By Gary Mintchell, Executive Director
Why do we have trouble focusing on problems that we know will happen, but will only occur in the future? Maybe that future is next year. Maybe five years. Still, we would rather devote our time on pressing problems of the moment. The urgency needed to solve tomorrow’s problems can be hard to find.
This is not a new phenomenon. A management consultant presenting to a company conference that I attended years ago dubbed it “the tyranny of the urgent.” We busily hop from situation to situation never stopping to ask why. He suggested differentiating the important from the urgent. Understandably, based on the concepts of criticality and risks, when plant machinery is down, the situation could be urgent and important or not. But let’s consider when we are dealing with something we perceive as urgent and important.
Twice in the last month I have heard speakers talk about two types of functions: “Maintenance focuses on fixing things; reliability focuses on analyzing things to fix the root cause.” Doesn’t this shortchange maintenance people? Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many maintenance professionals (managers, engineers, skilled trades) who were involved in root-cause analysis efforts—and also thinking about how to improve equipment performance.
People as a resource
One of the best reasons to adopt Lean Manufacturing is for its insistence on using the brains of people to make improvements. People are not a cost. People, rightly employed, are an invaluable resource.
Even so, people tend to work on the immediate crisis rather than plan ahead. Managers check emails, engineers search for a new product, technicians look through the CMMS. A reference to this human tendency is found in the Rex Stout novels from the early 20th century, where narrator Archie Goodwin complains about the difficulty his private-detective boss Nero Wolfe has doing “the hard work of thinking.” This applies to many of us.
Current author Daniel Goleman tackles the subject through scientific research. Emotional Intelligence is my guidebook to emotionally healthy growth. His latest book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, includes a chapter on climate change and the trouble people have trying to be concerned about something where the results are far in the future.
It seems that our brains are wired to help us survive—but only from immediate danger. That would be the “fight or flight” response. He suggessts this as the most likely reason why public discussion about the climate has degenerated into polarized opinions rather than rational looks into the data. It surely is the reason we put off necessary thinking in order to tackle the “urgent.”
Goleman identifies three types of focus in his work: internal focus, focus on others and focus on the bigger picture. He suggests that a successful leader will develop the skill to switch from one to the other quickly and seamlessly, depending on the situation.
Thus, as we focus on “fixing” something, do we file away data and observations that can help prevent the situation from recurring? Are we also looking for opportunities to not only solve the immediate problem, but improve situations associated with it? (On an industrial level, in high-reliability plants, the answer to both questions is yes. Work orders document data and observations so they’re not lost. Reliability engineers mine this information and make the case for justifying and/or leading improvement efforts.)
Focus, in any aspect of life, is the most important attribute we can have for personal effectiveness. Combine focus with passion for what we do and we are well on our way. MT
Gary Mintchell, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the Executive Director of Maintenance Technology magazine and a long-time writer on manufacturing, leadership and technology.