W&WP August 2003

The Delay Game - Don't Play It

By Tom Dossenbach

It amazes me that I continually see companies managed by executives who feel compelled to delay confronting important issues for one reason or another. What they are actually doing is playing a dangerous delay game.

It's as if some people feel that by delaying action there will be a forthcoming revelation that somehow will either expose an easy solution or that the tactic will allow the issue to disappear by itself. It is the natural tendency for most of us to do whatever we can to avoid the stress of a serious challenge. If you are like most people, you have already found yourself in situations that were uncomfortable or stressful and are guilty of playing the delay game to avoid confronting the issue head-on.

The Delay Game

There are many opportunities for challenging issues to enter the workplace today. I also believe there are many more threats today than there were 39 years ago when I entered this industry. The threats manifest themselves in a variety of areas that affect the future of a company as well as the well-being of those who work there.

One of the biggest threats in the woodworking industry today is the rapid globalization of the industry itself. In every sector imports threaten to erode market share as China and other exporting countries around the world mature in their ability to develop and produce high-quality products for a fraction of the cost of domestic manufacturers. Globalization is entwined with many unpleasant issues such as plant closings, layoffs, and even bankruptcies. However, there are many smaller, less ominous issues that can evoke the delay game.

Routinely, we all have situations arise in lower-tier management or supervisory positions that may seem unimportant at first glance. Let's look at an example.

Sam is the production manager of Tetragon, a store fixture company in Dallas. He arrived to work one Thursday morning thinking he had made it past Wednesday, "hump-day," with only a few serious problems. He was looking forward to finally shipping a large, overdue order to Marrik Department Stores that day so he could finally plan a golf game for Saturday. The fact was, this customer had threatened to take its $4-million business elsewhere if the shipment did not arrive in Kansas City on Friday for installation over the weekend.

Ten minutes after arriving at the factory, Meg, the shipping supervisor, met him with a serious look on her face. "The Marrik order is short five display cases because of missing parts. I don't know what happened; it looks like they were never scheduled for production," she said.

This was definitely not what Sam needed to hear to make his day. What was he going to do? Could the parts be made in time to make and finish the cabinets and get them on the truck to Kansas City that day? Would Tetragon lose this customer? If so, would Sam get called on the carpet or even lose his job?

Sam and his dedicated team began immediately to do whatever was necessary to fill the order on time. Only at 8 p.m. Thursday, when the truck pulled off with the complete order, did he take a minute to reflect: Why did this happen? Why was the order late to begin with? What are we going to do about it so it does not happen again?

These were great questions, but unfortunately it was late and Sam was worn out and disgusted about the whole mess. "I'll would get to it tomorrow," he thought.

As one would imagine, when Sam arrived to work on Friday there were production problems everywhere due to the interruptions in almost every department the day before in order to ship the Marrik order complete and on time. Sam decided he did not have time to dig into the problems of yesterday. Besides, he thought, "The production scheduling and control guy is a jerk and is very defensive - life is too short to get into a hassle with him.

The Consequences

The consequences of Sam's inaction will reverberate for years and will likely leave the door wide open for future late orders and shortages. Because he chooses to play the delay game, no progress will be made on this issue and his questions will go unanswered. Unfortunately, a new problem will pop up in the next few days to consume all of his energies. The delay game will go on while the company suffers the consequences of issue after issue left unresolved. It can become an endless cycle of recurring issues that build layer upon layer of waste - robbing the company of profits.

There are so many issues that must be faced every day and this is why companies have supervisors, managers and corporate executives - to make sure they are handled promptly. To be sure, all managers make decisions every day that affect the well-being and indeed the future success of the company. Actually, every employee does. Even the sawyer and other machine operators make decisions that determine the utilization of resources and the generation of profits in the process.

However, these are not the type of decisions that we place our focus on today, but, instead, the intentional and conscious decision to ignore a problem for whatever reason. To do this is no different than embezzling money from your company. In fact, it can have a more serious effect on the company due to its perpetual generation of waste and inefficiencies of all sorts.

The old saying, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today," is wise indeed. Not only will avoiding the issue hurt the company, but it will almost always come back to haunt you as a greater problem than the one left unresolved.

Unfortunately, there are some woodworking companies that have had too many players of the delay game for much too long and now are just surviving day-to-day or are on the verge of bankruptcy. The issues have accumulated over the years to the point that their weight is so heavy on the company there is little hope for recovery. No wonder they cannot find ways to compete with the Chinese.

The Alternative

There is an alternative to the delay game and it is simple. Attack issues head on as they surface and make the changes necessary to prevent the same thing from happening again. It sounds so simple that everyone thinks they are doing it already.

It would be a good idea to review your own attitude toward challenging issues that come up in your area of responsibility to make sure you are in the right frame of mind. The first hurdle to get over is to accept the following:

1. "Stuff" is going to happen in your area of responsibility.

2. Your company hired you to clean up the "stuff" and prevent it from happening again.

3. It is your duty to do the job well.

A few readers will be tempted to think that they were not hired to do this. When I was much younger, I often thought it was someone else's problem. But the truth is, managers and supervisors are around to take care of the unexpected "stuff" that is sure to come, in addition to using their skills for planning, managing and supervising others. On the other hand, many areas under your authority do not need your active involvement when things are running as they were designed.

It is when the unexpected happens that a monkey wrench is thrown into the day-to-day operations of the company. I often told those who worked for me that if we had no problems in the company, we would not need them and their problem-solving skills. No matter what your job is, management looks to you to know what is going on and to do whatever you can to prevent problems. However, when "stuff" does happen - like it did above with Sam at Tetragon - you should be the one to lead the urgent and serious efforts to identify and correct the root causes of that challenge.

Strike at the source of any problem while the trail is still hot and before something else distracts you from that issue. The delay game will only serve to frustrate you and to place building blocks of inefficiency and instability in the path of your company. On the other hand, corrective action will build a solid foundation upon which your company can build and fight competition from China or anywhere else - and do it more effectively.

Besides, you will feel better about yourself.

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