I am not sure when I first heard the phrase “Self Licking Ice Cream Cone” but it stuck in my head. I think it was around 2002 when I was a Junior Board Member on the Pacific Fleet Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board (NPEB). The NPEB is tasked to essentially conduct an operational audit of nuclear powered warships – namely submarines and aircraft carriers of today’s fleet. It was probably one of my sharp tongued Senior Board Members describing some submarine’s audit and assurance program.

For those who have never served on a nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier you might think we had very complex and sophisticated assurance programs to make sure our operators were conforming with the standards and procedures to operate a naval nuclear propulsion plant. But, in fact as I look back, our assurance programs were very simple and uncomplicated by design. That’s not to say they were easy to properly manage or lacked rigor. It’s just that Admiral Rickover and the Naval Reactors culture he developed believed that fancy programs with a multitude of metrics, dashboards, and pretty graphs was not only unnecessary, but it actually distracted from good leadership and management of real technical and operational problems.

I think that my Senior Board Member was probably making fun of the ship’s Executive Officer’s oversight program which was chock full of graphs, data, and key performance indicators (KPIs). But, when quizzed on the root causes of problems the ship was experiencing and what the leadership was doing about it, the Executive Officer could not speak to the details of the true root causes. He tried desperately to impress my boss with his charts and data but the only reaction he got was “XO, all you got is a Self Licking Ice Cream Cone – hope it tastes good.”

What did he mean by that phrase? Well, I think he meant that the program was sort of built to impress auditors and seem pretty sophisticated but that it did not have any true positive effects on the underlying work it was supposed to oversee and improve. My friends in Texas might say “All hat and no cattle.” In any case, the XO seemed to spend more time putting together fancy charts than he did actually in the engine room along side the workforce to ensure work was being done as expected.

As a consulting company focused on High Reliability Organization principles, we see a lot of self licking ice cream cones developed by corporate managers or consultants using fancy software or PowerPoint slide decks. When we peel back the onion on these assurance programs, we find assumptions in the metrics that create unintended results and we find managers who know more about the way the spreadsheet calculates a KPI than they do about the actual work the KPI is measuring.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We recently helped a client develop a simple root cause instruction where they had none in place. We could have built a monster program with sophisticated software and in-depth instructions or helped them select a root cause program from the many companies out there offering these programs. They would have stood up a new job for a “Root Cause Manager” and started to churn the ice cream maker… but, we wanted a program that these busy managers would actually use themselves to look critically at problems and be “fit for purpose.” What resulted was a 4 page instruction with a simple root cause methodology and a few forms.

Now you won’t apply our simple program on massive tragic events like Deepwater Horizon or Chernobyl, but for everyday operational issues, having a line manager do a quick root cause for a “down time event” can be a huge return on the minimal investment. It helps inexperienced managers develop critical thinking about problems from a systemic perspective and allows for trend analysis of small root causes so that systems can be improved or the culture can be assessed.

So while I like eating ice cream as much as the next guy, let’s avoid the self licking ice cream cones and develop assurance programs that actually work. How will you know if your program is actually providing assurance and is not just an empty program? Well, the fruit of this labor is a changing culture that “pulls the string” on everyday little problems and works to improve the management system tools (policies, procedures, standards, communications protocols, etc.) and applies organizational knowledge to fix problems. Applying these principles will help your operations run smoother and then there will be more time for real ice cream… time to head to Baskin-Robbins!