Sweat the small stuff

Back in 1997 an inspirational book by Richard Carlson titled, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff: And It's All Small Stuff, became a bestseller. It's still very popular. Based on the idea that we can reduce stress and anxiety in our lives "if we learn not to worry about little things," Carlson provided a plethora of tips on how we can learn to deal with life's annoyances and enjoy "the magic and beaut...
By Richard L. Dunn, Chief Editor September 10, 2004

Back in 1997 an inspirational book by Richard Carlson titled, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: And It’s All Small Stuff , became a bestseller. It’s still very popular. Based on the idea that we can reduce stress and anxiety in our lives “if we learn not to worry about little things,” Carlson provided a plethora of tips on how we can learn to deal with life’s annoyances and enjoy “the magic and beauty” of life.

Unfortunately, the title almost became a mantra for anybody who wanted to duck responsibility or ignore details. That isn’t the point of the book, of course, but for many the title said it all.

One place the concept most emphatically does not apply is in today’s industry, where sweating the small stuff is the heart of quality and productivity. By sweating the small stuff, for example, the Japanese provided a model that turned U.S. industry on its ear.

I’m reminded of this notion periodically when I contemplate what defines excellence in plant engineering and maintenance. As I have the opportunity to study what makes various plants outstanding performers, I’m invariably struck with their attention to the details of the basics.

Successful preventive maintenance, for example, is dependent on attention to the small stuff that prevents the “big stuff” from happening. And it requires relentless attention to the details of scheduling and record keeping. Preventive maintenance demands sweating the small stuff.

The same holds true for predictive maintenance. PdM is, after all, an analysis of the small, telltale details that signal something bigger will happen if action is not taken. It is meaningless without attention to the small stuff.

And what about the bigger activities like shutdowns/turnarounds, rebuilds, or expansions? Here again, the more detailed and thorough the planning, the greater the likelihood of completion on time and on budget. We all know the agony of watching a project come to a halt because a single, “insignificant” part wasn’t in stock or some other detail was overlooked.

The list could go on and on. And while every enterprise likes to point to its major accomplishments, the most successful ones recognize that continuous improvement is the result of innumerable small accomplishments. It isn’t enough to reduce energy consumption just by installing the latest technology. You still have to turn off the lights when they aren’t needed.

It may be all well and good to keep our perspective by asking, as Carlson suggests, “Will this really matter a year from now?” After all, so much of what we fret about is unimportant in the total scheme of our lives.

Yet, I’ve never run across a plant that was able to achieve excellence with the slogan, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

It’s vital to develop big ideas, set big goals, and keep a focus on the most important things in our lives — professional and otherwise. But it’s sweating the small stuff day by day that eventually makes those ideas reality and provides the foundation for continuous improvement and consistent excellence.