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The Top 10: Focusing on the Few

Putting the authority for decision-making into the hands of others allows you to focus on the critical few issues – the 10, not the 100.
Sep 25, 2023

Chances are, you are reading this while taking a quick break before jumping back into your daily fray of people coming to you with what seems – at the moment – to be insurmountable problems; pressing emails flooding your inbox; or wondering why you haven’t heard back from a customer about a proposal they’ve had for a very long time.

We’ve all been there – or are there.

Back when I was running an automation company, we had a rather complex system that we codeveloped with a customer based in Ireland. When we started the debug process for the system, the president of the customer company flew to our facility.

The list of things that we needed to debug for the multistation system – pneumatics, electronics, handling, hydraulics, etc. – was long, to put it mildly.

The president asked us for a list of the top 10 issues. Just 10.

So, we analyzed the long list and came up with 10.

“Let’s talk about number one,” he said.

We worked on that problem and solved it. Then number two moved up a place, and we took that on. It went that way throughout the debugging process.

I learned a few things from that experience. For one, it is a whole lot easier to rack and stack 10 issues than 100. Knowing the top 10 allows for the sort of focus necessary to avoid being distracted by things that are not important individually but seem acute when aggregated.

It became clear that it is important to have the discipline to focus on the critical few rather than the urgent many.

Another thing I learned is people tend to pay attention to things that seem to be the most important at the moment. In terms of the long-term needs of an organization, many of those issues are trivial, but it’s hard to know that when it appears major.

In order to achieve the right perspective, you may have to adjust what you see as your responsibility.

Let’s go back to the example of building a complex manufacturing system. There are a lot of decisions to be made – which is why an operation has an array of designers, engineers, toolmakers, and other personnel on staff.

Many of those decisions can – and should – be made by those people. Too often management becomes concerned that a wrong decision will be made, so they make it themselves. Not only is that demoralizing for the people who should be making the decision – I’ve never met a talented engineer who didn’t want to be fully involved in their project – but it is likely not going to be the best solution. Realize that you have people who stay close to tech developments that can be deployed to decrease cycle time or reduce the footprint of the system or otherwise come up with a better solution. That’s why they’re on staff. Good engineers are innovative problem solvers.

Yes, the management decision may result in something that will fulfill the requirement, but it likely doesn’t do so in a creative, differentiated, imaginative, functional way, a way that will outsmart the competition – because the competitors’ managers might also be overinvolved in the development.

Allowing engineers to do what they’ve been trained to do not only results in what is likely a better solution, but it (1) takes something off management’s plate and (2) allows people to learn and grow, to be engaged in what they’re doing every day. At a time when retaining staff is a challenge, the last thing that any organization needs is people who are indifferent or bored, who are likely to spend their time looking for their next employer rather than for a better way to execute the job at hand.

Of course, empowering people to make decisions risks things going wrong. More to the point: Things will go wrong. But assuming that it is not a catastrophic decision that will take the company down, that wrong decision can lead to learning, which will result in a far better solution than can ever be realized in organizations where people are protected from the possibility of making a mistake. This is like bowling with bumpers in the gutters. Good for beginners but not the pros. And any organization needs pros to be successful.

Putting the authority for decision-making into the hands of others allows you to focus on the critical few issues – the 10, not the 100.

This may sound good to you. But it may also sound fanciful, something that you’re unlikely to put into practice because you’ve got all those hot-button items that you need to address.

But I can tell you that as I travel around the world and visit shops and plants and manufacturing complexes of different types making an array of products, I’ve seen firsthand that the ones that are doing the best are those that have empowered their people, allowing their leaders to focus on organizational advancement.

They focus on the top 10.

Douglas K. Woods


AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology

Douglas K. Woods
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