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Why Attention Is A Powerful Management Tool

Why Attention Is A Powerful Management Tool

Bestselling lean executive coach Michael Ballé, explains why it’s critical that both management and employees are paying attention to the same things and why it’s better to show than tell.

Here is a secret about management: we believe that we pay attention to what we consider important, but, really, we consider important what we pay attention to. That’s how our brains are wired. This is why mentalists pick your pockets every time – they distract you and fool your mind in believing there is something more important right now than giving them your wallet, as you meekly hand it over without quite realizing.

We are so firmly convinced by our own illusion of control, of being the masters of our universe, that we are adamant that our intentions, goals, values make us focus on what matters, and, once we’ve done that, we can get things done and get ahead. Nevertheless, the science is clear: once we pay attention to something, it becomes the most important thing in our universe.

What Gets Measured Gets Done

The media doesn’t tell us what to think – we’re not stupid, we know how silly and mindless the beast can be. But the media does tell us what to pay attention to. The old management saying “what get measured gets done” seems absurdly reductive of human behavior, until you consider that what gets measured captures attention, becomes important and causal, and therefore does indeed get done. But it’s at the expense of others things, which is precisely how tactical results trump strategic outcomes.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

And as such, a powerful management tool. When you post the number of consecutive days without accident at the entrance of your business, you draw attention to safety, and make it important. When you send a truck to your supplier, as Toyota does, every two hours to pick up small quantities of every part, you make the supplier pay constant attention to delivery and so make it important. When it feels important, people work harder at it.

Don’t Say, Show

Here’s the secret: Rather than telling people what to do and then breathing down their necks to make sure they do it,  make sure to visualize intuitively what needs attention. They’ll do the work by themselves. Make sure, in any job, that people can:

  1. Know the next delivery step and what makes a good job
  2. Distinguish abnormal conditions from normal ones
  3. Have clear reference points for how things should be done
  4. Progress for their customers, themselves and their teams

Then discuss how they understand the current process and what needs to be done; how they interpret incidents and what needs to be understood; how they intend to react and whether this will have a positive or negative impact on the outcomes; and what they need to learn and how they intend to learn it.

Ensure Employees Pay Attention to What Matters

Management gets much easier when employees want to do a good job and you’re there to help them succeed rather than to push them. The trick is to set up their visual environment so that they pay attention to what you believe matters. If you pay attention to their efforts, you might find that employees’ initiatives are important as well – and discover that your people are the key to your own success.

Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).

Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).


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