The Three Focus Areas

So my great grand boss came to visit the department yesterday and spoke to everyone. It was a getting to know you session since he took up this appointment recently. He did speak about his expectations and his experience, but he touched on three focus areas that he would advise that we focus on in our career.

The three focus areas are leadership, communication and critical thinking.

I agree with them, although personally I think there are so many more interesting aspects that we can focus on as well. But this post will be on my reflections on the three focus areas.

Firstly, leadership. What great grand boss mentioned was that leadership is not only for people at the management level. Leading can be at the subordinates level where a specific person is chosen to lead in a specific project. Personally, as more and more work piles up, I would be grateful if the guys could step up to lead in certain initiatives. It would take a huge load off my shoulders, and at the same time they would also prepare themselves for eventual appointments.

Many people have the appointment but cannot lead. They might not have the flair for it and might end up turning people off with their attitudes. They might care less about others and more about themselves. But to develop people into capable leaders at the management level, they need to be leaders at the tactical level.

Secondly, communication. I cannot stress the importance of communication. There are two parts to this: listening and speaking. Listening allows you to grasp your boss’s intent quickly. Why is he saying this and what does he actually want? If the reply you provide hits the nail on the head, good! He would feel that you are able to think at his level and that you didn’t waste his time. As for speaking, it is not good enough to understand intent quickly; you have to be able to phrase your ideas well. Else, the first sentence that comes out of your mouth will only sound gibberish, or reflect that you are unable to understand the crux of the issue.

Communication at the workplace takes many forms, and each form requires a different kind of mastery. Spoken communication during huddles and meetings. Written communication in the form of emails. Other forms of written communications can be approval papers to push a certain agenda or ask for certain resources. Without the clarity of thought and the ability to go straight to the point, bosses will end up taking an excessive amount of time to read and this doesn’t reflect well.

Thirdly on critical thinking. This bothers me quite a bit that there isn’t a structured way to learn critical thinking. Critical thinking requires one to challenge the fundamentals and question the assumptions. This is also applicable to my field as a maintenance engineer. This is because we work with contractors who provide recommendations on a particular way of troubleshooting. However we need to be able to think critically, see past the smoke, and ask correct questions in order to isolate the assumptions and make our decisions. However this is an area that many are weak in, and subordinates who behave like this would end up being questioned on their presentation. They don’t look good and don’t get the recognition that they deserve.

These three points not exhaustive; there are more points that one can focus on. Great grand boss spoke about being experts in a field through learning more from the internet. Personally I am encouraging people to work productively by finding tips and tricks to energise your day, sort the clutter of information bombarded through email, Whatsapp messages and face to face meeting, and prioritise on what matters.

What is your focus area now?

My Report Card

Today, I sat down and had a talk with one of my colleagues and I spent some time trying to coach him. It was a fruitful session as I got him to think and tell me how he felt, and I think I made a connection. At the same time, he told me about my department and to me, that was my report card for my more than three years here since I joined in May 12.

In my department, I was given the opportunity to head three teams which performs maintenance and engineering solutions to different systems. Given that the systems they were maintaining were independent of one another, the team dynamics were naturally different. Instead of going into specifics on what systems they work on, I will just refer them to team A, B and C, representing the order in which I “joined” the team. The story involves A and B.

Team B had disagreements with my working style and the direction that I gave them. They didn’t see the point of executing certain tasks and perhaps felt that it was a waste of time and effort. When Team B was voicing out their displeasure, Team A was present. I had spent most of my working career with Team A, and I was heartened to know that they stood to defend me.

Team A understood that I do not do things for the present, but considered a lot for the future. As I said, they spent the most amount of time with me and had the chance to see my ideas and direction come to fruition. My colleague admitted that there were clashes initially and disagreements were aplenty, but they grow to see how it eventually pans out and were convinced. I guess, despite me nagging them on a daily basis, they were the closest to me and benefited from my thoughts.

I’m not angry after knowing that Team B was unhappy. It might not be entirely their fault as by the time I had effectively “joined” in a position to influence them, I was already saddled with other work commitments and couldn’t spend as much time and effort. While I am heavily involved in Team A and C and work with them on a daily basis, I only get updates from Team B on a weekly basis; sometimes if I am unavailable at work, I would miss the weekly session.

In addition, there is not much time to see things to fruition. The farmer plans a seed, but might not live long enough to see the tree bear fruits. Now when I am watering the sapling, the results are unclear.

I wished that I had more time and effort to spend with Team B. There were many areas which I had hoped to positively influence them on. Team B should rightly be called Group B as my other colleague put it, as there were no team dynamics nor common goal that binds them together. They are just a group of people bunched up together by the organisation to work on something. But they could be coached and with time, grow to become a team. I wished I had more time with them.

However, there is no point wasting time crying over spilled milk. I need to make the best of my time left with this department to coach them adequately so that they can be self sufficient for the future. I want to build teams that I would be proud of; teams that would represent my legacy. That, to me, is self fulfilment.

