Fix what is broken

broken-chair

I’m always a bit surprised when I encounter something that is obviously broken that hasn’t been fixed.

For instance.

I went into a small bookstore. While I was there I noticed a steady stream of customers who walk into the shop, take two looks around, and walk out. The two people working there continued doing what they were doing. One person dutifully shelved books while the other stood by the counter. It doesn’t take a genius to see that something is wrong but the people working there are working on the wrong strategy, aren’t they?

I walked into a church and immediately felt overwhelmed with options. There were booths everywhere in the foyer, each competing for my attention. There were greeters handing me things. There were churchgoers asking my name. There were people trying to get my children’s attention. Five minutes into the visit all I could think of was GET ME OUT OF HERE! This was a broken welcome area. It was meant to make people feel welcome but just confused people. But I highly doubt that church staff spends more than 5 minutes a week thinking about the welcome area. They are working on the wrong strategy, aren’t they?

Dropping our kids off at school is absolute chaos. With no bus service every parent must either drop off their child by car or walk them from the neighborhood. Mix in 500 kids and their imagination-driven walking patterns with a few hundreds cars driven by people from all cultures and walks of life and you have one chaotic mess on a small two-lane street. While the school focuses on keeping kids safe and trying to make pick-up and drop off more efficient you can’t help but see that the whole thing is doomed. They are working on the problem instead of trying to fix what is broken.

Sometimes I visit people blogs and see things that are obviously broken. Bad links, colors that literally makes my eyes water, and no way to subscribe via RSS so I don’t have to ever go back. I don’t care how great your content is! Chosing to leave the bad design there while the content is great is the wrong strategy.

Great leaders pay attention to the most obvious stuff. In whatever you lead you have to stop on a regular basis and say, “Are the basic things running perfectly?” Can customers find what they are looking for? Do visitors feel like this is a church they can belong? Can I drop my kids off at school without them getting hurt? Can I read your blog?

If you don’t take care of the basic things– strategy doesn’t matter. No one will care about your company, church, school, or web content unless you have the basics covered. It’s like talking to a football coach who says that his number one priority is implementing the west coast offense. No one will care about your offensive strategy unless you take care of the real number one priority… making sure no one gets hurt.

When I was about 20 years old I got a job working on equipment that produced ID cards for a health insurance company. The truth was that the department was so lost in procedure and doing things right that they had no ability to get work done. The other people operating the equipment didn’t understand how the equipment worked and could only see the piles of mounting backlog. A machine that was supposed to print 900 ID cards an hour struggled to get 1500 produced in a day. Sometimes we’d have orders for 50,000 cards and be left with no choice but to outsource the work. It was bad. Pressure was mounting. And I knew that if we didn’t focus on the basic things my tenure there would be short. When I started my mantra was, “Just keep the machine running.” We started focusing on that one simple thing… keep the cards printing. We started training the operators on how to maintain the equipment. I showed them how to fix the most basic things themselves so that we didn’t have to wait 2-3 hours for a repairman to come in. By focusing on that one mantra of “keep the machine running” we were able to catch-up and eventually eliminate outsourcing the work. Pretty soon we went from one machine running one shift to 24 hour shifts, to a bigger office with 2 machines, to eventually 3 machines that could run 24 hours a day producing more per hour than the outsourcing companies could on their best day. Our team fixed what was broken and that opened the door of opportunity and expansion.

A good starting point for any leader is to look at the day and say, “What’s most obviously broken?” Work on that first.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

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