Tag Archives: Planning

Stop Fighting Emergency Fires in Five Steps

Whenever I find myself spending most of my day fighting fires, I try to step back and understand why. A great framework that I like to use comes from the Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. The firefighting example takes a process through five steps, going from “emergency crisis mode” to “no problem mode.”

The Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence program is a government sponsored award that focuses on promoting quality in US organizations. You can see the images below and other great resources on their graphics page.

Step One – Running and Reacting

1The first stage is where most of us start when we think of fighting fires. We react to emergencies that pop up by dropping everything and running to what’s urgent. If this only happens once or twice, then it might not be worth the effort to improve the response. However, the problems that occur frequently or have large impacts are the ones that need to move beyond step one. Focus on those problems for moving them through steps two through five.

Step Two – Running Less and Reacting Quicker

2If fires pop up in the same places frequently, then installing extra hoses in that area can really help. Likewise, if you repeatedly face the same emergency, making additional resources available in those areas can cut down the size or length of an emergency. Taking a few minutes to create simple, small countermeasures makes reacting easier.

Step Three – Response Game Plan

3Once countermeasures are in place, how can we get everyone on the same page? When the next emergency strikes, who contacts whom? Addressing these issues by making a game plan can make the response much more effective. More importantly, getting others involved makes the emergency less dependent on you. If you can’t ever leave the office because you’re the only one that knows how to handle certain problems, then this step can free you from that burden.

Step Four – Automated Response System

4Just like a sprinkler system automatically dousing flames, you can build a system that handles emergencies automatically. Basic computer automation or alerts can take care of many problems that frequently pop up. Emergencies that are more complex may require some IT investment, but many of those solutions are worth the price tag. Conversely, significant investment may not be necessary if a manual response system will work just as well.

Step Five – Innovate Emergencies Away

5This final step is not “brainstorm how this emergency doesn’t happen again.” That type of thought should happen at any stage. Instead, this is a systematic change in the design of work flows, products, and systems so that unexpected problems are less common and less damaging. A product’s cost can often be reduced by 70% when the designers’ goal is to make the product easier for manufacturing. Similarly, perhaps 70% of your emergencies could be avoided by focusing on internal customers and avoiding downstream emergencies. Of course, balancing the needs of internal customers with those of external customers is difficult. Nevertheless, keeping the needs of both customers in mind will help reduce emergencies for which you can’t plan.

How to Use the Five Steps of Firefighting

Whenever a problem arises, I look at where in the five steps my response to the emergency is. Based on the size and frequency of the problem, I can then look at options for moving the response to the next level. Few fires need all five steps; such investment would be overkill. However, simply knowing at what stage each of my problems is helps me prioritize my improvement efforts. Soon the categorization becomes second nature, and process improvement becomes easier, quicker, and more effective.

Best of all, there’s less fires to fight. And the fires I still have to fight are easier to put out.

At what stages are the recent emergency responses you’ve initiated?

[Images Source]

Tired of Making Resolutions that Never Resolve? Three Ways to Change Today

A new year means new goals. Unfortunately for me, it also usually means a bunch of broken resolutions just a couple weeks later. No matter how motivated I am to make a change, life gets busy and in the way, and I forget my goals. Even our departmental ambitions that we spent hours discussing quickly turn into nothing more than a poster on the wall.

Stuck on Goals

That was true until I tried these three methods that changed how I approach goals. Suddenly, I was making real progress on long-term priorities despite the fires that popped up. Using these strategies in your own goal planning can bring real change and results that so often eluded me.

Seinfeld to the Rescue – Don’t Break the Chain

JerryseinfeldBack when Jerry Seinfeld was on the road doing standup each night, a fellow admiring comic asked him how he was able to write so many jokes. Jerry responded that he put a giant calendar on a wall in his home. Each day he spent time writing, he would put a giant ‘X’ in for that day on the calendar. After a few days, he’d have a chain of ‘X’s. He’d be proud of that chain, and Jerry would do everything he could to not “break the chain.”

You can easily implement this at home or at work. Just print out a calendar, decide on what qualifies as giving yourself an ‘X’, and then post that calendar in a place where you and others can easily see it. This method has helped me hold morning huddles with my team even when we’re busy, update dashboards even though the task is time-intensive, and go to the gym even though it’s freezing cold outside.

