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Noun: The center of interest or activity. Verb: to bring to a focus or into focus; to concentrate; adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly; to become focused.
It is the end of the month, and this is the tenth post in the Are You Taking Notes? series. Not all the stories or examples come from the same source, but from a combination of different client engagements over the past five years. If you notice a theme, then you are paying attention, present in the moment, and thinking about how our stories could be your operation.
If you missed the theme, then perhaps you should read the top of this post again.
There is one universal reality in the client engagements we’ve worked, (or even farther back in my professional career): the lack of focus on the inherent simplicity of the problem. The problem is not that people are stupid. I myself have walked past the inherent simplicity of the problem, tied up in the unnecessary complexity of the operation, the complications created by ego and emotion. Good managers fall into traps all the time, failing to confront missing accountability, bitching and complaining instead of solving the problem.
Great leaders remember not to say, “I know.” Great leaders say “Let’s make sure.”
For this post, let’s think about the lessons learned from all these examples, and how the power of focus helps solve all the root cause issues.
By definition, a new operation is abnormal. The facility is new. The equipment is new. The process is new. There are new people. There is new product. There are new customers.
New is Abnormal.
The real art of getting a startup operations normalized is a focus on leadership being present to help the people make things normal. If leadership is not constantly present in the Gemba, the people on the floor will lose sight of the mission, lose knowledge of the process, and lose the discipline their leader needs for support.
If you want your start-up to fail, focus on the outside and fail to lead on the floor. Victorious generals focus on the field of battle. The vanquished pay attention to what their bosses think.
How complex are your operations? Do they really need to be that complex?
There are so many forms of waste. The worst is the waste of the resource of time. Once spent, it never comes back. The more complex the process, the more steps involved, the more likely mischief is to happen. More steps in a process means less opportunity for accountability. More steps means more time, more touches, more buffers, more hands in the pie.
There is a beauty and elegance to simplicity. Less IS more. Simple solutions look natural.
Why do we have complex? Why do so many managers and engineers make the work more complex and not simpler? I suspect it is a lack of focus on the real goal, the mission of the process.
Fail to remain focused on the outcome and you will miss the target. When you aim a gun, do you close your eye before you pull the trigger? The successful marksman keeps his eye open when he pulls the trigger, and watches where the shot lands.
Do you know what the purpose of your operation is? Can you say right now, without thinking hard, what the purpose behind your mission is? If you can’t, then you have nothing to focus on. Without a purpose, you have nothing to focus your emotions, your intuition, or your logic on.
If you don’t define what victory is, for yourself as a leader, how can you expect anybody who follows you to be able to focus on victory?
The best execution experts in your operation are the people who are executing the work. Pay attention to the people executing the work. Focus on what they tell you about life in the Gemba. Show them respect so they understand that you care about victory. Focus on what they say to be sure that they understand the goal, the purpose, the mission, and the steps needed to achieve that victory.
If they are not doing things right, you will either see it in the work they do, or you will hear it in the anger, fear, or confusion of their voices. Focus on more than what they tell you. Focus on how they tell you. The grumbles are trouble. Focus on fixing the grumbles.
Who are you going to follow - the leader who talks of failure, or the leader who breathes success? Being positive is more than just being happy. Being positive is looking at the most daunting challenges and pressing forward and taking joy in the challenge.
Keeping a positive outlook requires focus. With an unwavering focus on the goal, and by making fun out of hard work, great leaders learn from their setbacks. They don’t bitch about what happened, looking to place blame, or procrastinate. They accept that the risk of failure is nothing more than learning, a discovery.
As a leader, if you focus on making the most of every setback by learning from it, and pressing on to the goal, the people following you will do the same.
“Who did it?” is the question that seeks to place blame. “When will we do this?” is the question of procrastination. “Why does this happen to us?” is the question of victimhood.
In all thoughts of leadership, remove these questions from your lexicon. Replace them with the following questions.
“What are we going to do about this?” is the question of action. “How are we going to do it?” is the question of solution. “Where are we going to do this?” is the question of decision.
As a leader, focus on accountability, starting with your own. Move on to the accountability of the rest of the leaders. Allow the accountability to flow down to the people on the floor. Do not accept the pronouns "they" and "them." When you hear blame of the faceless; reject it, rebuke it. Focus on What, How, and Where.
After the first victory, many stop fighting, declaring the battle won. It is only a skirmish - the battle is yet to be fought. Fight the skirmishes in order to build momentum and improve morale. Many skirmishes lead to battles won. Many battles build campaigns. Campaigns lead to ultimate victory.
Maintain focus on momentum. Once lost, inertia is difficult to overcome. Make sure that you have the next victory defined, the next battle identified, the next campaign designed.
Once you fix the operation in the four walls of the warehouse, move a front back to the suppliers, and a front out to the customers. Keep pushing the victories, internal and external. Focus on that ultimate goal for the company, even if the company is undefined. You might find that you end up defining victory for the leaders you serve.
Prototypes rarely work the first time. New processes will fail because they are abnormal. If it does not work, continue to focus on discovering the simplicity inherent to the system. If you focus on finding and healing the abnormal, you make progress. Make an effort to focus on the cause of the abnormal, and you will find that it is an effect of another cause, another abnormal, caused by another abnormal.
Focus your repair efforts on Policy first, then Process, and then People. Policy creates the most mischief and confusion. Overly complicated policy is policy that fails to focus on the purpose of the mission. Complicated policy creates overly complex process. Overly complex process confuses, frustrates, and demoralizes people. If you ever find yourself saying “our policy is,” you may find that you have lost focus on doing the right thing.