Tool array around tablet computer

In Search of the Right Tools

Aug. 9, 2017
It’s easy to get comfortable using familiar tools and what’s at hand — but it’s often not the most productive behavior.

I often have been guilty of using a tool that I’m comfortable with or have at hand, rather than the tool I really need: turning a bolt with pliers, cutting a wire with scissors, or pounding a protruding nail with anything I can find. It’s fast and efficient, right? And we all do it.

Traveling through an Ohio suburb last week, I saw two extremes of wrong tools in action: On a small lot, a man maneuvered a riding mower with an oversized snow blade to level a small pile of soil; two guys with shovels watched as the mower repeatedly moved back and forth, making more ruts to be filled. Further down the street, a man on his knees picked stones from where his lawn met the curb, and then dropped them one by one into a bucket. He appeared to have 30 feet and hours of work left ahead of him.

I’m no landscaper, but I’ll bet that in both cases a handheld rake might have done a fine job, whether leveling the soil or raking out the stones.

We ignore the right tools in our work as well. Here, too, I am guilty.

Years ago, as the number of work projects grew larger, I occasionally found tasks that had almost slipped through the cracks — usually remembering them around 2:30 am. One day I attended a lean management workshop and heard about the success an organization achieved by using weekly project updates, during which functional groups reviewed project milestones, actions taken, and roles and responsibilities for the coming week. I loved the idea, and immediately began a project-tracking spreadsheet and scheduled a weekly update with staff.

After a few years the spreadsheet grew, projects became more complex, and the time to add new projects into the spreadsheet lengthened. I was spending a lot of time working on the spreadsheet. My business partner occasionally suggested more automated tools for this work, and I repeatedly scoffed. It’s just such a pain to take the time to consider a better way, the right tool. The time spent tracking down applications and learning about a new tool could be better spent getting work done with the old tool.

Occasionally I did review a new tool he had found, but I quickly found fault (usually deservedly so). But eventually he hit upon project-management software that mimicked nearly everything I was already doing but with intuitive ease and automation as well as new capabilities (online sharing, Gannt charts, staff alerts, discussion links).

Since then I have been less skeptical of looking for the right tool — a better tool — for a wide range of work. I am not running to find new tools, mind you, but I no longer dismiss new ideas. And a willingness to consider alternatives to well-worn tools can be liberating, opening the mind to other areas in need of new tools. Last week my wife suggested I try qiqong (a technique of controlled breathing, slow movements, and focus). Instead of my boring and borderline-productive workout, I gave it a try. I may do it again.

I’ve also begun to examine the ways I interact day to day. Am I using the right mental and emotional tools in my dealings with situations and individuals? We want to cling to our favorite tools, be they for home, work, or self. Maybe it’s time to open the toolbox and see what else is available. A pithy reply or sarcasm are effective tools — and often get the job done — but am I leaving things for future repair, like a bolt tightened by pliers that is bound to come undone?

Snarky ending? This time, I think I’ll pass.

As vice president of research for The MPI Group, George Taninecz applies more than 20 years of experience in studying management and operations. He develops research fielding and analysis tools that enable organizations to assess their performances, gauge best practices, and define paths for improvement. He also oversees the creation of thought-provoking white papers, reports, and unique-format knowledge that present industry trends and issues. He writes one of a series of blogs provided to IndustryWeek by The MPI Group.

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