Ever have the strange feeling that something big is wrong, but you don’t know what it is? Managing by control points is the only cure.

Kick the ‘what’s lurking’ paranoia.

Ever have the strange feeling that something big is wrong, but you don’t know what it is? This common disease is hereditary in one species: the manager. Most managers spend too much time firefighting. One of their biggest fears is that there may be larger fires they don’t know about.

Different managers deal with it in different ways. Some use “management by walking around” to look for signs that something isn’t right. Others insist on knowing every detail instantly. If they know everything, then there can be no hidden problems.

Managing by control points is the only cure. Control points are the variables that indicate what is really going on in the organization. Consider your personal health. It has many control points. There are reactive control points, such as the triple bypass surgery that was your first sign of heart trouble. There are monitored control points, such as periodic checks of your blood pressure and cholesterol. And there are predictive control points, such as your diet profile and exercise regimen.

The same control points exist for your business. If you aren’t managing those control points proactively, then you are waiting for the operational version of the triple bypass. If you’re spending most of your time firefighting, you’re asking for the operational version of “The Big One.”

Start the process of managing control points by identifying the points you already have. There are two dimensions to consider. First, determine how proactively you can manage the control point. Can you be predictive or just reactive? Next, determine if the control point can be managed manually or automatically. If a person is needed to find a problem, it’s a manual control point. If the problem puts its hand in the air and says, “Here I am,” it can be managed automatically.

For example, if your employees swipe an electronic badge to enter the building, that is a proactive and automatic control point. It’s proactive because it stops thieves at the door. If there were no badge system, you wouldn’t know a thief was in the building until you discovered something valuable was missing. It’s automatic, because you don’t have to manually check everyone’s badge to see if they belong.

Product inspection, on the other hand, is often at the other end of the spectrum. It’s manual, requiring human effort to look for problems. And, of course, it’s reactive, because you’re looking for defects that have already occurred.

At this point, it should be obvious which kinds of control points you’d rather have.

The next step is determining what you need. For operations, consider the multiple dimensions of safety, quality, delivery and cost. What problems would you like to know about sooner and where do they occur? Are there control points that can be made more automatic or predictive?

What’s left? This is where control point standardization (CPS) comes into play. CPS is standard work for managers, and it’s built around the control points that need attention. By nature, these will be more manual than automatic. (If they were automatic, you wouldn’t need to build them into your standard work.) Generally, you also want the items in CPS to be more predictive. These are the items for which a little attention early can prevent a great deal of firefighting later on.

An example is standard work instructions. These are usually checked only after a problem occurs. The control point would be to proactively audit standard work instructions on a regular basis. If done at the right time by the right people, an audit can correct problems early and a prevent a firefight.

So kick the “what’s lurking?” paranoia of the manager, and get proactive. Design a system of control points so you can sleep at night knowing the problems you know about are the only problems that exist.