Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Chapter 2: Remove Stalls that Block 2,000 Percent Solutions

Chapter 2

Remove Stalls that Block

2,000 Percent Solutions

The material in this chapter expands upon pages 7-127 in The 2,000 Percent Solution.

Stalls are unconsidered habits that impede an organization’s progress. Habits, good and bad, are formed by our response to stimuli. When these habits are repeated often enough, there is little conscious thought before we act in the habitual ways. Usually, such habits once served a positive purpose. For example, many companies began improving their quality by double-checking their work. If the way of working changed since then so that errors are automatically eliminated, many people will continue to double-check the work. Why? Well, they will feel very uneasy if they don’t. It’s almost like a superstition at that point. In many cases, conscientious workers will keep double-checking the work even if they are ordered not to do so.

In The 2,000 Percent Solution, we looked at a handful of the most common organizational stalls. These stalls involved tradition (chapter 2), disbelief (chapter 3), misconceptions (chapter 4), being repelled by unattractiveness (chapter 5), poor communications (chapter 6), bureaucracy (chapter 7), and procrastination (chapter 8). What all of these stalls have in common is that are based in a complacent attitude that seldom questions whether something needs to be improved and how such improvement might be accomplished.

Since we wrote The 2,000 Percent Solution, many CEOs have helped us to appreciate stalls that are often specific to their company roles. Perhaps the worst one these CEOs identified is the “you need to check with me” stall. Some CEOs require that every little step be checked. Since there’s only one person who is CEO, progress on all fronts is delayed while capable people wait for the go-ahead. Soon, initiative is sapped and even the most inventive are likely to lose a lot of their curiosity and drive. Yet many CEOs pride themselves on this approach, feeling that it eliminates bureaucracy. While such organizations have avoided some bureaucracy, an overly directive and busy CEO can be a worse stall than any bureaucracy you can imagine in a relatively small company.

Some people have concluded that there are relatively few stalls that you need to be on the look-out for. That conclusion seems to be unwarranted. Our clients and readers keep pointing out new stalls to us. For example, many people have reported that so-called experts are given too much influence in many situations. The expert may not know all of the facts, may assume too much, and the expertise may not be relevant for the task at hand. Blindly following the expert’s directions can lead to serious problems in those circumstances. A well-known example is that engineers are often intrigued by the potential to use fewer resources in daring ways to create “elegant” solutions. In creating those solutions, they may ignore conditions that will predictably occur every so often. In the early days of building large suspension bridges, for example, a number of such elegant, dainty bridges disintegrated because they could not bear high wind speeds buffeting them from unusual directions. Likewise, the newer John Hancock Tower in Boston for a number of years was a source of broken glass shards for blocks around as its beautiful glass panes shattered with little advance notice in high winds.

What you can count on is that your organization will have different stalls than its competitors and most of your suppliers and customers. You should probably also assume that you have some stalls for which no name has yet been applied. How can you be sure that you have identified your most important stalls? In this activity, there are no guarantees … but we do have some suggestions.

First, you will find many of the stalls we have identified in either The 2,000 Percent Solution or The Irresistible Growth Enterprise (Stylus, 2000), which looks at stalls associated with failing to be flexible in adapting to irresistible forces outside your control. Further, we have identified a stall in sticking with current business models in The Ultimate Competitive Advantage (Berrett-Koehler 2003). Be sure to check for the signs of the stalls that are described in those books.

Second, we occasionally add new stalls to our Web site that have been suggested by our readers. Check in there once in awhile to see what’s new on this front.

Third, use the questions in this chapter to help you search out current and potential stalls that you cannot recognize from looking at the sources listed above.

Fourth, introduce others in your organization to the important art of identifying and overcoming stalls. Many stalls that are invisible to you will be very plain to them. For instance, in many companies order processes that require only 2-3 hours of total effort stretch out to last for weeks because so many people have to deal with parts of the process in an unvarying order. Such delays are often invisible to management but apparent to customers and those who work in the process.

Fifth, assume that efforts you have put into place to overcome stalls will fail to work as well after awhile. Go back and see how you are doing on a frequent basis and be prepared to identify and apply new stall busting methods.

