Small Things

I’ve attended a lot of leadership development courses over the years, and received many handouts, folders, and binders chock full of ways to make myself into a better manager… of people, time, money, etc.

One precept that has stuck with me is that we should pay attention tothe small things that are annoyances today, so they don’t become bigger problems tomorrow. Even if it’s unlikely that something will become a big problem, it’s worth the effort to eliminate it so that it isn’t draining our energy to deal with.

Ben Franklin figured this outlong ago, with his saying “A stitch in time saves nine.” As a youngster, I confess that this didn’t make much sense to me. What is a stitch in time? (Is that a problem in the space-time continuum?) Saves nine what? Now I get it – sewing up a small rip saves it from getting larger and needing more stitches to fix later – perhaps after all my money has fallen out of the pocket! (Just goes to show why I wasn’t any good in my Home Economics classes.)

In my daily work, I try to be on the lookout for those small things – like, my stapler broke and I can’t take the time to order a new one, so I have to keep using paper clips that fall off. Like, my AAA battery died in my mouse but I don’t have time to stop and get new batteries from central supply, so I’ll use the keyboard alternatives. Like, one of may chair casters fell off and I’ve propped it up with a book “for now.”

Sometimes it’s a matter of looking at things from a lean perspective – kanban or 5S is very helpful. But it’s also the concept of taking time to fix the small things, so that I don’t spend a lot of time doing work-arounds which are innately less efficient and less satisfying.

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Maybe you have already found this out for yourself – want to share any related examples or experiences?

Comments 5

  1. McBrain

    We see these types of things every day at work – we put off fixing the problem and waste more time working round it every time we try to complete a task! It is infuriating to say the least when I can see the benefits to be made.

    For example, if we have an error in an SOP and it doesn’t get fixed we raise a deviation to record that we aren’t completely following the SOP due to that error. Sometimes it takes 4 or 5 deviations to be raised before the error is fixed which can waste many man hours documenting the issue.

    If the error is fixed immediately, then you save the wasted hours.

  2. Amalie G.

    How does Six Sigma work on today’s economy in relation to saving company to prevent lay off. Did it help companies to say strong and able to overcome
    challenges that most people are facing.

  3. Jay Fedora


    Great reminder of one of the fundamentals of true Kaizen. I did some work with a plant manager at a Baldrige winning company in the late 90’s who was a master at taking care of the small things. He used to focus his teams on finding and tracking the small daily improvements. Instead of a suggestion system, he’d have them fix it (if it was at the job level without upstream or downstream implications) and then log it as an improvement. At it’s height he was generating something like 100 small improvements a year per employee which generated 25,000 improvements per year for his company. The teams used to refer to the fixes as "small rocks" based on a team member’s aha moment over a weekend when he realized he finally bent down and picked up a "small rock" that he had been mowing around all summer. Not much of a fix…but then again think of the effiiciency gained in mowing straight lines! Toyota, of course, is a master at this and claim something like 1,000,000 documented improvements a year. I hadn’t thought about the potential of small things for a long time until I read your blog. Thanks for the nudge to look again at all the small things that make my life more encumbered than it needs to be.

  4. Sowmyan

    There is also this concept that a problem takes 50 cents to solve in the design stage, USD 5.00 to fix this in production and USD 50.00 to fix it in the field. It is the same thing. A stitch in time saves nine.

  5. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks all for your comments. McBrain, you point out that spending time while the deviation is small, is a great investment against the cost of poor quality when the deviation gets large. Sowmyan, I like your analogy about the cost differentials at the different stages of production!

    Jay, that’s a great example – how many times to we pride ourselves at being able to "mow around" obstacles instead of realizing that "mowing straight" is the actual goal!

    Amalie, you have asked a large-scope question! I will say that from my experience, use of Lean or Six Sigma is only one factor in a company’s performance, and to judge success or failure by any one factor will not give an accurate portrayal or prediction.

    Thanks again to everyone for expanding the discussion!
    –Sue K.

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