Heliskiing: Lessons in Adaptive Case Management (ACM)
Last week I was heliskiing at Mike Wiegele in Blue River, Canada. Considering my spinal injury from seven years ago, after which doctors predicted that I would not be doing sports again, I simply feel privileged to experience it. At such activities one always has the opportunity to meet interesting people. Part of it is the expense and most participants have some adventurous spirit. There is the occasional rich sod one could have done without. We were a majority of entrepreneurs or business owners who work hard and play hard. Stick a group of alpha wolves into a helicopter and you’ll get very interesting people dynamics to observe.
There were a number of people from IT and we had various discussions in the evenings on where enterprise IT is going. Many are stuck in orthodox solutions to new problems because thats where the money is right now. One – I will call him Larry here – had sold his Internet business to Microsoft some time ago. Larry was intrigued by adaptive processes, but thought that businesses would rather want flowcharts. Then something interesting happened … but first a little introduction to heliskiing.
We flew the 6-seater A-Star heli carrying the pilot, a guide and four skiers. Other groups fly the Bell 212 with twice as many passengers. The smaller more powerful chopper can land in tighter places and sometimes only the front skids are stuck in the slope as you get out. 99% of drop-offs and pick-ups are marked landing sites and one doesn’t jump from the heli while flying as some believe. You bind your skies and poles, drop them next to the markers and kneel down far enough to leave room for the heli lands right in between, two to three feet from where you crouch. Despite the adventurous nature of the operation, safety is the primary concern when flying and skiing. Mike Wiegele operates 10+ helicopters in Blue River and has a fantastic safety record.
But in the end it is all about people. The guides try to assemble homogenous groups of skiers so that things go smoothly. Two groups ski while the third one is being lifted to the next drop-off. A pick-up or drop-off takes between one and two minutes. Flying time five to seven minutes. The guide always loads and unloads the skis from the basket. The skiers have to open the door, climb in, buckle up, get out, close the door, crouch and wait for the hell to take off, covering their face and hang on to their stuff. Put on your skis, the guide explains where to go and you are off. Great fun, but requires good skiing skills and being very fit.
At lunch Larry asks if its ok for me to operate the hellcopter door as I am the one to always get in first and out last. I tell him that the process seems to work fine for everyone … he looks at me with a naughty smile and says: ‘I am surprised to hear that from you. I thought you don’t like rigid processes?’ I grinned and said: ‘Just because a process isn’t rigid, doesn’t mean it must be anarchy!’
What Heliskiing Teaches You About ACM.
Heliskiing has many different processes each one with several goals and tasks. Most of them are either a set of checklists or rules. Only some can be seen as prescribed procedures of activities. Checklists, rules and procedures need to interact and intersect and each skiers/guide team creates its own individual process around them. As the days go by less guidance is needed and the teams refine the processes more and more. There is no upfront overall analysis or design and we were not even experts in these processes but did them for the first time. We were expert skiers needing those processes (goals) to achieve our outcome – doing fantastic skiing safely.
I will not go into the service processes of the lodge but solely focus on the processes of the groups of skiers. Flying the heli is mostly a number of checklists and several rules that the pilot has to conform to. No flowcharts. There are six performers of which four are also customers. It all starts off with a safety briefing that is nothing else then a list of compliance rules.
- Tie together your skies and poles for loading and unloading.
- Do not lift up the skies close to the hell but just drag them on the ground.
- Don’t touch the heated airspeed sensor at the heli’s nose.
- Once the pilot signals, open the door, get in and close your seat belts.
- Don’t force handles or doors as then you are doing something wrong.
- On landing, don’t open the seat belts before the guide opens the door .
- Wait for the guide, climb out, close door, kneel down, signal the pilot ok.
- If anything is amiss cross your arms to an X and he will not take off.
