Robins, Mourning Doves and Operational Discipline

Years ago, we had robins build a nest in the crook of a tree in our yard, just outside one of the windows in the house. This view offered a vantage point where we could watch as the robins went through the process of laying and incubating eggs, feeding their chicks and helping them to fly when old enough. This cycle has repeated itself for many years.


After the mating season for robins, which is early spring, the nest would be abandoned and subject to the pummeling of violent Midwest thunderstorms, associated heavy rains and sometimes hail, requiring repair. Each spring when robins returned, they would work diligently to use dried grass, twigs and mud made with saliva, to repair and fortify the nest once again into a tight little bird bunker.

Regardless of the fascinating observations of our robins each year, the lawn had to be mowed. I do it myself for exercise and I like my lawn to look well groomed. In mowing I must pass under the tree where the robin’s nest is located. The nest is in a lower crook of the tree, about six feet from the ground. I’ve noted that when I pass under the tree and mow around the trunk, the robins get highly agitated and the male flies off and swoops back and forth in an effort to distract me. The female would hunker down over the eggs or chicks and try to appear invisible.

A little research on this behavior helped me to learn that the robins were engaging in activity to protect their young by distracting me from the nest. Robins do not mate for life and they don’t always return to the same nest to raise their young. So it is reasonable to expect that this behavior, over many years, has been exhibited by different mating pairs, suggesting that this was a behavior ingrained in the species.

Mourning Doves

Last year something different occurred. The robins missed their opportunity to use the nest because mourning doves had already settled in. The nest needed repair and so the morning doves went to work. I thought they were taking longer than the robins. With the doves the nest always looked as if it were work-in-progress and not finished goods. Then one day, when I saw eggs in the nest, I realized the mourning doves had decided that “done is better than perfect.”

When mowing the lawn, the mourning doves never seemed to be around as the robins were. Then one day I looked out the window and noted eggs in the nest as the female got up to shift position. I watched the female sitting on the eggs to incubate them, and then it came time again to mow the lawn. When I passed by the tree initially the female, and male which was nearby, both took off and sat on the roof of the house across the street. I had to pass under the tree several times and groom around the tree as well. The mourning doves remained at their post across the street.

I put the lawnmower away when I was done and got the weed-whacker and whacked away in my yard. The doves remained, opting to not return to their nest. The same held true for when I did the edging and when I blew off the walks and patio. As a matter of fact, the mourning doves never returned to their nest and abandoned their eggs. Eventually the eggs succumbed to the appetite of some unseen predator.

I thought the behaviors of the mourning doves a bit curious after observing that of the robins, so I did a bit more research only to learn that what I had observed of mourning doves building shoddy nests and not being particularly protective once their eggs had been laid was consistent with my observations.

Operational Discipline

I thought the behaviors of the mourning doves a bit curious after observing that of the robins, so I did a bit more research only to learn that what I had observed of mourning doves building shoddy nests and not being particularly protective once their eggs had been laid was consistent with my observations.

These two different patterns seemed relevant as a metaphor for organizational change or transformation. Sometimes it is tough to maintain operational discipline. The temptation is to relax. Like the mourning doves, to abandon the change and its rational for improvement. In doing so, things eventually regress to how they were before. The problem is the change that was put in place leaves a layer of bureaucracy because nothing has really changed, but the tools put in place remain.

Some organizations operate with a high degree of operational discipline. Change is well thought out, welcomed, embraced and reinforced. Whatever the change. To paraphrase Roger Gracie, they don’t persist until they get it right. They persist until they can’t get it wrong. It becomes engrained in the fabric of the culture. Like the robins they feel they have a vested interest and are willing to do whatever it takes to see things through successfully.

PDCA and Operational Discipline

So how can you help drive operational discipline in your organization? Within the enterprise, rather than nature, operational discipline is defined as the willingness to create and follow processes / rules and hold people accountable for performing them. Using the PDCA cycle (Plan-Do-Act-Check), it is easy to see how an enterprise, division, function, site, team or individual can drive and instill operational discipline.


What is the work? How is the work done? Is there a description of Standard Work for the tasks to be performed? Some would eschew standard work, standard operation procedures or any kind of standardization. However, Standard Work reduces variation, which in turn produces predictable results. Predictable results can be measured, and measurement allows for improvement, which theoretically, should increase value to the customer. The work must be carefully thought out and documented for everyone that performs the task.


This may be the toughest aspect of operational discipline. Doing requires the buy-in of all relevant stakeholders. For “Do” to take place the standard work must be readily available, easy to understand and clear in its description so that no mistake is made if executed correctly. Getting the workforce to buy in to this is sometimes a challenge. Everybody has their “own way” of doing it. I used to get around this by first asking the team performing the tasks to develop the standard work. Egos are involved. Rather than look for the “best way” of all the opinions that were available, I would encourage the worst way, which nearly everyone could agree on. Often, I would say, “I don’t care if you are all doing it wrong, as long as all of you are doing it the same way.” This got past egos and I knew that just be standardizing the work with “worst practices” we would see an improvement just through the reduction of variation. Discussing and implementing improvements once the data came in would be the simple part.


This is the part where opportunities for improvement evidence themselves. Once the standard work is documented and it is being performed by all those responsible for the tasks, measurement can take place. This can be done via manual or SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. Control chart rules or Andon signals can be used as an alert for corrections. Longer term data sets, when checked, can show trends where improvement opportunities exist.


This is a result of the Check part of the cycle. I implement the improvement and monitor the results. Improvements could be as simple as a revision to the standard work to account for an unforeseen aspect of the operational task. It could be a capital improvement to the line, or repositioning of a work cell. The key is to act. To take action and pursue the cycle again in an endless loop of continuous improvement and operational discipline.


I admire the robins for their vociferous discipline in protecting their nest and young. Their patterns are so predictable, that I could judge where the male would roost prior to swooping on me as I passed the nest while mowing the lawn. Organizations that show the same discipline within their operations are sure to reap the benefits and add customer value.

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