Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He wrote those words in the specific context of fire safety, contributing to the establishment of the Union Fire Company and impressing the importance of fire safety upon the general public. The wisdom of those words ring true today and can be very valuable to us, our teams, and the people we serve if we take them to heart and put into practice. Dan Heath builds upon Franklin’s concept in his new book called Upstream, in which he advocates for “upstream” thinking, which is defined as efforts to prevent problems before they occur. This is in contrast to “downstream” thinking, which is reacting to problems after they occur.
Preventing problems before they occur can save time, energy, frustration, money – and, in some cases, human injuries or even lives (e.g., upfront medical tests for life threatening illnesses). But it’s not all smooth sailing; Heath points out some challenges to adopting to upstream thinking, such as:
Problem Blindness – This includes not seeing the problems, or seeing the negative outcomes but believing they are regrettable but natural and not solvable (e.g., we will always have “x” level of unhappy customers or have “y” error rates).
Lack of ownership – This is the feeling that the problem is not one specific person’s responsibility to fix (i.e., refusing to own the problem). Sometimes problems lack owners because of fragmented responsibilities – where multiple departments touch a problem but there is not one clear owner – or just due to a feeling that it’s not our place to intervene.
Tunneling – Sometimes if we are juggling multiple problems, we can give up trying to solve them all (“I can’t deal with that right now”). Tunneling can result in tunnel vision, which leads to short-term, reactive thinking.
Key Principles to Thinking Upstream
1) Take ownership of potential problems. Embrace the upstream thinking mindset, which includes looking for potential problems, and taking ownership of them and not waiting for someone else to resolve. Strive to be a “problem finder” and realize small problems often precede big problems – so it is better to discover and resolve problems early on when they are small before they grow into big issues that can do great harm.
2) Plan ahead. President John F. Kennedy wisely said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” The best time to think upstream is when the water (life) is calm and you can carefully plan to keep it that way. It’s hard to think upstream when you are in the middle of a storm and just trying to stay afloat! The advice of Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian applies: “It’s better to be prepared for events that don’t happen than unprepared for events that do.”
3) Learn from the past. We are wise when we learn from our past experiences, including mistakes and the resulting problems. Michael Alter (President of SurePay) remarked, “Mistakes are the tuition you pay for success.” I concur with this advice from Warren Buffett: “It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” A special learning opportunity comes from going through a major crisis, like the COVID pandemic we are working through. Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We can seize the opportunity to learn and be prepared for any future crisis that comes our way.
4) Strongly consider strategic sourcing. Strategic sourcing involves not using a single vendor (source) for our key materials, supplies, and services (although exceptions may apply). The concern of being single sourced is, what happens to our ability to produce our goods and services if that one vendor has financial, supply chain, or operational problems? Strategic sourcing also considers where the vendor is located – do we really want to rely on having a crucial item we need coming only from a supplier in an overseas location like China?
5) Encourage collaboration and involve people. All of us are smarter than any one of us. We need people on our teams, supporting teams like IT, and our key vendors and suppliers to anticipate potential problems before they occur, and then to design and implement effective preventive solutions. We can encourage all people, especially our front-line employees, to share their concerns and potential future problems they foresee.
One tool we can use is to have planned brainstorm sessions, where we ask people to share potential problems they think might be in our future. We can also think about potential scenarios (e.g., pandemics or natural disasters like earthquakes and fires) and discuss how we can be prepared to prevent or at least minimize the impact.
6) Change systems as needed. Remember this key principle: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” We need to continually evaluate the results of our systems based on their actual outcomes, including their impact on our key stakeholders. Getting stakeholder input like customer feedback is valuable. And part of our system evaluation should include our ability to prevent problems or at least mitigate their impact.
7) Have proven back-up systems in place. We should have back-up systems and processes in place for our key equipment and operations. One strategy is to have prudent internal redundancy. For example, in my print and mail operations, we had two printers and two inserters, and we had the ability to produce key deliverables with only a single printer or single inserter if one unit was down. Another back-up option we used was to have a reciprocal agreement with a comparable operation – we could use the partner’s equipment and technology to produce our outputs and vice-versa. A third strategy we used was relying on a vendor for back-up purposes. One important tip for all three of these options is to test out on a regular basis – you don’t want to be in an emergency mode and find out your back-up plan doesn’t work! One additional tip: make sure that crucial spare parts are stored on-site or available to be delivered on short notice.
8) Test thoroughly. In addition to testing our back-up systems and processes, we should thoroughly test all proposed solutions before they go live. We have all seen new systems go live with poor results due to inadequate testing – we don’t want to join that club!
9) Pursue Poka Yokes. Poka Yoke is a Japanese term that means “mistake-proofing” or “error-proofing” a process. We see “error-proofing” examples in our everyday lives – examples include car safety features (e.g., a beep if a door is open while engine is running or a seat belt is not fastened), elevators and garage doors equipped with sensors that prevent doors from closing if there is something or someone in the way; spell check functions in software programs and phones; the examples go on and on). We can intentionally implement poka yokes by tools such as checklists that provide guidance to avoid errors; ensuring software applications have built in checks (e.g., require entries on key data fields and in correct format); and using technology and “smart” equipment (e.g., camera systems on inserters).
10) Measure regularly and track progress. We should monitor leading indicators and measures that can warn us of potential bigger problems ahead, such as an increase in customer complaints or a spike in error rates. We also need to be responsive to external sign posts that may affect our operations. Example: if you are a print and/or mail vendor for your state, and your state is exploring adding vote-by-mail, be ready!
Wes Friesen (MBA, EMCM, CMDSM, MCOM, MDC, OSPC, CCE, CBF, CBA ICP, CMA, CFM, CM, APP, PHR, CTP) is a proven leader and developer of high-performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. He is also an award-winning university instructor and speaker, and is the President of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management, and team building training. His book, Your Team Can Soar!, can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com (under Book) or an online retailer like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Wes can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 971.806.0812.
This article originally appeared in the July/August, 2020 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.