Front Foot Thinking – and how to make meetings more productive

This is a follow on, as promised, from a previous musing on the subject of Standards and Discipline and will touch on how we make best use of our most precious asset – Time.

Anyway, it got me thinking about a concept that I discuss a lot, which I call ‘Front Foot Thinking’. It’s a huge subject, but for this piece, I have boiled it down to a couple of things that are important.

Front foot thinking covers a multitude of business applications, but bottom line is that you need to get off the back foot. When you’re on the back foot, you’re in reactive mode.

You’re ‘making do’.

You’re tolerating, even excusing, poor performance.

You’re treading water.

And it’s not a pleasant place to be either. Putting aside business implications for a moment and looking at this at the personal level, being on your back foot on a continuous basis can force you into a stress cycle.

In 1990 I was the Purchasing Manager for a large UK plc, based in Scotland. I was 26 and thought I was on the crest of the wave. I had a small department and, whilst they were somewhat inexperienced in terms of purchasing and supply chains, I felt that we were doing ok. I reported to the MD, much to the horror and anger of the Production Director, who made it his personal quest to either have me under his control, or out of the business.

Very soon my happy little crew were in the cross hairs for every failing that production had. If a machine broke and maintenance didn’t have a spare part, it was my fault for not buying it, not the maintenance guys for not storing it. If materials department gave us a signal to buy that was within the component lead time, it was our fault for the lateness, not materials.

And on and on it went. I was under huge pressure mainly because this production director was trying to force me out. I was coming into the plant on my holidays, I was working late – all the usual stuff. All through this period of purgatory, I could not get off the back foot. No answer I gave, or argument offered, was acceptable. Even success stories were dismissed. We were concentrating so much on trying to get back on an even keel, that we started taking our eye off the ball in other areas. And the more that this guy told me I was useless, the more I became useless.

It’s hard to progress from this. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes the effort required just to understand why something is failing, actually uses all the time that should be spent fixing it.

However, the story ends on a positive note.

I was fired.

The road from positive to negative, front foot to back foot, is always faster, easier, and more complete, than the transition from negative to positive. Mainly because going downhill is always easier.

An uphill struggle of several years, can be undone in a matter of months.

Weeks, if you try hard enough.

Look at why lean transformations fail or flatline if you don’t believe me…

Anyway, after dusting myself off and assuring myself that it was a bully, not me, I swore then never to be on the back foot again if I could possibly help it. I looked at all of our actions and meetings up to that point and realised that I was turning up and bleating about why things appeared to be failing. I had always been reporting on what had gone wrong, not what was being done to fix it or get back on track.

There simply wasn’t time to do anything else. I must have sounded like a real doomsayer.

And I was giving this Bullshido Sensei ammunition to continue his onslaught.

And so, this is now one of the first things I look at with the quality of some of our business endeavours; are these people reacting? Or driving forward? Are they bleating, or proposing? Are they containing a negative situation, or managing a positive?

In today’s high pressure business climate, we do tend to concentrate a lot of our time on the negatives, and tend to let the positives fend for themselves; I mean, come on. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? And sadly, there are more than few people out there who think that management is all about managing failings and problems.


Working to my well-established process of keeping it simple, I see any operational process involving input from 4 key sources:

Man, Machine, Materials and Methods. Otherwise known as ‘the 4Ms’.

Yes, I know… there are others. But anyone who says, ‘Mother Nature’ when they mean ‘Environment’, needs therapy.

Front foot thinking (or positively managing) can be applied to each of these factors and forms the basis of a ‘doing the right things right’ mindset, which I discussed in a previous article.

Let’s take a look at a couple of things pertaining to the first – Man.

I use the word in its biblical, Industrial Engineering sense here, to also include women – so no offence meant.

Besides, then it wouldn’t be the 4Ms.

Often referred to glibly as ‘our greatest asset’, people are probably the major area that could benefit from the application of front foot thinking. Mainly because we don’t see them as our greatest asset; views can range from ‘a bunch of complaining, whinging, pay cheque collectors’, to a benign and neutral ‘human resource’.

