It’s an Open Book Test

I said earlier that if there’s some discussion I keep having with my boss, specifically if it’s a positive one, I should share. This article is a bit of a twist on that.

When my last boss and I discussed our success, he said it wasn’t that we were doing amazing things, just that we consistently met the standards, which built up some great momentum. Our reputation of getting the job done time and again gave us a lot to be proud of. And now, here I sit with my new boss on day one. He’s sharing some of the ideas that make his ship successful, and he states it this way: What we do here is an open book test.

We’re fortunate in my job that there’s always a written standard for just about any task, procedure, and program. We have manuals to fix just about anything broken, a procedure to complete each task, maintenance cards for every piece of equipment, and guidelines on how to do it all safely. Just like in my profession, most others have some spreadsheet, metric, or guideline that defines what’s supposed to be done and how.

Unless you’re going it alone as an entrepreneur, your job really is an open book test. All most of us need to do is find that guiding document, procedure, program guide, or checklist, and start meeting the standards in it. If you can do that, then many other things fall into place once you find the routine that lets you consistently meet those goals.

Opening the book, learning the standards, and meeting them consistently are the mark of success in most organizations. At the very least, it’s the beginning. A person who does one thing great but misses other basic requirements, be it a safety standard, documenting the one thing he did great, or the inability to do that great thing consistently, still results in a failure over time.

Too many people try to be great at what they’re tasked with too early. They think they need to blaze some new trail. More often than not, this isn’t the case. What they need to do is just learn the basics, learn the metrics, and get the momentum that comes from meeting the published standards consistently.

Another way to put it: Some people are so busy trying to build the better mousetrap that they don’t figure out how the one they have works, so they can’t improve on it. By the time they figure it out and start over, and everyone does sooner or later, they’re back at square one with the same basic mousetrap that works well if used correctly. Sadly, this usually means no mousetraps have been set for three months, and now there are more mice than can be caught.

So, there I was…

I had a new program, and I was going to have the best, shiniest new program anyone had ever seen. I found the book, I opened it, and as I started reading the standards, my head filled with ideas of impressive excel spreadsheets with calculated cells, six-part folders for each person, and PowerPoint quad slides. My administration of this program would be the envy of program managers everywhere!

Please believe me when I tell you that six-part folders are rarely, maybe never, the answer. They’re nice, they’re organized, and their weight and labeling can be impressive, but trust me on this. If you’re thinking those folders are the answer, you’re looking to track too much, creating too much administration, and you’re building a mousetrap that can’t be maintained. By the time you’ve got all that built and realize the assistance you need to keep it going, you might find out too late that you’ve lost focus on the reason the program exists. I know I did.

Remember, the organization has put a lot of time and effort into defining what will make it successful. The people paid to figure all that out have looked at the small things that move the organization forward. Very likely, they’ve already boiled it down to simple standards, deadlines, checks in the boxes, and easy-to-follow instructions. You complicating it all over again won’t make you or your people successful.

Success is rarely some immediate unexpected windfall. It comes from learning the basics and finding a routine to consistently meet goals, both yours and the organization’s. Instead of figuring out how to administer it all, just study the requirements. What are the published steps, and most importantly, why are they there? What’s the overall intent of the task or program? If you can figure that out, the rest is easy. You’ll be able to make better decisions and offer better options to the boss.

So relax, learn the standard, figure out how to communicate the intent, teach it to the people under you and find ways to consistently meet the expectation in the easiest, most effective way possible.

I’m tempted to keep writing, but the three other articles that can build on this topic will have to wait.

– Have you opened the book on what you’re doing to learn the standards and the steps, or are you just doing things the way everyone has always done it and how you were shown?

– Do you understand the intent of the program and how that boiled down to the spreadsheet you need to fill out?

– Have you ever been so distracted by your plan to administer a program that you lost sight of its intent?

– What programs are managed in a way that’s too complicated to maintain? Can they be streamlined or simplified?

Have a great week out there.

– JT


James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.