Guest Post: Don’t Walk Backwards

Eric Widner by Eric Widner | 11.12.2012

Eric Widner is the Operations Manager at LOUD Security Systems in Kennesaw, GA (currently listed as the 7th largest security company in Atlanta). As operations manager, Eric works closely with all  areas of the company to help ensure that they deliver the best security and life safety systems available, without compromising on customer service.

We’ve all been there.

It’s Wednesday morning.  You’ve already dealt with employees calling out sick, customers screaming that they need an earlier appointment only to cancel on you last minute, products aren’t arriving on time for a critical job, and your phone is ringing every 15 minutes with another problem.  And now to top it all off, it’s time for the weekly manager’s meeting and you’re quickly scrambling through last week’s notes to make quick work of the problems you need to report on. 

After an hour or two, you’ve quickly reviewed the details of what’s happening in your department.  You report your operational efficiencies (or inefficiencies), account for lost business revenue, share about a new challenge you’ve come up against, and prepare to discuss the last 7 days of other mundane business details with the other department heads and perhaps even the owner himself.

Oh…. And the best part is that you’ll get to do this all again next week. This cycle represents one of the traps that every operational organization runs into. Every free moment we get, is spent trying to prepare for one meeting where all we do is look at the past, and the problems that we’ve run up against or the metrics that have been measured. 

Running your operation this way is like walking down the street backwards.  You’ve got a clear view of everything you’ve gone past, but you have no ideas what dangers you’re about to run into.  Eventually, you’ll hit a dangerous intersection and you won’t have the ability to recognize it.  Don’t get me wrong here.  The past holds valuable information. In fact, as the old saying goes, unless we spend time to recognize the mistakes of our past, we are destined to repeat history and make the same mistakes again.  But looking into the future of your department seems to be a forgotten skill these days. 

Imagine for a moment….what would your operation be like if instead of focusing only on the backward trends and problems, you were able to spend time focusing on the forward needs of your department and your company? 

In business, a backward glance can always be important.  It can help identify downward trends, customer service failures, and reduce expenses.  But a good operations manager should see these issues looking forward, as they are happening, and be able to act (not react) accordingly to keep the issues in front of them instead of behind them.  As an operations manager myself, I would much rather be aware of the problems I am about to face, and be able to plan for them, than to hear about the issues I have missed and figure out how to clean up the mess.

With this thought in mind, here are some tips for managing with a more forward-looking perspective:

1.      Keep a list of possible issues and opportunities. There’s nothing better than getting a panicked phone call right when you’re about to leave for vacation with the family.  Keeping a list of unfinished work and unresolved issues that can be reviewed at a glance or handled during a moment of slow down can help keep those issues from sneaking back up on you when you least expect it. Even better, why not keep that list out in the open for your entire department to see.  That way, nothing is hidden. Anyone can handle a problem when there is an opportunity, and your entire team has access if an issue rears its ugly head when you aren’t around.

2.      Design your meetings with the future in mind. – As a manager, you are in charge of the directions that your meetings take.  Draw up an agenda for your meeting and publish it or put it on a whiteboard for everyone to see.  Invite the rest of your team to add to it during the week.  Some of the best ideas your team will have WILL NOT come from you, and open discussion is the best way to move a new idea forward.  At the end of each meeting, stop talking and allow a few minutes for everyone else to speak. 

3.      Encourage Individual Future Growth. – Nobody wants to be stuck at a dead-end job and nothing is more discouraging to your people than feeling like they are.  While there is never enough opportunity to promote everyone in your organization, there is always opportunity to encourage people to try.  Set up training for your employees both on and off the clock.  Find a tracking system that allows those that spend their own time and money to further your business to be noticed and recognized.  Consider giving those individuals “extra credit” on their performance evaluations or giving out a $50 bill at your next meeting if they put that education to use in your company. 

4.      Use Reports Designed To Help Recognize Trends Quickly – One of the best ways to recognize a problem of the past, but not to dwell there, is to use a well-designed report to quickly recognize a trend and to identify its cause.  Taking quick action to reverse (or encourage) a trend will allow you to move forward without getting stuck in the mire of a problem. 

Remember, if your operation is only looking backwards, it isn’t changing, and if it isn’t changing, it’s likely dying.  Try looking forward for a fresh new perspective on your business.