No matter how we see them, they will almost always follow the normal distribution described in an earlier musing.

That is to say, around 10% of the workers will be very positive and pro-change and will be enthusiastic drivers of the improvement process. If you’ve read my other piece, you’ll remember that these are the ‘pioneers’. They’re willing to take a risk. Ready to go forward with something that is untested, before they have all the facts to say whether something will succeed or fail.

80% will be in the middle. The ‘groovers and grinders’. They will usually hold fire to see which way the winds of change are going to blow before committing themselves. This is not negative; it’s just human nature. They will maintain the changes, work the processes, and turn the handles and give momentum to the direction the pathfinders are taking.

The third group are very interesting. The last 10% are those who want no or little part in the change process and who resist, passively or actively, the best efforts of the other groups. Sometimes, in certain environments, this group can actually sway the followers into a state of inertia, making progress slow or impossible. You will recall, I call this group the ‘anchor draggers’ and I waste no time trying to manage them, other than recommending dismissal or reassignment.

Now, with these rough statistics at your disposal, where do you think most organisations spend their time managing?

Exactly right – the bottom 10%.

Here’s a quick test for you, and your organisation.

Have a tally up of all the disciplinary interviews, warning letters and verbal warnings you have issued over the past 12 months.

Add to this, the number of people that have been sacked.

Call these ‘negative scenarios’.

Now tally up the number of times that people who turn up on time, people who do their tasks satisfactorily and people who go the extra mile are pulled in for a ‘back-patting interview’, or who get told what a good job they’re doing.

Call these ‘positive scenarios’.

I bet the first group get more attention. In fact, I’d bet that you have statistical data that quantifies the negative scenarios, and no data whatsoever other than attendance records for the positive scenarios.

But don’t beat yourself up; it’s just how we are.

‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. This tends to make you think of machines or processes, so how about this:

‘If they’re not being disciplined, just ignore them’.

Perhaps a bit less benign, but a bit more accurate?

Some of you will feel very uncomfortable with this. But be assured this feeling exists in almost every company I have ever worked for or visited. We just don’t have the guts to admit that this is actually how we treat people.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t manage these people. Every organisation will uncover some people who need the chance to flourish elsewhere and therefore we need to handle these situations sensitively.

What I am saying is this. If you have identified certain individuals who are causing disruption, slowing the improvement process, or just plainly resisting, you need to spend as little time as possible managing their exit. Too often I see anchor draggers getting too much management attention at the expense of the people who are trying to make a difference.

Getting rid of these people swiftly and sensitively sends a clear message to the pioneers:

‘We recognise that you are driving the business forward and have taken steps to support your efforts’

I have heard too often the lament ‘I wish management would just bite the bullet with that guy’.

Failing to deal with this group really undermines your credibility with the other two groups and in the long term causes low morale and dissatisfaction.

This is flying in the face of ‘Respect for People’ – both the people who need to go, and, more importantly, the people who will be staying.

By the way, I am not a big fan of hire and fire methods and that’s not what I am advocating here. Stacked ranking systems are an entirely different subject, and here I am referring to the bad apple in the cart, not a whole group.

I find that the pioneers, and the majority of the followers, all thrive on positive leadership. Even if we address failure in a positive way, the person still feels valued and will take steps to improve for next time. If we reward success or even preservation of the standard in a positive manner by acknowledgement of effort, we will stimulate these groups to go on to better things.

Front foot thinking embodies this. Instead of sitting back, waiting for someone to fail, and then disciplining them, we need to be talking to people, understanding their problems and addressing them, thanking them for their efforts, giving them the training and opportunities to make improvements, communicating their success.

And we need to be doing this daily. Because if you don’t, people will start to fail.

They will get bored.

They will start to deviate from the process.

Because they’re human.

Example #1:

We had a client where we were trying to establish the optimum shift patterns and manning levels to make an increase in productivity levels. This was fairly advanced stuff and incorporated skill levels, temporary labour, and budgeted overtime levels. It was an obvious opportunity, or so it would seem, to bring out the lean toolkit.