Links to Learn More:

Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret

How Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret Fixed My Procrastination Problem

Habit Streak Plan Puts Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret on Android – a free Android app that helps you not break the chain

Do More by Focusing on Daily 3+2 Priorities

The 3+2 Daily PlannerEach morning, I used to list everything I was planning to get done that day. My list would usually be 20 or 30 lines long – and I wouldn’t even get close to working on half of the items. Worse still, I often needed to follow up on the ten things I had worked on over the next several days to actually get the results I needed. In trying to do everything, I wasn’t getting nearly enough done over the long run, even though I felt good checking off so many boxes on my daily To Do list. That’s when an article on 3+2 saved me.

Being honest with myself, I realized that I can only really accomplish about three big tasks and two small tasks in a normal workday. By focusing on the top five priorities and really nailing them in one day, I could then take on five more tomorrow. Even though I was marking off fewer checkboxes throughout the day, I had a much longer list of accomplishments at the end of the week. Holding myself accountable to just those three big and two small tasks let me actually make progress on my goals and more quickly improve our company’s operations.

Links to Learn More

Take a More Realistic Approach to Your To-Do List with the 3 + 2 Rule

Unite and Align Your Team with a Morning Huddle – The 3+2 Rule at Work

Craft Your Average Perfect Day

What's your Average Perfect Day?I have set many ambitious goals that I’ve quickly forgotten. Somehow, what I do each day just doesn’t translate to progress on those objectives. However, I have also learned that some of my goals don’t quite fit with what I actually want to accomplish each day. So to make and keep better goals, I like to use the Average Perfect Day method.

What is your perfect day? Not a vacation or winning the lottery, but a realistic perfect day that could potentially repeat itself again and again. Would you hit the gym in the morning? Meet with your team in the morning? Spend an hour on a long-term goal for the company? Recognize the achievements of others? Write a process or automate a report?

Mapping out a template of what my average perfect day looks like quickly helps me realize how I can make small changes to reach that ideal schedule. It also helps me plan goals in a concrete manner, which means I can make more progress on them.

Link to Learn More

One of the Best Goal Setting Exercises

Unite and Align Your Team with a Morning Huddle

Feeling Out of Touch with My Team

Some time ago, I felt out of touch with my coworkers and team at work. We were all busy with our individual projects, but there wasn’t enough unity or coordination. When large projects loomed over me, I would bear down and go days without knowing what other team members were working on. When I finally found out about others’ initiatives, I realized that I could have saved hours of work by passing on a small piece of information I hadn’t thought to share. In an effort to unify the team, we had tried various coordination meetings but hadn’t yet found an effective solution we could stick to. Taking a cue from the morning meetings I’d seen while touring O.C. Tanner, I began a morning huddle meeting. This meeting has become a significant contributor to my team’s increased unity, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Daily 3+2 Priorities

The Agenda

Promptly each morning at 8:45 AM, everyone gathers around a TV displaying our real-time dashboards and key performance indicators (KPIs). We all stand, so as to encourage a quick meeting (our goal is under 15 minutes). The agenda follows a format of (1) measure, (2) align, and (3) celebrate:

  1. Measure – The meeting leader begins by reviewing KPIs and dashboards with the group. If necessary, he or she assigns follow-up responsibility for problems. For example, if a dashboard shows that an order is late, then the warehouse manager will be assigned to follow up on the order and report back on the issue later that day.
  2. Align – After the KPI action items are made, we move on to accountability and alignment. Each person reports on their previous day’s priorities and then briefly explains their priorities for today. If anyone has a priority that they worry might not get accomplished, they request help from the team. The system we use is a 3+2 priority list. The full details of the system are in this Lifehacker article, but it’s essentially a realistic approach to a day’s work. Most people can usually accomplish three larger projects and two smaller tasks – a total of five priorities. Successfully using this system takes some work at breaking down large projects into achievable steps. To help facilitate this approach, we handed out laminated cards. Using a dry erase marker, each team member writes out that day’s information and brings his or her card to the meeting. On the next day, we flip them over and use the other side so we always have yesterday’s and today’s priorities written down.
  3. Celebrate – To conclude the meeting, each person shares a success or win from the previous day. The wins can either be their own personal accomplishments, others’ wins, or appreciation for a team member. This practice helps the entire team stay positive and take time to recognize the progress we are all making. Additionally, as elaborated on in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, beginning your day with a positive thought boosts your performance and effectiveness throughout the rest of the day. Some examples of wins we share include:
    • “Yesterday, we shipped out five full truckloads of product – a new one-day record.”
    • “Ryan caught an error on the new packaging, which saved us hours of rework down the road.”
    • “We received a large order from a new customer.”
    • “Amanda proofread 180 labels for new product. It was tedious, but she was patient and helped us avoid 5 errors that she found. Thank you.”
    • “We finished our mid-year inventory count with only a .1% variance – great job team!”
    • “We implemented a refined 5S system in our tool area yesterday. Thank you for helping me get that put together.”
    • “Jenny created a fantastic new process that we followed for the first time yesterday. It saved us so many headaches – everyone knew just what to do.”

