Over the years, I have found many organizations the lack the ability to effectively balance short-term pressures with long-term improvement. The situation causes frustration in people because, in the end, the short-term virtually always wins while the focus on the long-term suffers.
There are a number of reasons for a tendency toward short-term thinking. First of all, people tend to be measured and rewarded based on achieving current year targets much more than long-term improvements. Another factor driving a short-term focus is the targets are right in front of people. The gaps are easy to see and it’s clear that, if the problems are not addressed immediately, meeting the targets may not be possible. Long-term gaps are also more difficult to measure and it’s easy to justify dealing with them later.
Which is More Important?
So how should people deal with this type of situation? We can’t ignore the short-term targets because they are often necessary to assure we will be around for the long-term. On the other hand, the more we ignore the long-term, the more we jeopardize our survival. Regarding the question of which is more important, the answer is actually they’re both important. Customers, as well as investors and fellow team members, rely on our ability to deliver what we promise.
Assuming that annual targets were set based on current capabilities, we should be able to meet them with enough focus and daily problem-solving. After all, we made a commitment, so we should feel compelled to meet it. On the other hand, if the targets do not have some semblance of reality, the company has much bigger problems, and meeting them most likely won’t happen with or without a heavy focus and effort.
When a problem arises today that will affect meeting short-term targets, it is difficult for most people to ignore it. People will naturally jump in to address the problem and get performance back on track, especially if nobody else is available or a particular type of expertise is needed.
The real problem for the organization occurs when people get so consumed with short-term problems that the long-term becomes an afterthought. In reality, it seems that the poorer we are at taking care of the long-term, the more short-term problems we battle year-after-year.
Implementing the 80/20 Rule
I have found that the best way to assure we take care of both short- and long-term objectives is to consciously split time between the two, and in the most general terms, the split to be 80/20 (80% on the short-term and 20% on the long-term). This is a general rule because the closer one is to where direct value is created (e.g., the factory floor in manufacturing, the sales counter in retail, or the wellhead in oil and gas production), the more time is focused on short-term objectives. For example, a team member working on an assembly line has to focus most of his or her day on performing work within takt time that meets standards. Although problems will regularly arise that the person will need to address, they are generally related to short-term safety, production, quality, and cost targets. For this person, the split may be 95/5.
Long-term projects, whether new or carried over from previous periods, should be apparent at the start of year when annual plans are being developed. Making sure that these projects make their way into the 20% is important at this point, as is assuring that they require no more than 20% of the person’s effort. Catchball and careful planning is critical to align expectations in the split between short-term and long-term focus, as well as the specific projects that fall into the 20%.
As with any project, whether related to the short-term or long-term, clear objectives are needed along with a detailed and measurable plan. The better and more measurable the plan, the easier it is to ensure progress. Implementing a rhythm for regular reviews is necessary to assure the project is progressing according to the plan, and to determine whether changes in the plan, priorities, or resources assigned are needed to get it back on track. We all know how to measure the short-term targets – it’s the longer-term projects that require serious thought to determine the right measures. Measuring progress to a project schedule will help but measuring quality of deliverables along the way is even better.
Applying the 80/20 rule and ensuring that short-term and long-term objectives are met requires that managers be close to team members and truly understand what is going on in the workplace. Rather than hearing about delays when it is too late to help make adjustments, managers must have enough awareness to provide help to get the project back on track before targets need to be changed.
Intention is Everything
It should be noted that none of this applies to an organization where meeting short-term targets is everything and commitment to the long-term consists of nothing more than words. If the environment is so toxic that shipping defective products or cutting corners just to meet short-term targets is the norm, it has much deeper problems and attempting to manage through an 80/20 split will do little to help. Like most things in business, long-term success begins with an obsession around understanding and meeting the needs of customers.
Just like short-term objectives, long-term projects need to have targets based on successfully progressing plans, and these targets must be reviewed regularly – at least monthly – to ensure they are on-track and understand if help is needed. If the split generally follows the 80/20 rule, and long-term commitments are taken as seriously as short-term targets, the chances of success will increase. Discipline is needed to fight the tendency to put off developing or maintaining the measures and to skip the reviews now and then. Like much of lean thinking, the concept is simple, while making it work effectively requires a lot of focus, effort, and consistency in behavior.