your email.

Container ship photo by Dominik Lückmann, from Unsplash