Prioritization is the Key Skill Managers Need

Early in my career, “TQM,” which stood for “Total Quality Management,” was a trend that swept the business world, led by famous gurus such as Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran.  It was also credited as the method the Japanese used to become the world’s quality leader in automobiles.  It was also called “continuous improvement,” often represented by the Japanese word “Kaizen” which means “change for the better.”

At the time I was working in a Fortune 100 company.  I enthusiastically became involved in our “Continuous Improvement Process.”  I was one of 5 people leading the program at a 1200-employee division.  On one hand that meant in addition to running my department and making our goals, I had this second job.  On the other hand I was treated to quite a bit of excellent training, new ideas and new people.  We flew here and there for training and it was all quite exciting.

After one of these sessions, I was flying home and I had an epiphany:  All of this training is about problem identification and prioritization of which problems would generate the biggest return when fixed.  None of the training was about fixing the problem.  You’re already supposed to know how to do that.  It was all about choosing the right things to work on.  Proper and well thought-out prioritization was the most important thing.  That realization hit me like a ton of bricks that night at 35,000 feet.

One of the things that we were told about the Kaizen mindset is that it was a life sentence; once you get continuous improvement in your blood, you can’t get rid of it.  They were right.  You can’t and I haven’t.  It has played a strong role in my management style ever since.  I don’t really think about it anymore, but it’s there.

I do, however, see situations in business where the folks in charge haven’t been bitten by the same bug and it shows.  Let’s be honest, it is almost always the reality that you never have enough time, money and people to address every situation that needs attention. It may be the case where  you only have the resources to address a small portion of what needs to be taken care of.  Everybody has their pet projects.  Every product, process and internal system has an owner who wants investment.

These situations make having a process for prioritization even more important.  If you have limited bullets, you must use them to get rid of the biggest threats to your survival.  Having a process that rank orders the ROI on your projects and uses input from all stakeholders is critical.  Otherwise you’ll be working on projects that, while making somebody happy, do little to really make the business successful.  You’ll also spend way too much effort addressing symptoms, rather than core issues.

Bottom line: Catch the Kaizen bug. Build your prioritization skills.  Rank order your projects by their contribution to the bottom line or value to the business and continuously improve.  It’s more important than ever.

Does your business do a good job at prioritization?  Have you seen the wrong projects being addressed?

You can connect with Eric on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ericlundbohm/

Follow his updates on Twitter @lundbohm

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