People Are The Missing Ingredient

Why Are We So Bad At Setting Priorities?

Derek Park
Contributor: Derek Park
Posted: 08/03/2011

The world doesn’t owe us a living. In an increasingly competitive arena we not only have to continually improve our performance but we also have to be sure that we are working on the things that really matter for 100% of our time. To do that we need to be really good at setting priorities. So how good are we at doing the important things all of the time?

In previous articles we have seen how it often takes a crisis to initiate change. After a serious event we tenaciously embark on ‘actions to prevent recurrence’ but the real question is why were we not doing these things before? The simple answer to that is because we are just no good at setting our priorities.

Let’s get one thing clear at the start; setting priorities is not about choosing right from wrong or good from bad. That’s why it is usually difficult and why the result is often a fudge. Take the current debate raging in the UK about public spending. Many people accept the need for savings but when it comes to something which will affect them they feel obliged to make a strong defence on the grounds that their particular bit of the budget is so righteous and so worthy. It probably is, but the real issue is that there are other, even more righteous and even more worthy things that need to be done first. Right and wrong is not the issue, it is simply a question of priority.

Take just one seemingly trivial example from the UK public arena. Nearly every 30 mph sign at the approach to a town or village is now preceded by ‘3-2-1’ countdown signs before the ‘real’ sign. Good idea perhaps, but are they really needed, except perhaps where the ‘real’ sign is hidden round a bend etc? It is just one example of how we spend money on perhaps a good idea but one which should never have become a priority, especially when the poorly maintained roads themselves pose a genuine safety risk. A quick bit of internet research reveals that the installed cost of a typical road sign can be around £350. So three low priority signs, often on both sides of the road, at typically four entry points to a village multiplied by how many villages in the UK? Work it out; then wonder why we can’t afford to mend the roads! Remember it is not a case of right or wrong, just a case of priority.

Decisions about public priorities of course come down to our politicians. In industry we have to make these decisions for ourselves and the stark reality is that because of our failure to set priorities we spend much of our time working on things that just do not matter. W Edwards Deming said that our organisations are perfectly designed to give us the results we are getting. In other words if we are working on the wrong things that is not because of some freakish, uncontrollable factor but because of the way we have allowed things to develop. We need to redesign the way we spend our time and money, or in other words get really good at setting our priorities.

There are thousands of examples of our failure in this area. Some are big, some are small but they all usually have two things in common. One, we just don’t realise how big an impact they are having and two, we often think there is nothing we can do about them. Most organisations spread themselves too thinly over too many things and, like a juggler who tries to keep too many balls in the air, we often end up dropping the lot. Here are some all too common examples:

Too often we let outsiders set our personal priorities. There always seems to be one more report to write, one more piece of data to collect, one more visitor to show round. We are left with no time to focus on the things that really matter such as today’s production or how we could more generally improve our business performance. Things that should be done on Monday are often not addressed until Friday because of other things that just keep getting in the way. The ‘priority of priorities’ has to be to get back control of our own time.

Also at a personal level, we allow ourselves to be burdened by tens or even hundreds of items on ‘to do’ lists. Ironically we never seem ‘to do’ the things that really matter because we are always checking and organising ‘to do’ lists! We need to stop worrying about numerous items on lists and prioritise the three or four that are really important. What are we ‘to do’ about the others? Simply delete them; why record and count things that we will never have time to address?

Telephones, particularly mobiles, intrude continually into our priorities. They are the best weapon available for gate crashing on other people’s time. Why do we interrupt people by phone when we would never do it face to face if we saw the time was not right? Of course text and other messaging services can be useful but be careful of letting them create even longer to do lists!

Many organisations collect unimportant data. Much of it adds no value but collecting it is made a priority for front line staff. If we are asked to collect data we should ask in turn what will it be used for? The response usually leads to a significant reduction in the type or frequency of data that is really essential.

Much of our data gathering involves inspection, and in turn much of our inspection is waste. Some organisations devote vast resource to inspection and compliance that under hard scrutiny adds no value. Take a hard look at the parts of your operation that have a function to report and record rather than fix and improve.

We have seen that a big part of picking priorities involves budget setting. The biggest mistake is to compile a list of things to do and then work out a price, hoping that when the ‘challenge’ comes in everything will somehow be done on a shoestring. It won’t happen. Much better to do fewer things properly than everything improperly. That is what we mean by setting priorities.

We need to be aware of who or what is really in control of our time. We have seen how individuals and organisations continually spread themselves too thinly not only because they fail to set their own priorities and also because they allow others to set priorities for them. Who is really in charge of your organisation? The key responsibility of a leader is to set priorities and to make sure their staff and everyone else knows what they are.

Finally, the best tip for setting priorities?

Learn to say NO!

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Derek Park
Contributor: Derek Park
Posted: 08/03/2011

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