Find the inches

I’ve been talking about finding the inches for the last month or so and – at its core – it’s based on the speech Al Pacino gave in Any Given Sunday. Before I go any further, I have to credit a former leader of mine – let’s call him Bob – for sharing this concept with me many years ago. It boils down to this: place your focus on finding the inches to make progress on the field. Those inches will add up to yards which turn into first downs which, ultimately, get you to the end zone. For those who’ve read Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” you’ll recognize this as the flywheel concept.

Why “finding the inches” has come into view for me again is the need to think more about the system of how teams are designed, the ways they need to communicate, and how work flows between them. If you can instil a “find the inches” mentality into everyone across one team, they’ll not only do their jobs but will always be on the lookout to do their jobs better (or eliminate dumb work altogether). Extend this across all teams and the entire system speeds up. The right work being done by all teams should naturally translate into customers getting more value from your product or service and higher revenue for your business. Everyone wins.

I used to work with someone who said their goal was to automate as much of their job as possible or eliminate all the things they hated doing. That’s “find the inches” mentality if I’ve ever heard it. What makes this whole concept deceptively simple are things like:

  • Getting people to adopt this mentality. This is especially true if someone has attached value to how busy they are or how many widgets they can grind out by working harder or longer.
  • Losing focus of making the entire system run better. I’ve seen too many Six Sigma projects over-optimize a back office by pushing work onto customer-facing teams.
  • The grindy, unsexy nature of the work and the delay of bigger wins. People quickly conclude, “this isn’t working,” and move onto something that feels more exciting.

Here’s a high-level approach I use to find the inches:

  1. Make a rough sketch of the system – broad concepts of the work, the people involved, and how work flows.
  2. Identify places where there are slowdowns, lack of clarity, or time is spent on the same type of repetitive work, manual work, rework, lots of back-and-forth, etc.
  3. Pick a handful of items (two to five) from that list that can be quickly improved through some small changes.
  4. Involve the right people and make those improvements.
  5. Did the improvement pan out? Do you need to tweak anything or is it good enough? (Not perfect!)
  6. Repeat.

The hardest part is getting started but, trust me, the small wins in the beginning compound on one another to deliver much bigger wins over time. And, going back to the flywheel, this will give you the momentum to focus on bigger and more exciting initiatives since you know everyone is in the habit of finding the inches.

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