Jerry Ford | Crain's Boston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Jerry Ford

Background:  

Marathon Health is a Vermont-based healthcare provider that operates clinics for employers across 40 states.

The Mistake:

I was leading operations for a software company in the early '90s. And I think the mistake in a nutshell was trying to fix everything at once. ... Measuring hundreds of things and trying to fix the hundreds of measurements all at once instead of focusing on fixing three things at a time, and then going back to fix three more can mean everything being addressed a little bit, but not fully.

We had a huge backlog of tens of thousands of open issues. You're dealing with trying to resolve tens of thousands of issues across a group of 15 or 20 people and there just isn't the ability to hear and all the magnitude of that, so you need to put it in staged steps.

You burn people out. Without prioritization, people believe they're putting their best efforts into solving the overall list, yet the most important things won't be addressed. So you'd take a given customer that would have 100 open issues, and you'd address 10 of them. That's a major piece, but if they weren't the right ones you were just stalling the inevitable. That's a frequent thing that happens when people are faced with an enormous amount of information and trying to dig through it.

There'd be industry ratings by third-party consultants on how satisfied a customer was, and you'd actually be solving more on a percentage basis than you were prior, but because you weren't solving the right ones the industry ratings would actually go lower. So your people would be working harder, you'd be performing better from a production perspective in terms of getting things accomplished, but by just trying to go after the whole without breaking it down into the pieces you'd end up with a less-than-satisfied customer base even though you are working harder and doing more than you were previously.

Regardless of how large in magnitude, you should always break it down into a 'top three things.'

The Lesson:

You have to break it down and prioritize. People remember things best in series of threes and fours. Everybody can keep a pace by doing that with you. Regardless of how chaotic, regardless of how large in magnitude, you should always break it down into a “top three things” and knock those off the list and then move on to the next three. That allows you to sometimes take care of the insurmountable.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Ford

Follow Marathon Health on Twitter at @MarathonHealth.

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