Thursday, September 16, 2010

Parsing the Nail-Kingdom Connection

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost.
For want of a horse, a rider was lost.
For want of a rider, a battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
A kingdom was lost all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

As mentioned in a previous blog, many managers use this proverb as rationalization for micro-managing. You can almost see Lord Raglan in the Crimea, scouring the ground, picking up horseshoe nails, depositing them in his apron pocket for later use by the farriers. Meanwhile, his cavalry brigades, most famously the Light Brigade, are pushing forward into an unwinnable strategic mishap. Alfred Lord Tennyson made their tragedy famous in his poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade: "Half a league, half a league, half a league onward rode the six hundred."

Leaders need to realize that their job is to focus on the strategies. Lord Raglan needed to focus on the position of his brigades, and the competitive (enemy) landscape. Let the farriers keep track of the nails. The farriers should understand how important it is to keep track of the nails so that there are plenty available, and no shoe is lost. However, the executives and managers of any organization should devote little of their time, if any, to this low level concern. It may have big consequences--some companies can frivolously waste a lot of money--but not as big as not focusing on the battle.

I've known some managers who insist on opening all of the mail for their company or their department so they know what's going on. In the meantime, lots of money is being lost with low productivity, low throughput through a critically constrained resource, high material costs, logistical inefficiencies, and so on. These managers were spending time on the wrong issues.

Stop picking up the nails. Look up and make sure the battle is being fought the right way. That's your job. Let the others do their jobs.

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