Finding the leadership sweet spot between too much instruction & not enough
by Gregg M. Schoppman
February 11, 2019

Instruction manuals: For some, they bring great solace. For others, they bring great anxiety. Whether you are feverishly comparing bolt sizes and the woefully minuscule Allen wrench or simply scrutinizing the location of said bolts inside improperly labeled holes, instruction manuals should provide the end user with support and guidance, not heart palpitations.

Ikea, the Swedish furniture icon that has an almost cult-like following around the world, has provided some of the most memorable instruction manuals. Whether you prefer the Malm or the Bekant desk, upon purchase, you are furnished with a step-by-step roadmap to building your affordable piece of Swedish accoutrement.

On the other hand, Apple makes an event of its latest iPhone release, similar to the way U2 or Taylor Swift announce an upcoming tour. Yet, when you open the box containing one of these technological marvels, you receive an instruction manual comparable to a bubble gum wrapper.

Unfortunately, the device that likely has 1,000 times the computing power of the Apollo 11 lunar module, completely lacks a user manual. However, even with an increasing level of sophistication with every iPhone release, the controls are not only intuitive, but also provide users immediate access to their data, so they can leverage the device’s capabilities. How is it that something with no instructions has users clamoring for new options and applications with, dare I say, even less instruction?

Think about the instruction manuals, or standard operating procedures, for a construction firm. Whether discussing the appropriate way a project should begin or how to present change orders to customers, many organizations think they are Apple. For instance, they give little guidance to their teams and believe they are providing a level of rogue-like independence by shirking the confines of structure.

On the other hand, many of these same firms have manuals sitting on shelves that have stoic titles like “Brand X Standard Construction Operations Procedures.” With all of that pageantry, the manuals seem better suited for a museum, rather than practical applications like those of a construction firm. So, which is better—management by Ikea or Apple?

A Little Bit Ikea

The first question to ponder is the efficacy of the instruction manual. Is the manual an accurate representation of your firm’s operational model? Written narratives on how to perform particular tasks fail to drive processes. Imagine if Ikea began every instruction with, “Connect the irregular shaped board and insert the medium bolt—not the average size bolt, the medium bolt ...”

Consistency in operational procedures includes providing an easy, user-friendly illustration. And the first step to creating efficient operational models is to examine the state of your company’s processes from the perspective of a new employee. Too often, leaders give directions through the lens of a senior-level employee without considering the needs of the new or midlevel employee.

The second consideration should be the relevancy of the processes. For example, consider the Malm desk instructions. If the last time the operations manual was updated was when it was created 30 years ago, there might be a relevancy issue. Ensure that your processes have the right applications in mind. Similarly, if your firm has design-build and hard-bid business units, there should be guides that provide instructions for each.

Additionally, there should be tools in the kit applicable to a range of diverse projects. Providing tools that fail to also support both the manager and supervisors leads to obsolescence of the operations.

A Little Bit Apple

There isn’t a day that goes by in which a “hack” for smart devices is not released. Through trial and error, users discover ways to leverage the capabilities of the iPhone without even reading a guide. More importantly, there is a clamor to share these new-found time savers like that of early man discovering fire. The application programmers developed these features, so it is hardly as if the user has developed something new.

However, discovery creates a certain level of control and empowerment. If there was a manual, it would probably be discarded as a relic of bygone interactionalism (a fancy word for a world predicated on massive volumes of instruction). Many individuals learn by doing and experiencing something rather than using a step-by-step guide to drive change.

Construction organizations that feel confined by too many processes must realize that the road map provides a guideline for managing. But the real power is in enabling managers and supervisors to channel that creative energy into problem solving for themselves. For instance, if a manager was to ask for every version of a preconstruction planning agenda that existed within a firm, how many would exist?

Would creating Version 6.0 be prudent, or would the teams be better suited to use the version that exists and channel the creativity into solving project specific problems. Much like the iPhone, there is more reward in finding that particular project hack that will help a client, expedite a project schedule or provide margin enhancement.

A Little Bit of Both

Processes should exist to provide guardrails for associates to live between and also enable senior management something to measure against. Without the Ikea manual, how does one know what success, or the Malm desk, looks like? On the other hand, once the baseline is established, building efficiencies and improvements can be achieved.

If that desk were to be built again, what could be improved to build it faster? What process enhancements could be made to improve the finished product?

Team energy needs to be channeled towards the right activities rather than reinventing the desk just as processes and tools in any construction organization should strike a balance between control and creativity. After all, do you really want to build the fancy couch with an out-of-date manual?