But wait a minute…

When we hit the shop floor to ascertain the aforementioned skills level, we found out that people weren’t there on that shift. Further, there was a huge imbalance across the shifts as people ‘self-directed’ and booked their own holidays, resulting in overmanned shifts and undermanned shifts.

More worrying was the fact that they also had no fire register, so we didn’t know who should have been on shift at any point in time.

Yet another broken basic. It was no wonder that at the production meeting the supervisor struggled to articulate whether he had enough labour to make the week’s demand.

Back foot thinking… in action.

Example #2:

The easiest way to identify your type of thinking is to have a look at the meetings you have. The quality and quantity of meetings is a window into the style and culture of your business. Unless your business is truly an exception to the rule, you’ll probably be having too many meetings. Usually, but not always, this is down to the quality of the meetings in the first place.

I have a client where there seems to be meetings going on at every hour and minute of the day. I once had to pull together a workshop for key players and, to do so, I used the meeting manager element of Microsoft Outlook. Pulling together the various diaries of the key players was simplicity itself, but when I looked through to see when there was a convenient 45-minute slot, there wasn’t any.

Well not for a couple of months.

When I looked at individuals’ commitments, I found that it was the norm to go straight from one meeting to another. This thinking was repeated across most of the diaries I looked at, who were all senior players.

How can you possibly be doing anything other than reacting, if you leave one meeting to attend another?

How can you possibly contribute positively?

You can’t.

I’ve forgotten the number of times people have said to me in a meeting or workshop ‘sorry, I need to leave – I’ve got another meeting in 5 minutes’.

How can someone like this even be semi-prepared for the meeting they’re going to? If a meeting’s worth having, it’s certainly worth preparing for. If you don’t actually need to get ready for a meeting, maybe because no agenda has been given, then don’t go.

What are you going to accomplish?

You tend to find the quality of these meetings poor at best. People rush in, some are late, and some are missing. These meetings usually lack the basics: a chairman, a timekeeper, an agenda, and a standard attendee list. With no set points for discussion, people then tend to run to their own agenda in an effort to get on with the meeting. No one is taking notes, no one is assigning tasks or responsibilities, and the meeting adjourns with a ‘see you all again next week’ from the guy who called it, before he speeds to his next meeting.

The trouble with meetings is that once your name is on a circulation, you feel honour bound to go.

Like moths to a light, or iron filings to a magnet, you walk zombie like to the next venue, hands outstretched, eyes glazed, mumbling, ‘must…attend…meeting, must…attend…’ and so on. Its compelling stuff, but I ask you this: when was the last time you attended a meeting and asked ‘before I make myself comfy guys, what is my role here? What do you want from me at this time and this place?’

You might be surprised at the answers you get. Sometimes (and we’ve all done it) we invite people ‘just in case’ they can throw light on a subject that might, or might not, come up during the meeting.  We leave their name on the circulation and – there you have it; they’re locked in for ever.

A friend of mine works for a large corporation and tells the story of being in a meeting that had been in progress for around 45 minutes, when all of a sudden, the guy next to him stood up and left, announcing to everyone that he was in the wrong meeting. Worrying in itself yes; more worrying was the fact that no one in the meeting laughed or made comment at his departure.

A common occurrence perhaps?

This may be an exaggeration, but not by much. We’ve all seen similar aspects. Meetings are a business basic; we all know how meetings work, when to call them, and what constitutes a good meeting.

Or we used to.

That’s why I find them a good barometer as to how a business thinks. The likelihood is that if a business has poor meetings, with poor output, then other aspects in the business that are just as basic will inevitably be broken too.

‘But what can I do to make my meetings better?’ I hear you bleat.

Well, apart from the obvious points above (chairman, minute taker, agenda etc.) I like to audit the effectiveness of meetings I attend.

The first thing I look at is attendees. Who should be at the meeting, what is their purpose and role? Once I have this established then I look at their attendance levels. If the meeting needs ten people and eight show up, I have 80% coverage.