The Results

Because of our quick morning huddles, my team and I all feel much more connected with each other. I know what each person is working on, and they know what I’m up against. We’ve been able to hold each other more accountable by reporting on our daily priorities. When my 3+2 list grows to a list of 7 or 8, others are sometimes able to step in and help. Otherwise, we prioritize what is most critical to accomplish that day and accept that some tasks will have to wait until later.

Perhaps my favorite part of the meeting is ending on a high note by sharing wins. Whether it’s the dread of looming projects and burning fires, or simply because it’s the middle of the week, sometimes the morning can be a less enthusiastic time of the workday. However, by celebrating the successes from the previous day, everyone gets a morning boost that proves to be much more effective than caffeine.

One additional benefit is that the morning huddle signals the start of the workday. Often, we socialize and share stories in the morning because we’re excited to see our coworkers again. This is an important benefit to my company’s culture, but sometimes it can drag on for a bit too long. I enjoy being able to socialize in the morning but also appreciate that the morning huddle signals the beginning of the work day. This helps the team unite and turn their focus to the challenges of the day.

How to Start

If you think your team could benefit from a morning huddle, here is some advice on how to start.

Build the Habit: “Same Bat-time, Same Bat-Channel”

The most important step is forming the habit with your team. It will take some discipline and willpower from you as the leader to help bring everyone together on time each morning. However, after a couple weeks, attendees will acquire the habit of showing up at the assigned spot on time and without reminders.

Once your team develops the habit, your consistency will ensure that the huddle continues for months to come. Failing to meet at the exact same time and place each day will soon result in attendees not showing up without your prodding. This isn’t resistance to the huddle – it’s confusion on when attendees should stop what they are working on and where they should gather. Avoid confusion and frustration by being disciplined and consistent.

Bring Prepared Information

Unless you have information beforehand, the morning huddle will drag on and waste others’ time. To maximize the huddle’s efficiency, ask each person to bring KPIs, priorities, or other relevant information prepared beforehand. I recommend a double-sided laminated sheet, or two separate sheets, that can carry both yesterday’s and today’s priorities. If you can put magnets on the laminated card so your team can post them on a board during the huddle for everyone to see, it can help maintain focus. After the meeting, I post my card right next to my computer for the rest of the day. When I catch myself working on other tasks that pop up, having my card right in front of me helps me refocus on what I committed to accomplish.


As a final note for anyone starting a morning huddle, I would encourage reading up on the Scrum framework. Several months after beginning my team’s morning huddles, a coworker showed me the Wikipedia article about daily Scrum meetings. Although created for agile software development, many of the principles are the same as the morning huddle. It’s worth a quick review for some additional ideas on what may be good to incorporate based on your organization’s circumstances.

Final Thoughts

The morning huddle is also a great time to focus on safety guidelines, lean improvements, and other important initiatives. A one-minute thought prepared beforehand, if kept short, could help move these initiatives forward. Many companies, especially in Japan, encourage their workers to perform stretches before the day’s work, which helps them wake up and prepare for the day.  Most of all, make sure your morning huddle is tailored to your team and business, and do everything you can to make it short and effective.

Since implementing my team’s morning huddle many months ago, the CEO of our company has asked other departments to follow my team’s lead. Adapted for different groups, our company is trying to implement morning huddles across the entire organization as an effective way to promote accountability and productivity. So far, I’ve seen great results as we strive to be brief, unified, and positive.

What type of morning huddle does your team currently hold? What do you like and dislike about it? What other advice do you have to share? Please share your comments and thoughts below.

Subscribe and receive future articles by email (2-4 times a month, and no spam).


10 Tips to Make Physical Inventory Counts Less Painful and More Accurate

Warehouse Physical Inventory Count

Given the option of getting a voluntary root canal instead of physically counting inventory, many of you would likely being calling your dentist right now. Certainly, physical inventory can be a painful process, especially for the many small businesses doing their best just to get orders out the door. However, accurate inventory can help reduce a long list of problems with which many small businesses are familiar:

  • Wasting time looking for items
  • Holding extra inventory as a safety stock against inaccurate numbers
  • Avoiding orders for older items because you’re not sure you still have what your system says you do
  • Expediting reorders because you suddenly can’t find any more of the product

Below are ten tips that will make physical inventory counting much smoother, so you can quickly get back to helping your company make money.

