Most business have far more things to attend to than they have time or energy. The simple question then arises: where to focus? Where to focus people’s attention. Where to focus limited resources. Where to focus for maximum return? As Goldratt says in Theory of Constraints:
What to change?
What to change to?
How to effect the Change?
Of course, this is not a new problem. Many businesses have come up with ways to address this challenge – some ad-hoc, some in the context of solving or dissolving problems local to some limited part of the business, some encompassing the whole business, and some taking in the grand sweep of an entire value chain (i.e. involving numerous connected businesses). Business gurus, pundits and scientists have also much studied the issue and produced a wide range of techniques.
Some of the better-known of these include:
- Theory of Constraints – Goldratt – specifically the Five Focusing Steps and Current/Future Reality Trees
- Reference Projection (Interactive Planning) – Ackoff
- Business Decision Mapping
- Value Stream Mapping
- Business Process Mapping
- Business Process Reengineering
- Strategic planning
- Leverage Point Modelling
There are also any number of supporting techniques and concepts, including:
- Evaporating cloud (from Theory of Constraints) – to help resolve conflicting assumptions
- Scenario Planning (Kahane, etc).
- Systems Thinking (Senge) – in particular “system archetypes“
- Mind-mapping (popularised by Tony Buzan)
- Twelve Leverage Points (Donella Meadows)
- System dynamics (Jay Forrester)
- TRIZ (Genrich Altshuller) a.k.a. “the theory of inventive problem solving”
- Wicked Problems (Horst Rittel), Messes (Ackoff)
- Delphi method – for arriving at a consensus amongst e.g. experts.
- Semantic Networks
- Root Cause Analysis
- 5 Whys
- A3 (Problem-solving technique)
- Hoshin Kanri (Policy Deployment)
- Value Disciplines Model (Treacy & Wiersema)
- BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals)
Most of the above techniques implicitly or explicitly reference some kind of looping or interactive approach, whereby once the object (issue, problem, challenge, opportunity) has been dealt-with, the technique is applied to the next object, and then the next,.. and so on, ad infinitum. Here we cross over into the realm of continuous improvement. Such lopping techniques include:
- PDCA (The Shewhart Cycle)
- OODA Loop (Boyd)
- IDEF0 (antiquated?)
- DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) from e.g. SIx Sigma)
How many approaches to focusing have you employed? Which do you favour? Which do you know to work well, and in which context(s)? Which other techniques complement your chosen focusing approach?
Choosing the Right Approach
Well, of course, there is no one “right” approach to deciding where to focus in a business. But I posit that there is value in finding one right approach for your business. If nothing else, it means folks across the whole business can participate in e.g. planning sessions without having to repeatedly learn new vocabularies and concepts.
Absent clarity of purpose for the business, choosing any approach will only provide a means to do the wrong things righter. As Lewis Caroll once wrote:
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.
In other words, if your business as a whole has no focus, then there doesn’t seem much point in focusing on what exactly it might be best to do next.
For Ad-hoc-minded businesses, the question is essentially moot, as everyone will have their own ways of focusing on what’s important, even assuming that any such focusing ever happens.
For the Analytic-minded businesses, it’s most likely that some approach that helps optimise parts of the business will find most favour. I’m not going to say more about these businesses here.
For Synergistic-minded businesses, folks will generally look to a focusing approach that caters to a system-wide viewpoint.
Having used Theory of Constraints, and in particular Current Reality Trees and Future Reality Trees, for the past fifteen years and more, I’m more than comfortable that this can do the job. I can also vouch for the unsuitability of this kind of approach in Analytic-minded businesses!
For the very rare Chaordic-minded businesses, I suspect that any suitable approach would have to cater to the highly dynamic nature of such businesses, and allow for rapid identification of areas of focus, in the order of seconds or minutes within which each new focus can be identified and acted-upon.
Solving Tough Problems ~ Adam Kahane
Systemantics ~ John Gall
Statistical Process Control ~ Deming et al – Distinguish between purposeful change and “tinkering”
LAMDA: A Leadership Principle for Lean Product Development ~ Kennedy & Sobek (PDF Slide deck)
The Life We Are Given ~ Leonard – Lest we forget the human dimension