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Turn The Funnel Around

It was 1981 and I was a new Warrant Officer in the United States Marine Corps.  I was excited to be stationed in Hawaii for my first duty assignment.  Once I was settled into my position as the Officer in Charge of the Stock Control Section, I began to observe operations and identify areas where I felt we needed to improve our processing.  I would then outline my concern to the Gunnery Sergeant who was my senior Marine to get his feedback since he had been with the section for about six months already.  One morning, he came to me with his solution to a problem which was causing me great concern.

“Warrant Officer Bernat,” the Gunny began, “I think I have the solution to the problem of our backlog of stuff to be keypunched and entered into the update.  I will keep our section here tonight to review and sort all input so that all the same documents are together.  This way, the keypunchers don’t have to keep changing the program on their machines.  Then, I will rotate the day crew and night crew keypunchers each hour to prevent them from getting overly tired and making errors.  Why I figure by the end of the night crew shift, we should have everything caught up and ready for the update tomorrow night.  What do you think, Sir?”

“Gunny, that is a great plan to get us caught up.” I began.  “But let me ask this question?  How will the action you take today to get us caught up by tomorrow prevent the problem from occurring again?” The puzzled look told me he had not even considered that fact that preventing the backlog of work was even more important than getting us caught up for one day.  I was about to help him learn a new way of approaching problems.

“Gunny, you have fallen into the same trap so many do when they are faced with an immediate challenge.  I call it ‘funnel vision.’  You are looking in the big part of the funnel and out the little end so you see that little picture and can come up with a quick solution.  But if you will turn the funnel around and look through the little end, you will see the big picture and that will allow you to not only fix the immediate problem but prevent the problem from occurring again.”

When trying to formulate a solution to any problem, it is important to view the solution in light of the overall operation so that process improvement can begin at the lowest level and reach all the people who are actually contributing to the problem. 

To effectively create long term solutions that prevent the reoccurrence of a problem, you have to create a solution that enhances the operational effectiveness of the organization as a whole and not just within your section.  To do this, you will need to consider the following:

  • Every employee should understand how their daily job fits into the daily operational effectiveness of the company. This will not only help them to see the value they add each day to the profitability of the company, but it will give them a sense of pride in accomplishing their tasks in the most effective manner.  This helps them stay focused on the ‘big picture.’
  • Since your people know how each task is being accomplished, solicit their input when looking at solutions to problem areas. They will most likely have the best solutions.
  • If the problem reaches beyond your section, work with the other managers and their people to bring about the necessary changes to create a more effective operation. (Please note how I said that.  Going into another section to tell them they are doing things wrong will not get you buy  Go with the understanding that working together will make the organization better.)
  • Once a solution is created, ensure all managers in the organization are updated on the changes and ensure they understand how the changes affect their local operating procedures. Again, you are reinforcing the first point that every employee needs to understand how their tasks fit into the effectiveness of the company.
  • Finally, implement the solution and if possible, hold a ‘celebration’ to thank the team for the value they bring to the organization by keeping operations finetuned toward success (i.e. a pizza luncheon, coffee and donuts, cake and ice cream, etc. – whatever is permissible in your organization for the informal recognition of accomplishments).

So, how did we finally solve the problem in my opening story?  The Gunny’s idea to get caught up was used because it was the most effective way to get us up to date.  But, before the morning was over, he and I had called our section together to find out what had created the backlog of keypunching.  It turned out that the other sections in the supply department would just put all the computer input together and bring it to our section for sorting, coding, and in many cases, correcting.  This was where we needed to begin bringing about change.

The Gunny requested that a meeting of all the section heads be scheduled immediately.  He outlined what he had found during our process review and stressed that the input for our keypunch section really needed to be reviewed within each section so the errors could be corrected before the paperwork was sent to keypunch.  He also told them why it was important that input is sorted so that issues, receipts, transfers, etc. were grouped together for more effective processing.  Finally, he let them know that to help ensure the new procedures created the process improvement we were seeking, our Marines would be conducting training sessions in the very near future to teach each person preparing input to the keypunch section on what to look for, what was required, how to verify, and how to prepare the documents for final sorting and processing.

After some initial pushback, the new process was implemented and we quickly observed that the backlog in the keypunch section disappeared and did not return.  However, other benefits came to light.  The communications between all the sections improved as we worked toward the common goal of improving the process.  Our computerized listings were more up to date since the information was being processed quickly and with fewer errors.  The members of my section were gaining confidence in their abilities to teach as they prepared lesson plans, practiced their training sessions, and finally presented the training.  Most importantly, other problems were being identified and ‘big picture’ solutions were being sought to create a highly effective supply support operation.  This exercise in process improvement was worth the cost of the pizza’s I purchased to say thank you to my section.

If you want to be an exemplary leader, then turn the funnel around and learn to look at the big picture.  You will be glad you did.

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Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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7 CONVERSATIONS

  1. A truly remarkable hallmark of visionary leadership!

    To lead today in finding a solution or to lead towards eliminating the problem altogether, this precisely is the dilemma so many so-called ‘leaders’ face. Unfortunately, most of them fail to realize the intrinsic value their leadership is supposed to create.

    In your above example, Dear Len Sir, I see yet another exemplary methodology of long-term analysis that beats others to the ground. Little wonder I enjoy your anecdotal experiences like a beacon that guides me in my journey to a better tomorrow.

    Thank you!

    • Bharat – Thank you for your encouraging comment. If leaders can learn to focus on long term solutions that truly improve the process, then many “recalls” would be eliminated.

    • And we accept this as the norm because they were smart enough to call it a “safety recall” indicating they are truly concerned for our well being rather than what it really is – a recall due to poor quality control because we don’t care. Thank for adding to our discussion.

  2. Thank you, Len, for yet another insightful post. Great lessons are learned through the “togetherness – we can achieve factor”, solutions are discovered. I liked what Norman Vincent Peale once proclaimed,

    “When a problem comes along, study it until you are completely knowledgeable. Then find that weak spot, break the problem apart, and the rest will be easy.”

    Joseph Sugarman “Each problem has hidden in it an opportunity so powerful that it literally dwarfs the problem. The greatest success stories were created by people who recognized a problem and turned it into an opportunity.” –

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