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Mike Richman


What’s the Plan?

Any time’s the right time, but right now is best

Published: Thursday, November 30, 2017 - 13:03

Look around, and you’ll find several great quotes about the act of organizing and preparation. Five-star general and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Some nameless wag (likely an insurance salesperson) noted the wisdom that “A man doesn’t plan to fail; he fails to plan.” And the German military genius Helmuth von Moltke said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” which was updated to “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” by champion pugilist and noted thespian Mike Tyson.

Planning takes planning. Now, on the doorstep of December, many of us are knee-deep in meetings, spreadsheets, conference calls, flowcharts, and Ishikawa diagrams, trying to pin down what we want to see happen, and when, once the calendar turns to 2018. Whether it be new product or service offerings, streamlined internal structures, or potential mergers and acquisitions, almost all of us are trying to foresee the future in one way or another, and plan accordingly. When I say, “plan accordingly,” that doesn’t just mean plan for success, of course... planning for potential failure modes and effects is of critical importance, too. That’s the whole “contact with the enemy”/“punched in the face” thing that’s inevitable when plans turn into actions. Thinking about the ways in which your plans might go awry is an important part of planning as well.

But why should this exercise focus only on specific times of the year, such as the ends of calendar or fiscal years? Think about the lean practice of hoshin kanri, a Japanese term that, roughly translated, means “direction management.” Hoshin kanri is a high-level, strategic practice of understanding objectives, breaking them down into goals, and then planning the actions that will help the organization reach those goals. It’s a continuous system in which improvement leads to the uncovering of additional objectives necessary to long-term success.

To make hoshin kanri succeed at the tactical level, many practitioners employ the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) system, which is, again, a continuous effort in which improvement leads to improvement in a never-ending cycle. PDCA will lead to improvement of any stage. There really aren’t any endpoints to the strategic adoption of hoshin kanri or the tactical implementation of PDCA.

So why do we think about (and why am I writing about) planning here at year’s end if it could and should be a year-round, continuous process? Because, like so much else in the world of quality and work, psychology plays an important role. Many of us, myself included, rely on and look forward to the rites and rituals of the calendar. Spring is the time for cleaning house and planting gardens, not to mention cleaning out old ideas and planting new ones; late summer means back to school for the kids and back to work for the rest of us after much-needed downtime; the end of the year represents the chance to look back and look forward, taking what we’ve learned during the preceding 12 months and applying that knowledge with focused intention toward the coming year. In other words, to plan.

This very human connection to the phases of the year is hardwired into us not only from the natural flow of the seasons, but from countless generations stretching back far into the past, and it’s with us still because it works. For instance, at this time of the year, as the days grow short and the temperatures drop, I’m inside a lot more. For many of you, residing in climes far colder than mine here in California, this is surely true as well. The holidays descend, and many of us find ourselves with a respite from day-to-day actives, and thus more time to think creatively. Case in point: I’m writing this column as I work my way through a plateful of Thanksgiving leftovers.

For these reasons, planning for 2018 is happening right now, for me and for many of you, too. Now is a good time to plan, but truth be told, now is always a good time to plan. After all, it’s been said that the best time to plant an apple tree was 20 years ago; the next best time is right now. If we were in June, and you felt that you’d rather wait until the end of the year to plan, I would urge you not to delay. There are always excuses to do something later; later there will be more excuses still. Do it now, and later, you can do it again. Wash, rinse, and repeat, continuously.

Oh, and one more thing... be sure not to confuse planning with action. One could argue that making plans is an action, of a kind, because it helps move things forward. In that sense, planning is a kind of midwife, helping your thoughts give birth to your actions. Just don’t get tied up in planning endlessly at the expense of more concrete steps necessary to embody those plans. At some point, you must send your plans out into the world, get punched in the face, and figure it out from here.


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Mike Richman