Overcoming Yourself: Review of my Overseas Work Trip

I had the opportunity to be nominated for a working trip to Indonesia which happened over the past week. The trip was an exchange program for Junior Officers and as part of this trip, I had to help host the Indonesian Officers when they come to Singapore. I was proud that my boss thought about me for this trip, but I was also rather apprehensive because mingling and meeting new people was never my cup of tea.

What I did was to tell myself to “Just Do It”. Actually, after the nomination, I had not received any confirmation for weeks and I thought I was not selected eventually. After some time, an email came to check if I was still available. I had an option: (1) lie and say that I had arranged for something else given that there was no confirmation or (2) tell the truth and accept what comes. I went with option 2. Lying didn’t feel right especially since my boss favoured me sufficiently to nominate me. So I saw it as a challenge to do something that I normally won’t do, as a means to grow up and get used to the fact that mingling and small talk are skills that I need to build up.

The apprehensiveness grew when I realised that the first meeting between the Singapore team clashed with my course. I would not have met them all before the official program and wouldn’t that be awkward if they already knew each other? Eventually the team lead called for a separate meeting and I went ahead telling myself to make new friends. So when the first person sat beside me, I initiated a conversation by introducing myself. And I don’t think I have ever done that. Usually others initiate the contact. I felt good as though I achieved something that I set out to do, and I made a new friend. That gave me confidence. Slowly I memorised everyone’s names as the time goes by, and it felt better, like more personal.

During the Singapore leg of the program, we had to engage our Indonesian counterparts during meals and bring them around. I did not manage to become extremely talkative and engaging, but slowly I managed to break out of the shell and talk to them. I suppose that is a good step forward to change myself and it felt extremely rewarding and satisfactory.

In the Indonesia phase of the programme, we were told to prepare songs as their dinner culture involves getting both sides to contribute singers. I hated that extremely because I was very self-conscious and I disliked putting myself in the limelight for something I absolutely sucked at. At the official dinner, I was quite pleased that it seemed that I would be getting away with it after all, until the Indonesian Colonel spoke to my team lead and pointed over. My team lead walked to me and said “They want you to sing”. And I surprised myself. I stood up and walked to the microphone, and I could feel absolutely nothing. I didn’t think about how weird it would be or whether my voice sucked. I went with it. Luckily they asked another friend to sing with me, and we had a great time. The heads from both Singapore and Indonesia came and sing along like one happy family and I felt very happy.

Life has her way of making you do things and getting you to experience the different side of things. The things which I was apprehensive of, Life made me do it and she made me realise that it is not that bad after all. I am very happy that I chose to go ahead with this program because I grew up a lot and learned many new things. If I were to choose again, I would still choose to attend.

My Weekly Review

Plenty of productivity articles talk about having the daily or weekly review sessions to keep track of what you have done and do projection for the time period ahead. I have been doing my daily reviews diligently to determine what I need to do for the day; however I have never started doing any weekly reviews even though I had learnt about this technique for over a year or two.

Just last week I initiated my first weekly review and I must say that it was a good break from the hectic work life to do re-focusing. Not only that, doing a review forces you to think about what is the next phase in a project. No longer is an action item just marked done and left as it is. Now, I have to think what I need to do subsequently. This meant that the possibility of neglecting the project and leaving it to rot has reduced significantly.

I would like to take this opportunity to share my current method of doing a weekly review. There might be better ways of doing a review, so do share with me if anyone has any ideas. I will also be tweaking this to make this better in future.

The weekly session happens on a Saturday because (1) I am able to have more sleep and feel more refreshed and (2) my partner is working on Saturday mornings so it would be the best time to do such reviews without sacrificing our quality time together.

The session is broken into two phases, (1) the review phase and (2) the forecasting phase.

The Review Phase

During this segment, I will write down what I have done in the past weeks. For example, I might have finalised a paper on maintenance training, or collated safety information from various departments. A good tip is to look at your calendar and go through the meetings that you have attended. Next, to think about each day (Monday to Friday), and remember what we have done out of the meetings.

After this is done, we will have a whole list of tasks performed. I will ask myself what the next step is. It could be to submit the paper for approval, or to write an email to the Safety Officer on my collated data. These “action items” are transferred to my “to do database” for subsequent planning in my daily cycle.

What I do for the above is to draw a table with two columns: (1) what I have done and (2) what I need to do subsequently.

The Forecasting Phase

The forecasting phase involves looking at my calendar to refresh my memory on what meetings I have been scheduled for in my next week. This allows me to think of the next question: “What do I need to prepare for these meetings”. I would come up with a list that might include delegating some information gathering to my team, and I would have to mentally factor in additional time slots for periodic check backs. This is because not everything can be done to standard within the first try, and most of the time additional information needs to be requested.

Next, I look at my “to do database” to determine what are the big ticket items that are (1) urgent and important or (2) important but not urgent. Such items are placed on the weekly priority and should be completed. Point (2) is key as if we do not tackle these items, these items would be elevated to the “urgent and important” category as the deadline approaches.

