Close your eyes for a second and think about your ride to work this morning. If you’re driving right now, don’t really close your eyes; you are guilty of Example No. 4 below. You probably remember seeing the same things that I saw on my way to work: cell phone users who had the phone in one hand and making hand gestures with the other, women putting on makeup while looking in the vanity mirror and steering with their knees, people reading papers or books with the book propped on the steering wheel, and people texting while driving — sorry, nobody is that good, just lucky so far. A crazy sight, no doubt, but a sign of the times. The people who surround us every day really aren’t concentrating on the primary goal, which is to arrive at their destinations alive and in one piece, while putting no one else’s life in danger.
I remember my first opportunity to be coached by my dad in Little League baseball. His most important bit of advice was “keep your eye on the ball.” Good advice, as it turns out. It works for any sport involving a ball. It also is pretty useful when you are trying to plow that first straight furrow in a field using a distant tree or fence post as a target. It works pretty well for Navy pilots landing on an aircraft carrier — in fact, pilots “call the ball” to ensure the correct landing approach. And it works very well in business when you have an important initiative underway and need to maintain focus on the ultimate goal.
Sometimes it’s difficult to visualize what the ball is going to look like until we finally see it. In a new initiative, no matter how well we plan and execute, it’s hard to imagine what the finished product is going to be without some type of visual reference. In an operating facility, there are an endless number of distractions each day that can easily take our eyes off the ball and pull us into another, seemingly more important issue that will deprive the primary initiative of critical focus and effort toward completion.
As project or initiative leaders and managers, it’s our job to make sure that everyone involved in the project has the same vision of what the completed project will look like. How will we know whether we’ve succeeded? Do we have some measure by which we will know success, or will it just be a guess on the part of the project team? One of the best methods I’ve seen is to place the vision or ball in a prominent and public place in the facility, where everyone who walks in can see clearly what the goal is. Of course, if you’re going to do this, you also must publish some type of progress board to indicate visually how close you are to that goal. We routinely place our simulated thermometer visuals in the lunch room and lobby for Red Cross or United Way campaigns, showing everyone the increase in “temperature” as we gain in donations for the year. Why not use something similar for an improvement project to show the cumulative savings it generated? Anything you can do to make the project more visible will further increase your chances of sustainable change and improvement.
Communication and feedback to everyone is critical to success. You don’t want to hear little sound bites around the lunch room like “I wonder what’s going on with Project X. They never tell us anything.” Unless your project or initiative is going to result in a global disaster, there should be no reason to withhold information or otherwise keep your people in the dark. Information is power, and information in the hands of employees provides the power to move a project forward much more quickly and efficiently than any small group or team could manage.
When you set a goal or establish a vision for the future, you have to keep your eye on the ball. More importantly, you want everyone’s eyes to be on the same ball. It can’t be just your personal goal or vision. If you want real change and improvement, it must be shared with everyone around you to leverage the best possibility for success.
So, go out and put the ball on the project wall and then challenge all to look at the ball on the wall and help as they can so you don’t fall and miss the ball. And when you reach the end, take the ball down from the wall and reinstall it on the Victory Wall. My apologies to Dr. Seuss.
Bob Call is a principal consultant with Life Cycle Engineering Inc. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.