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Details, details, details

Posted by Mark Fallon on May 3, 2016 5:00:00 AM

“Perfection is in the details” – Leonardo daVinci

magnifying_glass.jpgPerfection may be unattainable, yet perfection must be the goal we all strive for in our operations. Not 99% accuracy, or even 99.99966% accuracy (Six Sigma’s goal), but 100% accuracy.

Setting unreachable goals isn’t an exercise in futility. It’s a proven method for raising performance to a new level of excellence. Becoming a fanatic about details will help you achieve more.

To effectively use a detail-oriented approach in management, a manager must take on the role of a leader who:

  • understands that details are about more than measurement;
  • is willing to acknowledge mistakes; and
  • has a penchant for action.

More Than Measurement

Accurate measurements are important. Operations should develop and use systems that track all aspects of performance, including speed, throughput, error rates and costs. And while what you measure is what you manage, detail-oriented managers go beyond mere statistics.

Automated systems can collect data and perform complicated calculations. But they won’t differentiate which job is more complicated, or the cleanliness of the shop, or the morale of the staff. Yet those factors, and other intangibles, are key components to success.

Management teams should create checklists and other tools to track those intangibles. Use some imagination when assigning values. One client assigns a weather category to describe the overall mood of the shop. A great day is “sunny and blue skies”. If there’s a lot of work, but it’s manageable, it may be “partly cloudy”. When an unexpected mailing hits at the same time when operators are out due to vacations and sickness, it may be a “Category 3” or even a “Category 4” storm.

Develop charts and logs to identify trends. Look at the timing of volumes, errors and morale. Identify potential causes and effects. Whenever possible, attempt to modify the causes and see what impact it has on the rest of your operation.

Apply this same logic to non-production events like projects. Break down tasks to the lowest possible level. Add checkpoints not just for progress towards completion, but include the team’s confidence level. And again, record the information, tracking all events and checking for correlations.

Acknowledge Mistakes

No one wants to admit they’re wrong. Whether it’s ordering the wrong supplies, incorrectly estimating time to complete a task, or choosing the clothes we wear. Yet despite our best intentions, the wrong supplies are ordered, some projects are late and many of us wore bell bottoms with platform shoes in the 1970s.

To improve, we must admit to errors. Fight the natural urge to be defensive when someone points out something wrong. Especially when the criticism is coming from someone we don’t like.

Managers must create an atmosphere where employees are comfortable admitting errors. If employees are afraid of the consequences, they’ll hide errors and hope no one catches them. When workers understand that fixing errors will help them improve, they’ll understand the importance of correcting defects.

A Penchant for Action

Measurements, reports and graphs are only marks on paper until someone does something. The goal of paying attention to detail isn’t to prove that the operation operates at a 99.99% efficiency rate. The goal is to discover how to correct the 0.01% deficiency.

My friend Tim McKeon runs a mail operation in Boston. Tim’s a meticulous individual. His desk and his shop are neat and organized. Tim tracks all sorts of information on the jobs processed by his workers, and is constantly looking at the data to find ways to improve. He’s a manager who strives for perfection.

Tim tells his employees, “An error is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.” His statement sends two distinct messages to his employees. First, it lets his staff know that Tim understands that errors will occur. Just as important, Tim makes it clear that he expects his workers to take the necessary steps to prevent the error from recurring.

Tim's a role model for the rest of us. He's able to pay attention to details while focusing on the big picture. He uses tools to measure and track performance, and takes the time to go beyond the figures. Mistakes are treated as opportunities to learn, and steps are taken to continue improvements in his department.

Some people may say “The devil is in the details”. They’re wrong. It’s not the devil, but the possibility of perfection.

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