Decisions at the Moment of Truth

By Lior Arussy

I recently attended a Formula 1 car race in Europe. Being close to the pit and having a special access pass allowed me to view all the activities surrounding the cars and the way they were managed. Although I have seen car races on TV before, the actual experience was much more amazing than the TV version. Many aspects of the car race were intriguing, but one particular aspect caught my attention above all the others. During the race, cars pulled into the pit for refueling or for other critical maintenance services. Those services are provided by a team of about a dozen engineers who each do their specific part under severe time constraints. In an environment when every second counts, those services are often completed in under a minute and off the driver goes to continue the race. No team can afford an unnecessary delay of even a second and everyone works together to complete the tasks in the most efficient way possible, something akin to choreography. In fact during the race I attended, a Mercedes McLaren car was pulled in three times at the beginning of the race due to engineering problems. This would normally lose the driver a significant amount of time and standing in the race. However, as the result of successful teamwork, those delays were held to a minimum allowing the driver to still win the race.

So what is it that caught my attention? The decisions made in split seconds by the engineers. Each engineer is empowered to do what they believe is right without escalation to management or requiring approval in three copies. They simply cannot afford to work under those conditions. Decisions are fully delegated, both authority and responsibility, to the engineers at the pit. They are the ones with the most information and they see the problem with their own eyes. Because of this, they are empowered to do the right thing. I was especially impressed when a number of cars, which had more severe engineering problems, were simply pulled out of the race altogether by an engineer’s decision. The driver, who was earning millions of dollars, had no say on the matter and the engineer decided. Why? Because at the moment of truth, that engineer has the most important information required in order to make the decision. Neither earning power nor hierarchy has anything to do with making the right decision. Seeing the problem first hand and having the experience and relevant information is what matters the most.

Making the right decision at the moment of truth by the people who actually face the problem is a true test for every organization. On paper, every executive swears that his employees are empowered to make those decisions, but when the moment of truth arrives, many employees will default to the boss to actually make the decision. Unlike the engineers at the Formula 1 race, the employees will not take the risk of making a critical decision. Why is that? There are several reasons employees fail to make decisions at the moment of truth.

  • Failure to See the Moment of Truth: We often think that the caller will wait for us and therefore we fail to deliver the desired result right away. We fail to see the sense of urgency and the limited window of opportunity we get from callers to do what is right.
  • Lack of Information: Employees are often not provided with the necessary information to make decisions at the moment of truth. This lack of information impairs their ability to make decisions.
  • Lack of Authority: For many managers, empowerment is a threat. A threat that, if employees were able to make the decisions, they themselves would be redundant. Although they will not admit to having this fear, their actions speak louder.
  • Lack of Motivation: Our experience shows that there is a certain percentage of employees who simply seek a paycheck, not greater responsibility. They do not want the extra pressure and accountability that comes with the decision making process.
  • Lack of Experience: To make split second decisions requires sharp intuition; a high level of intuition that comes with experience. Without the experience, employees will hesitate to make decisions.

To build this ability to make decisions at the moment of truth in the organization, managers need to provide their employees with the level of trust that guarantees that they will be there to support them. This practice is very common at Southwest Airlines, which places the employees first and the customers second. Following years of lack of trust in most organizations, employees once again need to believe that their organization, and more specifically their mangers, will be there to back them up. One way of doing this is by openly and freely sharing information and experiences. This will build the confidence level of employees in their ability to make decisions and support them with logical data. Doing this goes far beyond merely information sharing, and requires managers to overcome their controlling inclinations and let go of power.

The true test of an organization’s resilience and competitiveness is the ability to make decisions at the moment of truth. These are the moments when customers test their vendors. Impatient customers do not have time to wait for escalations and managers’ decisions. In today’s competitive environment, employees can no longer be there just to register the complaint. Organizations which allow their employees to make decisions at the moment of truth are simply accelerating their performance. Escalation mechanisms usually slow down overall performance and result in the loss of business opportunities and revenues or leads to stagnation due to inaction. Either option is unacceptable.

If I were to ask a Formula 1 engineer, “How did you make that decision?” He would most likely respond, “I had no choice.” He simply acted on instinct and used his well honed knowledge to do what was right at the moment of truth. He knew that every split second of hesitation may have cost his team the whole race, or even worse, the driver his life. This same notion should be instilled in every employee if you ever want to achieve a level of super competitive performance and win the race to the heart of the customer (and his wallet too).

Lior Arussy is the President of Strativity Group and the author of several books. His latest book is Passionate & Profitable: Why Customers Strategies Fail and 10 Steps to Do Them Right!

[From the February/March 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]