What Is the One Thing Leaders Should be Focused on During COVID 19?

Leaders need to understand bottlenecks more deeply, know the difference between a blockage and a bottleneck, and make a plan for how to stay focused on the bottlenecks.

There are so many distractions right now. The world is moving a million miles per hours. Media cycles are short. All of us are reading and trying to sense-make out of a world that no longer makes sense. There is all sorts of advice out there for coping during these times, and it is hard to figure out the best course of action. As an executive coach, I am seeing every one of my friends and clients has a lot of “shoulds” taking up space in their heads. I SHOULD be able to capitalize on this in some way. I SHOULD be taking this opportunity to pivot in the marketplace. I SHOULD be able to get in better shape. I SHOULD be able to help ground my people. I SHOULD be able to manage up. I SHOULD be smarter. I SHOULD be kinder.

Eliyahu Goldratt, the pioneer of the theory of constraints always said that “management attention is the biggest bottleneck of all.” Because of that, it is my opinion that the most important thing leaders should be focusing on during COVID 19 is bottlenecks. To do this, leaders need to understand bottlenecks more deeply, know the difference between a blockage and a bottleneck, and make a plan for how to stay focused on the bottlenecks.

Understanding Bottlenecks

The word, “bottleneck,” is a word we often use, but to focus on bottlenecks, it may be useful to more deeply understand them. To understand bottlenecks, we want to understand “throughput.” Throughput is the amount of material or items passing through a system or process. In a factory, the throughput would be the amount of product manufactured. For knowledge workers, it would be the amount of work or “value” they delivered. A bottleneck is the place in the system or process where the flow is constricted or stopped. If the bottleneck is removed, then the throughput will increase. There will always be a new bottleneck. Sometimes the bottleneck is marketing or sales. Once those bottlenecks are removed, then production will have bottlenecks to find.

Now sometimes, especially in times of crisis or supply chain issues, there is a blockage and it is important to understand that a blockage might need to be treated differently than a bottleneck. This is particularly true in times of crisis like COVID 19 and can be true of other crises, too—either internal or external. Tight cashflow can create a blockage. Supply chain issues can create a blockage. Being declared a non-essential business during a pandemic can be a blockage. My massage therapist is considered a non-essential worker right now. There is nothing he can do right now to overcome this blockage. It doesn’t require his attention, it requires him to figure out a different path. For him, it might be looking for where the bottlenecks might be when he returns to work—scheduling, being fit enough to massage all day, having partnerships with places he wants to work, etc. He can work on those bottlenecks during the time he is out of work. Focusing on bottlenecks is useful, while focusing on blockages can lead to frustration and helplessness. 

Make a Plan

Making a plan for focusing on bottlenecks is key to keeping your own attention focused as a leader. First, identify the bottlenecks. Usually more than three diverts your focus—depending on the size of your organization. To start with, pick no more than three bottlenecks. Write them on a Post-it note and put it on your computer screen or other obvious place. Start experimenting with how you can open your bottleneck in short-cycle, single-variable experiments. Ask yourself:

  • What is the end state you want to achieve? 
  • What is the current reality? 
  • What obstacles keep me from reaching my desired end state? 
  • Which obstacle do you want to work on now?
  • When can you go and observe what you have learned?

Run these experiments in two-day cycles on each bottleneck until they are no longer the bottlenecks. Then find new bottlenecks.

Being a leader in unusual times is difficult work. It can be lonely and it can be hard to focus. Focusing on bottlenecks is exactly where leaders need to be putting their attention right now. Focusing on bottlenecks and conducting small experiments is like rocket fuel for problem solving. As a leader, this is your secret weapon. Go experiment!

Melanie Parish is a public speaker, author, and Master Coach. An expert in problem solving, constraints management, operations, and brand development, Parish has consulted and coached organizations ranging from the Fortune 50 to IT start-ups. She is the author of “The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators. For more information, visit: www.melanieparish.com and connect with her on Twitter: @melanieparish.

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