Is an open door policy ruining your day?

Tom Moriarty says don't let unimportant issues interrupt your day and your personal life.

By Tom Moriarty

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What does it mean to have an open door policy? Does an open door policy mean that you have to drop whatever you’re doing whenever someone brings any issue to your attention?

One of our clients is about halfway through a major maintenance management improvement project, including initiation of a new enterprise software suite, reorganization of shops, and focus on process discipline. As part of the new way of doing things there is a weekly meeting for six area maintenance supervisors facilitated by the maintenance manager. The meeting is a report out of previous action items, review of performance measures, new business and closing with new action items for the coming week. During the new business discussion the supervisors were being encouraged to focus on getting their responsibilities done in a timely manner. One of the supervisors piped up and said, “We get distracted all day long; it’s hard to get everything done.” Two of the other five supervisors nodded in agreement. The manager said, “Well, do the best you can.” The manager was ready to move on to the next business item.

Now it was my turn to pipe up because the manager did not address the problem.

“Before we move on, can you characterize for me the types of interruptions we are talking about?”

One of the supervisors said, “Well, I start reviewing completed work orders, like you guys have been harping on us about. And every time I start getting some momentum, the phone rings or one of my guys is at my door with some issue about a replacement tool or a question about training a guy wants to attend or an operations person is causing some sort of problem. It never stops. There are just not enough hours in the day.”

I asked the supervisors how many hours they actually spent at the facility each day. The answer from five of the six supervisors was between nine and 12 hours. The answer from the sixth supervisor, we’ll call him Able, was eight hours.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years, then earning a commission through Officer Candidate School, retired as a Lt. CommanderTom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER. He is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at tjmpe@alidade-mer.com.

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I asked the group if Able’s job had a significantly different volume of work, if it was less prone to emergency work or urgent work, or if he was provided with better resources than the other supervisors. The answer was “no.” In fact if anything Able was selected to lead that area because of the difficulties in supporting that area. We reviewed Able’s shop performance measures; his shop had better performance than his peers’.

So the obvious question was why did Able get things done on time and maintain good performance?

I asked Able if he had as many disruptions to his day as the others were reporting. He said, “Hell, no. I like fishing and watching my kid’s soccer practice too much.”

So how did he keep the disruptions from sidetracking his day? Because, he said, his people and the operations people he supported all knew he had a daily schedule.

Part of that daily schedule was that if there was something that was not an emergency that they should only come to him with the problem during certain times of the day. “If there was an emergency, I will drop whatever I am doing and handle it; but everyone knows it had better be a true emergency.”

One of the supervisors said, “I have an open door policy with my guys. If they have a problem they can come to me any time.” I replied that an open door should mean that you’re open to hear issues. It does not mean people are allowed to disrupt your day whenever they feel like it.

We discussed categorizing issues in two ways: importance and urgency. There are four combinations — important and urgent, important and not urgent, not important and urgent, and not important and not urgent.

  • Important issues need to dealt with, but beware of people overstating importance.
  • Urgent issues should only disrupt your day if they are important. 
  • Important and not urgent should be addressed by scheduling times to hear about these issues.
  • Not important issues, urgent or not, should be addressed only when all other responsibilities have been met.

An open door policy does not mean that you have to drop what you’re doing. Determine if the issue can be discussed at a specific time, perhaps during the first or last 15 minutes of the work day.

Each person gets 24 hours in a day. Manage your open door so you have time for fishing or for enjoying time with your kids at soccer practice.

Read Tom Moriarty's monthly column, Human Capital.

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