Why do we spend so much time putting out fires?


What does your typical day look like? It's probably not very predictable, except insofar as the first thing you do is check email to see what crises broke out between the time you went home for dinner and the time you finished your morning blueberry Pop-Tart. As for the rest of it, it's probably a series of fire-fighting exercises, studded with pointless meetings and punctuated by the occasional 20 minute oasis of calm where you get to, you know, think. Not so for Jim Lancaster, president of Lantech. Jim has brought standardized work and problem solving to all levels of management -- including his own. At Lantech, there's a strict cadence for the plan-do-check-adjust cycle. Even if you're not in manufacturing, bear with me for this description -- I promise to make the connection to your banking, or alumni development, or accounting job.

Individual operators check their machines and review production at 6:00am. Then the team leader meets with all the operators at 6:10 to discuss the day's work and any potential problems. Then the area supervisor meets with all the team leaders at 6:20. Then the plant manager meets with all the supervisors at 6:30. Then the VP of manufacturing meets with all the plant managers at 6:40. Then all the VPs meet with the executive team at 6:50, and so on. Problems are solved right then and there at the location of the problem and at the affected level. If solving a problem requires a trade-off of resources, then the decision is escalated to the next level -- but the analysis and the countermeasures are done at the location of the problem, where the work is done.

Now the coolest part: this process is repeated throughout the company, not just in the factory. Accounting, sales, marketing, credit -- pick the department, and you'll  have the supervisors, managers, directors, VPs, and president at your desk at the same time everyday. They're there to see your work and help you solve problems, right then, right there. You don't have to try to herd cats and schedule a meeting with the necessary people three days later (a meeting in which half the people are checking their Blackberries anyway). You don't have to suffer through the spirit-sapping chain of emails that somehow seem to only confuse the issue and delay its resolution.

As you'd imagine, this standard work of going around to where all the work is done takes a lot of time. But the power of this standard behavior is that it eliminates much of the wasted time, effort, and energy that we unthinkingly spend trying to solve problems in a conference room long after they've occurred. The process keeps everyone up to date on where things stand throughout the organization -- no tedious, long-winded, meanderings in the 60 minute weekly (or god help you, 90 minute monthly) meeting.

When I used to work in product marketing at Asics, I remember the frequent conflicts and problems that cropped up with sales. There were miscommunications about pricing and inventory levels that we didn't identify until it was too late -- after the sales rep had made a promise to a customer. And we had frequent issues with the product development team that could only be resolved through tedious meetings long after the fact, when it was expensive to make product changes. I've seen the same types of problems crop up between sales and the credit department, with a customer being put on credit hold, taken off, put back on, taken off again --  and all the while, his shipment of product languished in the warehouse.

In hindsight, I think that most of these problems could have been avoided in the first place with standard work that formalized communication and brought problem solving down to the place where the work was being done. Think about it: firefighting vs. standard work. Sexy vs. boring. Stressful vs. calming. How do you want to spend your days?

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