Every story has a beginning, an end, and a middle.
It's a bit uncomfortable to put it that way, isn't it? The order is simply... off. It's with good reason we go our whole lives thinking of stories as beginning-middle-end; the arrow of time moves in but one direction. It's unnatural to tell stories any way but chronologically.
Unless, of course, you're Quentin Tarantino (writer/director/producer of "Pulp Fiction," "Reservoir Dogs," and "Django Unchained"), in which case you do so masterfully and have no qualms about your prologue and epilogue being the same scene. Tarantino will start his stories at the beginning, at the end, or in the very midst of the action without giving you any idea of what's going on, allowing you to piece it all together as the movie progresses.
Another example was the critically acclaimed television series, "Breaking Bad." Just before the title sequence of nearly every episode, they presented the aftermath of the episode's climax. You're confused and wondering, "How the hell did that happen?" and then they show you the events leading up to that moment. I'm unsure of the technical term for this type of literary device, but one might call it "context-less foreshadowing." I'm told it's referred to as a "cold open." Here are the very first three minutes and 45 seconds of the show...
AMC - Breaking Bad Pilot - Leaked clip from mono on Vimeo.
Life takes place in chronological order, but our minds are not so constrained. Ask anyone the question, "Is this precise moment a beginning, middle, or an end for you?" You'll find the answer is highly contextual: "Well, it's actually all three! This is morning, a.k.a. the beginning of the day. You're interrupting me while I'm in the middle of writing an e-mail. And I'm tired of your ridiculous philosophical navel-gazing, so this is the end of our conversation."
But no matter the context or the perspective, the only thing that actually exists outside of our mind is the present. All decisions are made in the "now." They are influenced by the past and they'll surely affect the future, but decisions can only be made in the present. The importance and impact of a given decision can vary wildly (as we established previously). So, when you go to make one, don't you want as much information as possible? Looking at your beginning and considering your end is by far the best way to make good decisions in the present.
Let's start with some "easy" questions:
1) Where have you been? (Past)
2) Where are you going? (Future)
3) How are you going to get there? (Present)
Like logistics itself, these questions are universal and can be applied to any part of your life. Simply change the subject.
1) Where has my company been?
2) Where is my company going?
3) How is it going to get there?
Replace company with career, family, marriage, or golf game, or with whatever is important to you.
1) My career has had its ups and downs. Sometimes I've really enjoyed my work; other times it's been pure drudgery.
2) Of late, however, I've felt like I haven't tapped into all my potential. I'm happy with my job, but I feel like there's more I can do, like I could have a greater impact.
3) First, I'm going to determine what kind of impact I'd like to make. Then, if I don't already know how to do so, I'm going to commit myself to learning how.
There are those for whom my example answers above will resonate. Others may need to narrow their depth of field and take a few more pictures to gain the clarity they need to make a difference in their life. Try these on for size:
1) What failure in your career do you regret most? Or, if you can't think of any regrets, what one thing do you most wish didn't happen that did, or what did happen that you wish didn't?
2) What success are you most proud of? What's the greatest thing you've accomplished so far?
3) What are you most afraid will happen? What threat are you most concerned about?
4) What opportunity has presented itself that you're most excited about?
5) What's the biggest problem you're facing right now? What problem do you think about the most and want solved ASAP?
6) What solution have you attempted in order to solve that problem?
Also known as the FSTOPS™, my father, Pasquale Scopelliti created this decision-making structure originally as a sales and marketing exercise. Since then, it's evolved into a tool that he and I apply to every facet of our lives - and we teach our coaching clients and colleagues to do the same. They're most certainly not easy questions to ask or answer, but the insight you gain is well worth the humbling effort.
My father chose the words before my mom saw the acronym in them. For photographers, F-stops are the ratios between the focal length of the lens and the diameter of the aperture. Increasing or reducing the f-stops will affect the amount of light that enters the lens and where that light is coming from - that is, the depth of field. It applies elegantly, as the clarity you seek may require greater or lesser depth, depending on your situation and the part of your life (or logistics) that you're analyzing.
In application, a VP of Supply Chain, for example, should ask these questions:
1) What is the most significant failure my company's supply chain has experienced (e.g., the derailment that dropped a shipment of hugely expensive quantity of work-in-progress into a river and brought our just-in-time manufacturing network to a grinding halt)?
2) What has been our most shining success (e.g., the new distribution center we opened ahead of time and under budget)?
3) What poses the greatest threat to our ongoing operations (e.g., increasing fuel costs and stringent HOS rules causing our carriers to continuously increase their rates, depriving us of cash flow)?
4) What opportunities do we have that we can invest into or leverage (e.g., automation is becoming cheaper every year, enabling us to accomplish more menial tasks with robotics and save money on labor)?
5) What's the most difficult problem we are facing? What's our biggest challenge (e.g., our warehouse turnover is dramatically high and we lose a huge amount of money to overtime)?
6) What innovative and practical solutions can we envision that will make the company more money while making my life easier (e.g., we're pursuing an internal review to find out what employees think about the situation on the floor)?
Once you've determined what you do and do not have control over, start taking pictures of the past, future, and present to reveal what decisions you can make now to optimize your next system.