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Lean management is about paying attention to detail

Søren Pommer
Last updated on 10/04/2024

There is a saying that “the devil is in the detail.” It is indeed the detail that often makes the difference. It’s the detail that is the hard part. Lean management success comes from attention to all the little details that make move things forward. Too much time is spent “strategizing” and too little is spent actually making things work.

The best companies are almost anal

Countless companies set out to produce the best search engine or the best phone. Google and Apple managed to combine good ideas, bright people and extreme attention to detail. They handle the complexity of their products, so the rest of us don’t have to.

A friend of mine used to work as a designer for Apple in California and he told me stories of how people there were obsessed with detail. It took a meeting of VPs from design, marketing and product development to sign off on a simple error screen in an application. The engineer sounds like a marketing person, the marketing person talks like a designer and the designer just shuts up, since they are way beyond form and function. The air is dense with detail. In Philips, where I used to work, no VP with any self-respect would degrade himself to deal with this kind of detail.

Attention to detail is about caring about your work  

Another friend of mine has a one-man communications agency. He left a large agency and managed to bring along a small project from a global brand. He is now getting all of the global brand’s Danish business. His trick? There is no trick, no foul play or inflated promises. He is simply there for them at any time and he is personally on top of all the little details that constitute PR work. In the large agency, all hours were spent coordinating between executives, account manager and PR consultants. The client simply grew weary of the absence of substantial work completion.

His business is not scalable, of course, but it shows that attention to detail beats size hands down when it comes to creating a great customer experience.

When meetings get in the way of work

Studies show that managers in today’s large companies on average spend half their working time in meetings. This is not a problem in itself. If meetings have a clear objective, receive proper management, and lead to sound decisions backed by all participants, they can be highly productive. Most often this is not the case. Meetings become endless exchanges of information and viewpoints.

The rhetorically strong and very verbal employees love this playing field since they can seize the initiative and present themselves as leaders. This issue wouldn’t persist if their initiative extended beyond the meeting environment, which is typically where the actual work occurs. That’s the time when reality hits them. To make even small changes inside large organisations you need the stamina of the tortoise rather than the sprint of the hare. That’s the time when they drop the change and sprint to the next meeting.

When the rhetorically strong seize initiative in meetings then they risk crowding out the quieter types. The quiet team roles are often the ones that can handle the detail that will get work done. When they are not involved then progress suffers. Many leaders are, of course, smart enough to understand this diversity and orchestrate that information is passed on to the quiet types without too much loss of meaning. The problem is that many leaders do not understand this challenge. Unconsciously they develop a culture where the ”speakers” are invited into decision-making, while the “doers” don’t show up. Either the doors are not invited, or they, as Gilbert once put it, “avoid spending time in meetings with time-wasting morons.”

Consequently, organizations strip decision-making away from knowledge and action, resulting in a form of paralysis. This is a great opportunity for consultants and sub-contractors but it erodes the organisation’s ability to change and to innovate.

Giving room to those that have the attention to detail

How do we reverse this development? I think it’s about having fewer, shorter and more managed meetings. Meetings are not entertainment or social gatherings. People should prepare beforehand. In this way, more meetings can again become occasions for good, informed decision-making.

Another remedy would be to take an old pillar of management more seriously. Decision power should be where the knowledge is. It is important to leave ample room for maneuver to the people that can master and manage the detail. They require greater decision-making authority to accomplish tasks. Sometimes management’s task is just to get out of the way. Spend more time doing rather than talking.

It’s often the people that master the detail that produce great work – if they can deploy it collaboratively and with great discipline. In this case, a collaborative business process tool could be a beneficial help to deploy it in practice.

Tip! Belbin has a good listing of typical team roles. Get an overview on Wikipedia.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some practical steps or strategies to implement a detail-oriented approach to business?

Developing a detail-oriented business approach requires attention and patience. Strategies include setting systems for tasks, pre-planning decisions, cross-checking work, and encouraging teamwork and responsibility. With regular team meetings, consultations, and status reports, you can prevent overlooking details.

Can focusing too much on details potentially lead to overlooking the big picture? If so, how can one avoid this?

Overemphasis on minor details may indeed cause you to lose track of the larger objectives. Therefore, striking a balance is integral, which requires nurturing a mindset that takes care of the specifics without losing sight of the overarching goals. Accomplish this by setting clear project objectives at the outset, revisiting those objectives at regular intervals throughout the project, and validating that every action taken aligns with the final aim. Essentially, you need to manage both the trees (details) and the forest (big picture) in line with the adage, “Don’t lose the forest for the trees.”

Could you name some successful companies that credit their achievements to a detail-oriented approach?

Apple, with its reputation for success through meticulous attention to detail, distinctly stands out among other enterprises. Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, earned renown for his scrutiny of every tiny aspect. Apple’s product success, resulting from a marriage of design and functionality, is a tribute to this unyielding quest for perfection.

Similar to Apple, Pixar, another venture led by Steve Jobs, has earned global acclaim for its pioneering animations, thanks to its meticulous attention to every little detail, including storyline, character design, animation, and sound effects. Jobs’ constant focus on quality over quantity at both Apple and Pixar has resulted in superior products that have gained recognition worldwide.

One more company deserving mention is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, globally acclaimed for its impeccable customer service. The excessive attention to the smallest details in customer experience has allowed this hospitality behemoth to set the standard in the worldwide luxury market. Empowering every employee to go the extra mile to improve a guest’s stay underpins how attention to detail can become a significant unique selling proposition in any industry.
These examples articulate how achieving success aligns closely with attention to detail. When paired with a clear overview of the broader goal, this approach can lead to a harmonious merging of elements to produce a superior product or

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