Productivity means focusing on future, not dwelling on past

As a general rule, a productive work team should devote most of its time thinking about what lies ahead. Spending too much time on the past is distracting, unless the results can be used to positively impact what happens in the future.

Unfortunately, the past is well known and therefore much easier to recount and discuss. The future hasn't yet happened, and is therefore difficult to talk about in measurable terms. For these reasons, you may need to take a more active role in getting your people to think about making changes rather than dwelling on the past.

One way to affect this shift is to preface your focus questions with "Now," followed by "How?" For example, we can ask: Now that we know why the order was late, how do we ensure it arrives on time in the future?

Here's how this simple process was applied to reverse the failing fortunes of an international manufacturing firm.

The start up of their new facility went well. Equipment was installed properly and check-runs showed great promise. The first orders were finished and shipped on time without a hitch.

Then the customer complaint hotline started to ring. The majority of complaints fell into two categories: incorrect sizing and shorted orders. An extensive in-house "search" failed to pinpoint either problem so a specialist was called in to help locate the problem.

Armed with the "Now, how?" technique mentioned above, the consultant worked his way through the production process until the sizing problem was isolated and a resolution found. It turned out that the problem only happened on runs with oddly shaped pieces. If the machines got out of alignment during one of these "special" runs, there was no way of checking before the order was packed for shipping.

The shortage problem was harder to find. The problem was finally isolated at the quality checkpoint at the end of the tempering process where the fabricated pieces left the furnace. From here, the pieces were picked up by a robotic arm and set on a conveyor belt to cool on their way to the final sizing and packing.

The quality checkpoint operator lifted each piece off the belt and placed it on a metal frame with electronic sensors around the edges. If the piece was out of alignment, a load buzzer would sound. Silence and a flashing green light meant the piece met the sizing requirements and was ready for shipment to the customer. Now they knew where things were going wrong, but still didn't know how to fix the problem.

Wandering from line to line, the consultant patiently waited to hear a buzzer so he could see first hand what was causing the deviation. Sure enough, a buzzer went off nearby and he quickly headed toward the sound.

The checkpoint operator saw him coming and nodded hello as he tossed several rejected pieces in the nearby dumpster. The consultant stood beside the operator to see what he would do next.

The buzzer sounded sporadically for the next 20 minutes. As these two talked between buzzes, the operator seemed very pleased with himself for catching all the misaligned pieces. Finally, he was asked if he was concerned about the high rate of rejection. "Nope," he said, cheerfully. "They know what they're doing. I just pass 'em when they fit, and trash 'em when they don't." His face dropped when asked how would they know the problem existed if he didn't tell them.

At the next shift change, all the off-duty checkpoint operators and machine supervisors got together to answer the question: Now that the checker's found a reject, how should he communicate it and to whom?

Before long, the entire production crew were asking each other "Now, how?" questions. It wasn't long before production records were being set and exceeded regularly. Overall, the plant manager had every reason to be pleased with the results; the rash of process improvements meant his facility would reach break-even well ahead of projections.

Like many new processes, this one takes some getting used to -- especially the awkward use of "Now, how." The reason it works is not clear, but it does help people to stay focused on future improvements instead of dwelling on past mistakes.

Your ultimate objective in applying this process is to gain a better understanding, awareness and perspective of the problem and how it should be solved. Solving problems using the "Now, how" question is far more practical than calling a team meeting and slogging your way through a lengthy agenda.

Taken from Jones' new book, "Help! I'm Surrounded By Idiots: A Workplace Survival Guide," available at Jones is a motivational speaker and seminar leader. Send comments to All letters are forwarded to the author and may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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