Managers are supposed to be leading the areas they are responsible for in two key activities:
- Day-to-day ensuring existing commitments are effectively and efficiently met
- Improvement – Leading the efforts of becoming better in the ability to meet commitments
There is one challenge, that is grossly underestimated in respect to these two responsibilities, this is the challenge of using the limited management attention in the best possible way so that the results in these two areas of responsibility are the expected ones. The problem is that in both of these areas two many things are asking for this attention, simultaneously.
It is a little bit like when we were kids at school, and the teacher will direct attention to the kids that disturb the most because they were the loudest. It may have not been the best use of their attention. In a similar way managers find themselves directing attention to issues the are the “loudest”. Only this time, it is not one kid being loud, it is a whole range of loud kids, and to handle them they all need attention. And spreading the attention thin among all of them is a recipe to ensuring the two objectives are negatively affected.
When attention is spread thin, the unavoidable result is that none of the issues is thoroughly resolved. It makes the management work a work that is focused on minimizing the damages rather then maximizing the benefits.
To demonstrate, consider the following scenarios:
- Day-to-day – A production manager finds himself having a few customers inquiring (in different levels of hysteria) about their orders, some machine breakdowns, some quality issues, some raw materials supply issues, some operators that did not show up for work, some set up issues all of them negatively effecting the production ability to deliver customer orders on time. Which of these issues deserves attention now? Which of these issues does not? ? What if you try to resolve all of them? How likely it is to be effective? How do you decide (especially considering that meeting commitments is a daily concern and nevertheless results continue to be the same)?
- Improvement – Same production manager has the following performance indicators – Reliability of supply is 72%, lead time of the 28% delivered late ranges between 1 day delay to 6 weeks of delay in comparison to the 2-3 weeks of promise, the plant is working 2 shifts, 5 days and often uses Saturday and Sunday to overcome delays and lastly 5% of the products delivered are returned by the customers due to quality issues. There are currently numerous possible improvement initiatives being considered; a new scheduling software, replacement of some old equipment with newer equipment, changing the quality management procedures, improving supplier performance, training the production people, using quality circles, implementing lean production management, adding weekend as regular shifts, improving equipment maintenance procedures, and some more. Should he launch all of these activities? If so, who will manage so many? If not, which one is more likely to have a rapid and sustainable effect on the performance indicators? How can he make the choice (especially considering the fact that past experience shows that choices made so far had a limited effect on performance, if at all)?
It should be obvious that trying to handle all of the issues (Spreading attention thin) is futile, and that the way we normally choose (ranking and still spreading attention thin) is highly ineffective. As a result the most precious resource (management attention) is badly utilized and managers become accustomed to this effect to the extend they no longer expect that they can lead their areas of responsibility to become continuously better.
From the other hand, we know, that at time due to specific circumstances, we decide to focus our attention at one issue, shut our eyes and ears to all others, and within relatively short period of time realize exceptional results. The problem is not that we are not aware to the power of focusing, the problem is that we do not have a mechanism we can trust to focus us consistently on these issues that deserve our attention and avoid directing attention to others. Adding to the complexity is another psychological issue – even when we are clear about what we should focus on, we still tend to spread our attention thin as we do not know how to explain it to other stakeholders that have interest in the other attention demanding issues (how do we explain to one customer / sales executing why we focus on one order and the one they are inquiring about, how to explain to the quality manager why we are focusing on scheduling and not quality, etc.). What we need is a robust, reliable, consistent and simple focusing mechanism that will service the need to make good choices daily, good choices of improvement and enable clarity to all about why these are the correct choices.
Fortunately, such mechanism can be designed and implemented. A tool that provides continued clarity of day-to-day priorities that are simple, trustworthy, consistent and easily understandable by all stakeholders. Because answering the first challenge of meeting the existing commitments calls for crystal clear and indisputable priorities.
luckily, when this day-to-day focusing mechanism is used, it also captures the key reasons for performance glitches, thus feeding into the process of ongoing improvement and allowing the clear identification of the areas where improvement will unavoidably improve the system as a whole. Again, clearly, without a doubt, easy to communicate and to be recognized as such by all stakeholders.
the result is that every day managers can make a conscious and clear choice what to focus on so that the overall performance of their system meets existing commitments at the best way and when coming to improving performance managers know where to focus their attention so that the overall performance of the system improves, and then repeat.
Spreading management attention too thin is not unavoidable reality, it possible to design and implement effective focusing mechanism. When management attention is effectively used, even the sky is not the limit to the improvement level that can be realized.