Another Month, Another “Important, Not Urgent” Issue

Tackling one important issue a month can keep non-urgent tasks up to date.


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Coaters make great firefighters. Customer expedites, employee issues, machines down or production challenges; we are all over those. When it comes to the “important, not urgent” (to borrow a Stephen Covey term)—aspects of our operations, like environmental planning, management information systems, employee reviews—not so much.

A friend who spent several years in corporate management working under legendary General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch shared with me a fascinating practice he learned while employed there: a practice that helps bring to the forefront those “important, not urgent” issues in a regular and systematic fashion. Take the top 12 such issues and focus on one each month for the entire year, deep diving into each one over the course of that month. A typical process for a coater might look like this:

January: The Team. January is a great month to assess the members of the team. Consider who performed well and met expectations during the preceding year, and who did not. Perform personnel reviews and discuss potential changes to employee wellness, incentive and training programs. Review and benchmark compensation and benefits programs and contemplate changes.

February: Environmental Excellence. That this topic falls in February, at the onset of environmental reporting season, is no accident. Schedule time with your internal or external resource to ensure that all data necessary for complete and accurate regulatory reports are available. Ask about new or pending environmental regulations that may affect your operation. Poll the team about areas of potential environmental risk and meet with regulators such as the local POTW representative on a proactive basis.

March: Customer Satisfaction and Customer Service. Blow the dust off of the customer satisfaction surveys performed in the preceding twelve months for the purpose of quality system compliance and actually review and digest the data for what they are telling you. Summarize patterns and trends in customer comments and report out to the team on where the organization is performing well by its customers and where it can improve. Then pick a few key initiatives or programs that can address deficiencies.

April: Management Information and Financial Accounting Systems. Review computer hardware and consider upgrades, improvements or additions. Ensure that software is adequate for the operation of the business and that it provides the team with the information it needs to measure its performance and serve its customers.

May: Suppliers, Purchasing and Insurance Review. Perform a supplier assessment by grading each of your suppliers on criteria like quality, lead time, price, customer support, etc. Put those who do not measure up on notice, or think about making a change.  When was the last time you sought competitive bids on key materials or services? If it’s been a while, you may be leaving money on the table. Invite your property, casualty and workers compensation insurance agent in for a visit to assess current levels of coverage and competitive bids from carriers.

June: Equipment and Maintenance. Evaluate fixed assets for adequacy and condition and note any that may require replacement or significant upgrades in the coming year. Gage the effectiveness of the preventive maintenance program. Does one exist, is it being followed, and if so, are the frequency of checks and procedures appropriate?

July: Marketing. When was the last time you reviewed your own website to make sure it still reflected your product offerings and company culture? Review website analytics for trends in number, geographical locations of visitors and for what they are viewing when they visit your website. If you can do better, initiate a search engine optimization initiative. Assess which trade shows to attend and at which to exhibit in the next twelve months. In which industry magazines (you know my favorite) should you consider advertising?

August: Operational Efficiency and New Technology. Are you meeting your targets for labor, materials, utilities and throughput? If not, pick the areas with the biggest variances and schedule a continuous improvement event or two to get them under control. What products or processes have been introduced to the market in the previous year, and where could they benefit your operation or its customers? Changes in pretreatment and coatings technology are good examples, but study improvements in equipment as well.

September: Business Development. Review changes in your customer base and market as well as industry trends. Survey sales team members for what customers are sharing with them about changes in their needs and what they are hearing from and about industry competitors. Consider adding or shedding product lines or processes.

October: Operations Planning. Determine the five key objectives for the upcoming calendar year. One or two around sales, marketing and business development; one or two dealing with operational efficiencies and cost reduction, and one to three others addressing new products, processes or major initiatives such as an acquisition or management system implementation. Detail what steps will be required under each initiative.

November: Annual Budget. Assuming a calendar financial reporting period, prepare the budget for the coming year, incorporating the anticipated improvements resulting from and resources necessary for the operating plan you devised in October.

December: Safety. Review all safety programs (hazcom, confined space, bloodborne pathogens, fire safety, etc.) to ensure they meet requisite regulations and that training is complete.

Review OSHA logs for completeness and trends. Review the prior 12 months’ minutes of the safety committee, if you have one. Ask employees to point out potential risks and rectify them where appropriate.

Track each month on its own tab in an Excel workbook. When the next month comes around, pick up where you left off last year and ensure that these “important, not urgent” issues get their fair amount of attention.