Next, I look at agenda points. Does the agenda reflect the desired outcomes for the meeting? i.e.  are they relevant? Once these agenda points have been agreed and aligned, I then rate how good we are at talking about them.

Here’s how I apply the rating to our old favourite, the production meeting:

Back foot thinking: 1 point

‘Agenda points are discussed in general. Some data is missing and needs further input. General status is understood but actual vs target data may be inaccurate. Major issues and losses are not discussed, and not analysed and remedial actions are ad hoc and lack conviction. Discussion is around non-achievement of target.’

Example: ‘we should have made 10 but only made 8 due to a machine breakdown’.

Neutral: 2 points

‘Agenda points are discussed in some detail. Status is clearly understood and actual vs target data accurate, with some understanding of reasons. Major issues and losses discussed but not analysed/presented and remedial actions are ad hoc. Discussion is around major actions to recover or protect.’

Example: ‘we should have made 10 but only made 8. We have increased next week’s schedule by two and will keep the heat on so we get 12 next week. Maintenance is trying to get the machine back online’.

Front foot thinking: 3 points

‘Agenda points are discussed in detail. Status is clearly understood and actual vs target data accurate. Major issues and losses are clearly understood, and remedial actions are already in place to protect/recover. Discussion is centred on improvement or catch back actions.’

Example: ‘we were in danger of not meeting the 10 scheduled for this week due to a machine breakdown. However, we have transferred some of the operations to another machine. I have agreement from the operators that they will work Saturday morning and we will still meet our scheduled requirement week. Maintenance is working on the breakdown and has given this a priority’.

Front foot stuff feels different, doesn’t it?

That’s because it tastes, smells, and feels like Standard Work.

And Standard Work, works.

When we are confronted with problems, in whatever environment, it always feels better to have someone tell you the problem has gone away or is at least being addressed with urgency and full commitment. Nothing saps confidence more than vague answers and low levels of energy and obviously this just feeds the cycle.

The sad thing is that when you are on the back foot, stress sets in and an altogether different self-fulfilling prophecy rears its head – the more you struggle, the more you will continue to struggle.

My simplistic mind likes to see these types of business dynamic as a ‘spinning top’ or even better, the vortex that is created around a plughole when you let the water out. I see us living in equilibrium most of the time experiencing temporary highs and lows, however, if the stimuli that keep this vortex spinning start to tend towards the negative, then we enter a stress cycle.

This can manifest itself at many levels. At the individual level, it can result in feeling down, under pressure all the time and feeling helpless. At organisational level, it can send the business into a flat spin that just gets faster and faster, with less time or thought being given to extracting from the situation.

We see this happen daily. As the situation spins out of control, it draws things towards it, for example:

  • ‘Help’ from your boss. Often the last thing you need, as it’s this kind of attention that’s stressing you out. The more they ‘help’, the more you fail… and the more you fail?

Yes. The more help they think you need.

  • Support from head office/group/corporate. The business is in a flat spin, the powers that be perceive that an inadequacy of some description needs even more resource to put it right.

Enter the clowns; highflyers with no real understanding of what is causing the issue, all fighting for control of the steering wheel. This type of ‘support’ is data hungry and not data that can be used to right the situation. In the initial stages, the data these guys are demanding is merely to bring them up to speed with the situation.

It drains resource, it lowers morale, and the vortex spins all the faster.

Front foot thinking is a key component in your Respect for People repertoire. Without it, without that mindset, you are reacting and responding to the process.

It is important that we get on top of things. That we utilise a modicum of common sense (back-to-back meetings? Really?) and that we channel our inputs into the achievement of positive scenarios.

Visual Daily Management, tiered meetings, Genchi genbutsu, ‘Felt’ leadership; all of these lend themselves to Front Foot Thinking.

I’ll talk more about Front Foot Thinking and the Goya Principle in particular, in a future piece.

As always, thanks for reading. All thoughts, opinions and experiences, mistakes and general wrongness are entirely mine and no offence is meant or inferred.

Comments and corrections welcomed.

But No Bullshido.

We don’t do that.

If you’d like to learn more, or discuss further, please contact us via the website links.