Seeing over the top of the hill and around the corners – why leaders understand the principle of line of sight

Two of my employees were working out of the shop installing components we had made in the shop. Theirs was not a particularly complicated or difficult job, removing old pieces, installing hardware on the new components, reinstalling them, and painting. They were competent, responsible, and hardworking guys. They made my life much easier and my shop more profitable.

Twice the week before, they telephoned me at the end of the day to tell me they needed a small part or tool replaced. They could have seen the need for those things at the beginning of the week or even at the beginning of the day. But no, they saw the need and then asked me for them right at the last minute. So I had to round up the pieces and get them to the job site by the time work started the next day.

I tried to educate them about letting me know as far in advance as possible but I was met with only modest success. I instituted some inventory control procedures that have helped somewhat. But, in reality, I didn’t expect it to improve all that much. Why?

Because, of the principle of line of sight.

The principle of line of sight says that the lower the level of the employee, the shorter his range of vision. Lowest level employees usually have to be monitored and told almost every move, every procedure, every step. They cannot be expected to see very far in the process. The higher the level of employee, the farther they can see. They can be expected to know, in advance, what they are going to need. They can see far enough ahead to prepare for what lies ahead.

The principle is true in geography as it is in leadership – The higher the level, the farther the line of sight.

The guys mentioned in the start of this article with were on the lower side of mid-level employees in this manner. Through training and experience they came to see farther than they used to, but it was still not very far.

In my shop we prepared to build two quite complex projects with a great many component parts. I spent several days creating detailed drawings and parts lists. My experience in building such pieces has yielded the capacity to know what’s coming and prepare for it. The men who will build these items have far less experience and it would be foolish for me to assume they could prepare for the projects with only a summary explanation.

Let me say that again. It would be foolish for me to assume they could prepare for the projects with only a summary explanation.

I spent quite a few hours with the clients gaining an understanding of what they wanted, putting concepts to paper, creating sketches, and verifying that what I saw is what they saw. Then I create the detailed drawings and take-off lists (lists of each and every component part). Next I checked our inventory against the required parts lists. Finally, I sourced the needed components and ordered the parts so they would arrive BEFORE they are needed.

Line of sight cannot be created artificially. You can’t simply promote someone to a higher level and expect that an increased line of sight will automatically come. Actually, an increased line of sight comes BEFORE a promotion to a higher level. This is not the same as driving to a hilltop. If this were a natural capacity, simply climbing to a higher level in an organization would do. While rising in the ranks, so to speak, will almost certainly result in a change in perspective, it will not usually increase a person’s ability to see farther down the road.

But effective and enduring leaders do.

General George W. Casey said that “Leaders need to ‘see around corners’ — to see something significant about the future that others don’t see.” Well, I suggest that they also need to be able to see what lies over the top of a mountain.

Increased line of sight usually increases with experience and knowledge. The longer someone works in a particular field, the greater should be their understanding of what is, and will be, required. This is because their knowledge of the job deepens as well. They know, often by failing to be prepared and having suffered the consequences, what will be needed and how to think ahead. The best higher level employees are most often those who have come up through the ranks. It is their work at ground level that prepares them to see the scope and sequence of the bigger picture.

Conversely, the higher the position one holds, the less likely they will be able to see the smallest details. This is not usually due to anything other than an increased load of work crowding out everything else. You just have too much to do to be able to monitor small details. How does one handle this?

By gathering subordinates and associates who can see them and will tend to them. The task of envisioning the future is grand and glorious but no one can get there alone. Take care of the big picture. Do your best to foresee what will be need by whom and by when. Allow others to fill in the blanks and get it done.

Leave a Comment

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.