1 – Make Inventory Accuracy a Higher Priority than Order Fulfillment

Raising the priority of accurate inventory is perhaps the most important, yet most difficult, step in inventory accuracy. Many inventory problems arise from pushing a transaction through the system with the intent of going back and fixing the numbers later. In the rush of other emergencies, however, we often forget to go back and correct the numbers in the system. This leads to missed production entries, negative lines of inventory, and a whole mess of other problems. Only by putting systems in place that will prevent an employee from moving forward without the necessary system transaction can you effectively keep accurate records of inventory.

One example of success that my team recently implemented was changing our accounting system so that it will not process any shipment that contains more inventory than we have on hand. For example, if we’re trying to ship 15 of an item, but our system says we only have 5 in stock, then an alert will pop up and force us to fix the problem before moving forward. This helps us address problems before the product goes out the door. By forcing us to address missed production entries before the product leaves, our modified system helped us eliminate most of our major inventory issues.

2 – Put Everything in a Marked Location

When the time comes to count inventory, having everything in a marked location is a necessity. Those loose boxes and stray pallets without a home are often the problems that come back to haunt you while you try to reconcile. Even if you must make new, temporary locations for the duration of the count, put everything in a well-marked and defined place, and leave it there.

3 – Reduce Inventory as Much as Possible

Do all you can to count as little inventory as possible. Whether it’s holding up an inbound shipment a couple days, or shipping extra in the days prior to the count, counting less means fewer chances for mistakes. You’ll also want to be sure to not receive or ship any product during the count, since this can easily cause discrepancies.

4 – Count Overstock Locations Beforehand

Even before the count has started, counting the overstock locations beforehand can mean much less counting on the days that inventory is frozen. Fully stocking the picking locations first, then wrapping and marking the count of overstock location can drastically reduce the stress on count day. However, be sure that if inventory is taken from the overstock location, the count tag is either removed or adjusted to the lower quantity.

5 – Be Visual with Counts

With so many people counting, keeping track of what has and has not been counted can often be difficult. To avoid confusion, be extra generous with visual labels and controls. Large count tags, bright colors, and unmistakably clear signs can save you hours of confusion later on. Especially if you are bringing in employees or temps unfamiliar with your product, erring on the side of too big and obvious can be well worth the expense. If something is not in inventory, mark it so even those with the poorest of eyesight can easily understand to not count the product.

6 – Have Someone Familiar with the Product on Every Count Team

Another problem that I often encounter is the unit of measure of items to count. Is an assortment of 24 items in inventory as 1 pack or 24 eaches? While box markings can help, nothing replaces an experienced team member. If you bring in additional people to help count, be sure to include someone who knows the products well on each team. Partnerships with one experienced person and one new work well.

7 – Be Quick and Creative with Immaterial Counts

Weighing Immaterial Items

Some small items aren’t worth the effort to count individually. Whether its tiny plastic bags, plastic hooks, tons of grain, or gallons of chemicals, physically counting out the amount is often not worth the value of the product. For large quantities of small items, a sensitive scale is the best method. Weighing out a sample and then calculating piece count from the total weight is accurate enough for an inexpensive component. For large quantities that are difficult to weigh, calculating volume by lead lines and extrapolating is preferable to simply guessing.

8 – Audit Counts Right After the Count Starts

Auditing counts are essential to ensure each team is counting the products correctly. However, if you wait until all the counting is done, you can’t do much but go back and recount whatever that team counted. Instead, auditing counts from each team soon after they start gives you an opportunity to correct any problems and train more to avoid future miscounts.

9 – Discipline Yourself to Regular Cycle Counts

As your to-do list grows, taking time to cycle count is likely to slip to the very bottom of your priorities. However, installing incentives and consequences to ensure regular cycle counts happen will not only reduce the pain of a complete physical count, but also give you more confidence in your system’s numbers throughout the year. Whether you schedule your cycle counts based on ABC analysis, items likely to have problems, or some other method suited to your business, rotating through items helps catch inventory issues before they become larger problems.

10 – Review Problems and Change

Finally, after you’ve recorded your last counts and everything is reconciled in your system, take a few minutes to reflect. Gather the team together and review what problems you encountered. What went well? What caused problems? Most importantly, what can you put in place to avoid these same problems in the future? Each small change you put in place today can save your team headaches in the future.

What other tips do you have for making physical inventory counts smooth and painless? Share your comment below, and be sure to subscribe to receive our future articles.

