What Is Your Main Thing?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- We all muse about not being able to see the forest through the trees. But in reality, we spend most of our days staring at bark. It's July -- the first month of the back half of the year. It's an ideal time to hover and ask, "What is truly important?"

We've read about missions, strategies, values and critical success factors. Sometimes it's confusing. So, let's be clear and simple. What is "the main thing for your organization?" What is the most important thing to get right?

IBM ( IBM) semiconductor's main thing is to "Fill the Fab." Many of today's fabrication plants cost more than $1 billion to build. It is simply impossible to turn a profit if the fab is not full. That may mean selling more, offering contract manufacturing, or partnering with competitors to balance loads. At IBM Semiconductor, the general manager repeatedly drives focus around filling the fab, "How do your key performance indicators help us fill the fab?" "Does this business meeting help us fill the fab? If not, how will we change it or shall we cancel it?"

The main thing is not a financial goal. The main thing is what is required for you or your organization to survive. It is the most important thing to do well to achieve your financial goals.

For FedEx ( FDX), the main thing is to get packages to the destination on-time, every time. While competitors have historically provided more specialty services, such as shipping whales to theme parks, FedEx prides itself on reliably delivering basic services.

For Sam Walton the main thing was a well-managed store. Walton famously said that if you take care of the "box" you take care of the business.

The main thing is not a strategy. Disney's ( DIS) main thing is to provide customers a magical experience. Disney's strategy to create that magical experience begins with an animated movie. A successful movie generates toys for distribution through a Disney Store, a new ride at Disneyland, a Broadway show, new characters on Disney Cruise Lines, and more.

The main thing is not corporate capabilities. At McDonald's ( MCD), the main thing is a consistent customer experience. McDonald's knows its food is merely adequate -- at best. Its marketing people have conducted decades of taste tests that always show McDonald's far behind Wendy's ( WEN), and Burger King ( BKW) in taste. But taste is not McDonald's main thing and its financial results prove it. McDonald's shareholder value has increased more than 60% since January 2009. Burger King has been going in and out of bankruptcy for 50 years and Wendy's, the perennial taste leader, limps along.

To deliver on its main thing, McDonald's carefully manages four corporate capabilities:
  1. Franchisee quality.
  2. Restaurant site selection.
  3. Marketing to children, and
  4. Restaurant managers.

When the company performs well in each capability, it wins.

The main thing is also important for individual contributors. For a real estate agent, the main thing is community networking. Agents who know local real estate laws or local properties do not necessarily sell more. But those who are liked by many community members do.

What about you? If you're an individual contributor, what's your main thing? If you are a manager, what is the main thing for your organization? Would all of your subordinates answer that question in exactly the same way?

I once had a manager named Rick Miller. Rick clarified what was important by publically repeating the same metaphors again and again. He said that if he walked into a room and the people were joking about Miller-isms (e.g., "There are two ways to catch a bus, leave early or run like hell") then he had successfully communicated. Communicating broadly is the first step.

The second step is to look at yourself. How do you allocate your time to deliver your main thing? One method is to conduct one month calendar review. What do you actually do when you are at work? Or, even better, ask people around you. How do they see you spending your time and what suggestions do they have for improvements?

Many leaders complain, but are actually proud that they are busy and involved in many projects. They live harried lives running from meeting to meeting. However, Peter Drucker found that the most effective executives value focus. In fact, they focus their time in one or two "must-win" areas. Drucker also found that the most effective executive hold 90 minute meetings. Less than 90 minutes is not enough time to think deeply and deliver a solid improvement plan. Decide what is important and focus on it.

July is a good month to resurvey your forest. Define the main thing that you, or your organization, must accomplish. Remember that for business success, the main thing is to keep the main thing as the main thing.

At the time of publication the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Hall is managing director of Human Capital Systems (www.humancapitalsystems.com), a firm that designs systems for improving workforce performance. He is also an instructor in Duke Corporate Education's teaching network and author of The New Human Capital Strategy. Hall was formerly a senior vice president at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and IBM Asia-Pacific's executive in charge of executive leadership and organization effectiveness. During his tenure, IBM was twice ranked No. 1 in the world in Hewitt/Chief Executive magazine's "Top Company for Leaders." Hall completed his Ph.D in industrial-organizational psychology at Tulane University, with a dissertation on people management practices of Japanese corporations.

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