OpEx Clues in the Crossword Puzzle

I love word and number puzzles, especially crossword puzzles. I can’t say I’m an expert (truth is I use a pencil and not a pen like real puzzle whizzes!) but I love the challenge and how it helps me keep my mind just a bit sharper than it otherwise might be. My holy grail is the New York Times crossword. The Saturday crossword is acknowledged to be the weeks hardest, and I will admit I’ve only fully completed one in all my years of trying.  But each week I wait most anxiously for the Sunday magazine. Not only does it include the main 160+ word crossword puzzle, but both 5 and 7 box KenKen puzzles and a variety of other word and number puzzles as well. Ok—I’m a nerd—but I love it. And this weeks’ unlikely inspiration comes from these puzzles and what they reveal about your organizations push for improvement and your Operational Excellence (OpEx) approach.

Anyone who has ever worked on these kinds of puzzles knows that you can “hit the wall” or get puzzlers block (I just made that up) and find yourself just staring at the page unable to complete the puzzle or just aren’t able to make any meaningful progress. If you’re like me, you’ve even used the eraser (heresy to the real pro’s!) to wipe out some questionable sections in hopes that a clean slate might provide inspiration. But you’re still stuck.

You step away, take a bit of a break, lock your mind into some other tasks, and leave the puzzle be for a few minutes or hours. Then when you return, it can often seem like magic and the answers start falling into place. This just happened to me last night. I had started the October 7th crossword (this week called MIND THE GAP) and KenKen’s. I quickly finished the 5×5 KenKen and got most of the way finished with 7×7 and was about 1/3 of the way complete on the crossword when I just shut down. Nothing made sense. I couldn’t make any progress on either puzzle, and I got close to erasing the full 7×7 KenKen to start over. But I decided to read a book instead and was done for the night. Last night I picked up the puzzles again, and immediately made one quick observation that allowed me to finish up the 7×7 KenKen in minutes. With momentum I hit the crossword and got 85% complete when I hit the wall again. But I was super happy with my progress and am looking forward to trying to complete the puzzle over the next few nights.

The lesson is that you can control some parts of the process and yet you often need to give your mind (or the team) a break before returning to continue pushing to completion. This is far from giving up but instead an efficient use of the way the mind works and a way to persevere and get to a positive result. Managers or leaders need to balance urgency and speed with this more natural problem-solving methodology—the natural yin/yang or +/- of the continuous improvement process. Speed and urgency, combined with an absolute commitment to achieve a positive result and the perseverance to keep returning to the issue until solved, are common traits of a high-performing individual or organization.

First you must imbed continuous improvement, Operational Excellence (OpEx), LeanSigma, etc. into your organizations DNA and everyone must be crystal clear that these are essential parts of everyday life for everyone and not just “programs” or tools to use occasionally.  Get you teams the appropriate training and then put the concepts, tools, and methodologies to use across the entire organization. Talk about it in meetings. Make it a key part of your questions and comments during your frequent visits to the shop floor, warehouse, customer service hub, finance department office, etc.

With the organization fully engaged everyone will get more comfortable with that “natural yin/yang or +/- of the continuous improvement process” that I referenced before. Frequent little failures or steps back will now be understood as simply an inevitable part of pushing forward. People won’t be embarrassed, and teams won’t hide unexpected results from managers. Fresh eyes and reviews of processes previously studied will be welcomed. New data will be used to fuel improvement and your organization will continue to thrive.

By the way, I got very close but didn’t actually finish last Sunday’s puzzle. I know it would have made a better story if I had, but I left 2 letters blank and had an incorrect 3rd letter in a separate word.  Soooo close but……until this weeks’ puzzle and another chance for improvement!

Invest in your people and invest in making Operational Excellence an integral part of their training and development. When you imbed these continuous improvement behaviors, while communicating them throughout the entire organization, you get happier, more relaxed and engaged employees. They’ll have more skills and resources to perform the tasks that drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

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