Before China Shuts Down, Prepare Your Supply Chain for Chinese New Year So You Can Celebrate Instead of Stress

Year Date of Chinese New year
2013 Sunday, February 10
2014 Friday, January 31
2015 Thursday, February 19
2016 Monday, February 8
2017 Saturday, January 28
2018 Friday, February 16
2019 Tuesday, February 5
2020 Saturday, January 25

The December holidays’ spike in consumer purchases often stretches the operations of small and large businesses. However, just a month afterward, Chinese New Year has a mammoth impact on Asian suppliers and customers. Consequently, any supply chain that involves Asian links, especially Chinese links, should prepare for the disruption in supply and the possible increase in demand.

Chinese New Year Length and Timing

Beginning on the first day of the traditional Chinese Lunar calendar, Chinese New Year (CNY) usually lands between January 22 and February 19. However, in order to give employees time to return home to their families, most Chinese companies close one to two weeks prior to the actual date. In addition to closing early, they often remain closed for an additional two weeks after the specific CNY date. Even after they open, factories rarely have enough employees return in time to produce at full capacity. Sometimes factories resume production with as much as two-thirds of the workforce not yet returned. Depending on the labor market, some of those employees may never return to their former job.

Chinese New Year for Chinese Employees

For employees, CNY is a welcome vacation that tops those offered by most US companies. The entire country begins to shut down one to two weeks before the big day. Travelling home can be quite difficult, often taking 3 to 7 days by train to arrive at hometowns with waiting families. Fortunately, many factories pay their workers an addition month’s pay as a bonus right before the holiday. This benefit is why some Chinese companies will ask for payment of all upcoming invoices before the CNY holiday. The managers and business owners usually do not need to return to a distant home, since their families often live nearby. Nevertheless, they will often take at least a week away from work, which essentially means email silence for at least a week, if not more, with your Chinese associates.

Supply Chains at a Stand Still

Imagine an abandoned airport with FedEx and Cargo planes scattered around the tarmac. Pilots have shut down, locked up, and exited their planes. They join their crews and head home for CNY. In a week or two, the pilots and support staff will return, and the planes will simply turn back on and continue with their deliveries. No matter how much you beg, freight simply cannot move for the week around CNY. FedEx, UPS, and DHL usually post the expected delays on their websites, so be sure to utilize that information.

In addition to airfreight delays, sea freight can get even more congested if you don’t plan well in advance. Shipments must be at port at least 10 days before CNY to ensure shipment before the break starts. Shipments must also be booked at least two weeks in advance because space will quickly fill up. If you ship a large amount around that time, then congestion will likely bump at least one of your shipments to a later ship date, often a week after CNY. Most ports open again for normal shipping about one week after CNY. Check with your freight forwarder on what advice it has to minimize disruptions and plan for the delays.

How to Prepare Your Supply Chain for Chinese New Year

Increase Inventory

Unfortunately, if you rely solely on Chinese vendors for your inventory, you will likely need to increase your inventory for the CNY season. This is the least desirable option, but often the one most companies take. Instead of shipping a huge amount of product right before CNY, consider increasing stocks slightly, and have your factory prepare a shipment to leave immediately after CNY. This can smooth out the bump and minimize the needed investment.

Consider Other Sources

Instead of buying additional inventory, look at other possible suppliers to help bridge the gap. Dual sourcing in different geographic locations, as previously covered in an article on how to avoid supply chain disruptions, is the benchmark for a robust sourcing strategy. Whether you develop a domestic vendor, or just a non-Asian option, switching to your second source for the month China shuts down may help prepare your supply chain for additional future disruptions.

Explore Other Creative Solutions

Depending on your market, you may be able to minimize disruptions from CNY by creatively approaching the problem. Later January and Early February are not traditional peak seasons for most industries. Accordingly, you may be able to offer incentives to clear out older inventory, or focus on another aspect of the business, to help mitigate CNY’s impact.

Open up the Chinese Market

As the Chinese market expands to imports, CNY may actually come to be a boost, rather than a burden, to your business. While most traditional gifts are food items, CNY spending is similar to the holiday spending in the US, and thus presents opportunities to grow sales of your product. China Daily reported that luxury import purchases in 2012 reached $7.2 billion, a number expected to grow significantly in the future. Getting your products into the Chinese market in time for CNY shipping may be just what’s needed to boost your company’s first quarter sales.

What experiences has your company had with the Chinese New Year? What other advice can you add? Share your comment below, and subscribe here to future articles.