The Best Tools Support Your Improvement Culture


tool picture

I often find myself working on household projects and reaching a point where I must make a decision: Should I take the time to get the right tool for the job or will I make do with what I have at hand?

One example of this situation has stuck with me for quite some time. I was building a swing set for my daughter when I reached a point in the instructions that required a hole to be drilled in a very tight space. I considered many options for how to get the job done with my available tools. Unfortunately, all of them involved some combination of extra work, a likelihood of failure, or unsafe behaviors. In all, I spent the better part of a week on this problem, not making any progress.

In the end, I borrowed a tool from work that was more appropriate for the job (a right angle drill, if you are curious). With the correct tool in hand, the step took all of 5 minutes to complete. It amazed me how simple the work became when I took the time to obtain the proper equipment.

All too often, we find ourselves or those in our organizations in similar situations. We are assigned tasks to complete or goals to accomplish, but are not given the tools necessary to do the job well. At this point we are left with a choice. Take the time to obtain the right tool, or make do with what we have. Our choice can have a dramatic impact on our ability to succeed.

What Tools Do We Use?

You may be saying to yourself, “But I work in an office, we don’t use tools.” So what exactly do I mean when I refer to tools?

In this case, tools can refer to anything that is used to perform or support the work of the organization. This could include physical items, such as hammers, nails, staplers, scissors, pens, etc. But it also includes other items that are not typically thought of as tools. Examples include templates, checklists, software, and other technology.

Really, anything you use outside of yourself to complete your work could be considered a tool. Every time you try to accomplish something, you make a choice regarding which tools you will use.

  • Should I write an email or make a phone call?
  • Is this best captured with pen and paper or electronically?
  • Should I use Form A or Form B?
  • Can I use a spreadsheet to track this or would a formal software application be more appropriate?

You probably don’t realize it, but we each make dozens of these choices every day.

The challenge is to make these choices in ways that maximize the benefits of the tools while avoiding the downside.

Benefits of Using the Right Tool

There are many benefits to the organization of ensuring the correct tools are available and used routinely.

One of the most obvious benefits is increased standardization. For example, if a template is used for performing a certain activity, it is far more likely that the output will be consistent across individuals and over time. We will explore the benefits of standardization more in the future, but it leads to increased quality, reduced errors, and improved productivity, among other benefits.

Another benefit is a reduced learning curve for individuals. If a tool is available to perform a task, it allows individuals to focus on learning how to perform the task. It helps them to avoid wasting time recreating the wheel or developing their own custom-designed solution each time they perform a task.

This benefit is especially evident when new people are brought on board. If a new team member is given the proper tools from Day 1, they are able to provide a positive contribution very quickly.

Tools can also provide tremendous value by sharing learning across a large group. Many times, as new, improved ways of performing work are developed, it is difficult to spread that new idea to other individuals or teams. If the improvements are incorporated into new or existing tools, they can be more easily shared with others.

Words of Caution

While the many benefits described above make a tools-based approach to work sound like the answer to all our problems, there are some downsides to keep in mind.

The biggest potential downside in focusing too much on tools is that they can create a culture in which critical thinking and learning are discouraged. Over-reliance on solutions like templates or technology can turn them into a crutch that hinders future improvement efforts.

“Tools do not answer the question of ‘why’ only the question of ‘how.’ Knowing the ‘how’ without understanding fully the ‘why’ leaves people waiting for instructions and powerless to act on their own.” – The Shingo Model1

Another potential problem associated with a focus on tools is that just because they exist, does not mean they will be used. As I will discuss in my next post, the availability of tools must be supplemented with the appropriate leadership behaviors to ensure they are used correctly. If they are made available, but without proper communication, follow-up, and support, they will not be used in a way that provides the expected benefits.

Is Your Organization Properly Equipped?

As leaders, we should continually seek ways to make our organizations more successful. One way we do that is by ensuring that the members of our teams are properly equipped to perform the work that is assigned to them. Regular evaluation of the tools available to them and how they are used is a good first step in this process.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What tools are used by my organization today?
  • Are the available tools being consistently applied?
  • How can I help others choose the best tools for their work?
  • What work activities could benefit from the development of a new template, checklist, or technology?
  • Is our physical space equipped in a way that supports the mission of our team?
  • Should any existing tools be improved or removed?

Keep these questions in mind as you go through your week and you will likely find several opportunities to help your team become more successful.

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