Start with First

By Benjamin E. Ruark Jul 7, 2011

The “principles of first” encourage employees to pause before initiating any task, to apply basic critical thinking and actions, and to minimize wasted effort while maximizing value. Here are the 10 principles:

First-time tools get tested first. When using a tool for the first time, perform tests of critical features to prevent small but time-consuming errors. For example, a manager types baseline data into a new software program. When the program is closed out, the data aren’t saved because the save feature is neither visibly nor intuitively obvious. Two hours’ worth of data entry are lost.

Repetitive tasks first get resized. Prior to the next repeat performance of a task, examine on paper its steps and their order to determine whether some steps can be combined, performed in parallel, deleted, rearranged or simplified without threat to safety, productivity and quality.

Resource snags first get necessity-tested. When time spent looking for a resource threatens to stall current work, apply this test: Rate its necessity on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being absolutely necessary. Multiply the estimated time needed to acquire the resource by the number of people ready to pitch in. Let the necessity rating determine whether the cost of labor is justifiable.

If the resource is a low-to-medium necessity, consider finding a quick workaround or substitute, or coping without the resource.

First on paper. With tightly structured templates, first sketch the envisioned work product on paper for an approximation of the final product and assess the fit. Premature starts at force-fitting some templates with content result in mismatches, requiring major editing or a reworking of the content or template. Or, your employee may be forced to start anew with clearer understanding of the specifications.

First the specifications, then the assignment. Before assigning or delegating a task, outline the performance and contingency specifications. Specifications should clarify who, what, using what, where, when, how, how much and why.

Search your e-knowledge bank first. Before getting lured into the next protracted Internet search on some topic, scan for reusable information on your computer’s local drive—your knowledge bank. Create a filing system for common topics. Although updating the system requires maintenance time, this bank can reduce average search time when compared to Internet searches and can cut back on results that may not be specific to your business.

First get clarification before committing to potentially large projects. Before negotiating the preliminaries of the project, identify the level of passion or commitment that person exhibits; how likely his scheme is to succeed, given the organization’s culture and past history; and how much effort, time and reputation you’re willing to risk if the project never comes to fruition.

First the guinea pigs, then the end user. While this is obvious for products and services sold to customers, the same usability testing has implications for internal work products. Use guinea pig testing to identify missing components or gaps in an internal work product.

Reuse first-time work products of merit. Coach employees on converting versatile work products into templates and distribute them for others to use.

First thoughts get a rethinking. Coach employees to think through and reflect on complex issues and let them incubate before stating solutions. Explain how to formulate relevant questions and how to brainstorm ways of viewing an issue—perhaps from different stakeholder perspectives and different time perspectives. Reflection comes naturally for some people and for those in some occupations. Encourage it.

Benjamin E. Ruark is a training and development and continuous improvement consultant in Roseburg, Ore. He can be reached at


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