People fail without clear direction, so be specific

The day after Thanksgiving I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

I stopped at one of the exhibits where Reagan was quoted as saying, “Trust but verify.” At that moment I had a flashback to a meeting I participated in that took place about 20 years ago.

A group of five managers were invited to the conference room to discuss how the organization could be more efficient, more productive and reduce costs.

The group was to focus on a specific line item, corrugated boxes. The corporation used hundreds of thousands of them each year, spending millions of dollars.

We were told to try to standardize, consolidate, as many boxes as possible.

It was a pretty big task, and it was launched with the best of intentions by the person who brought us together.

No one sitting around the conference table doubted that the company had too many box sizes and that some efficiency could be created through consolidation, deletion and changes.

I recalled seeing everyone nodding their head as the leader told us what we were supposed to do. I remember thinking, “Everyone is on board with this.”

But, in no time short, we discovered we weren’t on board as a team. We met only twice and never met again.

So what went wrong?

The group had a mission, but it was so large and overwhelming that no one ever referred to it after our leader left the room.

The group did not set up any standards to operate, and no one was in appointed as being in charge, so we were all in charge, which hastened our demise.

But the biggest cause for failure was our leader.

He did not provide a specific goal or goals for the team. He did not set a deadline for the team to arrive at recommendations. He failed to hold the group accountable. Once he left the meeting room that first afternoon, he never said a word to us about the assignment.

He could have told us that we had 5,000 box sizes and he wanted the number reduced by 20 percent (to 4,000 sizes) or told us to redesign the 100 boxes used the least to 10 boxes.

He could have said the company spends $8 million a year on boxes and that amount must be reduced by 10 percent to $7.2 million. He might have directed us to negotiate better terms and prices with the vendors. Part of that directive could have been to consolidate the vendors or find new vendors.

He could have directed us to figure out how the company could reduce inventory levels and carrying costs by working in conjunction with the vendors by implementing a “just in time” system.

He could have said, corrugated is expensive and weighs a lot, and even though it protects the products well, work on finding another type of packaging that will serve the company and customers just as well.

Or he could have just said, “I am not sure that there is money to be saved with corrugated, or with our vendors, or with the freight companies but see what you can come up with because I need to save at least $250,000.”

He did not do anything of these things. He failed; we failed him. He should have been more clear and we should have demanded more clarity from him.

We could have also asked for more direction, more clarity, a deadline, a numeric objective. But we did not, for a simple reason: we all believed we were already overworked and that we each had higher priorities than this new project.

Every leader can do a better job of giving direction, starting with an explanation and a deadline. A good leader should always “inspect what they expect.”

The leader in this case failed to verify and we failed him by failing to verify what he expected from us.