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Has “Big Brass Fever” Infected Your Agency?

Recently, I had the privilege of viewing several Air Force presentations that introduced lean six sigma methodologies to senior leaders. The training was developed by the University of Tennessee’s, Center for Executive Education. I highly recommend their courses of instruction for any agency moving forward with Lean Six Sigma. I found particularly useful one of the presentations that dealt with the cultural dynamics that can occur between leaders and the layers of personnel ranks beneath them. One topic, “Big Brass Fever,” stood out for me the most, as I have seen this in both my military and law enforcement careers.

Here are a few of the symptoms you may have observed in your careers, many times attributable to, “Big Brass Fever.”

Fear of disappointing leader drives to over production
Simple tasks become gold plated efforts
Casual question or comment treated as tasking for briefing or action
Briefings reviewed at multiple levels
Yes men-ism isolates leader from reality

The course gives a humorous, but true, example of this leadership challenge that you may find all too familiar at your agency.

The Secretary for the Department of Energy was touring a national laboratory’s grounds when a snake crossed her path. She casually asked: “I wonder if there are poisonous snakes here?” Six weeks later she received a report prepared by the lab’s top biologist entitled “Census of Venomous Snake Population”.

One has to wonder how much valuable time and taxpayer dollars were spent on this outbreak of “Big Brass Fever.” How much of this goes on at your agency? Better yet, how much of it are you causing?

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The above example happens all too often, and usually very innocently, as many leaders never expect people to take the whimsical remarks they say so literally. Sadly enough, there is also the opposite out there among the leadership ranks. Some leaders feel that personnel should jump at every word they say because they have finally earned their stripes, bars, or stars. To me, this is an indication that they have been promoted beyond their ability to lead and are reduced to using positional authority to get things done. A sad, but true condition of, “Big Brass Fever.”

The best protocol is to learn to recognize “Big Brass Fever,” from both perspectives of the leadership realm; as leader, and subordinate.

As a leader, it is important to remember that everyone is going to do their best to try and please you and to deliver well on what they believe you want. After all, you’re the boss. Sometimes even the passing phrase or statement can be misconstrued in a subordinates mind to send them on a mission so full of waste that it halts any real work for days, weeks, or even months. Sometimes the best thing a leader can do is simply listen, and say, “keep up the great work.” At least then he or she isn’t adding to the workflow with unintended consequences.

As a subordinate, try to remember that your leaders do not want you tied up doing busy work that has no relevancy to the overall mission. This is where employee empowerment and challenging status quo by asking “why” becomes more and more important everyday. Never be intimidated to ask your boss for clarity before going on a wild goose chase. Whether in police work, or the military, lives may count on it one day. Get in the habit of consistently asking your boss, “what actions would you like me to take next?”

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The University of Tennessee’s presentation gives of few points as well for controlling, “Big Brass Fever” that I also found to be quite helpful.

Talk about it
Explicitly state “I don’t want action on this – we’re just considering options”
Be critical of over production and gold plating
Imagine the unintended consequences of your requests taken to their ill-logical extremes
Be clear on your expectations and test for active listening
Remind your people to stay focused on the top priority and not the side issues
Make a point of asking for bad news and thanking the individual who delivers it
I will close with one final phrase from the presentation:

“Remember, the stronger you are as a leader, the greater the threat of Big Brass Fever becomes.”

About the Author: William “Billy” Wilkerson is a Police Sergeant with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and 21 Year veteran with the Florida Air National Guard. He is currently assigned to Sheriff’s Office Continuous Improvement Division and also supervises the Staff Inspections Unit. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has been using Lean Six Sigma to streamline many of its processes for the past several years to much success. Billy has also been assisting with the Florida Air National Guard’s rollout of their CPI Program (Continuous Process Improvement). Billy can be found on LinkedIn @ http://www.linkedin.com/in/billywilkerson or by email at Billy@Leanleaders.org

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