Umwiherero 2017: Galvanising a sense of urgency

Imagine that an average saloon car has been jacked up front and rear, and you are chosen to hire and lead a team tasked to successfully change all four tyres in as little time as possible.

Imagine that an average saloon car has been jacked up front and rear, and you are chosen to hire and lead a team tasked to successfully change all four tyres in as little time as possible.

How long do you think it would take your team to accomplish the task, and how many people would you hire?

While you reflect on that, here is an interesting story of urgency from the world of motorsport.

Last season at the Grand Prix of Europe in Baku, Azerbaijan, Formula One (F1) team, Williams, recorded the fastest pit-stop in F1 history before they went on to post 14 fastest pit stops in 21 races.

A pit crew of twelve mechanics (not including two mechanics that jacked the front and rear of the car), successfully changed four tyres and sent Felipe Massa back on his way in 1.92 seconds.

Yes, 1.92 seconds is all it took 12 mechanics – three at each wheel, one removing and refitting the nut with a high-speed airgun, one removing the old tyre, and one fitting the new one – to change all four tyres.

The feat was so remarkable that doctors from the neonatal unit of University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, UK, requested to go to the team’s factory in Oxford to learn how mechanics at Williams who work under extreme pressure during races manage to achieve impressive results at lightning speed.

The neonatal staff were hoping to learn a thing or two about how a combination of speed, precision, and teamwork can help save vital seconds when resuscitating new-borns who have stopped breathing after birth, which can be a matter of life or death.

But why the motorsport story, and how is it relevant to Rwanda? Well, given that senior officials from the government and private sector have spent the last few days at the 14th National Leadership Retreat discussing how improvements in areas such as the economy, infrastructure, and agriculture can be achieved to deliver Vision2020 and beyond, I thought that perhaps sharing the F1 pit-stop story which typifies what can be achieved when a team operates with a sense of urgency, could galvanise senior leaders to return to work with the same level of urgency put into action what is expected of them.

Like the F1 mechanics at the pit-stops whose actions are influential in deciding whether or not a driver wins a race, I believe that the actions of senior officials have the same level of influence in deciding whether or not Rwanda becomes a service hub, a middle-income state, and so on. 

You see, here in Rwanda, it is becoming ever more apparent that ambitions of becoming a regional service hub, attracting investment, becoming a middle-income state, eradicating poverty, and so on, will depend largely on whether or not we are willing to inject a sense of urgency in everything that we do, because after all, human capital is our main resource.

Notably, John Kotter, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and author of a book entitled ‘A Sense of Urgency’, explains that ‘urgency’, which is a combination of thoughts, feelings, and actual behaviour, is key to achieving and maintaining success.

Professor Kotter also observes that a certain level of determination and commitment to make things happen is often the difference between success and failure.

Therefore, when certain projects stagnate or fail, it should not be unreasonable to suggest that they do so partially because of a lack of urgency needed to convert ideas and plans into real actions.

Lack of urgency ensures that projects or plans never reach implementation. Take the private sector for example, you will find that it is not uncommon to go to a bank and queue for hours waiting to be served – why? – simply because management mans the customer area with only two bank tellers as if they operate an appointments-only type of branch.

Customers always seem to catch such branches by surprise. The same can be said for several telecom branches, hospitality outlets, and so on.

In the public sector, nothing explains lack of urgency perfectly like bureaucracy. This is mainly because bureaucracy involves excessively complicated administrative procedures that camouflage as rules and regulations, and yet they get in the way of real actions.

Often, you will hear that a particular decision has been delayed because it is still being discussed, prompting days to come and go, weeks to pass by, and even months or years pass with no decision. In such cases, urgency becomes astonishingly irrelevant.

But, thankfully, there are signs that certain pockets of our national machinery exemplify a sense of determination – to think, plan, and do – and it has not gone unnoticed.

To illustrate, while the Japanese displayed a sense of urgency last year in November after a section of a road in the city of Fukuoka had collapsed, created a 30-metre sinkhole, but was repaired within 48 hours and reopened within a week after health and safety checks, five months earlier, in Kigali, two new fully functional roundabouts emerged out of nowhere within a space of 48 hours.

Reports indicate that the Rwanda Defence Force Engineering Brigade was behind this incredible feat.     

So then, while it is clear that a sense of urgency is not alien to us, going forward, many more of our leaders, both junior and senior in position, have to stand-up and be counted to make things happen, and at a much faster rate.

Over the last decade or so, we have collectively demonstrated that when we want to achieve something, there is nothing that can stop us.

But if we want to achieve greater things, we must not get carried away in awe of the achievements because, as Professor Kotter warns, failure is imminent when “people have a sense of, we worked hard, we won, we are doing great.”

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