Bringing failure into consciousness

It is common for people in management roles to deal with issues and problems. Important as these seem, these activities do not directly add value to the customer.

For various reasons, dealing with issues and problems (failure) is accepted without challenge. Most managers accept that it is their responsibility to deal with issues and problems, and most people look to their manager to resolve them.

For the next few weeks, try and take notice of how much of your working time is spent dealing with failure.

How can I differentiate between failure and value-adding work?

It could be easy to argue that dealing with failure is adding value, because you are fixing something.

However, the point is that the failure should not have occurred in the first place (in an ideal world). Therefore, by failure, I am simply meaning any activities which could have been avoided.

Ask yourself this – is the task I am dealing with taking my business or organisation forward; or is it simply resolving a current issue or problem, and keeping the operation ticking along?

Some common examples of failure –

  1. Dealing with a complaint from a customer – if you are dealing with a legitimate complaint from a customer, then something has gone wrong with the level of service provided to that customer (failure).
  2. Answering questions from staff – if you find you are frequently answering questions from staff, because they are not clear what they should do in a particular situation, perhaps something has gone wrong in terms of providing them with clarity of role and responsibility (failure).
  3. If you find you consistently have more work than you are able to manage, and spend much of your time writing lists for what you have to do, rather than doing them. This may indicate a failure to match demand and resources adequately.
  4. When a system doesn’t do what you want it to do, so you develop a work-around, which takes a little longer than it should  (system failure). This is a good example because we come to accept these short delays, but over the weeks and years (and multiplied by the number of others doing the same), they become significant.

How can I record how much of my time is spent on failure?

You are a busy person, so this needs to be quick and easy.

Grab an A4 sheet of paper, and write failure on the left side, and added value (or your chosen term) on the right. Over a set period, and after each activity, record (with a tick) whether it was an activity which should ideally have been avoided or whether it was a proactive activity which will add value to the customer.

You don’t need to record what the activity was. You are simply looking at a comparison of activities which add value, and which do not. You may want to record time taken for each activity, but that may take up too much time – and the activity itself will become an issue.

Of course, any issues and problems will need to be resolved (permanently if possible). See ‘Root Cause Analysis’, for some simple hints and tips on effective problem solving.

Why bother doing this?

Quite simply, it is inefficient to spend time carrying out activities which do not add value to the customer.

Whilst in fact it is part of our job to make key decisions, or deal with complaints, or to provide clarification – this should not take up a lot of our time. This should absolutely not be what is dominating our time.

Of course, it’s not always straightforward in reality, but the exercise of observing your activity is useful, as it enables you to take a step back from what you are doing and look upon it from a more objective and disconnected perspective.

When you begin to recognise just how much of your time is spent on failure, you naturally become more concerned with fixing the issues and problems permanently, so that less of your time is taken up by them in the future. You will become more efficient, and more valuable.

Of course, there may be a bit of a time battle where you feel it’s easier to deal with the surface problem now, and deal with the real problem later on (when you have time).

Ask yourself honestly – does that time ever surface?

Richard McClenaghan

Look to Improve Ltd.

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