These are just the compliance rules and the rest of the process the team has to develop themselves. Yes, it is a team effort. The guide gives some advice on how to bind the skies and so on. You quickly learn that it is better to take off the backpack before you get in. It is really hard to find the belts with the goggles on and get hold of the buckles with mittens. So the skiers hand each other the belts. At the window seats the belts always fall below the seats and the only way to find them is to take off your mitten. Once you get out, it is more efficient to immediately put on the backpack than later when you are on the skies holding poles. But the process remains flexible as if one skier would arrive late, the others would get into the heli before to save time. We really did not discuss it. It happened …
Some other guidelines revolve around respecting your fellow skiers. If you need a ‘technical break’ before flying or skiing, do not do it in the snow close to where the hell lands. The blades will cause a snowstorm and some of it might be yellow.
Adaptive Processes must too ensure compliance.
Finally, there are quite a few safety rules for skiing. In case of avalanche danger never ski close together. Do not use the pole straps. Everyone should wear a transceiver, and carry a shovel and avalanche probe. On glaciers don’t stand together in the same spot. You might break through into a crevice. If an avalanche goes off, yell ‘avalanche’ and try to ski out to the side. If you get sucked in, throw away our poles and try to swim and if you go under cover your face and nose to create an airspace. The others watch the skier to see where he goes under. First radio for a rescue team. Try to get there and mark the spot with a ski pole. Turn your transceivers to ‘search’ and start a ten feet spaced search pattern downhill from there. If you are atop a skier take out your probe and push it down outwards in a spiral from the signal center. If the response is hard it is rock or ice, if it is spongy .. you found him. Take your shovel and start to dig from the slope upwards as hard as you can. Another skiers removes the snow behind you. Switch to a fresh digger after a minute or so. Continue like so until you find him. Apply first aid. For multiple buried skiers the ones not digging continue to search. Yup, the rescue procedure might even work as a flow …
What was really interesting was the search for a lost skier, especially as the lost skier was me. Just before lunch break we skied in the woods and I stopped for a technical break (not at the landing site …) and my team was gone. I tried to follow their tracks but there were already too many. Suddenly there were no more tracks and as is the rule I stopped. I pulled out my radio and called. No answer. I tried that for a few minutes and then assumed that I was in bad spot. I tried to walk uphill but it was steep and deep heavy snow. So I skied down a bit. Below me I could see a little creek and an open spot. Still no answer from the radio. As that was strange I played with the channel setting and suddenly I heard voices.
To my surprise I heard that they were already sending out the helicopter to search for me. As the guides and helicopters have more powerful radios and they were continuously talking I could not get through. They were so busy executing their standard search procedure that they did not even listen anymore to the radio. Only some of the other skiers heard me on their radios ….
As the helis were now up searching I decided to ski down to the open spot where they would see me. I could see one of them flying about 300 yards away from me. I tried again the radio and now the helicopter above me could also hear me. I directed them to where I was and a little later two guides came and we were picked up by a heli. The guides told me that I should adhere to the safety rules.
According to the procedure the search would have taken a lot longer as I was invisible in the woods and there were too many tracks that obscured mine. In some circumstances in dangerous areas or when you are hurt it makes sense to stay put. For me the procedure is guideline but clearly everyone should use it as skill allows.
Customer Service Processes Can’t Be Done With Flow-diagrams
I could explain to Larry this way what it means to plan and execute in adaptive processes. It creates goal-oriented team collaboration and does not suffer from chaos due to a lack of procedure. He kind of claimed that skiing is not doing business. That is basically saying that the aspects and consequences of being human and the related interactions do not apply in business. That is simply nonsense. Heliskiing is a service business just like an insurance, a bank, a telecom or a healthcare organization. It has a well defined outcome. There are cases (one per run) with clear goals, many different tasks involving process resources (equipment and food), multiple performers with different roles (guides, pilots, skiers), compliance rules, ad-hoc tasks for technical stops, and yes — also some safety procedures. The case/process develops/evolves on the fly without design work. It interacts with other processes through events. It has even more interaction with the customer and the process has to be created around him/her. People skill is a core aspect in how the process is actually performed. The guide has to chose the next run according to his experience that should be the best one closest by but still safe considering the weather and snow conditions. Pure knowledge work for the customer outcome. It is the guide who makes or breaks your skiing day. And it is quite obvious that the guide is actually the process owner!
Can you now see the adaptive processes you participate in every day?