As you follow this advice, begin by only looking at the performance area you identified in answering question 9 in chapter one.

Questions to help your organization identify and overcome stalls that are reducing your performance.

You will be more successful in this activity if you prepare yourself. If you are not familiar with all of the current steps involved in the performance area or activity you want to improve, be sure to take the time to observe and participate in that performance area so your thinking is influenced by the facts rather than by opinions or out-of-date information. If possible, have those who work in the area share their observations independently of your own thinking. In addition, check your answers with those who are involved in the performance area.

1. What are the causes of avoidable delays?

A good way to begin is to assume that you are personally going to do all of the steps involved in the performance area or activity you want to improve. Then, find the resources, knowledge, skill and information to do that work in the fastest, most effective way. After you have identified how you would do the activity yourself with the right resources, see what current delays can be eliminated. Then, determine what would have to change in order to eliminate those delays.

Here’s an example. Let’s look at the sales process of finding and attracting a new customer. Many organizations provide leads to help sales people focus their initial contacts. In some organizations, these leads are only provided every month or so. In between, the sales people can follow up on old leads … but have no new ones to focus on. Changing the lead generation process to provide leads more often would allow salespeople the ability to make new contacts daily. In addition, if the leads are received more often, the leads are probably based on more recent expressions of interest by potential customers. Sales results are bound to improve in such a circumstance. If the lead generation source is already adding leads daily, all that has to change is to transmit those leads daily to your company rather than less frequently. In many cases, the cost of doing so will be lower because a report may be eliminated in the process change.

2. Why haven’t the avoidable delays been eliminated in the past?

You need to know the historical reason for the delays continuing because otherwise you won’t know how to address the change process.

In some cases, the source of a delay may relate to some existing process that has not been changed recently. In those instances, the delay may simply be a function of no one having looked lately at how to make faster progress. In other cases, your computer systems may be the source of the delay, and no one wants to put in the time and effort to change them except for a very good reason. Elsewhere, you may find that there are differences of opinion about what should be done, and no one wants to take on the political challenges of advocating and leading a change. In some other circumstances, you may find that the delay is actually a defense mechanism that some people use to diffuse pressure for higher performance. Be sure to keep looking until you find some unconscious habits that are reinforcing the continued delays.

3. How will customers, employees, suppliers, distributors, partners, shareholders, lenders and the communities you serve be affected by eliminating the delays?

You will find that solutions which obviously benefit each stakeholder will be those that will be easiest to implement. If eliminating delays is harmful to some of these stockholder groups while being positive for others, rethink the subject to consider how the delays could be eliminated so that everyone would benefit. In some cases, that may mean providing some of the economic benefit of the change to those who will be somewhat harmed by it to more than offset any harm.

4. Are there ways of eliminating delays that help with more than one kind of delay?

Most organizations have a limited capacity for change that is always being exceeded. In such circumstances, people may just spin their wheels and feel frustrated. If you can find ways to eliminate the delays that require fewer or easier changes, you will be more likely to succeed in this and other important initiatives that the organization is pursuing.

5. What could go wrong when you eliminate delays?

Productivity often falls when an organization puts in a productivity improving change. A common reason for such a perverse result is that not enough preparation has been done so that everyone knows what he or she needs to do. With time, appropriate learning usually develops and results improve. But with careful thinking in advance about the downside risk, you can often eliminate these painful, temporary setbacks that sap enthusiasm for the new direction.

6. What are the least demanding ways to avoid the delays?

As you know from The 2,000 Percent Solution, great progress occurs each time you repeat the eight step process. If you pursue these changes in less demanding ways, you will finish putting this 2,000 percent solution into practice sooner so that you can begin repeating the process faster as well.

7. What other benefits will you gain from making these changes?

When you aim to make a 2,000 percent solution, you often will make improvements in other activities and areas that you were not considering. As you begin to focus on creating a 2,000 percent solution in the next part of the workbook, the perspectives you gain from this question will help point you in the most effective direction.

Copyright 2005 Donald W. Mitchell