I’m in my second week of the review session and it has worked well for me so far. Try it!


The Importance of a Carry-Everywhere Notebook

Have you found yourself in a situation where you had completely forgotten what you reminded yourself mentally on your tasks? So much so that occasionally you only remember when the deadline approaches and there is nothing more you can do about it. Or that it has lapsed forever from your mind until your boss asked you about it, and by answering that nothing has been done would make you look incompetent?

Today, I would like to discuss about the concept of a “Carry-Everywhere” notebook. This notebook might not be a physical notebook with binders on the side. It could be in the form of a post it note, or for the technology-savvy, Evernote on your phone.

The logic behind this is simple. Our minds are capable of doing many things at once, and thinking is one of them. In fact, we are capable of thinking of many things at once and we get easily distracted by our thoughts. Sometimes, when we look at external objects, such as Facebook, or your colleague talking to you, we might find that our minds switch to a separate track of thought. This means that we have distracted ourselves and might have forgotten what we were previously thinking.

I find myself in this situation on my morning drive to work. Due to the plain boring nature of driving, I might be thinking about different aspects of work. I might be thinking about my maintenance work, my safety office’s deliverables, or that paper that I need to write. All of which mutually distracts my attention. What I do is to carry a post it note in my car (take note that I only write when the car comes to a stop), and scribble my thoughts, such as “Follow up with XXX on the requirements of the event YYY”. When I get back to work, I put them into my “to do database”.

You might not drive, but if you think hard enough, there are times when you have forgotten something. It could be in the middle of a meeting when your mind reminds you of an event, but if you do not write it down, someone in the meeting might suddenly talk to you and distract you. It could be when you are out for lunch and you remember something right before your colleague talks to you about your weekends. No matter what the situation, it is always good to write it down so that you can remember and transfer.

What are the benefits other than being up to date on the things that bother you? For one, you don’t have to forcefully try and remember. Your mind can return to the chatter with your colleagues about your weekend as you have safely stored the information you need somewhere – on a notebook or your phone. Having to repeatedly remind yourself about a task is tiring work and it drains all of us out.

So try this. Make an attempt to develop this habit by making it easy for it to be done. I carry my pen and notebook to all meetings I go to. I put a pen and post it note in my car. I store my thoughts in evernote during lunchtime when I do not bring my notebook. When you make things easier to write down your thoughts, you find it easier to maintain that habit.


Living up to the rank

Today my encik said something which gave me many things to think about. He said that we wear the rank everyday, so we have to ask ourselves if we live up to the rank, to the salary. I think that reaches into thinking about the purpose of a job, and to see the value in it.


We frequently neglect to think that we are duty bound to perform a job when we collect a salary. We take the salary month in month out, expecting bonuses and salary increases on an annual basis. So much so that it had become a by default. However, looking in a business point of view, why should a company pay you more? Because of the yearly inflation? Is there any altruistic reason why salary increases should be expected?

My take is that what you have done over the year has made you more experienced. You learn and adapt, and change the way you do things. You become more effective, hence you produce more output with the same amount of time spent on work. That said, the salary increase does seem worth it. Hence we shouldn’t be expecting to do the same thing on a year to year basis. For if our job stays the same, why should anyone pay you more?

The world is changing, and the effects of globalisation has hit us hard. Other people can work for lesser while doing the same work as us, due to the differences in global currencies.

Even though I am not working in a place which I need to compete with foreigners who can work for less, the spirit of constant change and improvement is the same. We need to constantly examine our assumptions of whether something is our work, and implement changes in the spirit of what makes sense and what is good for the organisation. We have to innovate and think creative; we have to value add.

The only constant is change. Heard of it?

A new direction for the blog

I had wanted to set a new direction for my blog today. The focus was on issues like enhancing productivity, leadership, management etc. These are opinions from me which I would like to share as a means of self reflection and giving others a second opinion. I thought this would be a good way which I could type my feelings and then share the link with some colleagues whom I thought could benefit.

Hence I began trying to filter off certain posts that I have written in the past which might not have been rather objective or pleasant. I was surprised though, that from 2011 till now, I did not write any posts which I would be embarrassed of that needs to be hidden. Perhaps this is a reflection of the realities of life; once I had started working, some things become too minor to be written on the blog, and as such the things that I write are things that I hold dearly and find meaning in.

I didn’t continue filtering the older portions of my blog as they would serve as a reflection of who I was before and how much I have grown since then. I might have changed my mind on many topics that I had written, and I should be judged by who I am now, not who I was in the past. Hence for those who are reading my blog, please take that into consideration and judge me by the content I am contributing now.

I started a Facebook Page in Aug 2014 titled “Productivity at Work – PAW“.I had not been very active on it, but I had shared a few articles which I thought were meaningful. If you are interested in the topics such as productivity, leadership, management, quality management etc, please do give it a like to follow it. Currently I have a single follower but I have no idea who this person is; pathetic, I know.

So here is to a new beginning and a new direction for this blog. May I be able to build a community of people who would help to share and generate ideas for the betterment of one another.