One of the things that I have learned as I have gotten older is that age doesn’t make you any smarter. It just provides you the experience to recognize the things you didn’t know the first time you saw them. It was Randy Pausch, the author of “The Last Lecture” who said:
“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted”
I have wanted many things that I have not gotten, so needless to say, I think I have probably gained a lot of experience. Some of this experience I think I probably could have done without, but I gained it anyway. What I think I now recognize is that sometimes solving some issues or fixing some problems may be beyond our individual or collective reach. The key to situations like this is to recognize them, and instead of trying to make the quantum leap from thoroughly screwed up to pristinely perfect, just try to make them better.
One of the other things that I have experienced is that just about every situation that I have been in falls into this category.
It’s now election season and the number of talking heads earnestly speaking directly to us through our collective big screen televisions is growing. The various media outlets are lining up behind their favorites, and the various positions on the issues are being identified. In short it is the same thing all over again.
People are searching for the best thirteen second sound bite regarding their personal favorite unsolvable problem. Whether it’s the national debt, immigration, unemployment, or any other issue, it seems everyone is jockeying to position their glib and simple solutions to the Gordian knot style problems that are besetting us.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the Gordian knot, in ancient times there was a knot that was thought to be unsolvable or intractable. When the knot was presented to Alexander the Great, who at the time was the acknowledged leader of the known world as a challenge, instead of trying to untie or solve the knot, he simply took out his sword and cut it. Believe it or knot (pun intended) this is thought to be the genesis of phrase and concept of “outside the box” thinking (True!).
When I look at today’s slate of candidates I am concerned that any of them that may in the remotest of possibilities be mentioned with or the even more remote possibility be positively compared with Alexander the Great. However there they are, swinging away with their metaphorical swords on television.
I think we have all see the business equivalents of these would be world beaters and problem solvers. They are the ones that have the “simple” answers to declining sales (‘just sell more”) or low margins (“just spend less”), or any other intractable long term problem that the business may be facing.
Unfortunately with all that is plaguing leaders in business today it is easy to see how they may fall victim to the siren song of the “simple solution” providers.
Please do not misunderstand me. I truly believe the basic premises of business are pretty simple. I have said this many times in the past. It is usually the business itself that adds complexity to its organization and operations in search of ever better and more eloquent was of completing the simple tasks required for it to run.
If a simple process adequately handles eighty percent of the situations then with only a little tweaking it might handle close to eighty five percent of the situations. A little more tweaking might get it to ninety percent. Still more might enable it to be implemented globally instead of specifically for the region in which is currently working. Still more might enable the creation and publishing of fancy metrics charts detailing various aspects of the process and the state of its implementation.
Eventually a process is created that works everywhere in all situations, but takes more effort and resource from the business to work for the entire business than the original eighty-twenty rule process that was the starting point.
It can be argued that the “getting better” approach to business could in fact be responsible for the evolution of both business and process into the complex systems that they are today. This would be akin to the example of taking several small logical steps one after the other to eventually arrive at an illogical conclusion or solution.
I think part of the issue we see in situations like this is the lack of rigor that is applied to defining the problem, setting a baseline and then measuring against the improvement on the baseline. If we all know that we need to improve then we just accept the premise. If we state that the plan is to take the solution global then why would we need to measure if there is in fact a global improvement? The goal is no longer improvement of the business but instead is now the global dispersion of the solution.
Getting better does not mean making breakthrough advancements, although these are always exciting and welcome. Rather it means actually trying to use the primary building blocks of the Continuous Improvement Process that J. Edwards Deming envisioned where Feedback drove Efficiency drove Evolution which in turn drove further feedback, and so on.
The key step in this cycle that seems to be missing in both politics and business today is the Efficiency review. Efficiency by its very nature requires the identification, reduction or elimination of sub-optimal structures and behaviors. The definition of efficiency is:
1. The ability to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort; competency in performance.
2. The ratio of the work done or energy developed …. to the energy supplied…
Many thanks again to Webster’s Dictionary. One of my favorite books.
The idea of efficiency, and getting better means that we need to continuously look at what we are getting out of systems, processes and businesses as compared to the work that we are putting into them. Efficiency is not just the output, but the output as compared to the input required to get it. Too many times it seems that it is taken for granted that just because there is some new way of doing things, or a new process is being implemented that it is better (read more efficient) than what currently exists.
Almost everything that I read these days in books and periodicals regarding business performance seems to bemoan the loss of speed in business, or the lack or loss of decision making abilities in business, or the complexity that is now being faced in business. These seem to be issues that are now inherent in the business system. The simple command to “sell more” or “spend less” won’t solve them.
I guess the same goes for politics in that the system seems to have evolved to reward those that “sound” the best but in reality only kick the problem down the road for the next generation to deal with. Their simple solutions fit nicely into the thirteen second sound bites provided by the media for public consumption. Perhaps that is why it seems that in this iteration of the political campaigning those that are viewed as being outside the normal political process seem to be preferred more than the established politicians by the general populace.
At its most basic getting better, as well as efficiency means doing more business with less resource. That means that being efficient requires the removal of some functions, effort and work from the business as compared to the set baseline while still accomplishing the set goals. It doesn’t need to be a lot. It just has to be measurable in some fundamental way.
Getting better means making sure that attaining your goals actually, measurably improves the business. The simplest definition of getting better that I can think of is showing some measureable improvement in efficiency. If you can’t directly relate and measure the business activity to somehow improving the business efficiency (mathematically identifying work being done to work being saved or improved), then there is probably a pretty good chance that it is not associated with the business getting better.