Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sharpening the Axe

Abraham Lincoln used to say that ‘if I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening the axe.’ The meaning is clear: if you want to do something right, you spend time in preparation.

Of course, preparation – sharpening the axe – can entail many things. But, in virtually every setting it means investing in your people so that they can actually do the job assigned. That means training, education, making sure they have the right tools to do the tasks assigned, and the opportunity to practice and develop expertise with those tools.

Yet I heard it again just a few days ago: a friend of mine who works in a very large organization (hundreds of thousands of employees) and the problem was: “we don’t have time to do ‘that,’” the ‘that’ in question being a comprehensive training plan. In a sense, he was right. His bosses were absolutely not going to give them enough time to train, to sharpen the axe. They wanted results right now. There is a word for that kind of thinking: stupid.

I had a boss many years ago who would confide in me at times like that. And he always ended those sessions with some words of wisdom that I have never forgotten: “How come we never have time to do things right the first time, but we always have time to do things right the second time?”

And we always did. We would receive a poorly thought out directive from higher headquarters. We would reply that to do ‘A, B and C’ we would need to set aside some people, pull the problem apart, focus some assets, and work out a scheme that would tell us which people, and which assets to place against the task, and how much time it would take to get the job done right. This, of course, was rarely acceptable to higher headquarters. We would be directed to begin and we would dutifully plunge on. Invariably we would come up short because they had tasked us to do something for which none of us was trained or equipped. Then there would be some yelling and screaming and then we would start again. This time we would be allowed to get the right people, the right training and the right tools and we would finally finish the task. And so, instead of costing X dollars and taking Y days to complete, it would cost 2 X dollars or more, and take 2 Y days or more to finish the task.

Is there a way to stop this? Yes. It is simple but for most leaders and managers, it is very painful.

1) Give an order to you subordinate, tell him what to do. Don’t tell him how to do it.
2) Trust your subordinates. This means you must believe them to be competent. If you don’t believe they are competent, fire them and put in somebody you do believe is competent.
3) If your subordinate tells you he needs assets and training to complete the task, give it to him (See #2 above).
4) Believe in training and preparation.

There will be those who will say “I can’t.” You’re wrong. You must. If you ‘can’t,’ then your business model is flawed. It’s as simple as that. Good organizations train and prepare. The better the organization, the more time and investment is made in preparing, in sharpening the axe. Great organizations spend what may seem like huge amounts of time and effort in preparation. That’s why they are great. The preparation comes first, not second. Invest in your people, and in your organization; sharpen the axe.


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