If you hang around watching people do stuff long enough sooner or later they will make a mistake. That’s an absolute. People being human they will drop the ball eventually.

Now in all probability they will see the error, correct it and get back on track. But if you are observant enough you can point out the mistake before they have time to fix it. You can then give yourself a hearty pat on the back for catching their screw-ups. Do it all day, every day and you can convince yourself that you are really doing important work. If it weren’t for you keeping an eye on things the whole place will go to hell in a hand cart what with all this screwing up going on.

You can accumulate all of the mistakes you have caught, and then use them as the basis for getting rid of people, reorganizing, hiring new people … all manner of work you can do based on all of the mistakes you have loitered around watching for and certainly catching.

You can put quite a bit of structure around this sort of work if you try. You can hold meetings monthly, weekly, even daily to go over all of the details of people’s work to facilitate the screw-up catching effort. In fact, you can harness the power of IT and have computers crank reams of data helping sort through it all and automating the task – create a dash board. That way you can catch all of the mistakes without even leaving your desk.

The real benefit to consuming your day with such work is the complete avoidance of risk. If you don’t actually do anything, but spend your day catching others fouling things up you will never be the one fouling anything up. Even if the people who made mistakes would have fixed things and made improvements, you get all the credit for their improvements. Easy to make the case that things got straightened out thanks to all of your diligence.

On the other hand, if you left people largely to their own, you would have to plan, which puts you at grave risk. You would have to set priorities and allocate resources; and when you do such things there is every chance it might be you making the mistakes.

What if you told people to focus on improving delivery and it turns out that customers are not really concerned about that at all – that better quality is really what they wanted? Then it would be you screwing things up and it is very likely that your boss is practicing the art of short term management and he will swoop in and catch you in that mistake before you even have a chance to figure out a way to get back on track.

Far better to follow the safe course. The universal long term plan is cost reduction. Just tell folks the plan is basically to keep doing everything we are doing now – just spend less money doing it. That way you avoid the risk if being wrong when you tell people to do something different and it turns out to be the wrong thing.

Put all of the onus on people at low levels to do everything faster, better, cheaper and it can never be your fault if they fail. And measure everything – cost, quality, delivery, safety, machine utilization, sales dollars per person, productivity, purchase price variance — you name it, slap a metric on it. That way whatever turns out to have been important, you can demonstrate that you were on top of it and it was the underlings’ fault that it wasn’t optimized.

I’m pretty sure this explains why I get a lot more requests for help conjuring up more and better metrics than I get for help with strategic planning.

Horizons