Slow Down! Move With Precision, Not Speed

Slow down.

I can’t count the number of times that my original sensei would say that to me when I started practicing jujitsu. It drove me nuts. I never felt like I was moving fast. Besides, what was wrong with going fast? Now, after twenty years of jujitsu practice, I’m constantly telling my students to slow down.

Speed is a funny thing. It appears to be the most important thing in martial arts: being able to block quickly, hit quickly, throw quickly. However, when you move fast, there’s a tendency to overshoot the target, to over-commit. The block is too wide or the punch is over-extended, leaving you vulnerable. It’s easy to miss obvious feints by an opponent, and walk into a fist. Speed also leaves you physically and emotionally exhausted, unable to actually complete a workout. Indeed, the most skilled practitioners never seem to move all that fast. Rather, they become extremely good at always being in the right place at the right time. Speed comes from precision, but precision does not come from speed.

I’m frequently reminded of this phenomenon when I work with my clients. There is a tendency at many companies to try to do more and more in less and less time. The logic seems to be that if people just worked quickly enough, they would be able to get the job done. Instead, though, the error count is increasing even faster than the productivity. The time spent going back and correcting problems and fixing bugs more than makes up for the time saved by moving faster.

In jujitsu, moving fast can appear to work for a while. Eventually, though, you run into someone who knows what they are doing and you get punched in the nose. In a business, moving fast can also appear to work for a while. The major difference is that when you get punched in the nose, it’s not quite as obvious. It still happens though, and usually when you least expect it.

The problem once again is that moving rapidly does not equate to moving precisely. In a corporate setting, that lack of precision translates to instructions not being read closely, exceptions not being recognized, assumptions not being tested, or flat out inaccurate information not being corrected. It can also mean overreacting to a competitor’s product release or to a news story. In jujitsu, you may not have time to stop and think: if you haven’t prepared and trained, then you may just be out of luck. In a business environment, you may feel that you can’t stop and think, but the reality is far different. Unlike jujitsu, decisions don’t need to be made in fractions of a second. There is time to pause and consider the situation: even in the Apollo 13 disaster, NASA’s Eugene Krantz slowed everyone down and collected information before deciding what to do. Knowing when to slow down is what saved the astronauts; moving too quickly would have only compounded the problems beyond recovery.

[SYSTEM-AD-RIGHT]Fortunately, most of us will never face the kind of life-or-death scenario that Eugene Krantz had to face. That, in turn, only makes the tendency to move too fast even more inexcusable.

The first problem, of course, is recognizing that you are moving too fast. Just as in jujitsu, it is surprisingly not obvious to the person, or team, that they need to slow down. It helps, therefore, to learn to recognize the symptoms of speed.

One of the easiest ones to spot is when the same types of errors just keep cropping up no matter what you do. You fix them in one place, they appear somewhere else. You come up with procedures for reducing the errors and for each mistake that you remove, a new one takes its place. One health related company demanded such a high throughput of patient claims that they were constantly dealing with forms being rejected because of mistakes. So they put in a layer of checklists to make sure the forms were done correctly. Then a layer of paperwork to make sure the checklists were correct. The errors simply kept shifting and the responses only created a slower and steadily more unwieldy system in which the ability to generate billable hours is limited by the need to do paperwork. The company is now one of the leading exporters of red tape. If they had but slowed down a little, they would have finished considerably more quickly.

Another common symptom of moving too fast is feeling like you’ve spent the day on a treadmill: you’re exhausted but it feels like nothing really got accomplished. Items on the to-do list never seem to go away or items that are crossed off keep coming back a few days or weeks later. When problems that were thought solved keep reappearing, that tells you that you need to slow down and put more time into understanding what’s going and devising more robust solutions. Unfortunately, when you’re feeling rushed, a quick solution feels good and creates a temporary oasis of calm. That feeling can be addicting: at one software company, one department developed the habit of simply marking any bugs that had been around for a while as fixed. They knew that it would sometimes take at least two or three weeks before the bugs could be verified. Maybe they’d go away. Maybe they would no longer be relevant. Maybe there’d be more time later to actually look at them. Sure, they almost always came back, but so what? They bought themselves time to relax, and managed to make themselves look good because their bug count was always low. The actual problems with the product, on the other hand, were never addressed.

If you want to move fast, you first have to learn to move with precision. That means starting slowly and learning how to be in the right place at the right time. Otherwise, you spend all your time and energy rushing about overshooting your target and fixing your mistakes.