The Benefits of a Smaller Toolbox

At the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association’s (ILEETA) annual conference this past week in Chicago, I started a conversation about the mental and emotional burden of having too many “tools” to do our jobs as police officers. The same theory applies to any industry, field, or business. How can you streamline your organization’s toolbox of processes, strategies, or systems? 

There is a popular saying in police training circles (and I suppose in your industry too) that a new technique or procedure or trick is “just another tool for the toolbox.” Here’s the problem: Our toolboxes are full. Our brains don’t have the bandwidth to accept any more tools. We need less tools…but still need to reach an ever-increasing level of output. The answer lays in finding those select tools with broad applicability and high adjustability.

I have long advocated for generalism in life. There is tremendous benefit of being well-rounded, broadly educated, and diversely prepared. Specialism, while sets us up for success in a very narrow set of opportunities and problems, too frequently results in failure. Hyper-specialism is filled with single purpose tools and processes, each with an extremely focused application. An often overlooked dimension of generalism is universalism (lower case “u”).

Universalism is at play when experienced travelers pack lightly…with clothing options that are easily mixed and matched. Universalism is demonstrated when the functions of a phone, camera, schedule, contact list, weather report, alarm clock, fax machine, and computer are all contained in a pocket-sized smartphone. And it’s universalism when a pile of box wrenches or sockets is replaced with a single adjustable crescent wrench.

ENVIRONMENT. To appreciate the benefit of a smaller toolbox, we must understand our environments, whether as business people, educators, emergency responders, salesmen, laborers, designers, or tech geeks. So many of our situations require we respond to change – changes in terrain, location, information, context…whatever. In some fields, change occurs unexpectedly in split-seconds; in others, it’s a predictable and slow evolutionary process. Sometimes a timely response matters; sometimes it does not.

FINDING THE TOOL. We have to match up a solution, a tactic, a technique, or a tool with the new challenge in front of us. When the tool in our hand doesn’t fit, we need to find another one. This takes time to switch from process to process, or tactic to tactic. It requires flexibility and an organic flow. The more tools in our toolbox — the longer it takes to find the “right” one…assuming we know which one to look for!

UNIVERSAL TOOLS. If we were to challenge each other to a race to loosen or tighten an array of nuts and bolts, I would grab my adjustable wrenches or pliers. Why? Because I could more easily and quickly respond to changes in sizes or dimensions. While the 16mm box wrench is a more preferred, efficient, and appropriate answer to the 16mm hex nut, it will likely take too much time to figure out the size and find the perfect tool. We can’t always accurately size-up the situation by eye…and trial-by-error often just wastes time and resources.

LIMITATIONS OF SPECIALTY TOOLS. From a physical sense, tools are heavy and bulky. It requires strength to carry them and space to store them. The same can be said for mental and emotional aspects. It requires mental bandwidth and clarity to understand and obtain proficiency in the applications of each process, system, platform, or technique. There is also an emotional burden, in confidence and fatigue. Learning the technical side of speciality tools is time and resource intense.

STREAMLINING THE TOOLBOX. We need to analyze our situations and organizations for function, capabilities, and purpose. What are we looking for? Common threads. Overlap. Similarities. Groupings. Strategies. We then create or obtain new tools that perform double- or triple- duties. Then we train and educate our people on these relatively few tools that can be applied in broad types or numbers of situations. Specialty tools have their place – but probably in reserve, not necessarily on the front lines.

This mindset of seeking out universal tools creates an organizational culture of learning, especially in regards to adaptability, agility, and flexibility. Maintaining a climate of adaptability gives your people systems that serve as guidelines for their creativity and imagination – traits that are so critical in today’s world. Rules and checklists are out. So is narrow-focused hyper-specialism. Cross-pollination, loose strategies, inter-connectivity, and universalism are in.

The analogy of the adjustable crescent wrench is particularly powerful for me. My dad taught me how to use hand and power tools at a young age. Through my teenage years, I held many “dirty fingernail” jobs that required the use of specialty tools. I’ve amassed quite a collection in my workshop. But more times than not, I tackle the odd jobs around the house with a relatively small bag of universal tools – things like multi-bit screwdrivers and adjustable wrenches.

It’s a helpful mindset I’ve adopted for my career as a beat cop, a police policy writer, an outside consultant, an athlete, an adventurer, and a family man.

I’m just more productive this way.


What are you doing, either professionally or personally, to apply this analogy of transitioning to a smaller toolbox for your life, organization, or business?  How is it working for you? Please share your ideas and results in comments!


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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