Matt's Articles

Urgent IS Important


Are you familiar with this one? “The problem we have at our company is prioritizing the important versus the urgent.” The first time I heard this statement I didn’t understand what they meant. Obviously, if it is important then it is also urgent, right? Through my many years of pushing change initiatives and driving continuous improvement I have learned that this is not so obvious; urgent will always trump the important. For example, we need to correct the customer order and we have no time to work on revising the order type codes that caused the customer order problem. Or we have to get the next new product out the door; we have no time to address the change over procedures that make it so hard to launch new products. Or we have to go visit and calm that angry customer; we have no time to study and understand the shipping procedures that led to their dissatisfaction. 

Every seasoned quality manager in my audience is shaking their head back and forth and simultaneously saying, “ugh!” 

As much as possible, I try to give my readers some advice in these newsletters. Admittedly, this one is tough. In consulting I find a similar problem, my biggest competition is apathy. I see plenty of companies that will spend millions of dollars on a new gizmo or software, but refuse to invest in the time and structures needed to allow their employees to stop and think about their work and how to do it better.

Now all you seasoned quality managers out there are nodding your heads and saying, “EXACTLY!”

So back to giving advice, too often I see seasoned professionals become sour and disenchanted about their ability to effect the urgent vs. important challenge. I guess after you lose a number of battles you give up, right? No! I remember at Motorola talking with two co-workers and one of them asked the other, “Why is Matt always so positive?” and the other returned “Because he still thinks that he can make a difference!!!” Laugh out loud! That is pretty accurate actually. And I honestly still do believe that I can make a difference. This is my first bit of advice. The urgent vs. the important is a persistent human challenge of priority that is baked deep inside of our psyche. You must stay vigilant, positive, and energetic! 

I know that we can break free of this incorrect prioritization. If that were not true then we would not have fire, wheels, and skyscrapers. Those of us in process improvement, quality, and continuous improvement roles must be passionate advocates for focusing on the big picture and moving the organization toward practices that will enhance cost, quality, and delivery for their customers over the long haul. If you are in one of these roles and have become too soured to be this type of neurotic champion for your organization, my advice is to change roles. Success requires quite a bit of energy, passion, and persistence.  

Of course, shouting from the mountains is never enough. There are always rational, thoughtful arguments for focusing 100% of our efforts on today’s list of urgent challenges. As improvement minded people we need to help our organizations see the flaws in this thinking. The classic example is collecting all the defects from the manufacturing floor, one or two here and one or two there and then piling the hundreds up at the door and visualizing how they all add up to one giant problem. When we see them all together, we can start to emotionally connect with the fact that what is important
is urgent. As improvement professionals our job is to exhaustively look for ways to help our organization keep focus on the big picture and the long term vision. It is the aspirational achievements that will allow the organization to be relevant years from now. The near term problems likely emanate from our inability to put the big picture solutions in place. It’s hard to see the impact of the improvements we skip today only to weigh down the organization’s future. 

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention goes a long way. If we focus on the important things, we can reduce all the urgent things that take our mindshare and energy away from finding new ways to serve the customer and win in the marketplace.